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In Las Vegas, one final echo of the boom years

December 11, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Citycenter3

The massive CityCenter complex on the Las Vegas Strip, set to open officially next week, is a blast from the very recent past.

With a price tag of $8.5 billion, a roster of famous designers including Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, David Rockwell, Cesar Pelli and Rafael Vinoly and a staggering 18 million square feet of space inside six towers and a Strip-front shopping mall, the development is a fitting coda to the decade of celebrity architecture and overextended real-estate mania from which we've just emerged.

If we now expect every major hotel-casino in Las Vegas to have a theme, the one that applies here isn't difficult to make out, despite the architects' collective attempt to scrub the project free of kitsch and historical ornament and coat it with a high-gloss, homogenous and faintly corporate sheen.

CityCenter's true theme is leverage. Ranking as the largest private development in American history, big enough to fill the tallest building in Los Angeles, the U.S. Bank Tower, roughly a dozen times over, the complex is a palace -- a series of connected palaces, actually -- for the age of towering debt and easy credit. They should have put Alan Greenspan's face on the poker chips.

Citycenter1 They didn't, of course. Though the project seems to speak to us from the far side of the 2008 economic meltdown, its overriding aesthetic is too grown-up and irony-free for any overt references to its roots in a headier, freer-spending era. Built by MGM Mirage in partnership with the now-infamous Dubai World, CityCenter’s 67 acres of hotel rooms, condominiums, conference facilities, casino tables, restaurants, shops and lobbies are wrapped in a series of shimmering mirrored-glass packages, making the place from certain angles look like a slightly less buttoned-up version of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Time Warner Center in Manhattan.

That architectural sensibility -- ambitious but not really adventurous, chasing bigness if not big ideas -- can be chalked up in part to Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn, the New York firm that developed CityCenter’s master plan, and Gensler, which served as executive architect and helped assemble the well-known but fairly conservative team of architects. The approach is clearest to see in two crescent-shaped towers: Pelli's Aria Resort and Casino, which rises at the center of the complex, and Vinoly's Vdara Hotel and Spa, which stands politely toward the back. Inside, the color schemes tend toward coffee-brown, latticed-wood handsomeness, and the grounds are dotted with artwork by Henry Moore, Maya Lin and others.

All of which is too bad, really: If CityCenter represents a final bender for Wall Street's decade of unreason -- and since this after all is Las Vegas -- it might at least have pursued a wilder, more inventive and more entertaining kind of architectural gigantism. Given MGM’s declarations all along that this was going to be the first truly high-design development on the Strip, it’s tough not to wander through the place and think – even if it’s purely an architecture-lover’s fantasy -- about what might have been if a really rip-roaring group of firms, one with a collective taste for scale, color, irony and abandon, had been allowed to drain that $8.5 billion budget.

To be fair, there are a handful of memorable architectural moments here. Helmut Jahn's yellow-clad 37-story Veer Towers, set slightly askew, lean toward each other like a pair of drunken tourists careening down a hotel corridor at the end of a very long night. Foster's Harmon Hotel -- which will open next year, delayed by the decision to build it at 28 stories instead of 49 -- is alone among the buildings here in its willingness to look un-pretty. Its blue-and-white facade suggests a cross between a disco ball and a 1970s mirrored-glass office tower by Kevin Roche or John Portman.

Rockwell's interiors for the 500,000-square-foot, Libeskind-designed mall, meanwhile, known as Crystals, feature a treehouse-like wooden structure that crawls across three floors in the center of the retail space, among other inspired touches.

And Libeskind himself? What to say, really, about an architect who has now recycled the same mournful, jagged forms that he deployed in the deeply moving Jewish Museum in Berlin and in his design for the World Trade Center site for use in a high-end shopping mall on the Las Vegas Strip?

His arrival in Las Vegas suggests a precise reversal of the path followed by the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. In their 1972 classic "Learning From Las Vegas," Venturi and Scott Brown (and young collaborator Steven Izenour) encouraged architects to appreciate, and freely borrow, the kitschy, high-energy ornament of the Strip. Eventually those forms and that attitude filtered into the most rarefied precincts of design world officialdom.

Citycenterlibeskind Libeskind, as a dedicated intellectual early in his career, argued for applying an architectural version of the approach to literary theory known as deconstruction to buildings, primarily in the form of ruptured façades and vertiginous interiors. Now he has delivered decon's angular angst -- or some faint echo of it -- to the heart of Las Vegas, as a hulking shell for Prada and Gucci boutiques.

That strange cultural boomerang aside, CityCenter is most dramatic, and perhaps best understood, as a terrifically complex piece of privately funded urban infrastructure, a gargantuan city-within-a-city that wraps around an existing Las Vegas street and, for good measure, creates its own grand internal boulevard. The complex stacks its valet drop-offs, taxi stands, a fire station, two parking garages, mechanical systems and pedestrian walkways in a labyrinthine series of concrete decks and curving ramps. It also includes a monorail system, with trains slipping between towers on an elevated track.

The goals MGM Mirage is chasing at CityCenter – walkability, density, verticality and sustainability among them, along with an interest in connecting the development to its neighbors and the rest of the city -- are laudable. But in the end what the company and its architects have created is a kind of bell-jar urbanism, a complex that is closer to an eye-popping, full-scale mock-up of sophisticated city life than the real thing.

CityCenter, ultimately, is as much of an architectural fantasy as any of its neighbors. Its towers manage a remarkable replica, at massive scale, of dense urbanism. But it is still a replica. And given that this may be the last major development Las Vegas sees for a decade, or longer, it is destined to stand as an island surrounded for years by low-rise, car-centered urbanism, foreclosure-filled single-family neighborhoods and general sprawl.

And in any event it is not really in the bottom-line interests of any developer to pursue real, sustained urban connections between and among developments on the Strip. The whole business model -- and architectural typology -- of the hotel-casino, after all, revolves around making it easy for visitors to get in and tough, or at least rather complicated, to get out. If the CityCenter’s edges and sidewalks are far better designed and better integrated with the city than is the case at other big casinos, the complex as a whole works as hard as all the rest to pull you deep into its undertow and keep you there.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Related:

Interactive graphic of CityCenter

360-degree view

Photo credits: Top, Jacob Kepler, Bloomberg; middle and bottom, Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

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