Search results for "David Rockwell"

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Quick Clicks> Glass, Steel, Foam, Reel
Glass wear. Alistair Gordon visits the entrancingly translucent Maison de Verre in Paris, Pierre Chareau's 1928 house of glass blocks, and speaks with current owner Robert M. Rubin about his ongoing restoration of the early modernist icon. Here's a preview of Gordon's feature that will appear in the next WSJ Magazine. Steely resolve. The Calatrava-designed PATH hub for the World Trade Center is now over budget to the tune of $180 million, reports DNA. The stratospheric overrun is due in large part to the decision to use extra steel to "harden" the building for security reasons. The Port Authority Board passed the revised budget on Thursday morning, promising to bankroll the extra costs with a contingency fund. Featuring...foamcore! San Francisco's Museum of Craft commandeers a space near the Moscone Center for a pop-up installation that presents architectural model-making as a form of craft. The show offers a glimpse into the process of 20 notable SF-area architecture firms, writes the San Francisco Chronicle. Awards go immaterial. Producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer talk to the Hollywood Reporter about the set design for this year's Oscars (airing this Sunday), revealing that they'll rely on projections to create a constantly changing, animated environment within the Kodak Theater. Architect David Rockwell, who designed the sets in 2009 and 2010 (and snagged an Emmy in the process), this year passed the torch to production designer Steve Bass.
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New Meadowlands Stadium
As at the teams' old venue, the seating bowl rings the entire stadium.
Courtesy New Meadowlands Stadium

New York City is the only town in the U.S.A. with more than one National Football League team. It has two: the New York Giants of the National Football Conference and the New York Jets of the American Football Conference. For more than 20 years, these gridiron superheroes coexisted more or less contentedly in the same facility—the 80,000-seat Giants Stadium (1976), which sat until very recently in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

A section through the New Meadowlands stadium showing aluminum louvers as lightshades and cladding.
courtesy Ewing Cole

It was more or less a happy arrangement because the stadium had been designed specifically for the Giants, featuring their colors in the seating, their heraldry on the walls of the concourses, and their old-school spirit in the utilitarian architecture. The Jets, who moved onto this hallowed ground in 1984 after fleeing an even less advantageous arrangement at Shea Stadium in Queens—where they toiled under the thumb of Major League Baseball’s Mets—never really got to feel that they were in their element, never truly knew what it meant to play a home game. After several aborted attempts at getting their own digs—including the ill-fated West Side Stadium project—the Jets and the Giants came to an understanding. The two teams would join forces and build the best stadium in the league right there in the Meadowlands, a stadium that would meet their needs equally and put New York City—or rather, East Rutherford—in the running to host the Super Bowl.

Design architect 360 Architecture, working with architect of record Ewing Cole, got the job of turning out a professional football venue—neutrally dubbed the New Meadowlands Stadium—that would embody the distinct personalities of both franchises. It was not an easy task. The teams had very different ideas about how a stadium should look and feel. The Giants, with their roots in the halcyon days of the leather helmet, favored a traditional aesthetic of exposed steel framework and muscular rusticated stone. The Jets, children of the go-go aerospace 1960s, rooted for a sleek metal-and-glass modernism. The designers gave them both. Referring to the column/tower dynamic of many of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the base of the stadium’s facade is clad in heavy stonework up to about 20 feet above grade. From there, up to just below the apex of the seating bowl, a system of aluminum louvers and glass takes over.

While this may seem a jarring transition, the light gray color of the stone blends closely with the anodized aluminum louvers and establishes the neutral palette of the interior. The walls, the floors, the ceilings, and the seating are all gray. The transition between each team’s home games is handled through the use of some 4,000 square feet of LED displays and a color-changing lighting control system, which can personalize the stadium for the Jets or Giants—green or red and blue—at the push of a button. This change will be most apparent on the exterior, where colored light will wash the facade in each team’s color from Sunday to Sunday. The field is similarly easy to switch. In the old venue, the end zones had to be repainted with each team’s logo before a game. Here, the artificial turf field features palletized end zones, which can be lifted out and swapped with a minimum of hassle. The entire transformation can be effected in 24 hours, a vast improvement over the former field, which took a week to prepare.

