In his role of assembling a team of seven world-famous architects (as well as over 200 more design teams) to collaborate on the largest development in U.S. history, there's one question that executive architect Arthur Gensler gets asked the most: How the hell did they not kill each other?
With the stories we hear about the perils of getting one architect to agree with anyone, much less with another architect, you'd think at least one of the half-dozen brand names would have been found impaled on a stake of balsa wood. But it was more like a starchitect love-in as Gensler and four of the design architects for CityCenter exchanged bear hugs and belly laughs in the View Bar at the just-opened Aria earlier today (Helmut Jahn's plane had been delayed, Cesar Pelli was rightfully mobbed by reporters after his speech opening Aria at the press conference, Norman Foster's tower is far from being completed). In fact, they all agreed--completing each other's sentences--that it was a form of love or, more specifically, "mutual respect" that kept the team united towards a common vision. "There were other, unnamed architects who wanted to be a part of this," said Gensler, who noted that those who weren't picked were unable to give up the small piece of their own identity to be able to collaborate with the bigger master plan. "You're either on this team, I would say, or you're gone."
And what a team it is! Daniel Libeskind, David Rockwell, Rafael Viñoly, Eugene Kohn and Gensler (along with Jung and Pelli) began working together in 2005, after Gensler was tapped by MGM Mirage to help organize a team that would bring a new urban center to Vegas. This included vetting and selecting the teams of architects, some of whom MGM had short-listed in a worldwide fact-finding trip the year before. In a blitzing seven-week timetable, the architects met weekly--sometimes in Vegas for charrettes, sometimes offering up their own offices for group meetings--delivering a final presentation to MGM execs Bobby Baldwin, Bill Smith and Sven van Assche less than two months later. So while the physical outcome of CityCenter is laudable enough, the project is also a remarkable as a case study for massive design project management.
For the challenge of bringing together such a varied array of designers, the brief actually made it easier to unite the voices. There was no theme for CityCenter, except the very evocative name itself: Creating the first truly urban environment, unlike anything else on the Strip. The plan would be different, allowing for a departure from "one-way architecture" that casinos provide---you go in, you go out--and focusing on multi-level, multi-modal circulation of pedestrians, vehicles and a monorail. The buildings and grounds themselves are more urban in the sense that visitors are rewarded by exploring the transitions between them, not just the interiors themselves. "You can find unique places," David Rockwell said. "An urban environment gives you that sense of discovery." Rockwell pointed to the interior architecture of his "indoor park" filled with high-end retailers and restaurants, Crystals, where corners of Libeskind's angular roofline were carved away with skylights to reveal perfectly-framed views of surrounding gem-like buildings.
MGM Mirage's V.P. of design, Sven van Assche, Libeskind, Rockwell.
The architects swatted away the idea that their design might be more fit for a true urban environment--that it was more New York City than Vegas. The development certainly does not follow the prescriptive over-the-top, iconographic architecture seen for decades and praised in Learning from Las Vegas, a seminal book written by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in 1972. While the architects praised the book's value--"It opened up the world of Vegas' idiosyncrasies," offered Rockwell--all the architects agreed those days were over. "They froze the idea of the city in one particular point in time," Libeskind said, dismissing the book as not being valid as a style sheet for contemporary architects. "This is design for everybody," Gensler agreed. "Besides, Vegas is the one place where you definitely don't play off the neighbors."
The neighbors, as they were, are also part of what makes CityCenter occupy such a unique niche in today's market. The ratio of people who came to Vegas to gamble vs. those who came for the food, shopping and entertainment has flipped in the last 20 years, said Gensler, with about 75% of 35 million tourists here for the "other." CityCenter represents that trend with only one gaming hotel, said Kohn, who traveled with MGM Mirage team to cities around the world for urban inspiration and realized Vegas wasn't so unique in that way anymore. "Vegas was the only place for gambling," he said. "But now there are casinos everywhere." So he made a welcoming gesture to the non-gambling audience with the approach to the luxury-grade Mandarin Oriental, one of only a handful of its U.S. properties. The dramatic entry takes guests privately all the way up to the stunning 23rd floor lobby for a distinctly exclusive experience, even though it's the closest property to the Strip.
But what was the real secret to the project's success? Once again, the loquacious gang of architects was in agreement: Vision. They credited MGM Mirage's genuine desire to try something that was not only different but world-class, attributing much of that direction to chairman and CEO Jim Murren. Indeed, CityCenter could offer up a very specific form of inspiration for developers in other American cities. "People always say, look at what's being built in China, look at what's being built in China, what about the U.S.?" Libeskind said. And while he doesn't say more, he nods when it's suggested: Why has it taken so long for a group of architects and developers get our act together on a similar architectural vision for the World Trade Center site?
While none of the architects could think of a project they'd been involved in that had so many collaborators, there's one historical precedent that might come close: New York City's Rockefeller Center. It's difficult not to see the many parallels. It's a stunning collaboration of famous architects and artists, it was launched during the economic strife of the Great Depression, it's a similar size (about 20 square miles to CityCenter's 18), and at the time it, too, was the largest privately-funded development in the U.S. The results are the same--a dramatic shift in the paradigm for a major city. But I highly doubt that those architects had as much fun doing it as this crew did.