clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Starchitects in Sin City

Can high-profile architecture survive in Las Vegas?

Chris Mueller

Las Vegas is where architecture goes to die. YouTube is full of demolition videos of casino hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard: the evening news cameraman calmly capturing the 3-2-1 countdown, the thundering boom as the dynamite ignites, the almost slow-motion pancaking of one slab on top of another, and then the relief of the final dust cloud. One such video boasts “Top 10 Las Vegas Casino Implosions.” True to the title, the Aladdin, Castaways, New Frontier, Landmark, Sands, Bourbon Street, Stardust, Boardwalk, Dunes, and Hacienda hypnotically fall in succession.

None of the hotels are particularly notable as designs. Almost all of them meet the criteria of the “decorated shed,” the term used by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown in Learning From Las Vegas to describe the blocky modern towers that announce their presence with elaborate signage along the Strip. Yet their destruction offers the opportunity for pageantry and fireworks. The Dunes’s demise in 1993 was particularly dramatic—its 180-foot-tall, minaret-shaped, glowing red neon sign, designed by Lee Klay for Federal Sign and Signal Company, was lit for the occasion. As the building came down, the sign continued to erupt electric lava as the whole assembly exploded and collapsed. Today, Steve Wynn’s once-luxurious Bellagio stands on the site. Its dancing fountain show is starting to look a bit dated. In time, the whole spectacle will go the same way as the Dunes.

There’s little nostalgia for these structures. They are dismissed as part of the city’s history, as personal memory, and even as architecture. In June 2016, the Las Vegas Review-Journal interviewed former Nevada Governor Bob Miller for a story on the demolition of the Riviera hotel, where he was once a lifeguard at the casino pool. The paper reported: “‘It’s a bittersweet moment for me to watch my past being blown up,’ Miller said before proclaiming, in line with Las Vegas tradition, ‘In with the new.’”

One would think that high-minded architecture would satisfy that need for novelty or that better design would stem rapid obsolescing, but signature architecture fares little better in this town. M.K. Doumani, a commercial developer whose son would go on to partner with Wynn, commissioned renowned architect Paul R. Williams to design the La Concha Motel in 1961, the same year that Williams’s collaboration on the LAX Theme Building opened to the public. In the shadow of the flashy Dunes and Stardust casinos, Doumani wanted Williams’s signature as an architectural attraction. Williams delivered with a 1,100-square-foot, Jet-Age lobby made up of four concrete hyperbolic parabolas, a streamlined gesture that could be the love child of a conch shell and a Ford Edsel. (The authors of Learning From Las Vegas might suggest that this is a “duck,” the opposite of the decorated shed. “The duck is the special building that is symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols,” they wrote.)

La Concha had a solid 40-year run, but its placid midcentury charm couldn’t keep up with a radically changing strip. The motel was unceremoniously demolished in 2003, but the lobby was preserved and moved to the Neon Museum further down Las Vegas Boulevard. Now the museum’s visitor center, the decontextualized pavilion sits amid a collection of vintage signage—the Silver Slipper, the Golden Nugget—and other artifacts spared from years of wrecking balls.

Works by globally renowned architects—you know, starchitects—have been closed, dismantled, or just generally dwarfed by the endless amount of construction that goes on in Vegas. The celebrity factor of Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas can’t outpace a reunion tour by the Backstreet Boys at Planet Hollywood. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The most important piece of architecture to come out of Las Vegas was not a building at all, but a research-heavy book that taught architects to find meaning in the decorative and ordinary. Learning From Las Vegas celebrated architecture’s ability to communicate through symbolic form, but the authors also chided big-egoed architects for their self-satisfied monumentality, writing:

When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. In promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck; minimegastructures are mostly ducks.

Architectural hubris doesn’t end well in Sin City. The first big blow to what we define as starchitecture—projects where the fame of the designer is as important as the design itself—was a hard, quick jab. Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s Guggenheim Hermitage Museum opened in 2000 within The Venetian casino. A monolithic Cor-ten steel wall (in which the museum’s name was indelibly etched) announced its two galleries. The largest component, a 64,000-square-foot temporary exhibition space, closed in 2001, not even lasting a year. The smaller, 8,000-square-foot masterpiece gallery that featured Impressionist art closed quietly in 2008. Conceived as a partnership between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Venetian, the more than $30 million dollar museum marked the westernmost point of then-Guggenheim director Thomas Krens’s expansion of the Guggenheim enterprise.

