Frank Gehry, FAIA, had always turned down commissions in Las Vegas, knowing that the city would inevitably turn his architecture into yet another theme. So when Larry Ruvo, a beverage entrepreneur, came calling, Gehry nearly turned him out. But Ruvo, a salesman on a crusade, won the architect over with the prospect of designing an Alzheimer’s research center in the emerging 61-acre Symphony Park, a development that aims to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, away from the lights of the Strip. The two made a deal. Gehry would design the building if Ruvo would stretch the research mandate to include Huntington’s disease, which Gehry has long championed. With Gehry signed on, Ruvo—who had lost his father, Lou, to Alzheimer’s—tried to enlist a research institution that would occupy and run the building. “I believe that with a great building, people will come,” Ruvo says. In 2009, two years after construction started, the Cleveland Clinic signed on.
Now commanding the edge of the emerging cultural campus is a distinctly Gehry building, draped and wrapped with a mountainous metal-clad skin, faced in shingled panels and punctured with a grid of windows. The voluminous structure—which serves as a revenue-generating event space as well as a space for patient programs—stands at the back of an orthogonal, four-story working structure that serves as a clinic, research center, and Ruvo’s nonprofit Keep Memory Alive foundation headquarters.
With a technologically difficult and ambitious design on an idealistic mission, Gehry escaped the architecturally promiscuous ethos of the city, where architecture is, as analyzed in Learning from Las Vegas, a matter of decorating sheds with signage. “I met with the mayor, Oscar Goodman,” Gehry says. “He said to me, ‘Frank, you have to do something that’s not in Vegas. The Eiffel Tower is here, NYC is here. Do something that’s not in Vegas.’ So we used to say I was creating the mouse that roared.” And according to director Jeffrey Cummings, the center inspires its occupants: “When we go to work in a sculptural masterpiece, it has the effect of making you want to live up to the expectations established by the building.”
The composite 60,000-square-foot complex is basically composed of two radically different buildings joined by a partially clad steel trellis shading an outdoor patio. Guests and patients park in front of the clinic, with its clifflike façade of angled glass-and-stucco cubes that steps back at each story. A breezeway through the base of the clinic leads to its entrance and out to the courtyard and the activity center beyond.
Inside the clinic, Gehry took pains to create an environment that doesn’t evoke a medical setting. He ensured that all doors, frames, and furniture were built from rich, honey-colored Douglas fir. This is the same wood that he used to great effect in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, there to create a psychological connection to the instruments, here to create a calming presence. Corridors curve, creating carefully tailored sight lines to limit interaction between patients in different stages of illness.
Within Gehry’s opus, the design of the complex forges new territory. Gehry usually wraps buildings in a skin, but here he separates the wrapper from the understructure to create a freestanding structure that envelops a vaulting, cathedral-like space with swooping lines and deeply coffered windows—especially successful in Las Vegas where architecture is considered entertainment and authenticity is mostly irrelevant. Having separated the wrapper from the main clinic structure, Gehry ties them together with a trellis, but the web of steel is awkward. The side elevations reveal that the clinic remains a closed form that resists the wrapper. Neither invades the other.
Gehry delivered the architectural gravitas that Ruvo needed. “For me, architecture was a necessary marketing tool,” Ruvo says. “We wanted a statement that would show we were serious about curing a disease and would let the doctors know we were not underfunded.” Ruvo uses the architecture as a symbol to rally donations and volunteers, while the activity center generates a steady income stream, playing host to weddings, galas (including the foundation’s own), and other upscale happenings. “I told Frank that I was going to put his celebrity and talent to use to help cure chronic brain diseases,” Ruvo says. Gehry understood the need. “The building is very successful because it brought attention to the foundation, it linked Larry up with the Cleveland Clinic, and it helps him get grants. That wouldn’t have happened” otherwise, he says.
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