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.”