With 82,500 seats, the new stadium does not vastly expand in capacity. It is, however, a much larger building—2.1 million square feet vs. the old 900,000. Most of this extra space is devoted to wider concourses for more concessions, a total of four locker rooms—one for each home team and two for visitors—and, most notably, 200 luxury suites arranged in three tiers at the sidelines. (Bruce Mau Design and Rockwell Group contributed to the new stadium's design.) The average fan has it better, too. Four massive scoreboards, each measuring 30 feet high by 118 feet long, occupy the corners of the bowl, ensuring that no one will miss the slow-motion crunch of an instant replay.

One of twenty luxury suites at the New Meadowlands stadium.   Lounge space inside the New Meadowlands stadium.
One of twenty luxury suites (left), and lounge space (right) inside the New Meadowlands stadium.  
David Sundberg/Esto

On one aspect both teams agreed: the need to impress upon visitors that they are in New York. There was also the desire to create the best sightlines in the business, allowing every fan to see the full arc of a 90-foot punt. Accommodating these requests required compromise. The bowl had to be raked back a bit to eliminate overhangs from the upper decks that would impede views. However, as in the old stadium, the seating bowl rings the entire stadium without a break. Many football stadiums feature open corners to allow views to skylines, a civic-minded gesture that dissipates the sounds of the crowd. At New Meadowlands this noise is very much bottled up, allowing a real big-city uproar to accumulate and let the visiting team know what they’re up against.

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Americans at the Door
Last night at Material ConneXion Italian door manufacturer Lualdi unveiled its first collection of doors designed by U.S.-based architects. Dror Benshetrit's lacquered red Davina door stole the show with a diagonally folded design that makes the door appear slightly ajar when closed. Benshetrit explained to that the idea for the design came from the diagonal line that architect's use to indicate a reflective surface in sketches. The secret to the door's off-kilter appearance? A special hinge at the top that keeps the pivot points in line. The door, also in black or white, had a magnetic closure and a slim stainless handle, but the designer mentioned that another handle based on the door's design was in the works with Valli & Valli. David Rockwell presented a robust walnut design with a leather-wrapped bar inspired by his hand-carved Chambers Hotel entrance doors. The design has several options, with a thin metal frame and a horizontal stripe that can be customized. Robert A.M. Stern also delivered his take on modern-traditional style with three doors that reinterpret the classic New York pre-war apartment entrance. The full collection is available for pre-order now, and Lualdi plans to come knocking for more American designs in the future.
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Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park struggles with being both human scale and monumental.
Courtesy MVVA

Sometimes allegory writes itself. Here, it’s the removal of the futuristic stainless-steel playground climbing domes at the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates– designed Brooklyn Bridge Park. Following the opening of the park’s Pier 1 first phase in April 2010, the domes scorchingly overheated in early summer sunshine. Their replacement by a direly anodyne but liability-proof dollhouse structure could stand for the sensible return of quasi- traditional designs after modernist overreach, or for a failure of imagination and ambition, in which the optimistically risk-taking formal and functional intelligence that is modernism’s timeless legacy is abandoned in favor of the complacently picturesque.

The design of parks and playgrounds in New York City seems currently torn between these two impulses. On the one hand, there are projects like David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground, a Constructivist Legoland just opened at the Burling Slip near the South Street Seaport. On the other, there are developments like the recent renovation inflicted on Washington Square Park, in which the once superbly sensitive prospect-and-refuge modulations of the park’s multi-level ground plane, and the once lively handling of its historically off-kilter plan (developed by polymath designer Robert Nichols in a community-driven 1971 project) have been flattened by a tightly-wound ersatz-historical pastiche of windswept symmetry, bench-shaped benches and fence-shaped fences, from which tiny tidy bits of lawn can be surveilled, but not much else.

A new playrgound at Pier 6, with Red Hook and Governor's Island beyond.

Brooklyn Bridge Park would appear to be safely in the first camp. To be arrayed when complete across some 65 acres of Brooklyn’s former shipping piers, it continues for the outer boroughs such large-scale waterfront reclamations as Manhattan’s Hudson River Park and Harlem Piers Park—in this case financially initiated and sustained, not without controversy, by the residential and hotel development of six adjacent parcels with priceless skyline and river views.

