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MGM-Mirage’s CityCenter: A Civic Failure

Posted by Michael Zahara on Sep 11, 2009

I spent a recent day and evening exploring MGM-Mirage’s CityCenter project in Las Vegas.  I walked around everywhere with work boots and hardhat and tried to relate to this behemoth of a project.

In short, CityCenter is an all-glass architectural calamity; I’ve never felt so cold in 100+ degree heat.

Cold, not refreshingly cool.

Born during the height of Vegas’ mega-expansion of Strip resorts that gave no consideration to tourists as individual people, but are designed as massive holding tanks that they don’t want you to ever leave; CityCenter is the epitome of vulgar excess, packed onto a tiny parcel of land; a glorified collection of cattle-cars posing as elegance.

Only two companies may control the Strip now, but their competitiveness, even internally amongst their own properties, is evidenced in the CityCenter design one-upmanship that should have been a celebration of design aesthetic, but instead tramples on individuality and elegance.

The CityCenter complex is a visual catastrophe that has some relationship to the buildings within it, but absolutely no relationship to the other Strip resorts it neighbors.

It’s essentially a post-Modernist throwback to the high-rise public housing nightmares of the urban cores back east that are now being torn down.  Here in Las Vegas, we’ve reincarnated them with shinier, but surprising banal, all glass facades, with the same meat-packing mentality, and are calling it CityCenter.

To its north, it completely swallows the Jockey Club and its sister property, the once graceful and visually appealing Bellagio, whose property is aging very poorly for being only 11 years old.  I’ve noticed the deterioration and grime on its northern wall abutting Flamingo Road, where the cornices and facade are noticeably filthy due to poor exterior facility maintenance, though some of the most exclusive brand names in the world display their signage there.

Mr Wynn’s absence from the property is painfully noticeable, replaced by a New York-centric corporate boardroom disinterest; if not outright hostility, to how critically important the visual and aesthetic presentation is to the entirety of the Las Vegas Strip experience.

CityCenter exemplifies that hostility.

To the south, with its breezy and more tasteful presentation, the easy to traverse and stay at Monte Carlo; also a sister property, is completely overwhelmed, standing in stark visual contrast to its ugly new step-sisters.

Inexplicably, the best face the CityCenter project shows is to the Interstate and the gritty industrial areas to its west, not the tourist saturated Strip face. The graceful curves and geometry fronts the back end of the property that mostly truckers and local commuters can appreciate; few tourists will ever see it.

The Strip face of CityCenter is a disaster, a travesty of placing Time Square in-your-face use of every square inch, completely consuming the street it fronts.  One saving grace should have been the exclusive Mandarin Oriental, but her edifice is appallingly pedestrian and uninspired and she dares to front her face with common, even more pedestrian, plain fluorescent lighting behind her elegant ‘fan’ logo. The graceful curves of the Harmon which has been a construction nightmare, is visually chaotic, though they did not intend that to be so.  The Crystals retail center is a salute to Gehry’s always juvenile designs, posing as whimsy that despise instead of celebrate materials, and those materials used at Crystals are already failing and will age exceptionally poorly requiring great expense to upkeep and maintain.

The Veer design could have been a significant work had it been placed 22-25 degrees differently on the property or placed on its parameters, used non-frat house, non-corner tavern glass exteriors, and didn’t turn out to be a child’s erector set concoction that should have been a triumph, but instead elicits only sighs of revulsion.  We’re all too familiar with Helmut Jahn’s work which is always either speculator triumph like  his United Airlines Terminal One in Chicago, or spectacular failure like his Thompson Center, also in Chicago.

Jahn suffers from an acute case of Architect Bi-Polar Disorder, and Las Vegas is just his latest spectacular failure victim.

The signature property on the site is the Aria, whose very lazy architect, Pelli Clarke Pelli, capped her curvy bodice with unbelievably ugly, plain, florescent lights in a city of explosive color and dynamic lighting.

Aria’s crown is a stunning failure and so is the Cosmopolitan tower on the northeast corner; the structure is much too tall, should have been cylindrical or winding staircase shaped, with an attractive facade and glass choice. Though a stand alone property and not part of MGM-Mirage, it will forever define its neighbor to the south whether or not MGM-Mirage purchases the troubled project, or not.

