News
08.13.2008
Las Vegas Is Learning
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown changed the way we think about Vegas, but the city they loved and wrote about so compellingly has changed almost beyond recognition, and will keep on doing so. Its latest metamorphosis is a startling one: high-rise density oriented toward pedestrians. Is this urbanism drag, or can CityCenter successfully bring traditional ideas about the civic realm to the most car-oriented place in the country? Sam Lubell checks in.
Courtesy MGM Grand Mirage

Las Vegas has become a barometer for architecture, though it’s usually a little bit behind the times. It was all glamorous modernism in the 1970s, but by the 1990s, local developers here were obsessed with postmodern fancies that brought the world close, and down to size: The Venetian had its own Grand Canal, and the Paris arrived with a scaled-down Eiffel Tower, while New York, New York went so far as to put maintenance staff in uniforms like those worn by Sanitation workers in the five boroughs. At the turn of the century, developers moved toward upscale, lifestyle-oriented resorts and boutique hotels like the Wynn and the Hotel at Mandalay Bay.

Now another shift is underway: The MGM CityCenter, still under construction, is creating iconic buildings in a dense, mixed-use environment. Believe it or not, Vegas is selling urbanism—or at least a local version of it—and taking a page from cities around the world by using big-name contemporary architects to generate interest.

The $7.8 billion, 18-million-square-foot CityCenter will be in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip (on the site of the former Boardwalk Hotel and Casino), and is set to open next year. Touted as the largest privately funded development in U.S. history, it will include hotel, casino, residential, cultural, retail, and entertainment uses connected via indoor and outdoor pedestrian passageways. The major buildings were designed by Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Viñoly, Helmut Jahn, Foster + Partners, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Pelli Clarke Pelli, and the Rockwell Group, with Gensler as the executive architect, and Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn as master planner. The marquee names continue to the art program, which will include work by Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Frank Stella, and Henry Moore.


 
 

CITYCENTER UNDER CONSTRUCTION IN late MAY (TOP) AND AS RENDERED (ABOVE), with the adjacent monte carlo casino at far left.
 
 

While CityCenter’s 76-acre site measures about the same as most of MGM Mirage’s properties, it will be about three times as dense, said Sven Van Assche, vice president of design for MGM Mirage Design Group. The push for density was first necessitated by economic conditions: The sharp rise in land prices in the city forced planners at MGM Mirage (which owns a number of Vegas casinos including the Bellagio, the MGM, and the Excalibur) to consider other revenue sources when they first conceived the project in 2004.

“We quickly realized we were getting ourselves into a very urban condition,” said Van Assche. Mixing uses, he pointed out, is not new in Vegas, and most developments now contain hotels, casinos, retail, and even condos. But nowhere is that mix so tightly packed, so large, and so full of programmatic variety.

Van Assche explained that in order to promote CityCenter’s variety, MGM looked for several architects, and asked each to design something contemporary. New projects in the city are typically designed by the same group of local firms, but Van Assche said they decided to go beyond the standard modus operandi and “look at the project with fresh eyes.” This jump, he added, meant putting architects not accustomed to the Vegas scene through “an intense learning process.”

The interaction of the architects, said J.F. Finn, managing director at Gensler Nevada, started out with very few guidelines, but once a vision began to emerge, planners started to rein things in. Working with so many designers helped spur what Finn termed “happy accidents,” like the plaza between the casino and the Crystal. That came about when designers decided that Pelli and Libeskind’s buildings should have some breathing room. Likewise, a charrette between Libeskind and Jahn helped change their respective projects from one unified, mixed-use building to two very distinct entities.

All seven buildings will be connected by a meandering network of walkways that meet at larger nodes, usually marked with public art or a water feature. “We wanted to create places where people could gather that weren’t near slot machines,” said Finn, in explaining the nature of these nodes. Because of Vegas’ temperature, he added, the majority of these passages will be indoors, although a few outdoor walkways and bridges, landscaped with varied greenery, will act as connectors.

Is this urbanism? Finn argues that it is, and points to the functionally indoor nature of projects in other extreme climates like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Libeskind’s project was originally planned to be outdoors until the team realized it was not feasible. Still, having a retail project at the very front of a development in Vegas is rare. Inside it will resemble a small city with large public spaces, curving walkways, and changes in scale from small nooks to a 200-foot-high grand stair.