Much of Pier 1 is unimpeachable. A robust vocabulary of galvanized steel, maritime wood, asphalt paving, cable fencing, and other no-nonsense materials hold their own against a tough urban setting in the shadow of the BQE. Behind the shoulder of a steep hill, a cascade of granite steps, salvaged from nearby Roosevelt Island, forms an amphitheater and climactic overlook high above the East River. Thirty-five-foot telephone poles become totemic tree trunks and laconic lighting uprights. A sinuously sloping ridgeline provides ramped tree-lined pathways that delay and reveal views of city and water. A broad waterfront promenade recalls the one far above in Brooklyn Heights.

Joggers and bench-sitters enjoying the promenade at sunset.

A complex three-dimensional problem of physical and visual occupation has been methodically and successfully solved, with crisp detailing pleasingly combining industrial manufacture and contemporary élan. Still to come are a rainwater runoff pond, a reconstructed salt marsh, and a boat slip. On a recent Friday afternoon, the park was densely and delightedly occupied by diverse constituencies—including an intrepid group of soccer players who had miniaturized and adapted their game to fit into the mostly concave hollow of the main north-facing lawn.

That miniaturization speaks to one challenge facing the Pier 1 park, which is scale: Mediating its 9.5 acres between the scale of the human body and the scale of nearby infrastructural icons like the Brooklyn Bridge, Pier 1 has chosen to be a little-big park, rather than a big-little one. What this means is that in the cumulative effect of its many small hills and valleys, switchbacks, and meadows, it can feel slightly like a three-quarters-scale model of itself: packed with beautiful and effective features, and almost continually delightful, but without a lot of room to breathe or improvise. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, that room will, of course, eventually arrive with the continuing development of the adjacent five piers, which will provide full-size indoor and outdoor sports fields, event spaces, and miles of trails and lawns.

A cove created by the former pilings of Pier 2 adjacent to Pier 1.

And yet this tendency toward dense specificity of activity can risk suppressing the imaginative improvisation, drift, opportunism, serendipity, and loosely counter-programmatical use of space that are the greatest gifts of playgrounds and parks to their users. The new Washington Square Park fails so profoundly because, unlike the old, it encourages the narrowest one-to-one mapping between object and event: a hospitably curving edge calibrated along a shift in ground level can be a bench, a bed, a stage, a gameboard, a skate ramp, a soap box. A faux-Victorian bench is a bench is a bench.

A sign at the Pier 1 playground outlaws, along with amplified sound and smoking, “using playground equipment in an unsafe or unintended fashion.” Safety matters. It’s that “unintended” that worries. And yet somewhere there’s a tipping point in which the regulation of space required by a density of narrowly single-use features starts to betray the magnificent liberties of unintended consequences, that, ever since Richard Dattner brought the Adventure Playground to Central Park in the 1960s, has been the city’s contribution to play and to public space.