Cosmopolitan chose way overdone 1967 Miami Beach without the Miami and without the beach and without any semblance of class, grace, or elegance. It’s an eyesore of global insignificance.

Across the street at the former Aladdin, now Planet Hollywood, her designers chose to salute the Bellagio by convexing her towers to oppose the Bellagio’s concaved portrait; mimicking, if not directly mirroring her windows and color palate.  PH’s streetscape is bawdy, gaudy, and self-indulgent, yet inviting in that its shapes and colors are pleasant and its promenade is easy on pedestrians, even during construction.

At CityCenter, we’re left with these many major structures designed by too many different peoplelittle boys with sand buckets and Tonka trucks—all trying to outdo each other. It was suppose to have been shepherded by world renowned Gensler for MGM-Mirage, who only managed to achieve architectural calamity and chaos.

On the Las Vegas Strip, nothing is more important than the street-facing façade, and MGM Mirage’s CityCenter fails that challenge, spectacularly. It’s as though the streetscape is designed to inhale, if not swallow, everyone who comes near to it; a Black Hole vortex where the pedestrian reaction may be avoidance, rather than warm embrace.

It’s hard to imagine any entrance in the whole of modern architecture as being less inviting than that of CityCenter.  You’re left thinking, ‘how do I get out of this place?’, and I don’t expect that will change when it opens.

You’re also left with the impression that the project’s architects never bothered to take a walk around the area themselves to get a feel of the property and its neighbors before putting pencil to paper.  The first thing you think when contemplating this affront to modern design is that the designers themselves could not have possibly been from Las Vegas, much less have ever visited here; it’s as though they plopped down a standard Manhattan-style office complex in the middle of Disney World for Adults, without any consideration at all to the environment or the other properties around it.

It’s difficult to contemplate what a mess MGM Mirage’s CityCenter is. If they were going for an updated Warsaw Pact motif of towers, they hit a home-run—a grand slam really—if they were going for a Rockefeller Center collection of elegance, beauty, and functionality, they failed very badly.

It appears that everyone was just collecting a paycheck making MGM-Mirage’s 10 billion dollar investment look, well, cheap, instead of designing the masterpiece this could have become.

Las Vegas residents, most who spend little time on the Strip, are sure to hate this monstrosity, as will tourists, but both should consider that this project and its design would have looked far better, and perhaps been a rousing success in the old rail yards neighboring the World Market Center in what’s now known as the always struggling Symphony Park near downtown Las Vegas.

The architectural symbiosis at that site would have at least been more compatible and its structures would have had more meaning and more ability to breathe and to stand apart from each other. On the Strip, CityCenter’s structures step all over each other and completely wash each other out, vacuum-packed onto 78 tiny acres.

Writer Steve Friess recently commented about his displeasure with the glass-encased structures now becoming more common on the Las Vegas Strip. His point is well taken given the incomplete and bankrupt Fontainebleau; another hideous design that like CityCenter, has no relationship, at all, to anything else in the entire city, state, or region; it’s one of the ugliest structures I have ever seen.

Glass however, is not the issue as Steve Wynn’s impeccable Wynn Resort and Encore pay tribute to the mountains that surround the Las Vegas valley with a very thoughtful choice of brown-toned glass and graceful, gentle upslope at the top of the buildings paying respectful homage to the nearby peaks.

Their respective elegance is the anti-CityCenter in every respect. Mr Wynn knows how to spectacularly design resort hotels; MGM-Mirage and its team, clearly, do not.

Wynn and Encore’s architects appear to have actually visited Las Vegas; all of CityCenter’s many, many architects appear to not even know where Las Vegas is, much less what it is.

CityCenter is classic case of too many cooks spoiling this very thin broth. It’s far too much, packed on too little land, devouring itself and its neighbors and the world famous street it should have embraced.

MGM-Mirage and its CityCenter fiasco may come to be remembered as what exactly went wrong with Las Vegas during the last decade and more importantly, why the average tourist is no longer so enamored with today’s Las Vegas.

CityCenter is a colossal financial failure, and now nearing completion, it’s also a colossal design and civic failure too.

Mike Zahara Siganture

Mike Zahara