Guggenheim Hermitage, Las Vegas, Architect Rem Koolhaas.
View Pictures/Getty Images

The 1997 success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Frank Gehry’s shiny, swoopy design ushered in an era of museum-building as a tool for placemaking—the so-called Bilbao Effect. It is also our benchmark for starchitecture and its aftereffects. OMA published a book reflecting on the firm’s work in 2004, just after the closing of Guggenheim Hermitage. Their Vegas project is given just two pages in a volume of more than 500, a double-page spread of opening party snapshots. Also included is a conversation between Koolhaas, celebrity curator Han Ulrich Obrist, Venturi, and Scott Brown. Gehry’s project is the elephant in the room, the unspoken duck among decorated shed-lovers: “How do you account for the enormous popular appeal of form-making, of architects who are putting entire cities on the map by doing sculpture?” asked Obrist. Venturi replied, “We are not proclaiming the death of architecture but its rebirth: we’re proclaiming the death of sculpture as architecture.”

The goal of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum design was to use architecture to bring art to the masses—Vegas was then the second-most visited place in the U.S. (it has since dropped to fourth)—a philanthropic mission that never quite paid off. The design was geared to draw in visitors (with a garage-type door and gift shop in the hotel lobby) and to expedite display. A system of magnets was used to quickly hang artwork on the massive Cor-ten steel plates that clad the masterpiece gallery. The Hermitage also included three movable, monolithic walls that could rotate to easily reconfigure the gallery. With a nearly 70-foot-high ceiling, the Kunsthalle-like Guggenheim space was designed in anticipation of large, blockbuster shows—like the Richard Serra sculpture installed in Bilbao—and a functional industrial crane to help install them. Sadly, that gallery was home to only one short-lived exhibition, a motorcycle show designed by Gehry.

In 2008, reflecting on the last gasp of the Hermitage “Jewel Box,” Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne suggested a couple of reasons for the failure of the museum. One, money: A drop in tourism after 9/11 made the economic excesses of art and architecture seem particularly indulgent, even in a city known for excess. Two, fame: Koolhaas just wasn’t famous enough to make a splash. “The fate of the Guggenheim Hermitage suggests how tough it is to maintain even a faint blip on the celebrity radar in this city,” wrote Hawthorne. “As Elizabeth Herridge, the director of the Guggenheim Hermitage, told me last week, Frank Gehry is famous here—but only because of his recent work designing jewelry for Tiffany. The Koolhaas name, on the other hand, never meant much; on the Strip, Rem's Q rating couldn't even match Rita Rudner’s.”

While the name of the world’s most famous architect may sell rings, is his architecture particularly valued? Hard to say. Gehry Partners’ Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is a 60,000-square-foot medical clinic near downtown Las Vegas for the treatment of cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. And, because this is Vegas, an event center rentable for weddings and fundraising galas (event fees help offset clinic expenses). The project was conceived by Larry Ruvo, a Vegas insider who is vice president of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada, in honor of his father, Lou, who died of Alzheimer’s.

The building, which opened in 2010, makes all the classic Gehry design gestures: There’s an undulating metal shingle roof over the event space; an equally dynamic shade canopy that protects the courtyard from the desert sun; and a four-story, Jenga-like stack of boxes (Gehry does stacks of boxes so well) that houses the clinic, research center, and the Keep Memory Alive nonprofit offices.

Located off the Strip, closer to downtown Las Vegas, the center is considered part of Symphony Park, a 61-acre redeveloped train yard. A booster’s take on the neighborhood would link Gehry’s building to the LEED-certified park, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, and the Discovery Children’s Museum (just a couple parking lots away) to create a narrative of cultural arts development. But in truth, the building stands on an asphalt island bounded by busy West Bonneville Avenue, which leads to the 175-store Las Vegas North Premium Outlets and Clark County Government Center.

The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in North Las Vegas was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

From the street, the signature architecture by a signature architect is all but eclipsed by the 5.1 million square feet of postmodern pastiche. The 10-story World Market Center Las Vegas—supposedly the world’s largest furnishings showroom—looms over the Gehry structure. Opened in 2005, years before Gehry even visited the site, the mega-scaled edifice by the Jerde Partnership seems cribbed and cobbled together from better-known architects like César Pelli and Michael Graves. One design motif, a multi-story gray semicircle, looks like a yawning mouth ready to gulp down the precious starchitecture.

In a 2011 article, writer Joseph Giovannini captured what was architecturally at stake for the Cleveland Clinic: the need for an instantly recognizable brand that would draw attention (and donors) to the brain health cause. “For me, architecture was a necessary marketing tool,” Ruvo told Giovannini. “We wanted a statement that would show we were serious about curing a disease and would let the doctors know we were not underfunded.” Not to miss an opportunity, Gehry’s celebrity is reinforced inside the center. Printed on the good china used for swank affairs (including the coffee pots): the architect’s first sketch of the building—a bundle of squiggly lines.

