I can tell you right away, WordPerfect doesn’t like CityCenter, an angry red underline greets every rendition of the word. CityCenter, one word, is comprised of roughly 18 million square feet of floor space shared among six buildings and was built at a cost of 8+ Billion dollars. As might be expected for such a large project, the Public Relations hype-machine is running at full bore, but the most interesting aspect of the hype is not so much what is being hyped, as what is being downplayed. You have to look long and hard to find any mention of the casino at Aria, let alone gambling, or gaming as they call it in Vegas.
So, what’s being hyped, well their awfully proud of their LEED Gold certifications, which allows them to proclaim the Greeness of CityCenter. The seven ”World Class” Architectural Firms that were commissioned in the development of CityCenter, evidently MGM-Mirage management hasn’t heard of the adage “Too many Chefs spoil the broth”. Plus there’s the artwork, artwork is pervasive among the vast public spaces. The problem with hype is that it raises expectations and hence can lead to disappointment, and that is how I feel about CityCenter, disappointed. Although, if you ignore the hype and brush aside the tinge of disappointment, there are lots of good things to say about Citycenter.
No Purple Cow or Frank Gehry Wow
For over twenty years the go to Architect for “Wow” has been Frank Gehry. His stunning works include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. These buildings are “Purple Cows” as defined by Seth Godin in his talk at TED. The Vegas Strip demands, and deserves, ‘Architectural Wow’. Even the staid Wynn and Encore towers have a quiet elegance that seems on the verge of popping with constrained energy. The two most interesting buildings in the CityCenter complex are the two appropriately named Veer Towers, designed by Helmut Jahn. The 37 story yellow checkered towers stand askew 5 degrees off of true vertical, in opposition to each other. Helmut Jahn’s work will be familiar to those that have flown United Airlines through O’Hare Airport, as he designed the 1987 updated terminal.
“(the towers) lean toward each other like a pair of drunken tourists careening down a hotel corridor at the end a very long night” Christopher Hawthorne’s in the LA Times
So how does one take-in CityCenter from the Strip? From the strip your eyes are pulled directly to the Veer Towers and then follow the futuristic elevated monorail tracks that appears to exit the side of the towers, and then you see what looks like a large Corporate Business Park. Clearly someone dropped the design-ball somewhere along monorail tracks. The other interesting design aspect of Citycenter is the 500,000 sq ft Crystals shopping mall, exterior designed by Studio Daniel Liebeskind and interior by David Rockwell. The interior looks like a modern art museum, re-deployed in the service of high-end retail shops. Of course, part of the fun in visiting art museums is people watching the artsy and fashionably dressed patrons, not so much at Crystals. The gawkers at Crystals are more likely to be wearing t-shirts emblazoned with sexual double entendre and grasping a plastic souvenir objects filled with over-sweet margarita mix than the people featured in The Sartorialist
While the Art Museum feel permeates much of CityCenter, is interesting, perhaps even exhilarating on the first walk through, it is hard to ignore the coldness that goes along with the design. MGM-Mirage executives have been hard at work removing as much kitch from their casinos as possible, gone is the wonderful Central Park high limit area at New York New York, along with all the trees. As much as many people like knocking the elaborately themed casinos on the Strip, the truth is these casinos create an environment that is conducive for fun and adult fantasy, and feel much warmer and inviting than CityCenter. I certainly don’t fault Jim Murren MGM-Mirage CEO for placing an emphasis on the architecture of CityCenter, and make no mistake of it, all the PR materials point to Murren as the instigator of the whole CityCenter project, and his subsequent close involvement. The aspiration of architects and the architecture they design is succinctly explained by Paul Goldberger in his recent book ”Why Architecture Matters”
…some will be transcendent and will tell you, more eloquently than anyone can express in words, of that aspect of human aspirations that makes us want to connect to what has come before, to make of it something different and our own, and to speak to those who will follow us. Paul Goldberger in Why Architecture Matters
Unfortunately for MGM -Mirage, and for Vegas Visitors, their reach far exceeded their grasp.