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Rockwell makes a ruckus at Imagination Playground
“It doesn’t seem like it, but everything connects with each one perfectly,” said Gabrielle Sunderland, 12, squinting happily toward the hot July sun. Around her were piles of weather- and germ-resistant foam blocks in sundry shapes and sizes. The blue pieces are the signature element of David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground, which opened Tuesday on Burling Slip near the South Street Seaport. A designer of theaters, high-end restaurants, and Broadway stage sets, Rockwell found his own children bored by the playgrounds of Lower Manhattan. So he set out to create a playspace where kids could use their own imagination, just as he once did. “Playgrounds are the places where kids can learn how to be a community and create their own worlds, but the ones we visited were all too linear,” he told AN at the opening. “That gave me the idea of a different kind of playground.” Gabrielle and her friend Ajda Celebi, 10, were industriously showing off Rockwell’s central strategy: providing kids with loose pieces that promote unstructured play. The girls set two rectangular blocks together with a noodle on the side and a ball on top, creating something like a giant teapot. They liked the fact that the playground allows them to make structures entirely “out of your own creativity,” as Ajda put it. The project got its start after Rockwell persuaded Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe with a drawing on a lunch napkin, and then spent five years researching progressive learning theory and child development. He also helped round up funds for the $7.5 million project, which included a $4.5 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and $3 million from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for the relocation of two water mains and a sewer line into the adjacent street. Rockwell also teamed with nonprofit playground designer KaBOOM! and together they developed Imagination Playground in smaller portable versions, tested and tweaked after trial tours in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Miami, and New York. But the first permanent site for the concept is designed pro-bono on a former parking lot at Burling Slip. Comprised of a large multi-level deck in the shape of a swooping figure eight of reclaimed Indonesian teak, the new playground is essentially an empty space for the array of 350 props. Situated in a landmark district, the landscape does include some features that recall the surrounding area’s nautical past, including reused benches from Coney Island, barrels, and burlap bags. The west end is the sand pit, consisting of sloping wooden ramps and four wooden masts made by a shipbuilder, each connected by ropes and pulleys. In the center stands a crow’s nest atop a red, circular structure housing bathrooms and a storage space for the blocks. At the east end, a rounded amphitheater for storytelling overlooks an ankle-deep pool with pipes and canals that enable the control of cascading water. A staff of city workers trained as “play associates” oversees the action, as with all Imagination Playgrounds. According to Benepe, Burling Slip is the start of a new era of New York City playgrounds, where Rockwell’s sponges will replace worn-out monkey bars, swings, and jungle gyms. “The next step is to look at playgrounds that are underperforming and need renovation in central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, and apply the concept,” he told AN, adding that these might come with a different set of materials. “Here we had a flexible budget, but we could take a traditional Parks Department playground budget, and use these approaches.” For his part, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg described the project as a tremendous success. “It is always amazing to see what children choose to create when they are fully using their imagination,” he declared. As for the little pirates, they too gave the playspace top grade. “It’s all big and blue and bendy,” Gabrielle said, while balancing a cog on top of a cube tower. “It’s a lot of fun!” And Ajda added, “The new West Thames playground where I live is really cool, but this one is more fun, because you can do anything here.” With that, she eagerly returned to helping the other kids dam a cascading water flow in the pool area. To everyone’s joy, the jets of water created unexpected rainbows against the blue afternoon sky.
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Residential Development
The Riverhouse (right) at Battery Park City, designed by Polshek Partnership with interiors by David Rockwell, is considered a residential success story.
Courtesy Riverhouse

John Tashjian, a principal of Centurion Real Estate Partners and sales and marketing director of the Riverhouse condominiums in Battery Park City, sees a direct link between sales interest in downtown residential properties and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Nor is it much more of a leap to look at the rising steel of the World Trade Center’s first towers and the twisting metal facade of Forest City Ratner’s Beekman Tower as optimistic spikes compared to such troughs as Silverstein Properties’ vacant 99 Church Street lot (destined for a Four Seasons someday) and other blocks that have remained unchanged despite oft-published renderings of towers in their future.

Below Canal Street, Riverhouse is considered a success story. After a pre-foreclosure filing, a partnership dispute that led to development sponsor Sheldrake Organization’s ousting, stalled sales, and a lawsuit alleging the now LEED Gold–rated building wasn’t green enough, Centurion was able to get sales back on track and has sold 25 units, bringing the total sold to 77 percent, since taking over in April. Tyra Banks and Leonardo DiCaprio have homes at Riverhouse, and the sales office gets visits from at least one Goldman Sachs employee every week.

Other residential properties in Lower Manhattan haven’t been so lucky. Tamir Sapir, a developer of the William Beaver house at 15 William Street, was recently hit with a $130 million lawsuit for failing to repay a Blackstone Group–managed fund that had loaned him $66 million in 2006. The André Balazs-conceived apartment building (its marketing blitz put the call out for sexed-up i-bankers everywhere) had set records for a $3,512-per-square-foot penthouse sale in 2008, but since then some prices have fallen to below $1,000 per square foot and less than 40 percent of its units have been sold.

Frank Gehry's beekman tower under construction.
david sundberg/esto

Some could argue that such tales are just a product of an oversaturated residential market coupled with a down economy, but with Lower Manhattan experiencing some of the fastest growth in any borough—population has more than doubled to 55,000 since 2001—it may be that buyers are choosing playgrounds over party pads.

According to a survey of Lower Manhattan residents by the Alliance for Downtown New York, 27 percent of households have children, and another 40 percent of childless households are planning to have kids in the next three years, finally fulfilling the long-projected transformation of the area from a business-only district to a real neighborhood.

With the World Trade Center filling demand for future downtown office space, developers continue to see Lower Manhattan’s historic skyscrapers as valuable residential property. Last year Youngwoo & Associates bought the former AIG headquarters at 70 Pine Street and plans to develop its 1.1 million-square-foot Art Deco tower into a hotel and residences. A deal to lease the lower floors at Youngwoo’s nearby 72 Wall Street and the adjacent 60 Wall Street to Deutsche Bank is purportedly in the works, though calls to the developer were not returned.

The neighborhood is scrambling to keep up with educational demands too, relying on high-profile locations to house new schools. The Frank Gehry–designed Beekman Tower at 8 Spruce Street will have a pre-K through eighth grade school in its base, which will seat about 630 students when it opens in fall 2011. In addition to that school, Community Board 1 (CB1) lobbied for construction of PS/IS 276, the city’s first green school, which will add 950 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade seats this fall at 55 Battery Place. “Even with that, we are still short seats,” said Julie Menin, chair of CB1. “Schools are one of our main focuses, in addition to playgrounds and parks.”

The growth has elicited competition between developers to create the best self-contained community. Though parents who live in one of Beekman’s 903 rental units aren’t guaranteed a spot for their child in the school below, they will have prime access to a 13,000-square-foot public plaza. The building will also contribute 25,000 square feet to the New York Downtown Hospital. This spring, the Battery Park City public library opened in the base of Riverhouse, thanks to a $3.5 million grant from Goldman Sachs. The investment bank also gave about $1 million to fund a new Asphalt Green community center in Battery Park City, slated to open in fall 2011.

Though the list of local amenities continues to mount, community planners haven’t lost sight of another need: Along with growth in schools and hospitals comes demand for housing that teachers and nurses can afford.

A proposal to rezone North Tribeca that entered the city’s public review process in June would grant greater FAR to developers who build inclusionary housing. Menin is also trying to convince the state and city to develop the World Trade Center Tower 5 site, former location of the Deutsche Bank tower, as a mixed-use building with 20 percent of residential units designated for low-income residents, but any construction there would be years in the future.

While the fate of many other residential buildings and hotels remains uncertain, some are pushing ahead with the faith that occupants will tolerate the construction at Ground Zero, if not come to see it as an amenity.

Opposite the Deutsche Bank site, the long-delayed W New York Downtown Hotel & Residences, owned by Moinian, is nearing completion of 217 hotel rooms and 223 condos atop a restaurant and pedestrian plaza. Just a few doors down at 144 Washington Street, the World Center Hotel has just opened, with a website that boasts unfettered views of the rising World Trade Center.

The construction isn’t just an attraction for tourists. “It’s a huge asset,” said downtown broker Tashjian. “I think it gives a feeling of optimism. We had a buyer recently who was touring his unit with his parents, who lived internationally. He felt like he had purchased something where the skyline was going to change for the better. There’s a real sense of pride and optimism about that tower.”

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Mess With the Imagination (Playground) of David Rockwell
For the past few years, David Rockwell, that master of stage and scene, has been developing the Imagination Playground, a deployable playground-in-a-box that has been finding its way across the country. Now, he is just finishing a larger playground, sort of a showcase for the concept, at Burling Slip in Lower Manhattan. (As the rendering after the jump shows, it's quite literally a flagship.) To celebrate the opening of the new playground at the end of July, the Parks Department is taking imagination playgrounds on a pop-up tour, which kicked off this past weekend in Staten Island, with stops in all five boroughs to follow. It truly is a revolutionary concept in recreation, though not the first, as we've chronicled. In the current issue of New York, Justin Davidson even gives us the best 19 in the city, yet another mind of the parks renaissance currently taking place in New York.
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Earning Their Stripes
How quickly they grow up. No sooner had James and Hayes Slade sprung from the chrysalis of their Emerging Voices lecture than they spread their wings at one of the city's toniest design-and-dining events. Joining the likes of David Rockwell and Vicente Wolf, not to mention Cindy Crawford and Ralph Lauren, Slade Architecture debuted their variegated talent with a tape-covered dining room at DIFFA's Dining By Design gala. "Everything we do we want to do the best we can," said Hayes. But when they received the invitation to participate with only ten days to spare, the best they could do was ... trash. "We love all of the energy and creativity that doing an installation brings, but we hate all the waste," Hayes explained. She went to neighborhood building supers and begged for their castoff furniture, then placed a quick order on, eliciting a concerned phone call from a customer service representative ("Um, ma'am, what are you doing with this?"). James petitioned his Pratt students for help, and the team covered the reclaimed furniture and one-of-a-kind rug with a pastiche of tape—everything from electrical and duct to professional gaffer's and safety-striped. The result is a table fit for the Mad Hatter himself (that is, if he can spare the dinner's $10,000 price tag). We can't wait to see what the dynamic duo serves up next.
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The 80-foot-tall Tree House offers a perch within Libeskind's Crystals complex.
Jeff Green Photography

the bar.