And then there’s the ill-fated CityCenter, the 76-acre city-within-a-city mixed-use complex on the Strip. That is if you consider an $8.5 billion collection of buildings designed by a supergroup of architecture’s biggest names to be a “city.” Developed by MGM Resorts International and Dubai World, with a master plan first laid out in 2004 by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn, CityCenter presents starchitecture as a theme in itself. Forget kitschy casinos modeled on the old-fashioned romance of Paris, Venice, or Rome, CityCenter is a vision of luxury urbanism. Or, as the New York Times called it in 2007, “the most expensive privately funded project in American history.”

The lineup of architects for the hotel and condo towers is impressive, a who’s who of high-end corporate style: Helmut Jahn, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Pelli Clarke Pelli, and Rafael Viñoly. Each one delivers steel and glass renditions of nouveau metropolitan style. Jahn’s twin 37-story Veer Towers tilt jaunty, César Pelli’s high-tech Aria Resort & Casino offers two gently curved towers around a 150,000-square-foot casino. Viñoly’s crescent-shaped Vdara Hotel & Spa is so sleek, it nearly slips away from any architectural gesture at all. And in 2010, MSNBC reported that guests at the hotel complained that reflections off the facade were burning hair and melting plastic on the pool deck. Viñoly’s office is no stranger to scorching “death rays”—the “Walkie Talkie” skyscraper in London’s financial district also had issues with the curving facade creating a solar convergence.

Missing from the skyline is The Harmon by Pritzker Prize-winning British architect Norman Foster. Foster + Partners’ 2006 vision called for a 47-story, blue-glass oval tower. By 2008, structural problems halted construction. Concrete seemed to be missing rebar, compromising the structural integrity of the half-built building. Contractors blamed subcontractors, lawyers were brought in, and by 2014 it was demolished—not via spectacular, Vegas-worthy implosion, but a careful, floor-by-floor deconstruction that came with an $11.5 million price tag. In place of The Harmon is an empty lot, wrapped in an advertising fence.

Because no city is complete without a subway, an elevated monorail (the Bellagio - CityCenter - Monte Carlo tram) connects a few venues. Yet CityCenter is no more urban than the replicas of world cities along the Strip. A three-stop ride on the tram lacks the expediency or convenience of public transportation. Guests and tourists must navigate a baroque maze of corridors and escalators to reach each tram station. Furthermore, the logistics of taxis, parking, guest registration, and shuttling tourists from place to place means that the ground plane is abandoned—pedestrian walkways and plazas wend through the project without offering up a sense of place or even direction.

The focus of the development is a mega piece of brand-name architecture: Daniel Libeskind’s shopping mall, Crystals. Like Gehry, the New York City-based architect has a signature style. Where Gehry swoops, Libeskind spikes. His 500,000-square-foot retail space juts and jags along Las Vegas Boulevard, a clear illustration of Venturi’s observation that today’s sculptural architecture is a duck, a symbol of something else. Here, that something is clearly aspirational: Signature architecture signifies luxury.

Libeskind’s designs are recognizable to those familiar with his global array of museums (Holocaust and other) and may be symbolic of high-end artiness to less architecturally adroit tourists. But the form is also decorated in a second set of signs: Each stainless steel-clad shard is dedicated to a different luxury brand: Prada, Gucci, Fendi. At night, the retail signs glow bright and the contemporary architecture fades into the background. The duck becomes decorated shed.

Crystals shopping mall, designed by Daniel Libeskind.
Chris Mueller

Inside the mall, Libeskind’s crystalline theme continues, trying desperately to liven up the place. The roof fragments into skylights, the floor yawns open to accommodate a grand stair and tree house-like sculpture designed by entertainment wizard and architect David Rockwell. As an architect and designer, Rockwell is a well-coiffed star, but not a starchitect. The Rockwell Group is also responsible for the theatrical interiors of the Cosmopolitan across the street. That cheeky 2011 hotel seems to take urbane sexiness as its theme. The hotel’s interior reflects a desire to create an immersive experience—there are 384 digital displays in the west lobby alone—rather than produce a single branded effect.

Critic Paul Goldberger was kind to Libeskind when in 2010 he wrote in The New Yorker, “Jagged, crystalline shapes are characteristic of Libeskind, and while they have proved problematic in some of the museums he has designed, here they inject the normally dreary precinct of a shopping mall with a shot of adrenaline.”

Seven years later, on a blustery afternoon, the rush was gone. With few people patronizing the high-end retailers, the design felt like a hollow attempt at showmanship. A cold wind blew under the doors on either end of the complex, creating an eerie sound that haunted the empty shops. Even the Starbucks was mostly vacant. Crystals at CityCenter bet on architectural virtuosity to bring in the crowds, but the place was dead. Compared to the stream of people walking up and down the Strip, heading to the casinos, to Planet Hollywood, to the CVS drugstore, the fancy mall was irrelevant. Its star-studded architecture even more so.


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform