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Las Vegas Is Learning
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


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On the Side

Moonlighting has been around since the dawn of work, and architects are certainly no strangers to the phenomenon. From large, high-profile firms to small offices with just a handful of employees, architects often take unofficial jobs on the side to pay the bills, to climb the corporate ladder, or to simply find a creative outlet beyond the desktop of their workplace.

Many claim that it has always been part of the culture in the architecture world, while others say there is a rise in moonlighting due to the downturn in the economy and heightened competition in the architecture job world. Firm jobs are still vital for most financially. But with boring CAD duty a rite of passage, and salaries not rising with the cost of living, working at a firm is often not enough. For young architects, moonlighting may feel like the only way to get ahead.

Tom Newman, of Newman & Wolen Design, said that wherever he had worked before opening his own firm had had no-moonlighting policies—but that never stopped anyone. “I did it and everyone else did it,” he said. “It was the only way to have some creative control and get through the drudgery you dealt with every day.” But he also admitted that it was the years hunkered down in large firms that gave him the backbone and experience necessary to eventually open his own firm. “You certainly don’t get a lot of practical experience squeezing out small garage renovations on the side, although you may make a little extra money doing them,” he said.

tom newman tom newman
Tom Newman of Newman & Wolen Design in Culver City worked on the Nitkin (above, left) and the Ross (above, right) houses while he was employed at a larger firm. TOM NEWMAN 

“Even though I had an excellent experience at my firm, I still took on extra work to either pay bills or pursue more creative projects,” said a 26-year-old architect who preferred to remain anonymous. He graduated from the Yale Architecture program and then went directly to Kohn Pedersen Fox, where he worked for two years on a $400 million commercial project. He admitted that moonlighting was prevalent—the other day, he watched an architect a few cubicles away working on a rendering for another job. He maintained there is really no other way for young architects to hone different skill sets. “As a young architect in a large firm, you never deal with the clients or the contractors,” he said. “How else are we supposed to learn project management?”

miximilian schell
Benjamin Ball started working on the installation Maximilian’s Schell in Silverlake while still with a small firm in Santa Monica. He quit three months before the exhibition’s opening and then co-founded Ball-Nogues Studio. BENNY CHAN
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Benjamin Ball, an architect and co-partner of Ball-Nogues Studio, moonlit for nine months while working at a small architecture firm in Santa Monica. He spent most of his nights and weekends working on Maximilian’s Schell, a massive, vortex-shaped installation made of mylar that was showcased at Materials & Applications, a gallery in Silverlake, a few years ago.

“I had to quit three months before the opening so I could devote myself fully to the project,” he admitted. “But for the first nine months of development, I had to keep a full-time job.”

Nogues, his partner, worked for Frank Gehry and admitted that he shied away from moonlighting while working for the large firm, except for once—when Gehry himself set him up with some outside work.

“Claes Oldenburg needed some additional help while he was working on the Disney Concert Hall,” said Nogues. “If I remember correctly, I think I worked on an enormous flute.”

Mohamed Sharif, president of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and an associate at the Santa Monica firm Koning Eizenberg, added that moonlighting is even more prevalent now in LA due to the surge of single-family upgrades in the last five to ten years, providing plenty of small jobs, most of them done on the side.

Despite its prevalence, moonlighting can often be a source of serious anxiety and burnout, especially for those doing it without permission.

An architect who works for a small firm in Silverlake who preferred to remain nameless said that moonlighting was a source of constant angst for him. “I think in my firm they like to imagine that the focus is always on them and that there is nothing else going on in anyone’s life,” he admitted. He would often run out at lunch time for client meetings, and for the last two years said he worked consistently until midnight, even on weekends, to get all of his work done. “I think the office job is the necessary evil. The other jobs on the side are the creative outlet,” he said.

Many moonlighters admitted that the schedule is enough to put them over the edge. “Trying to hide the fact that I have three other projects going on the side, as well as a 60-hour work week with my firm, is crazy-making,” said a young associate who works for a large firm in Santa Monica. “Carrying around extra clothes and putting my make-up on in the car has become routine.” 

Firms, meanwhile, take very different approaches to moonlighters. Some encourage it as a useful tool for younger architects, while others often see it as tantamount to cheating.

Steve Kanner of Kanner Architects, based in Santa Monica, has been in the business for 27 years, and admits to moonlighting’s prevalence. He uses it as an incentive. “I get at least a few calls a month for work that isn’t right for this firm and I’m happy to pass it along to our newer architects,” he said. He did admit that he is careful in terms of liability, and always writes a letter divorcing Kanner Architects from responsibility. “I think to limit architects and put them in a box is counterintuitive. Allowing architects to work on other projects if they have time creates more passion for the work, and ultimately a happier employee.” He was quick to add that he has never felt taken advantage of in the process of giving an employee additional work.

When Ball and Nogues are in a position to hire employees for large projects and installations, Ball openly admits that he prefers to hire moonlighters.

“I guess I’m the guy that the large, more corporate firms hate,” he said. “But since we can’t offer full-time work, we like to hire people that are working in other places who can bring cutting-edge skills to the table,” he said. “If I were working in a large firm drafting toilets all day long, I think I’d really like to work for me,” he added. 

