Sunrise on the Las Vegas Strip: as cleaning crews scrub the traces of the nightly moving party from the sidewalks and the last revelers stare in wonderment at fresh-faced joggers, most of the Strip’s casinos and hotels are revealed to be a bit less phantasmagorical and a bit more beige than they appeared the night before. But not CityCenter. The humongous $8.5 billion, 18-million-square-foot development that opened in December is the rare sort of Vegas spectacle that actually looks great—maybe even better—in the morning light. The jagged steel-and-glass peaks of architect Daniel Libeskind’s luxury shopping mall, Crystals, glisten in the sunshine. The multihued blue-glass panels of the Norman Foster–designed Harmon Hotel (planned at 49 stories, but only built to 28 because of structural problems) pop in the morning light, as do the splashes of mustard yellow on the rakishly angled Veer condo towers by Chicago-based architect Helmut Jahn. The sunlight plays off the glass exteriors of each of the major hotels—the 4,000-room Aria Resort & Casino, the 1,495-room Vdara Hotel & Spa, and the 392-room Mandarin Oriental—in a different way. The product of five years of feverish design and construction by casino developer and operator MGM Mirage (in partnership with a subsidiary of Dubai World) and a dramatic rescue last April from near bankruptcy, CityCenter is a study in nuance—a novelty in a town that does not trade in subtlety. It is also a bold statement of grown-up style and real architecture in a town not known for either.
Indeed, most of what we now associate with Las Vegas is more suburban than urban in form: huge, boxy buildings or Y-shaped towers strung along the Strip, tricked out to look like postcard versions of Paris or ancient Egypt. In the landmark 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour famously described the local style as “the decorated shed.” What this means is that buildings in Las Vegas, no matter how ornate, are always formulated to contain as many square feet of gaming as possible and to maximize the views from the largest possible number of hotel rooms. Drive along the back side of the Strip, however, and all the illusion disappears: what you mostly see are naked concrete walls, like the side view of a Walmart.
Nonetheless, Las Vegas has become more urban in feel over the years, almost in spite of itself. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, explains Bobby Baldwin, CityCenter president and CEO and champion poker player, Las Vegas visitors were a sedentary bunch, checking in at one hotel/casino and staying put. “My parents were customers of Las Vegas, and they never left the Desert Inn, for example,” Baldwin says. But in the 90’s, a building boom packed the Strip with a new generation of theme-park style properties, including Luxor, the Venetian, Bellagio, and New York New York, and the behavior of visitors changed. “As the Strip filled up more and more, there became less of a need to get into a car to go from one building to another, and people started walking,” says Sven Van Assche, the garrulous vice president of design for MGM and the man who assembled the project’s A-list architect lineup. Walking is now on par with gambling and drinking as a key Las Vegas pastime, and the Strip is thick with peripatetic tourists, like a cross between Times Square and Bourbon Street.
The Las Vegas formula typically involves importing cultural artifacts that have been successful elsewhere: Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil, or Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Until CityCenter opened, this was also the Las Vegas approach to urban design. Ancient Egypt, Paris, Venice, New York: the Strip is overstocked with imitations of other cities. CityCenter, by contrast, is the first city-themed development here that is not a copy. “We’re not designing illusionist architecture anymore, where you have a box and you paint a blue ceiling on it,” Libeskind says. Van Assche points to Bellagio (also an MGM property) as the dawn of a less literal brand of theming, meaning they borrowed “northern Italian vernacular” without appropriating an existing city. He sees CityCenter as a logical next step: “We decided that we’re going to create something that’s urban, something that’s all about mixed use and the energy of great cities and place-making.”
