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05.27.2010
Crit> Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
Gehry Partners teaches Las Vegas, that ephemeral city, the importance of permanence
The entrance to the Lou Ruvo Center uses Gehry's signature steel folds to create an inviting canopy.
Michael Webb

Frank Gehry once vowed never to build in Las Vegas, a place where serious architecture is submerged in a tsunami of kitsch, or fatally compromised by commercial imperatives. Larry Ruvo, who made a fortune as Nevada’s chief liquor distributor, refused to take “no” for an answer. He has been a passionate supporter of Alzheimer’s research since the loss of his father, Lou, to that disease.

Having formed an alliance with a major medical institution, he wanted a building that would be a magnet. He persuaded Gehry that this was a worthy cause and gave him creative freedom to design a research facility linked to an events space that would play a supporting role by generating income from rentals. The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health was inaugurated last Friday.

The center, while largely dedicated to research and treatment, also has an events space to help support its medical mission.

The new building is located far from the Strip, on the bleak north side of the city just off interstate 15. The small corner site is flanked by a vast and hermetically sealed design center, city offices that resemble a cartoon castle, and a future performing arts center and park. Gehry’s modestly scaled structure holds its own, presenting four distinct but interrelated faces to wide boulevards and parking lots.

The Life Activity Center, as the events space is known, is contained within an irregular cluster of sculptural forms, clad in brushed stainless plates with punched-out windows and skylight openings. This carapace swoops down over a courtyard as a bowed trellis, and the expanded openings cast a pattern of dappled shade over the pavers. A supporting skeleton of exposed steel beams links the public facility to the stacked white stucco blocks of treatment rooms, labs, and a fourth-floor office suite, all lit through expansive bay windows. Reception and a small library open off a breezeway, and the inner wall has panels of aqua, lemon, and red as a foil to the silver and white palette of the complex.

After two decades, Gehry still finds ways to keep his wrapped steel facades fresh.

Gehry’s sculpted stainless steel skin, which he first employed at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, has evolved over the past two decades to provide an ever-changing, yet immediately recognizable signature. To dismiss the architect as the metal man is absurd—his preferred material has unlimited expressive potential, and is rarely used in isolation.

At Ruvo, there’s a joyful exuberance and geometric invention that captures the spontaneity of conceptual models. In commissioning the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the client invited Gehry to be “swoopy”, but the excitement was all on the outside, relinquishing the interior to a conventional and claustrophobic set of exhibits. Here, inner and outer are closely integrated, and the rational. The intuitive wings of the building are linked like the two halves of the human brain—an apt image for this institution.

Much of the medical work is done in the stucco boxes, the different materials deliniating the different spaces, not unlike the left and right sides of a brain.

The Ruvo Center is also a reproach to the wasteful ways of Las Vegas, where scarce natural resources are squandered on golf courses, fountains, and blazing signage. Both blocks open up to the north, and the trellis deflects sunlight from a courtyard that is open to breezes from east and west. The small skylights and windows are triple glazed and can be shut off with motorized blinds. Building materials were sourced regionally. The clinic roof is white, cooling is automatically shut off whenever the buildings are not in use, and LED lighting proliferates. The landscaping even does its part, making inventive use of drought-resistant plantings.

This is also a rare instance of an architect exercising total control over a project, installing his own furniture and lighting and selecting the art. But the star of the show is the interior of the activity center, which is a true original, radically different in form and effect from anything that has come before. It evokes an enchanted forest glade, a soaring white billow of foliage, with 199 openings to admit natural light, partially supported on square trunks and angular branches. Two stylized trees are located inside the glass entry wall, which frames and reflects the complex structure over the courtyard.

The interiors are as expressive as the exteriors of the building, not always the case with Gehry's work.

Beyond this portal, everything seems to be in motion, swaying in a spectral wind that tosses branches every which way. In contrast to the rigor and symmetry of the Walt Disney Hall, this interior is simply an uplifting place to celebrate weddings, raise funds and party. Gehry has liberated his artistry from programmatic constraints and is able to turn gestures into a concrete form. Architecture has been likened to frozen music; here, music is on the boil. Surface and structure combine to tilt, dart, thrust and recede in ways that defy categorization.

Michael Webb