Libeskind's Vegas Act
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.
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
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.