Architectural review of Las Vegas CityCenter hotel-casino-shopping complex

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

LAS VEGAS -- On Dec. 16, a brilliantly sunny and warm day in Las Vegas, Bobby Baldwin swept his arm in a gentle arc and said, "It's hard to believe that you can get all this for only 8.5 billion." By "this" he meant CityCenter, billed as the largest privately financed development in the history of the United States.

Baldwin, president and chief executive of CityCenter, was standing in a circular plaza surrounded on all sides by new construction, almost all of it by the most blue-chip of architects. It is a colossus, 18 million square feet of new construction jammed onto 67 acres, sitting on some of the most prized ground on Las Vegas's legendarily seedy, sexy and silly Strip.

In the middle of this Pharaonic splendor, dominating like a giant metal-and-glass drill bit, were the spiraling arms of a 4,000-room resort-casino designed by the venerable Cesar Pelli. Nearby a sleek and bland 47-story Mandarin Oriental hotel, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, looked like it was dropped in from Shanghai. Two leaning towers, designed by Murphy/Jahn, seem to be whispering something indecent to each other, giving the complex some of that old Dubai jazz that sounded so fresh just 18 months ago. On the edge of the campus, a new commercial center in the signature, metal-clad crystalline forms of Daniel Libeskind may be one of the architect's best buildings, as if the shopping mall -- not the museum -- was the metier he's been searching for all along.

But wait, there's more. A 57-story hotel by Rafael Viñoly looks on with quiet, bemused and skeptical dignity. A shiny but stubby tower by Foster and Partners (who designed the lovely glass ceiling of Washington's Patent Office Building) looks unfinished. And it is, a result of bad concrete and rebar that forced the builders to leave off the top floors, but never mind. There's always the new stretch of people mover, an elevated tram that runs ostentatiously through the middle of the center as if to advertise its urban sophistication. And artworks (by Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella), all looking a little timid compared with the hurly-burly of the Strip, demur even when compared with the new fountains, which include a massive wall of water trickling and surging over textured slate imported from India.

There was a slightly nervous edge to Baldwin's joke about the project's cost. Only eight months earlier, MGM Mirage, the developer of CityCenter, was near bankruptcy. The project, which began construction in 2005, was conceived in the heady days of the great real estate and speculative boom. But as the economy tanked, costs rose and credit shriveled, CityCenter came close to taking down MGM. In March, things looked so bad that one of the project's principal investors, Dubai World, sued over cost overruns and asked to withhold payments to the project. That case was settled, but there's no smooth sailing in the troubled waters of mega projects such as CityCenter. Last month, Dubai World asked to delay payments on billions of debt owed to other creditors, which sent the world economy into a new round of vapors and angst.

But now CityCenter is officially opened, if not quite finished. It happened in the usual Las Vegas fashion, with fireworks, spotlights raking the sky and women with daringly cantilevered bosoms serving champagne to VIPs. There was nonstop rapturous local television coverage that seemed to take its scripts straight from the MGM promotional office. And just shy of midnight, a crowd of gamblers stampeded into the new casino to test the old Vegas shibboleth: Opening night is always lucky.

There was, for an evening at least, no talk of whether the project will survive financially, if it will draw revenue from its neighbors, if Las Vegas can support a new round of high-end retail stores without closing existing venues or if CityCenter will succeed in its stated purpose: To bring an urbane sophistication, a citylike buzz and a new crowd of elites to a town better known for its fake pyramids, fake New York skyline, fake palaces and chateaux and castles, and all-you-can-eat buffets symbiotically attached to low-slung, darkened rooms of one-armed bandits ensorcelling their victims like snake charmers.

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Architects and critics have mined Vegas for as much cultural data as the mob has laundered money on the dry sands of the Mojave Desert. The city inspired one of the seminal if sometimes daft works of American architectural theory, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's 1972 "Learning From Las Vegas," which took the city's commercial architecture and signage seriously as a vital cauldron of a new American vernacular.

The tendency to overanalyze and elevate a city of cheap, disposable architecture is paradoxically and inversely related to the American fear of intellectualism and elitism. Thus, Tom Wolfe has declared it "America's first unconscious avant-garde!" And many have followed in this general tone, accepting the dubious proposition that an architecture of kitsch, if done brazenly enough, can transcend itself and become a new kind of beauty. (This seems true only at night, when the lights are phantasmagorical.)

The most striking thing about CityCenter is how, in a city that defies any notion of context, it feels somehow out of context. Locals, living in a vast, jangling assemblage of different architectural gestures, somehow feel that CityCenter is out of place, wrong for their city, like the guy who wears a dark blue suit to a Halloween party.

And it is out of place, strangely isolated and insular, despite the professed goal of creating an open, walkable, urban environment. From its west side, cars are scooped up on wide entry ramps reminiscent of Le Corbusier's 1922, car-centric fantasy plans for a "Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants." From the east side, where CityCenter meets the Strip, there is better pedestrian access, but not a lot to invite people visiting the shabby souvenir shops and convenience stores across the street to enter the modernist sanctum.

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