Moving inside, the first thing you notice is copious and conspicuous artwork. While I applaud the effort, my overall impression of the artwork is that it is rather bland. The surprising fact is, if you want to see an innovative and challenging corporate art collection you have to leave “Sin City” and travel to the Midwest, just outside Cleveland Ohio, and visit the Progressive Insurance Company. Peter Lewis, the former CEO of Progressive Insurance, and the driving force behind the tremendous growth of the company, credits the innovative and extensive art collection with helping create an environment where creativity thrives.
Let’s take a quick tour of some of the more notable Sculptures.
On the south walkway leading up to the entrance to Aria is a Claes Oldenburg sculpture “Typewriter Eraser”, which is just that, an oversized, old-fashioned typewriter eraser.
My first thought was, why not pick a more forward looking and modern object to decorate the walkway leading up to the ‘Future of Vegas’. My second thought was the scale is too small (19 x 11 x 11 ft.). When I think of Oldenburg’s work, I think of the 45 ft.tall Clothespin Sculpture in Center City (two words) Philadelphia. If you tell anyone in Philadelphia, I’ll meet you at the Clothespin at noon, they’ll know exactly where to meet you. Years from now if you tell someone in Vegas to meet you at the ‘Typewriter Eraser’, I’ll bet you’ll get a blank stare, or worse.
In front of the Vdara Hotel is a sculpture by Nancy Rubins, “Big Edge”
which looks remarkably similar to her sculpture at Lincoln Center in New York City. The large and colorful sculpture, composed of discarded small boats of various kinds, adds some color and excitement to its rather monotonous surroundings. This is my favorite sculpture at CityCenter.
Yes, there is a Henry Moore sculpture,” Reclining Connected Forms”
located in a park-like area between Aria and Crystals. The sculpture will look very familiar to those familiar with his work. My favorite Henry Moore sculpture is his “Nuclear Energy” located at the exact site of the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction, at the University of Chicago.
The Maya Lin sculpture “Silver River” located behind Aria’s registration desk has garnered more than its fair share of CityCenter press PR. Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., which is most notable for the novel idea of including the names of all U.S. soldiers killed in the conflict on the actual sculpture. “Silver River” the 84 foot long 3,700 pound sculpture supposedly depicts the Colorado River. For a river that carved out the Grand Canyon, this sculpture makes the river appear rather unaccomplished. The PR materials make repeated reference to the fact that “reclaimed silver” was used in making the sculpture. I wasn’t aware that there was a problem of precious metals filling-up our land fills from people carelessly throwing their old jewelry in the trash!
Jenny Holzer has one of her LED Panels (266ft long) at Aria’s North Valet, which scrolls word phrases selected by the artist. My reaction to the sculpture was that, if technically possible, it should be Rickrolled.
There is a sculpture by Antony Gormley, evidently MGM-Mirage passed on a project he proposed for Seattle “Ejaculating Man” the proposed sculpture would have been 40ft high and would give an 11-second ejaculation of sea water every five minutes. Gormely stated “ I intended it as an ironic comment on the male figure in relation to the whole idea of a fountain, because everyone knows the fountain is a male fantasy of permanent ejaculation.” No word yet if MGM-Mirage is planning on making any changes to the “Fountains of Bellagio” display.
There is also a series of of Art Galleries on the South walkway leading to Aria. My favorite is the Dale Chihuly Gallery,
the artist responsible for the large glass sculpture on the ceiling of the Bellagio lobby. The gallery at CityCenter is much larger than the small shop he has at Bellagio. Next door to the Chihuly Gallery is the Richard Macdonald gallery, which features works inspired by various Cirque du Soleil characters.
The person working at the Macdonald Gallery whispered to me that “Dale Chihuly’s work is quite commercial” which in the art world is most definitely not a Compliment.