Mastro’s Ocean Club
3720 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas
Tel: 702-590-9299
Designers: Rockwell Group and KAA Design Group

Leave it to Las Vegas to invent a new take on glitz: this time with organic undertones. Mastro’s Ocean Club, inside Daniel Libeskind’s Las Vegas CityCenter Crystals entertainment complex, boasts a swanky terrace inside an 80-foot-tall, twisting “Tree House” created by David Rockwell, with interiors by KAA Design Group. The Tree House itself weighs 50,000 pounds and is made of a complex wrapping configuration of mahogany and resin beams that looks alternately like a giant hair dryer or like the Na'vi village in Avatar. The interior of the restaurant is entered through a portal of wood-lined ceilings and undulating walls. It includes a dining area of curving white leather booths, chairs made from ochre leather, and banquettes surrounded by curving beams of mahogany and sapele wood. Adding a finishing touch to the dining space are glittering circular chandeliers, made up of jewel-like, irregular glass shapes.

Diners enter The Tree House from the restaurant's terrace level.

The private dining room.
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Rockwell Encore At Oscars
New York designer David Rockwell has once again been tagged to put together the set for the Oscars, which will take place on March 7 at the Kodak Theater.  Instead of messing with a good thing, he's once again framing the stage with the Swarovski "Crystal Curtain," made up of 92,000 crystals hanging in an upside-down crescent shape over the proceedings. This time the crystals (rendering above) will be colored in white, platinum, topaz, and bronze hues (the dominant colors last year were cool blue and white). The set will also include three circular, revolving platforms along with rotating LEDs and metalwork projection screens to keep things moving along at the notoriously slow event (which will have two hosts this year: Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin). "We wanted big, open, crisp environments that would work for comedy. Eventually, that led us to the idea of the set being about immersion in the world of movies. Stylistically, I realized the optimism of modernism in L.A. and the heyday of Hollywood was the perfect way in," he told the L.A. Times yesterday.
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Sam Horine

ellen silverman

Gramercy Park Hotel
2 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York
Tel: 212-777-2410
Designer: Rockwell Group

Located in Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel, Maialino is restaurateur Danny Meyer’s rendition of a Roman-style trattoria, reimagined for contemporary New York. The design, the first collaboration between Meyer and longtime restaurant designer David Rockwell of Rockwell Group, utilizes a rustic palette of wood plank floors, woven leather banquettes, and oak wainscoting reclaimed from a barn in New Jersey. Guests enter from the hotel lobby or a dedicated street entry, where a wine cellar also holds the Greenmarket produce utilized in the kitchen. A Pantheon-inspired tile floor in hues of wine and mustard complements a long walnut bar in front with windows overlooking Gramercy Park, where patrons sip coffee during the morning hours. A portion of the kitchen is brought to the center of the dining room in the form of a cucina, featuring various stations for beverages and food (the latter tends toward hearty fare; Mailino means “little pig”). All of the tables, chairs, and barstools are custom-designed, and Frette linens cover the checked tablecloths. Commissioned paintings from artist Robert Kushner round out the dining-room decor. A private dining room is also available, capable of seating 22 at a traditional long table flanked by wine cases.

Sam Horine
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City of the Glammed
The new Las Vegas City Center (left to right): KPF's Mandarin Hotel, Libeskind and Rockwell's Crystal's mall, Pelli's Aria, Helmut Jahn's Veer, Foster's Harmon.
Courtesy MGM Mirage

In case you’ve been locked in a vault at the bottom of the ocean, here’s the latest news from Las Vegas: MGM Mirage’s 67-acre, 18-million-square-foot, $7.5 billion CityCenter, one of the largest developments in the history of humankind, officially opened last month.

The buildings may be different, including Libeskind's Mall and Foster's Harmon Hotel, but the logos are familiar.
Inside, the mall is signature Liebeskind, though ultimately it is still a hall of commerce, not architecture.
Jahn's dramatic Veer towers.

