CityCenter: Vegas 4.0 

How Frank Gehry, Nancy Rubins, Cesar Pelli, Maya Lin and others are reinventing California’s favorIte playground

Wednesday, Dec 2 2009

Click here for Hugh Hart’s “Las Vegas Grows Up: Architecture Review.”

Deep inside MGM Mirage’s new CityCenter in Las Vegas is a gargantuan tree composed of dozens of colorful canoes hanging in surreal, precarious fashion over a road. You may think, from that description, that there is nothing remarkable about a piece of work so seemingly ridiculous in a city of seeming ridiculousness, where scale models of the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower stand sentry a block apart on the Las Vegas Strip and near a pyramid-shaped building that is named for an Egyptian city that doesn’t have pyramids.

Except that this canoe statue is billed as something of an anti-Vegas construct, not a spectacular stunt. The sculpture is destined to be the most famous, best-seen work of one of this era’s most celebrated and unusual contemporary sculptors, Topanga Canyon–based Nancy Rubins.

click to flip through (6) LEILA NAVIDI - The Las Vegas skyline now includes MGM Mirage’s collection of gleaming towers known as CityCenter.
  • Leila Navidi
  • The Las Vegas skyline now includes MGM Mirage’s collection of gleaming towers known as CityCenter.

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In a destination proudly and famously built on over-the-top artifice and imitation, that sculpture is real, as is artist Maya Lin’s representation of the Colorado River, hanging inside CityCenter’s splendorous 61-story glass hotel designed by Cesar Pelli.

They are all part of an enormous project that represents a new reality for the world’s best-known — and currently most financially distressed — resort street. Las Vegas is being reinvented, again, not just more lavishly and expensively but with a distinctly new, and untested, point of view.

This new iteration is a master-planned concept for 67 acres upon which a stunning series of buildings will open this month. The aim is nothing less than manufacturing urban density from scratch, complete with buildings designed by top international architects, and public art from the likes of Rubins, Lin, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella and Jenny Holzer.

“This is building Rockefeller Center on the Las Vegas Strip,” says Hunter Hillegas, a Santa Barbara–based writer who blogs and podcasts about Vegas design and business at RateVegas.com.

This new cityscape includes a sharp-angled 47-story Mandarin Oriental hotel-condo tower; Vdara, a curvaceous 57-story hotel-condo; and two tilted yellow-checked 37-story twin condo towers called Veer. The structures are arrayed around a gleaming 4,000-room Aria Resort & Casino and a 500,000-square-foot shopping district designed by Daniel Libeskind. (Another tower, the Harmon, an oval hotel and condo building, was supposed to open this month as well but, because of construction defects, it has been redesigned, shorn of 21 stories, its completion delayed by at least a year.)

In all, the project takes up 18 million square feet of indoor space, and includes 2,400 private units, a proposition never attempted on any scale on Las Vegas Boulevard.

“The whole point of CityCenter when I first came up with it was not to build a resort,” says Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Mirage, owners of Bellagio, Mirage and eight other Strip casinos. “I firmly believe this is different. It’s not a resort in the middle of a parking lot. It’s not an isolated building. It’s an environment, a neighborhood, and that’s intriguing to people.”

That, anyway, is the pitch, the fingers-crossed hope of a once economically impervious city trying desperately to regain its swagger as it tops the nation in foreclosure and unemployment rates.

When announced in the fall of 2005, CityCenter drew a certain level of mockery for its stated ambition and eyepopping budget — $5 billion, but which would end up ballooning to $8.5 billion thanks to materials shortages, oil-price spikes and recession-based complications with the original financing package.

Humorist Brian Unger’s emblematic NPR commentary took note of the coincidence that plans for this, the most expensive privately funded construction project in U.S. history, were being unfurled the same week President Bush announced the most expensive publicly funded construction project in U.S. history, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

“Call it ‘No hooker left behind,’ ” Unger intoned of CityCenter, predicting, “Inside, tourists can observe the gambler in captivity, where he eats from a buffet, loses his kids’ college-tuition money and is served divorce papers all in his bedroom slippers.” He referred to the prediction that in building CityCenter in the most arid desert on Earth, MGM Mirage could pave the way for sustainable development everywhere, the stuff of “the most ironic press release ever.”

Unger’s punch lines were clever, but they also summarized in damning prose the assignment facing MGM Mirage executives. They were somehow to scrub Vegas of its tawdry, hedonistic, exploitative, environmentally absurd image and deliver a game-changer: The Las Vegas Strip would become a classy place to visit and a livable, nay, desirable address.

Toward that end, they recruited top international architects and artists. Combined with attaining LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for every structure in the complex, MGM Mirage believes it has achieved something dramatic and new.

Now comes the reality check.

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