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 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.
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.