Unlike almost everything else in Las Vegas (with the exception of Steve Wynn’s most recent towers), the buildings of CityCenter are emphatically three-dimensional. They don’t go blank on the back side and, amazingly, they even look good from above. CityCenter is a complex puzzle of interlocking pieces, a whole menu of shapes, sizes, and materials—much like a real city—connected by a sinuous series of walkways and roads and bisected by a new tramline. And unlike major new developments in Dubai or Shanghai, the pedestrian experience here has been well thought through by professionals like the urban planners at Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, known for their seminal work on New York’s Battery Park City, and the sophisticated landscape designers at Field Operations, lately famous for their work on New York’s High Line park. Van Assche believes the development’s meandering pathways, routinely punctuated by sculptures such as Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X or Nancy Rubins’s startling assemblage of canoes and rowboats, Big Edge, tend to humanize the architecture. “We didn’t want to create the monumentality that modern architecture is known for,” Van Assche says. Indeed, designer David Rockwell, who collaborated with Libeskind on Crystals—they filled the mall with unique “landmarks,” such as a three-story abstract structure called the Treehouse—regards the meandering pathways as the exact thing that distinguishes CityCenter from the rest of Las Vegas. The plan offers an unusual degree of freedom in a town known for its “tightly controlled sight lines and flow of people,” he says.
Of course, it’s still Vegas: one low-rise corrugated metal building, so oddly shaped that it could be a Frank Gehry, turns out to be the Aria’s theater, home to a new Cirque du Soleil show, Viva Elvis. And all this outward sophistication doesn’t mean that the various CityCenter buildings aren’t jam-packed with eye candy. At the Mandarin Oriental, for example, interior designer Adam Tihany tries to re-create the experience of contemporary Hong Kong. When guests step off the elevator at the 23rd-floor lobby, they encounter what he calls a “gold bullion wall,” a shimmering blast of gilded geometry. “It’s about power,” Tihany says. The Aria hotel and casino features some 20 highly stylized restaurants and lounges: a brightly tiled tapas bar run by Bellagio restaurateur Julian Serrano looks as if it were airlifted in from Barcelona; Sage, a first Las Vegas venue for Chicago chef Shawn McClain, is the Midwest as re-imagined by Parisian interior designer Jacques Garcia with dark wood floors and Lalique lamps; Blossom, a Chinese restaurant designed by the New York firm Studio A, is decorated in gray concrete with inlaid mirrors forming an exquisite leaf pattern.
Yes, there is nonstop interior design—and more art by the likes of Maya Lin and Frank Stella—but what truly distinguishes almost every building within the complex is the healthy relationship, unusual for Las Vegas, between indoors and outdoors. At the Vdara condominium hotel, designed by Rafael Viñoly, there is a ground-floor restaurant called Silk Road, a new venue for chef Martin Heierling, who is known for his imaginative Pan-Asian cuisine. The interior was designed by Karim Rashid in florid gold and pink, and has a biomorphic pink settee breaking through the glass exterior wall, literally bridging inside and out. Libeskind’s Crystals, all swoopy inside like Eero Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal, has skylights throughout, allowing visitors to spot the surrounding buildings and actually judge the time of day. (Note that the enlightened relationship between inside and out goes deeper: Aria, Vdara, Crystals, Mandarin Oriental, and Veer Towers have achieved LEED Gold certification, acknowledgment of the complex’s energy- and resource-conserving features.)
Had it not been for the recent financial meltdown, CityCenter would have been the leading edge of a larger trend toward a more cosmopolitan Strip. Other slated developments, including the $4.8 billion Echelon featuring modern architecture and branches of the chic Mondrian and Delano hotels, have run out of money and stopped construction. Baldwin contends that launching a major development in hard times, when everyone says the Strip can’t absorb any more hotel rooms, never mind the condos, is more or less a Las Vegas tradition. “I have seen this movie many times before,” he says. “The fact that it’s happening in the tail end of what some people call the Great Recession is really of no consequence.” He may be overstating the case, but the impressive buildings themselves seem to validate Baldwin’s poker-king bravado and they look to attract a new and more urbane customer to the city. “It won’t be long before CityCenter will be considered a permanent fixture in Las Vegas,” he says, “as if it had been here forever.”
The Las Vegas Strip: A Brief Time Line
1931: Gambling becomes legal in Nevada.
1946: Bugsy Siegel opens the Flamingo.
1966: Caesars Palace opens, the first themed mega-casino.
1989: The Mirage opens with a man-made volcano.
1997: New York New York opens. First replica city.
1998: Bellagio opens. The design world takes note.
1999: The Venetian and Paris open. More fake cities.
2009: CityCenter opens.
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