Without a doubt, the physical "Center" of the new Las Vegas superdevelopment CityCenter is a shimmering circular fountain tucked into the glass curves of the anchor hotel Aria. It seems pretty enough until you start to notice something you've definitely never seen before. Was that a hot pink splash? Electric blue? Wait a second--colored water? In the middle of the day? That eye-defying spectacle, and four more like it, are brought to you by WET, the Sun Valley, California-based design firm that turns natural elements into high-tech entertainment.
WET's signature work can be found up and down the strip--there are perhaps no fountains more famous than their work at the Bellagio, where streams of water spout high into the air to Frank Sinatra tunes. But when WET got tapped for CityCenter, its CEO Mark Fuller wanted to do something that would test their creative limits. "Instead of doing one piece, why not do a bunch of pieces and let people discover these wild experiences?" Fuller led me on a treasure hunt to all five features during the CityCenter opening to explain WET's seemingly-impossible alchemy.
Two of the features, although visually stunning, were created more for their auditory purposes. Four two-story cable-suspended glass walls made by Joel Berman use tiny drips of water to make a soothing zen-like buzz in an indoor restaurant. And a 270-foot arced waterwall with waves of water pattering over tiny chunks of slate block out any vehicular sounds in a hotel traffic circle. (For any of you already getting concerned about fountains in the desert, all WET's water is reclaimed, purified with a reverse osmosis process and dumped back into circulation.)
It's the other three features that are the true showstoppers, starting with that Kool-Aid colored fountain. Using projected light directed with motorized mirrors, WET is able to laser-focus a splotch of color anywhere on the fountain, making it hundreds of times more intense than a traditional spotlight. But just getting color in daylight wasn't enough. WET re-engineered their proprietary multi-axis, motion-control underwater robots so they could aim two one-inch streams of water 20-30 feet in the air and have them collide into hot spots--"watersparks"--with a new level of precision the industry had never seen before.
At the center of the Daniel Libeskind- and David Rockwell-designed Crystals, a dozen plexiglass cylinders shoot up from the floor in the same random angles as Libeskind's walls. This is Halo, and contained within those innocent forms are spinning vortices of water. The vacuum-sealed cylinders suck and spin the water in and out of their volumes, like continuously filling and draining bathtubs. The violent, raging water spouts literally dance--sometimes stretching the length of the tubes and sometimes bursting wildy out of their tornado shapes. "You could give a whole physics lesson here," says Fuller, watching people embrace the tubes to feel their energy. WET even managed to break a few rules of fluid dynamics: Thanks to the ability to introduce water tangentially, forcing the vortex the other direction, WET can even make water spin backwards, Southern Hemisphere-style. That's miracle-grade water.
Finally, at the entrance to Crystals closest to the Strip, people wandering in from the scorching desert heat will be confronted by pillars of ice that reach up to 15 feet into the air. Frozen underground on metal rods and pushed up into the space from below, the dozen ice towers of Glacia are sculpted with as much precision as the kissing swans you'll find at weddings. WET's artists can control the way the ice appears using different levels of aeration and water-pics, but the best parts are done by nature, the slow melting and refreezing process that renders them into cold, drippy candles. After staying up for a week or so, the cores are brought below and refrozen. An eerie soundtrack by the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart uses manipulated sound waves from--where else?--space. "He told us he was reviewing patterns of energy that were coming back from the raidio telescopes," says Fuller. Appropriate for the Hoth-by-way-of-Krypton vibe.
Afterwards, Fuller took me underground to Glacia's freezing chamber (sorry, no video allowed). Exiting Crystals through a nondescript door, we walked down three flights of stairs into an employee parking lot. Stepping into a concrete walled room in the center of the parking lot was like stepping into some kind of giant popsicle-making command center. The foot-plus diameter cylindrical PVC tubes hung suspended into a large hole in the floor. Massive counterweights attached to cables hung around them, ready to hoist the cores up or down into the space. Along one side of the room was a floor to ceiling electrical box, where a mess of wires led to a control panel where WET's artists could control every aspect of Glacia's look--from the freezing process, to controlling air bubbles in the water, to the water-jet 3-D modeling of the cores as they slipped from the cases--with a few button taps.
Since no one's ever done this before, one early problem WET encountered is that hardly anyone believes it's ice. So WET did their audience a service: They placed one core close enough for people to reach. This tiny human-sized chunk becomes the difference between knowing if it's real or not: They prod each other towards it, daring each other to touch it. The looks on their faces afterwards reveal shocked, unadulterated realization: Yes, WET has created the world's largest--and most beautiful--12-pack of Push-Pops.