But for many new architects working in larger firms, the no-moonlighting policies that most employee handbooks clearly point out are enough of a deterrent to stay away from taking on other work at night or on weekends. And in many firms, there is simply a strong internal voice in the workplace that clearly does not support the idea. A senior associate at a large firm based in Los Angeles who preferred to remain anonymous because “this can be a touchy subject” said:

“Our firm does not encourage moonlighting for all the obvious reasons; it distracts from the work in our very busy office. We do, however, encourage staff to mentor younger architects and architecture students through teaching, jury participation, review of students’ work, etc. Teaching is the exception, as we feel it helps individuals to grow, and adds to the growth of our office as a whole.”

It was the pursuit of an academic career that kept Jennifer Siegal, the founder of Office for Mobile Design (OMD), from moonlighting. “I always had excellent employers and I never felt comfortable taking on other work outside the firm,” she said. “Any extra time I had was spent teaching or publishing.” She was quick to point out that if architects sign on with a firm that has a no-moonlighting clause or stipulation, it’s important to stick to it. “This is a business where it’s important to have a level of trust with an employee. If that trust is broken, there’s really no going back.”



hilal tower jeddah
Hraztan Zeitlian, director of design at Leo A Daly, is against moonlighting but understands the need, and so developed a creative think tank called Struere where he could develop creative ideas, including competition entries for the Hilal tower in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia (above) and the Czech National Library in Prague (top).COURTESY STRUERE

 
Hraztan S. Zeitlian, AIA, director of design at Leo A Daly, understands the impulse to moonlight, but is against it. In his opinion, once you are working for a firm and take on other jobs for profit, you have crossed a line. Prior to joining Leo A Daly, he started a “think tank” for his more creative, not-for-profit architectural pursuits, called Struere (www.struere.com) where he spent outside time developing incredibly experimental schemes. His proposals for a library in Prague and a high rise in Saudi Arabia have won awards from the AIA Los Angeles and the Chicago Athenaeum. 

“I think this is a very non-traditional way to advance architecture,” he said. “Other than academia and a handful of boutique firms, there are very few places to do highly experimental work. We need to encourage experimentation, but find honest ways of doing it,” he added.
 
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Ball-Nogues Studio taps into baseball mythology with custom aluminum enclosure

A custom architectural enclosure composed of 200 CNC-milled custom aluminum extrusions.

Forming a porous perimeter to a new ballpark at Southwest University Park in El Paso (home to the minor league El Paso Chihuahuas), Ball-Nogues Studio's “Not Whole Fence” project taps into a tradition of monumentally over-scaled public art with an attention to craft and detailing. Capping off the Populous-designed ballpark, the fence installation turns the corner along a busy pedestrian intersection. The public art commission involved design, engineering, and installation in a rapid timeframe – the architects were given less than a year from conceptualization through fabrication. Benjamin Ball, principal in charge at Ball-Nogues Studio, said there was a desire to address the history of the game with the installation. “There’s a mythical history to baseball about kids using knotholes in the fence to sneak views into the game if they didn’t have tickets.” The fence adopts a large scale wood grain patterning, scaling up the dimensions of a picket to form one massive bending surface. Strategically placed “knotholes” in the surface composition allow pedestrians an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the action on the field. “The structural quality of the fence creates a sense of mystery. By allowing mostly partial views of the action inside the ballpark, it calls for the imagination to conjure up the rest of the picture, creating a sense of fantasy and infinite possibilities.”
  • Facade Manufacturer Sapa Extrusions; Neal Feay Co (Specialty Fabrication); Ball-Nogues Studio (Fabrication Supervisor)
  • Architects Ball-Nogues Studio
  • Facade Installer Industrial Stainless International; Ball-Nogues Studio (Installation Supervisor)
  • Facade Consultants Buro Happold Los Angeles (Engineering Consultant)
  • Location El Paso, TX
  • Date of Completion 2014
  • System CNC-milled custom aluminum extrusions
  • Products n/a
While the design concept evokes a literal image of a wood plank, the detailing of the facade components produce a sophisticated, robust assembly. The architects designed the fence as a system of extrusions serving as both the skin and the structure. Working with Sapa Extrusions, the team designed and produced a custom dye for production of a unique aluminum extrusion for the project, ultimately yielding around 200 repeatable components that bolt together on site. Ball said a lot of design and engineering that went into the individual extrusion. The team designed in fins on the front side, with larger struts on the back side, producing enough structural rigidity to withstand a subtractive CNC milling process. A wood grain patterning is registered in the surface by milling out selective areas of the panels. When viewed frontally, glimpses of the ballpark can be seen, however when viewed obliquely, large struts block openings while providing surface area to reflect a soft glow of daylight. Ball notes interesting similarities to the tectonic assembly of some segments of the US/Mexico border fence, only a quarter mile from the site. "You can't blow anything up to a colossal scale without thinking about Claus Oldenberg," said Ball regarding the literal reading of a picket fence in their fence facade. "We've never used that as a strategy before in our work. This still has to function as a fence, and we still value things like detailing, tectonics, connections. In contrast to Oldenberg's work, we occupy an "unusual gray zone" between architecture and public art.” Ball says his studio is ultimately is interested in craft of building regardless of typology. “We're looking for the right challenges, and the right people to work with. Are they willing to take chances? Do they believe in our process? That could apply to buildings or public art.” CORRECTION: Neal Feay Company was originally omitted from our list of Project Credits. The studio played a significant role in the machining process, providing specialty fabrication and consultation for the “Not Whole Fence” project.