“There must be an elevator closer to the room,” sighs a woman from Nebraska, pulling a suitcase down a hallway at the Aria Hotel. Like a real city, CityCenter, the new Las Vegas resort that includes Aria and three other hotels, forces people to walk—except that, at CityCenter, most of that walking takes place indoors. After all, Aria, with more than 4,000 guest rooms, has hallways that are 300 yards long.
Even in a city built on poker and slot machines, CityCenter, which opened in December, is an extraordinarily big gamble. Its owner, MGM Mirage, is betting that people will flock to a resort that offers contemporary architecture by the likes of Daniel Libeskind and Helmut Jahn instead of the kitsch of the Venetian, with its camera-ready gondoliers, or Paris, with its ersatz Eiffel Tower. Yet it’s not at all certain that people from Houston will want to spend time in a complex that, when all is said and done, resembles downtown Houston.
If CityCenter fails—and its future is anything but clear—that will be seen as proof that Americans don’t like modern architecture. Which could impact what gets built, far beyond the Las Vegas Strip, for decades.
The gambler who made that bet—the bet that could affect not only his career, but yours—is Jim Murren, the 48-year-old chairman of MGM Mirage. Murren launched the project in 2004, hosting weekly meetings with prominent architects, mostly listening, he said, and absorbing their collective wisdom.
That part was nothing new for Murren, who studied art history and urban planning at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and planned to go to graduate school for architecture. In his senior year, he applied for a fellowship that would have taken him to Europe. When he didn’t get it, he opted for a job on Wall Street, where he became so successful that his earlier ambition faded.
And then, like a lot of people who study architecture but don’t ever practice, he found a way back to his first love, in his case building more in five years than most architects can create in a lifetime. CityCenter cost MGM Mirage and its partner, Dubai World, some $8.5 billion, making it the largest privately funded construction project in the history of the United States.
Murren could have gone for a modernist theme park—perhaps with one hotel based on Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive apartments, another based on Le Corbusier’s Unites d’Habitations, and maybe a restaurant shaped like Fallingwater. But that would have been as fake as Luxor, the glass pyramid just down the Strip from CityCenter, which represents the “old approach” that Murren hopes to bury.
Murren lived in Manhattan for many years and believes in the importance of downtowns, as well as the value of modernist architecture. And he doesn’t just talk the talk. After moving with his family to Las Vegas, he commissioned a pre-fab house by the California architects Marmol Radziner that was trucked to the Nevada desert. In his yard is a Skyspace by James Turrell, one of his favorite artists.
And yet his choices at CityCenter, which covers 67 acres and contains some 18 million square feet, were tame. True, he hired Daniel Libeskind to design the centerpiece shopping mall, called Crystals. The building is cutting-edge—but only in the most literal sense. And Murren hedged his bets by bringing in David Rockwell to put a happy face on the building’s interiors. Now there are curvy, rustic looking accoutrements, including a two-story indoor pavilion that looks like a wicker basket, competing with Libeskind’s angular architecture.
For the high-rise buildings at CityCenter, Murren’s team narrowed a list of nearly 100 architects to five: Rafael Viñoly Architects, Pelli Clarke Pelli, Foster + Partners, Murphy/Jahn, and Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF). But those firms weren’t permitted to design the interiors of their buildings. They wanted to, according to Sven Van Assche, vice president of design for MGM Mirage, but, he says, “when I looked at their portfolios, they didn’t have the eye we needed.”
Instead, the company brought in more than 45 interior design firms. They include a few established brands: Bentel and Bentel Architects for the vast café in Aria; Karim Rashid for the Silk Road restaurant in the Vdara hotel; and Adam Tihany for the interiors of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
But all of that makes CityCenter a rather odd advertisement for contemporary architecture, since the architecture is, with just a few exceptions, only skin-deep. It is, however, an advertisement for collaboration. Each section of CityCenter had an architect of record: HKS for Aria, Leo A Daly for Vdara, and Adamson Associates for the Mandarin, Veer, Crystals, and Harmon structures. Those firms, in turn, reported to Gensler, which served as executive architect for the entire project.
How did the multi-tiered collaboration work? The design architects were responsible for massing and curtain walls; the architects of record did most of the construction documents; and Gensler coordinated their efforts. “We were the glue that held the project together,” says J.F. Finn, Gensler’s principal in charge of CityCenter. In addition to serving as a kind of owner’s rep, his firm got involved in design decisions during the construction phase, says Finn. But Gensler’s main role, he says, was as a “cat herder.”
With all those cats to herd, there were countless meetings and presentations. For MGM, the main players were Van Assche; Bill Smith, president of the MGM Mirage Design Group; and Bobby Baldwin, president and CEO of CityCenter and chief design and construction officer for MGM Mirage. Murren attended meetings when he could and was even known to sketch ideas.
During a freewheeling conversation in January in his office inside the Bellagio Hotel, Murren seemed surprised to learn that architecture isn’t a lucrative profession; after all, he said, he had paid his architects “very handsomely” for their work. (And when a man who has made as much as $8.5 million a year says handsomely, he means it.) So what did his star architects deliver?