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.”