My thought was that MacDonald’s work was equally commercial, which I don’t mean as a put-down. I enjoyed strolling through both galleries, as much or perhaps more than I did viewing the art displayed around the rest of CityCenter.
Aria, Sotto Voce
The most noticeable thing about the casino at Aria is how unnoticeable the casino is. While many hotel/casinos in Vegas have the casinos designed to be forever “In Your Face” it feels like Aria has jumped to the other extreme. It makes you wonder, are MGM-Mirage executives embarrassed by the business they are in, and on some subconscious level trying to hide the casino, and cover it up with art work. The most interesting game I saw at Aria was “Triple Play Spin Video Poker”, which at the $1 level, lowest observed denomination, is $135 a spin. The folks at vpFree2 have yet to update their database, not a good sign.
While Aria is nicely designed, it left me with a “Cold” feeling.
The rooms at Aria are loaded-up with all the electronic gadgetry anyone could think of, and then some. Think along the lines: lighting; room temperature; and music can be set to your whim. The gadgetry reminded me of my purchase of a programmable coffee maker, which allows you to set the time when the coffee will be brewed. A very useful feature, in the five years I’ve owned the coffee maker, I’ve used that feature once, I had to make sure it worked! Perhaps the electronic wizardry came at the expense of room size, at 520 sq ft these rooms are smaller than the counterparts at Wynn and Venetian.
Aria, and its sister properties are loaded with high-end restaurants, many of the usual suspects like Michael Mina, the Michael Caine of the Vegas restaurant world. Jean-Georges Steakhouse is the only restaurant in Aria run by a Michelin Guide three star rated chef. An updated Las Vegas Michelin guide is not due until 2011, so it is unclear how is Aria effort will fare.
I was surprised to see a buffet at Aria, I thought for sure they would take the Venetian path and eschew the buffet as too declasse. Full of anticipation I tried the dinner buffet, assuming they were striving to supplant the buffet at Bellagio as the top buffet. Sorry to say, the buffet fell well short of Bellagio and Wynn. As a matter of fact, I ate at the buffet at Mandalay the following night, and preferred that buffet over Aria’s. The seating feels rather cramped and the look is upscale cafeteria. The raw bar was the largest I’ve seen at a buffet, and the sushi selection was slightly larger than other strip buffets, although still of a pre-made variety. Peking Duck and a few Korean dishes were the only novel items I noticed.
And guess what innovative new show was chosen for Aria, yet another Cirque du Soleil show, Elvis themed. They even posted one of those tacky posters advertising the show on the Harmon Hotel.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
The public relations materials is promiscuous with reference to the LEED certifications of CityCenter. CityCenter’s LEED certifications has the whiff of the wealthy environmentalist that flies around the country in his private jet, and yet assures you that the practice is environmentally sound because he buys carbon offsets to remain carbon neutral.
LEED is a Green Building rating system that addresses six major areas, from water efficiency(particularly important in Las Vegas) to design process. The idea of LEED is a laudable goal, probably better than the actual certification process. Like any committee driven process there are compromises and shortcomings. LEED guidelines are not climate specific, hence it is quite possible that optimal construction design in more temperate climes might be different than in the oven of Las Vegas. LEED also focuses on the end product not the whole process involved in construction and construction materials leading to sub-optimal results. I would have been more impressed with CityCenters involvement in LEED if they stated they were following the guidelines only where the result was optimal. The highest LEED certification is Platinum, not the Gold and Silvers garnered by CityCenter.
Where is the next Steve Wynn?
I guess $8.5 billion just doesn’t buy as much Wow as you would expect. As I was walking around CityCenter I kept thinking, I bet Steve Wynn would have done something more interesting with such a large budget. CityCenter feels like it was designed by committee, where what was required was a single visionary. There is much talk about CityCenter saving Vegas and spurring its economic recovery, when the fact is the other way around, Vegas will save CityCenter, eventually. CityCenter, One Word, Disappointing.