Van Assche and Finn both noted that other Vegas developers are looking at mixed-use and iconic buildings. Boyd Gaming’s Echelon will contain five separate hotels, 9,000 square feet of retail, and two large theaters. The newly-opened Planet Hollywood has a massive retail complex at its front door, and Harrah’s is reportedly considering a mixed-use, multi-building mega-development as well. “I think it’s the evolution of where the city is going to go,” said Van Assche.

Like anything in Vegas, CityCenter’s goal is to attract attention and stand out from the pack. And so it appears that like the flashing neon signs before them, the pyramids and Grand Canals will give way to Libeskind’s jagged steel forms and Jahn’s diagonal towers, the newest icons in a city full of them. 

Sam Lubell is the California editor of AN. 
 




 
 


Mandarin Oriental
Kohn Pedersen Fox

Unlike the majority of CityCenter, which attempts to introduce a new form of urbanism to Las Vegas through a pedestrian-friendly, open-access environment, Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Mandarin Oriental goes out of its way to create an isolated and exclusive world of luxury and tranquility, well-insulated from the crush of the city. Sited along the Strip, the 46-story, 1.2-million-square-foot hotel is separated from the development by its main access road, and is further delineated by a high-walled courtyard planted with bamboo trees. “The entry sequence was very important,” said KPF principal Paul Katz, “because this is a five-star hotel, guests will arrive from the airport in a limo and step right out into the world of the Mandarin.” From the courtyard, visitors take a shuttle elevator to the sky lobby, which is on the 26th floor; and from the sky lobby there is the option to ride down to the 400 hotel rooms, or up to the 215 full service condos. The building’s high-performance curtain wall combines insulated aluminum panels with ceramic-fritted, low-e coated glass in a 60/40 mix to create high levels of transparency while mitigating heat loading from the sun. AS


 

 


ARIA Hotel & Casino
Pelli Clarke Pelli

As the centerpiece of MGM’s development, Pelli Clarke Pelli’s 6.1-million-square-foot ARIA hotel and casino epitomizes the project’s spirit of interconnectivity, featuring easy or direct links to the buildings by Libeskind, Foster, Viñoly, and Jahn. It’s also permeable in other ways: In a revolutionary gesture for Vegas, the architects opened up the casino and convention center to daylight and views to the exterior. The facility also features a black box theater for the Cirque du Soleil, 4,000 hotel rooms, and a pool area arranged within a podium and tower. The podium’s plan of two interlocking circles helps to limit views down the long corridors to the tangent of the circles, creating more intimate environments within the massive enclosure. The tower also plays with views. The high-tech curtain wall combines fritted, low-e coated vision glass panels with shadow box panels of glass to achieve a shading coefficient appropriate for the desert sun while maintaining a consistent materiality. Also, the cladding over each room features an angle, or prow, which invites guests to look out at oblique angles, to take in more of the cityscape and mountains. AS



Veer Towers
Murphy/Jahn
(above, left)

Rising above CityCenter’s retail and entertainment district, Helmut Jahn’s Veer Towers distinguish themselves with a seeming feat of engineering. Inclined in opposite directions at 85 and 95 degrees respectively, the towers appear attracted toward each other, conveying the distinct relationship between them. The off-kilter forms, however, reflect the pragmatic logic of unit layouts. “Structurally, it looks challenging, but it’s not so mysterious,” said Francisco González Pulido, principal architect with Murphy/Jahn. The structure is created from a three-floor module composed of repeating unit plans. The 37-story towers will include approximately 337 units made up of studios, one- and two-bedroom residences, and penthouses ranging from a modest 500 to over 3,000 square feet. The transparent reflective glass facade with perforated aluminum framing includes fins to promote energy-efficient climate control. Yellow ceramic frit encased in the glass modulates sunlight and provides residents with privacy, while creating a checkerboard pattern on the facade, boldly expressing the building’s program on its skin. DR

The Crystal
Studio Daniel Libeskind 
(above, center)

