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Photo © George Apostolidis/Courtesy Mandarin Oriental

CityCenter

Gensler (executive architect)

Las Vegas, Nevada

A mega-development wagers that urbanism and architecture can trump flamboyance and kitsch.

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

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Even before the economy tanked, few would have called the scope of CityCenter anything less than incredibly ambitious. The 18-million-square-foot development, which officially opened on the Las Vegas Strip in December, includes almost 6,000 hotel rooms, 2,400 condominiums, 38 restaurants and bars, a convention center, a shopping mall, a Cirque du Soleil theater, and a 150,000-square-foot casino. All of this was designed and built in just over five years for $8.5 billion, making CityCenter reportedly the largest and most expensive commercial project in U.S. history.

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  • Owner: MGM Mirage
  • Architect: Gensler
  • Architect of record: HKS Architects, Inc.; AAI Architects, Inc.; Leo A. Daly
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CityCenter was conceived to be more than just big. MGM Resorts International (until recently MGM Mirage), which owns the complex with Dubai-based Infinity World, had a set of lofty goals that included LEED certification and the creation of an urban core for the notoriously sprawling city. Instead of the pattern of isolated buildings spread out on big, open lots found elsewhere on the Strip, CityCenter needed to be “vertical, dense, and sustainable,” says J.F. Finn, AIA, project executive for Gensler. The firm acted as an extension of MGM’s design department, overseeing approximately 250 consultants and a cast of marquee architects that included Daniel Libeskind, Helmut Jahn, and Norman Foster, as well firms such as Tihany Design and the Rockwell Group for the interiors.

The project’s ultimate objective was, as one would expect, to generate revenue. (For a report on its financial performance so far, see page 76.) The high-rolling architects were part of MGM’s business strategy, intended to differentiate the complex from the kitsch and flamboyance that have been associated with the Strip at least since Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour published Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. (For Scott Brown’s assessment of CityCenter, see page 74.)

The concentration of buildings on the site was as much a result of the realities of the now-defunct real estate boom as it was the outcome of a new Las Vegas development paradigm. “Property values on the Strip had skyrocketed,” says Sven van Assche, vice president of MGM’s design group. “We had to consider the return on investment for the amount of land,” he explains, referring to the 67 acres formerly occupied by the Boardwalk Hotel and Casino.

For site master planners Ehrenkrantz Ekstut & Kuhn, the challenge was to develop a scheme in which “the buildings would create space, not just be attractive objects,” explains firm principal Peter Cavaluzzi, FAIA. His goal was to create a plan characterized by a mix of uses, pedestrian-oriented spaces, and buildings brought right up to the property line to form a street wall directly on the Strip.

As realized, the Strip wall is anchored at its southern end by Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 47-story Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The glass-and-anodized-aluminum-clad tower has a boomerang-shaped plan and knifelike corners. At the northern end is a somewhat less effective marker — Foster’s literally stunted Harmon Hotel. MGM decided to cap the rounded building, clad in several hues of blue reflective glass, at 28 stories, instead of the originally planned 49, after inspectors discovered a construction defect.

In between the Mandarin and the truncated Harmon is the complex’s only building that can be readily associated with its designer: Libeskind’s Crystals retail complex, with his signature shards dominating CityCenter’s Strip edge. But even if Libeskind’s hand is the most legible, Murphy/Jahn’s Veer condominiums, made up of two 500-foot-tall towers leaning at opposing angles, provide the more memorable forms. The tilt results not from mere architectural caprice, insists Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, a Murphy/Jahn partner, but instead is intended to assure unobstructed views from more apartments.

Two buildings — Pelli Clarke Pelli’s 4,004-room Aria Resort & Casino and the 1,500-room Vdara Hotel, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects — take their formal cues from the site’s two traffic circles. Designers of the larger hotel have disguised its true size by creating several volumes organized in plan as a pair of intersecting arcs. Jogs in the glazed facade that give each guest a “corner” room, along with projecting light shelves, add texture and scale. The smaller Vdara is sleekly articulated as a series of layered and curved vertical glass slabs.

CityCenter’s buildings have earned a total of six LEED Gold certifications. The collection of plaques notwithstanding, it seems a bit of a stretch to call so much air-conditioned space enclosed largely by glass (even high-performing glass) in the middle of the desert “sustainable.” However, the complex does deploy some notable resource-conserving strategies, including an 8.5-megawatt natural-gas-fired cogeneration plant. It generates enough power to satisfy about 13 percent of CityCenter’s electricity demand. But the real benefit comes from capturing the thermal energy produced as part of the generation process and using it to heat the buildings’ domestic water supply and provide space heating in the winter, says Mark Powasnik, senior vice president at WSP Flack + Kurtz, designer of the plant. According to Powasnik, it is the first cogeneration system of its type in Clark County, Nevada.

Unfortunately, CityCenter’s parts don’t quite gel into a cohesive ensemble. The buildings come across as a collection of individual expressions jammed together on a tightly packed site. The structures do define a few spatially interesting outdoor rooms, including a small park sandwiched between Crystals and the Aria. But most of the other outdoor spaces aren’t particularly pedestrian friendly. One example is the long boulevard that leads from the Strip to the Aria’s main entry. The roadway, framed by the Mandarin, Veer, and Crystals, is impressive, especially when viewed from the passenger seat of a limo. But on foot it is a different experience, encumbered by level changes and footbridges.

Though imperfect, CityCenter, with its density and urbanist aspirations, could well represent the next wave of Vegas development. But those who love the Strip’s flashy neon, outsize stucco temples, and theme-parklike atmosphere need not worry that this landscape will disappear anytime soon — at least not until the economy recovers.

August 2010
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