Click here for “CityCenter: Vegas 4.0,” by Steve Friess.

What the hell is happening to Las Vegas architecture?

There’s not a stitch of kitsch to be found in the resort town’s latest iteration of destination buildings. Ignoring Disney-fied theme concepts, the new structures include a shard-shaped shopping mall by World Tower master planner Daniel Libeskind, a pair of pumpkin-toned condos skewed at a five-degree angle and crisscrossed with gleaming blue monorail trams that summon Blade Runner vistas by way of The Jetsons, and a grid-melting exercise in fractal geometry from Frank Gehry, who makes his first Las Vegas appearance with a complex devoted to Alzheimer’s patients.

First at bat is MGM Mirage’s $8.5 billion CityCenter. Opening in phases through December, the 67-acre complex ropes together four sleek glass and steel–skinned hotels, one condominium development, and a retail emporium collectively designed by a team of international architects. Hewing to sustainable practices and materials, this futuristic urban canyon seems to have crash-landed on the Strip, making Las Vegas Boulevard’s retro-themed structures look positively quaint by comparison.

CityCenter’s dominant skyline presence belongs to the 61-story Aria Resort & Casino (opening on December 16) by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. Italian-born minimalist/maximalist Cesar Pelli, who crafted 2004’s elegantly spindly Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, slices the 4,000-room resort into gently curving crescent-shaped modules staggered at varying heights. Unlike the monolithic Wynn Las Vegas a few blocks north, Aria seeks not to overwhelm but to present a high roller’s version of sun-dappled cliff dwellings.

Joined by a circular driveway and pedestrian bridge is the more modestly scaled 1,495-room Vdara Hotel & Spa from RV Architecture, LLC. Like Aria, the 57-story Vdara offers echoes the curvilinear embrace prefigured in 1966 by L.A.’s Century Plaza Hotel, but Uruguay-born American architect Rafael Vinoly adds dimension by breaking the structure into three staggered strips of lodging.

Vinoly, whose credits lean toward arts-friendly commissions including additions for New York’s Lincoln Center, keeps the razzle-dazzle to a minimum. Designated as a nonsmoking, non-gaming hotel, the Vdara deploys subdued earth-toned woods and clean hits of contemporary art in its interior lobby, restaurant and room spaces to stage a potentially radical tourism strategy: Who goes to Las Vegas for peace and quiet?

Where Aria and Vdara soften their international style edges with gentle arcs, Chicago architect Helmut Jahn skews the Modernist template with some startling stunt architecture bound to jolt even the most jaded Vegas voyeur. His aptly named Veer Towers take shape as 3-D parallelograms literally leaning toward each other at five-degree angles.

The 37-story condo structures position each identically sized floor plan slightly further to one side of the central load-bearing elevator core. The tilt serves a marginal function by giving some residents improved peek-around views, but Veer Towers’ off-kilter verticality serves a less tangible purpose as well — as a landmark pointing not toward a nostalgic past but toward an anything-goes future.

Squatting like a jittery toad amid the high-rise shoots of glass and gridded steel, Studio Daniel Libeskind’s bilevel Crystals retail complex claims the low ground as CityCenter’s odd man out. Resembling the prow of a Battlestar Galactica spacecraft unexpectedly dispatched to Planet Vegas, Crystals presents the Strip with a set of triangulated steel shards that practically dare pedestrians to enter the emporiums contained within. As with his jagged Denver Art Museum addition, the Berlin-born theoretician-turned-builder breaks the Crystals space into sharply angled enclosures evocative of organic crystal growth.

Six miles north of CityCenter’s exercise in High Desert Modernism, the Gehry-designed Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health heads for an April 2010 completion date. For years Gehry resisted overtures from Las Vegas hoteliers to create a signature casino. He succumbed to millionaire liquor wholesaler Lou Ruvo’s plea to design a $74 million facility devoted to research, care-giving and fund-raising on behalf of Alzheimer’s patients. Situated amid a stretch of generic office buildings, the complex presents a right-brain/left-brain contrast in contours. The straight-edged administrative and patient-care facility stands square and orderly.

It adjoins what might be seen as the center’s dream-state component, which flows out of the ground like a molten expression of intuition incarnate.

Wrapping a 9,787-square-foot dome in trellis-like straps of structural steel, the single-roomed edifice, which will host weddings, parties and community events, stands free of load-bearing pillars. Instead, the structure is supported by curved beams that branch up the walls and across the 75-foot-tall roof.

Gehry routinely finds fresh ways to integrate natural light into his buildings’ material presence. He used brushed stainless steel to illuminate Disney Hall after famously burnishing the Bilbao Museum in brilliant titanium.

In Las Vegas, Gehry exploits the desert sun by clipping a crazy-quilt array of trapezoid-shaped window encasements into the steel-gray framework. To piece together this polymorphous meeting place, each of the custom-cut building units were embedded with GPS chips that allowed engineers in Germany to control their precise placement into a single, undulating, puzzle-perfect whole.

Taken together, CityCenter and Gehry’s Alzheimer’s project suggest a fresh direction for Las Vegas, one that has nothing to do with the 20th-century iconography imported from other cultures and which has largely defined Strip tourist aesthetics over the past 15 years.

Make no mistake: These buildings are very much about marketing. But instead of hawking fake identities borrowed from New York, Paris or Venice, this new generation of glass-encased buildings parlays Nevada’s most obvious natural resource, the unblinking sun, into nature-based spectacle.

Setting aside the question of whether Las Vegas actually needsan additional 6,300 rooms, Gehry and CityCenter are gambling that fine art, brilliant light and lofty purpose might contribute to the city’s lifeblood every bit as much as blackjack, Blue Man Group and really awesome sushi.

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