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

Getting from one side of the campus to the other is a bewildering journey through lobbies, car plazas and pedestrian bridges and pathways. Visitors to CityCenter were told to use the people mover, a tramway with three stops that links the new plaza to other MGM properties to the north and south. It seems odd -- and rather ridiculous -- to build an urban transport system that only emphasizes the fractured, disconnected nature of Las Vegas planning (or lack of all planning).

JF Finn III, managing director of Gensler of Nevada, which oversaw the master planning of CityCenter, sees that isolation as temporary. One day, perhaps, the people mover will connect with similar systems, perhaps even to the city's lonely monorail that may eventually extend to the airport. He prefers to focus on things that distinguish CityCenter from ordinary Vegas in more positive ways, such as its gold environmental rating on the nationally branded LEED system.

Much of the rubble from the old Boardwalk Hotel, which had a Coney Island theme but was small compared with newfangled mega-casinos, was reused in concrete and fill for the new project. Most of the finished project is designed with the best environmental bling: low-water-use fixtures, wood purchased from sustainable sources, landscaping that uses water efficiently. Only the main casino space didn't qualify for a gold rating because it allows smoking (gamblers must have their cigs) and smoking is a no-no according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

"This is transformative," said Rick Fedrizzi, president of the Green Building Council, sounding only slightly less enthusiastic about CityCenter than the local newscasters. And indeed it may be, up to a point. The sheer scale of CityCenter may have jump-started a supply-and-demand chain for environmentally sensitive building products and skills in a city where that demand has been minimal.

But it raises an important philosophical question about the environmental standards: Is another casino good for the Las Vegas environment? While the LEED standards encourage reusing existing buildings, should they take into account whether a new casino is necessary? For no matter how well built it is, CityCenter is a monument to something about capitalism, and it certainly isn't high regard for the environment. Everywhere you turn, you realize how much of the car-centric, consumerist American lifestyle that environmental building standards simply take for granted.

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The same question about the building's green bona fides applies to the entire subject and premise of CityCenter: It's good, as far as it goes, but is it really revolutionary? Head into the Aria casino, and it's a casino pretty much like any other. It's hidden behind the water feature made of textured Indian slate, which turns out to be a clever way of disguising the essential architectural fact of almost all casinos: There must be no natural light, just a low, dark, womblike space that obliterates time and encourages obsession.

Is this the sort of thing that progressive architects should be involved in?

The subject makes them dance, rhetorically, like a leggy Amazon in high-heel boots, vinyl one-piece and feathered headgear.

Rafael Viñoly, a brilliant architect who designs elegant, rational and often stunning buildings, says that his work on the Vdara Hotel was not so different from any other project. He was not asked to do anything he didn't agree with; in fact, he says he was given a remarkable mandate (coming from a casino company): "Professionally, the thing that was really fundamental for me to get into this was that the company wanted to elevate the level of architectural response."

His Vdara is the best of the lot, a huge building effortlessly configured as three curvaceous and nestled slabs, which diminish its bulk and, rather like his designs for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (near Leesburg, Va.), seems to push the whole building out to the rounded edges of its profile.

Viñoly doesn't buy into the idea that MGM has created a real city center, and says he would have configured the overall layout of the project more intelligently. But he defends the project as better than it might have been, and much better than anything he saw when he first visited Las Vegas in the late '70s.

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