Beyond Buildings


Libeskind's Vegas Act

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I love to shop. I know it is nothing to be proud of, but shopping malls do seduce me. It was therefore with a certain amount of anticipation that I stepped off the monorail from the Bellagio and into the upper reaches of the CityCenter Crystals Mall in Las Vegas. There were two rides down escalators with only signs to guide me, and then hallways whose breadth, length, and height seemed out of scale to the few stragglers joining me on this pilgrimage, and finally the vistas over the Crystals came upon us, drawing us down and into the shopping realm.


Crystals Interiors 1
Photos by Aaron Betsky

It is too bad that the relationship between architectural effects, fill, and stores at this Daniel Libeskind-designed retail emporium seems more out of whack than the angled forms that contain, advertise, and rear over the relatively few stores. The Crystals brings a level of formal excitement and, what is more important, light, to the shopping mall that we haven’t seen since Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica Place Mall of 1980 (now torn down) and Cesar Pelli’s nearby 1974 Fox Hills Mall.


The Crystals is of the same basic design as all of Libeskind’s recent buildings, whether they are museums or concert venues: angled cubes exploding out from a central hall. This architect has developed a clear shtick, but then, who hasn’t. Though one might say that the variations on his theme are less than those Hadid or Gehry uses when approaching different sites and programs, they work—sort of. They manage both to create a recognizable image, one which here must compete with a fake Eiffel Tower and towering hotel slabs, and to make a public space that draws you in, by eye or by foot, into a pile of ramps, stairs, platforms, and empty cubes.


In this case, however, there is really only one full floor of retail, which the developer has managed to fill with such tenants as Tiffany, Tom Ford, Prada, and the largest Louis Vuitton in North America. Each of these high-end stores does an amazing job at creating an extension of their brand into space and fixtures that makes you… forget about the architecture outside. Louis Vuitton has even, as I have noted before, appropriated one of the “crystals” by stamping their logo all over it.


A few restaurants, bars and coffee shops fill out the space, but what remains over and above it all is the endless acres of emptiness, fragmented, shot through with sunlight, and void. Libeskind developed such spaces for highly charged programs such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and then pulled it into the rarified world of museums and other cultural programs, but what does it mean in, or rather, above, a shopping mall in Las Vegas?


Beyond the moral question, which I would not raise except that Libeskind always justifies his buildings in rather fundamental terms, there is the way in which these gestures seem so outside of the shopping experience. To resolve them into rentable square feet and connect that real estate to various entrances, Libeskind had to resort to a huge amount of excess space that drowns the stores while also leaving so many dead-ends and awkward transitions that I wonder whether even these retail magnets will be able to attract and hold an audience here.


Crystals Interior 2

Later, sitting on one of the landings, watching the blocks spill, careen, and otherwise disport themselves, it hit me: It is just a show, an architecture like the feathered boas and leaping tigers that you watch on stage here. Distance is important to keep the illusion up. Perhaps we should be happy that now even architecture is worthy of becoming a Vegas act.



Comments (9 Total)

  • Posted by: striped cat | Time: 12:30 PM Sunday, June 06, 2010

    Guys, it's a mall on the Vegas strip. What sort of civic, intellectual intervention were you hoping for? Maybe we should be a little concerned about that "not-being-able-to-find-tenants" thing. I don't think it's because the angles are unconventional.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:38 PM Saturday, June 05, 2010

    How can something so obviously vapid and as superficial as the Crystals be worthy of discussion on an architectural blog? Is there anyone left out there who really thinks Libeskind is other than a self-serving charlatan? Apart from an imbecile, can anyone possibly think he has designed anything that will represent the best values of our age?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:27 AM Saturday, June 05, 2010

    I'm not surprised the Crystals is so empty. I found the randonmess of the desgn to be annoying, the chaotic angles to induce nausea and the generally tacky design to be conducive to making me look for the nearest exit door. I don't expect retail malls to be the generator of great architecture (although it could be), but I do expect at least a modicum of organisation, human scale and visual appeal. This jumbled mess offered nothing in the way of positive experience. It was like being trapped in one man's sick vision for a disorienting, lawless world. I couldn't wait to get out. And the emptiness suggested others felt the same,

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  • Posted by: caronrichardson | Time: 11:50 AM Friday, June 04, 2010

    Let us not forget that "Las Vegas" usually refers to that relatively short section of Las Vegas Blvd. known as "the strip" and descriptive words like "tinsel" or "pastiche" should apply only to the strip. After all, we do both tinsel and pastiche the best! Those of us who live and work here however, create appropriate, award winning, and relative architecture off strip and every where else in the valley supporting our population, at just around 2-million. We are proud of this community - no matter how many starchitects try to muck it up.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:37 AM Friday, June 04, 2010

    I was just there and found the interior to be far more suitable to a mall than the similar interior of our own Royal Ontario Museum (which is very crowded with exhibits). It is also a good contrast to the fake Italian (or whatever) of the balance of the strip. The public art installations are a good counterpoint to the angular forms of the crystal. The quality of light during the daytime was lively, but the space was also effective during the evening hours. I do wonder how it will survive given the sparsity of retail and the expensiveness of the main feature restaurant. It was interesting to see the little wee LEED Gold plaque on the entrance to City Center. It makes one really really wonder.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:03 PM Thursday, June 03, 2010

    I'm pleased to see Libeskind getting work in Las Vegas where cheap pastiche, fakery and tastelessness are the norm. His intellectually-challenged schlock fits right in.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:00 AM Thursday, June 03, 2010

    The photos do not suggest quality spaces, but rather the complete absence of architectural design. Can we all just agree that Libeskind is a talentless but media savvy charlatan? At the very least let's stop pretending that his pretentious crap has anything to do with architecture.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:49 PM Wednesday, June 02, 2010

    Another uninspiring building from Libeskinds seemingly interminable 'immature period".

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:35 PM Wednesday, June 02, 2010

    While you are correct in saying that Libeskind has developed a clear, formulaic shtick, I thing the qualifying, "but then, who hasn't", comment is unfair. While many architects have developed a personal visual language, in most cases it is deployed in the service of their art and subtly refined to suit a particular project. By contrast, Libeskind's cack-handed shtick is force fed or jammed onto any program, in any city, for any client regardless, and even in spite of, the specifics of the problem or context at hand. It is the very lack of thought that goes into his superficial application of his trademark gimmicks that results in the dead end spaces and intellectual emptiness you accurately picked up on. And it is this underlying mindlessness that also results in the highly grating experience that has come to typify Libeskind's work. There is more valid content in a Siegfried and Roy performance than in Libeskind's 'Crystals'. As with the rest of Las Vegas at least their tinsel is real tinsel, not some quasi-intellectual version of it.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.