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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; E01

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.

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.

Is it a game-changer for architecture and taste in Vegas, as MGM claims?

"Put crap around a diamond and it smells," he says. "But it doesn't elevate the crap and it doesn't diminish the diamond."

Daniel Libeskind, whose Crystals shopping center is part of the main frontage of CityCenter on the Strip, points to elements in his design that aren't typical for Las Vegas. The layout emphasizes views of the mountains in Vegas's beautiful but neglected natural setting.

Las Vegas doesn't need more kitsch, he says. It doesn't need the old clutter and chaos. Which is to say that Vegas is ready for the sharp edges and jumbled boxes of Daniel Libeskind. There's no irony that he's working on a shopping mall, no stigma either.

"Everyday life needs the same level of dignity as a city hall or a museum," he argues.

There's a trace of noblesse oblige in that remark, and many others heard at the opening ceremonies. Vegas is growing up. This will point the way. One MGM executive even said that perhaps the art and architecture of CityCenter will inspire people to read books again -- an almost absurdist belief in the diamond's power over the crap.

Which reminds one of something "Learning From Las Vegas" co-author Denise Scott Brown once said: "Mine is an African view of Las Vegas," by which she meant that, as an architect from Northern Rhodesia, she approached the city with the open eyes of someone who knew well what it's like to have cultural values dictated to you. She called this "the 'is' of the 'colony' and the 'ought' of the 'mother country.' "

A cynic, at CityCenter, might see it as no different from the rest of Las Vegas. This architectural colossus screams "architecture" like the Luxor casino screams Egypt. But a better, more inclusive reading is that it's a colony of relatively good architecture in a discombobulated city, an implant, nervously mixing with the natives (but not too much), worried about its starched and pressed clothes amid the grit and grime, and hoping (with enough time) that perhaps other expats from the world of high design will join it for a gin fizz on the terrace.

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