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Las Vegas, USA – MGM's $8.5 billion development, CityCentre

The most expensive development in US history tries to redefine junkspace urbanism on the strip

Las Vegas is universally dismissed as non-architectural or anti-urban. At night, neon signs and electronic billboards orientate the car driver and conveniently overshadow the city’s junkspace context of car parks. They signal Vegas’ immersive gambling enclave hugging the four-mile Strip yet, while old signs are regularly taken to the neon graveyard in the Nevada desert, little contemporary architecture has replaced them. The Strip’s relative resurgence at the hands of entrepreneur Steve Wynn reached its height with the 1998 Bellagio hotel and casino, now owned by gambling giant MGM Mirage. With its eight-acre lake and artsy dancing fountains, it was merely another thematic step from Vegas’ mid-century modernism of the Rat Pack era.

Now off the Strip, and attached to Bellagio by a three-stop tramline, is CityCenter, where starchitecture is a key part of the development gamble. It took MGM Mirage five years to build and cost a cool $8.5 billion. Replacing the immaterial graphic skyline with a veritable architectural zoo, this compact ‘city within a city’ transforms 27 hectares etched out of land adjoining the Strip on which a third-rate hotel and multi-storey car park once stood.

When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, examining the cultural context of the city as a generator of form, they critiqued mindless Strip development and reinvented the casino as a quasi-public space that spills out and engages the street in an update of the Roman piazza.

In a city where context and use has been so out of tune with reality, and what seems to be reality is not, MGM Mirage now claims to have shifted the Vegas paradigm.

The ramped entry street indeed leads you to a piazza in front of Pelli Clarke Pelli’s hefty crystalline Aria Resort. At the hub of one of three blocks on the Gensler-designed masterplan, building and piazza are bonded by a huge curving waterwall. Everything radiates from here and, instead of a spilled-out casino, there is the first of many art installations on the site. The overhead monorail shuttles visitors between ‘historic’ Vegas (neighbours Monte Carlo and Bellagio) and new Vegas (Studio Daniel Libeskind’s shopping centre, Crystals). Negotiating Aria’s labyrinth of foyer casino to find the elevators to the rooms is a bore. Up front, the building lamely accommodates the fleecing space that pays its way, and Aria suffers as a result.

The pharaonic undertaking of CityCenter engaged seven architects, 60 interior designers and over 250 design consultants in total, in a project which took only five years to build from inception in 2005, picking up a LEED Gold certification for sustainability. It is too soon to know whether CityCenter is economically sustainable, but its tactics are a unity of art and architecture, mixed programme (70 per cent non-gaming allocation, for dining, hotels, spas and so on) and the semblance of civic identity across the pedestrian-friendly district.

There may be high-end hotels - two with retail apartments - but no housing for the workers of this place of pleasure, or food shops, as occupants either eat out or order in.

At CityCenter’s gateway is KPF’s Mandarin Oriental, an elegantly simple and tactile building with a facade of interlocking motifs of vertical stainless steel panels and fritted glass. It bears a standard tall atrium, but the upper-floor podium, complete with ballroom and huge window overlooking the Strip, feels genuinely fresh - for Vegas.

With a pocket park lying between Aria and Crystals, punctuated by a Henry Moore sculpture, a snatch of the European post-war city and way-finding signage on the pedestrian space, the idea was that visitors could navigate buildings outdoors. Yet the quality of the seamlessless falls into being rather airport-like at Aria’s rear conference centre, and you half expect to find an outdoor smoking room there.

Crystals, with its multi-faceted glass canopy that feels like a reworked New York Guggenheim, is punctuated by David Rockwell’s three-storey tree house nudging the oculusin the roof. It forms a fraternal union on the street with Murphy/Jahn’s Veer Towers, a pair of 37-storey residential blocks leaning 5° from centre and sporting yellow fritting and sun-shading fins.

Tucked away on the north-west corner, Rafael Viñoly’s Vdara hotel and spa plays a symbolic card, a low-key crescent form of patterned glass amply kitted out with art (a Frank Stella painting in reception lends gravitas) and the Silk Road restaurant (a smouldering gold bazaar). Less evident at this point is Foster + Partners’ Harmon boutique hotel. Opening in November, this smart blue beacon will be only half the original intended height, due to a construction error that curtailed its ambition.

Learning from Las Vegas relied too much on formal analysis. Looking at CityCenter, it would appear Vegas has had a pro-architecture shot in the arm in the form of a grown-up urban enclave replete with formal sophistication, especially of the crystalline variety. Moreover, for a growing city, the largest private development in US history has raised desires for more contestation of endless sprawl and standardised suburbia. It may be for real, but is it enough?

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