Daniel Libeskind’s shopping and entertainment hub called the Crystal holds the center of the complex, not so much like the anchor of a mall, but organically, like a heart with main arteries and secondary conduits to enhance free-flowing circulation. “I am aiming for a new sense of orientation where people are not locked in a box with one way in and out,” said Libeskind. “It’s a shaped space with its own topography. There are many ways to come and go or move from level to level. It’s a work in the round.” The 650,000-square-foot structure is lapped in metal petals that break down into discrete volumes with large interstitial openings that Libeskind described (in terms of scale) as “beyond any skylights ever known.” Restaurant, entertainment, and retail interiors are being designed concurrently by the Rockwell Group and billed as a “natural and electronic landscape” for shopping and dining. Nesting between Foster’s Harmon and Jahn’s Veer, the Crystal aims to create the cosmopolitan urbanism of a European piazza within a highly climate-controlled environment. “This is no longer the signs-and-signals Vegas of Venturi,” said Libeskind. “It’s no longer just about surface. This is true urban growth.” JVI


The Harmon Hotel, Spa and Residences
Foster + Partners
(above, right)

If the strategy of CityCenter is to break out of the prejudices surrounding Las Vegas as a city of low-brow kitsch, then the Harmon Hotel, Spa and Residences, designed by Foster + Partners, is meant to be a defining structure that brings gravitas to glitter. Towering above Planet Hollywood across the Strip and diagonally across from the Paris’ faux Eiffel Tower, its walls are glass. Bear in mind that transparency has always been a taboo in this city of windowless casinos, where gamblers don’t know whether it’s day or night. Eschewing decadence, Foster has fashioned a column that borrows more from the Gherkin, his insurance headquarters in London, than from anything in Vegas. No surprise. In his film Casino, Martin Scorcese was telling us that the accountants were pushing aside the mobsters and cowboys, and the Harmon reads as a monument to the corporate domination of Sin City. There are no winks and no gambling in Foster’s austere column, but there’s something very Vegas all the same. Building higher and more expensively is another way of raising the ante, and Vegas gamblers love nothing more than a high-stakes game. DD




 
 


Vdara Condo Hotel
Rafael Viñoly Architects

In the Vdara Condo Hotel, a 57-story glass ascent of three overlapping curves, Rafael Viñoly echoes the message of the Foster tower at the nearby Harmon Hotel: There is no kitsch-theming here, beyond a cool corporate assurance that says, “Vegas, not ‘Vegas.’” Gambling won’t be among the offerings at this non-gaming facility, and owners of the more than 1,500 condominium units won’t share a lobby with retirees stampeding to the slots. Wedged into the dream-team ensemble, the Viñoly crescents stand in a corner—alone as any 57-story building can be, a block from the Vegas strip, at a distance from the Crystal, Daniel Libeskind’s retail and entertainment hub. And unlike the Crystal, the Vdara does not repeat forms that are signature elements in its architect’s style. The Viñoly design offers the promise of modernist, even minimalist elegance, once again echoing the larger ensemble’s ambition to refine—and perhaps redefine—Las Vegas. Yet the glass curves send a mixed message: It is part Miami hotel that opens to the sun and sand (the desert, rather than the beach), and part garden corporate headquarters (although the packed garden of highrises in CityCenter barely gives Vdara room to breathe). Its nostalgic simplicity gives off the welcoming feel of Brasília, rather than a hastily-built Dubai. But not too welcoming. The graceful curves form an enclosure as they turn their back to the street, which is marketed as exclusivity. And exclusive it is: 900 square feet in the Vdara starts at $1.3 million. DD



LEEDing Las Vegas

With all the blinking lights, splashing fountains, and blasting air-conditioners, Las Vegas is probably at the bottom of any list of places one would associate with sustainable design. But with rising energy costs and environmental awareness becoming increasingly mainstream, CityCenter hopes to be a model for green thinking in Sin City. Though all the buildings at CityCenter will seek LEED certification, most of their sustainable features are conventional and relatively modest: low-VOC paints, extensive use of daylighting, low-flow plumbing fixtures, and drip-irrigation for the landscaping.

Like the city’s privatized monorail, however, sometimes large-scale private development can yield green results through the creation of efficient infrastructure. Much of the development’s energy will be generated at an on-site cogeneration plant. The plant will recycle the heat generated by producing electricity for the hot water used throughout the complex.

Also, by striving to create a truly urban place with density and a diversity of uses, residents and visitors to CityCenter will be less reliant on cars and taxis, which, with gas prices continuing to climb, seems a very wise wager for the future. AGB


Sam Lubell

With contributions by Alan G. Brake, David D’Arcy, Julie V. Iovine, Danielle Rago, and Aaron Seward.