The project, located in the center of the Las Vegas strip, includes buildings by Cesar Pelli (61- and 51-story Aria hotel and casino), Daniel Libeskind (Crystals entertainment and shopping center), Rafael Viñoly (57-story Vdara hotel and residences), Helmut Jahn (37-story Veer residences), KPF (45-story Mandarin Oriental hotel and residences), and Lord Norman Foster (26-story Harmon hotel). David Rockwell and Adam Tihany designed key interiors.

This lineup of contemporary design stars points to a sea change in the land of over-the-top kitsch, and holds out the dream of sophisticated urbanity (hence the name CityCenter). Whether they’ve created something truly cosmopolitan, or even particularly good, is another question.

Five years back and a psychological eon ago, before the Great Recession, MGM, concerned with the rising cost of real estate, decided to develop a dense concentration of buildings each by a different star architect in order to maximize square footage, rather than build one giant behemoth. The planners, which included Gensler, Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn, and MGM’s own design team, wanted to “jump out of our own skin and look at the project with fresh eyes,” according to Sven Van Assche, vice president of design for MGM Mirage Design Group.

Indeed, CityCenter’s legible urban plan, lofty density, and stylistic diversity are really something new here. The view toward the Aria from the project’s entrance road, when framed by rows of tall buildings on either side, is dazzling in scale and ambition, particularly at night. (Like most things in Vegas, they’re all better at night.) And from many vantage points—whether inside the Aria’s lobby or from one of its restaurants—it’s exciting to look out a window and see people swirling about. People looking out rather than at slot counters is a rarity in this self- contained city.

Among the architectural standouts, Jahn’s Veer towers are ambitious, with their off-kilter forms (five degrees off center) and intricate, colorful, fin-filled facades. The tension between lightness, monumentality, and surprising rawness is appealing in a real, un-gimmicky way. Pelli’s Aria, with its sweeping floor plates, giant canopies, and ultra-light, stepped facade, is strongest at night thanks to fantastic lighting that brings out the whiteness in the glassy building’s aluminum mesh sunshades. Libeskind’s Crystals introduces unexpectedly vivid abstractions to a landscape usually rooted in the pointedly literal. Viñoly’s Vdara is elegant and restrained; KPF’s Mandarin looks razor-thin (and excitingly light) from some vantage points, but bulky from others.

But like Vegas itself, the more you stick around and let it all sink in, the duller the glitz becomes. For all CityCenter’s flash, architecturally it is conservative and breaks little new ground. Anything goes in Vegas, but apparently a large public corporation like MGM can only go so far.

There’s a tokenism to the adventuresome, tilting Veer. Libeskind’s mall is dynamic and surprisingly appealing inside (the giant scale tempers the dizziness one sometimes gets inside his buildings), but similar to what we’ve seen him do elsewhere. Aria and Vdara, while quite handsome, would look at home in a sleek office park or in Miami. The poorest project seems to be Foster’s Harmon, whose shiny futurism was replaced with squatness when about half the building got cut due to a building error. Even its bright blue sheen feels a bit cartoonish.

The maestros behind the City Center: Liebeskind, Rockwell, Viñoly, Kohn, Gensler.

And while it’s great that CityCenter called for a diversity of styles, it’s unclear if there was a plan for bringing them together. Right now it’s an architectural petting zoo; a collection of pretty objects with limited relationship to one another. Urbanity as just a vague theme is a depressing concept. Instead, why not focus more on Vegas itself, with all its wackiness and complexity, as inspiration?

Walking around CityCenter feels like strolling through one of the newborn cities of Asia or the Middle East: a cold glass, steel, and concrete forest of tall buildings that don’t possess any of the richness in scale, use, or subtle texture that make a city resonate. Of course, CityCenter is not even a real city center. And where a real public plaza in the center of the development might have been, there is instead a giant traffic circle. The rear plaza between Aria and Vdara is even worse: a forgotten wasteland of confusing traffic ramps and empty space.

Which raises the question: Is it possible, or even a good idea, to strive for real urbanism and innovative architecture in a place like Vegas? Everybody knows that the aspiration here is to make money, so why pretend otherwise? I say, yes. Truly improving the public realm and redefining the city is the best way to stand out from the competition. Otherwise, it’s just the same old Vegas, with a pretty, architectural, twist.

See Sam's photos from his visit to the City Center on the A|N Blog.