Believing Las Vegas: Is Jim Murren’s Cultural Vision for CityCenter Just Another Mirage?

The MGM Mirage CEO is attempting to pull off a grand illusion not even David Copperfield would try: Luring Las Vegas tourists into CityCenter with the promise of spectacle and sending them out civilized.

Jim Murren


It’s one thing to get a vacationing couple from Oklahoma to check out your exploding-on-the-hour volcano. It’s something else entirely to get them to examine the abstracted forms of a seminal work by Modernist sculptor Henry Moore, Reclining Connected Forms.

MGM Mirage chairman and CEO Jim Murren doesn’t think that’s too lofty a goal for the new $8.5 billion dollar development CityCenter that officially opened this week. Murren’s vision for CityCenter is an urban development, a place of grand boulevards, pocket parks, and world-class art. But Murren’s concept also includes one radical idea: This development would be so transformative for Vegas, so dramatically
different that any other experience, that its exceptional design and fine
artworks would actually inspire tourists and residents alike to behave differently. In the heart of the Las Vegas Strip.

“I love what cities provide–that adrenaline,” Murren said as he sat
down to take a breath after the opening of the centerpiece of
CityCenter, Aria. “We just don’t have that here, it’s a very suburban environment. It’s the anti-city in a city.” In 2004, the ex-New Yorker reasoned that building the right context to absorb that urban energy through art and architecture–one inspired by great urban environments themselves–might cause vacationers as well as wayward Vegas residents to act, well, more cosmopolitan.


Nancy Rubins’ Big Edge, made from canoes and kayaks

It’s a concept reminiscent of the City Beautiful movement
during the turn of the 20th century, when many of the great parks and
public buildings in cities like Chicago and Washington D.D. were designed in the
hopes that their exquisite looks would hold their citizens to a higher
standard. But City Beautiful only works if the citizens develop some
sense of long-term pride for that beautiful city. Whether that will
work in a municipality with a mostly transient population–not just tourists
but many residents who only live there part-time–seems like a job more fit for the contortionists in Cirque du Soleil.


Not to mention an expensive one. Eight buildings by brand-name architects,
15 works by famous artists, and hundreds more teams of interior and
landscape designers translated to a healthy chunk of the price tag–the
art budget alone topped $40 million. But those big-ticket designers may
have come at a greater cost, as MGM Mirage
plunged into debt during the course of the five-year project. “We were
away from bankruptcy in January and February,” said Murren, who has been responsible for MGM Mirage’s exceptional growth, coming to MGM Grand in 1998, negotiating the merger with
Mirage, then another acquisition of Mandalay Bay. Murren
tapped federal lawmakers, including Democrat Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid for help in asking the banks to help free up more money for
MGM Mirage’s loans (the life-long Republican even appeared in videos
for Reid). A last-minute flush of cash from Dubai World, a
government-owned developer, brought buoyancy to the last two years of
the project; Dubai World now owns half of the property and will share
revenue from the casino. (Although DubaiWorld is now also in trouble, expected to possibly default on $80 billion in loans, CityCenter is reportedly safe.)


Beyond getting the flip-flop-wearing herds to appreciate the Richard Long’s massive paintings of clay and mud, Murren thinks his urban oasis could help stimulate Vegas as a whole by bringing a brand new breed of customer to the desert destination,
helping to quell the grumbles that CityCenter’s 6000+ rooms
created a glut in the city.

Murren thinks he can fill those rooms with the true culturati who might not see themselves coming to Vegas at all. This “broader audience of the world,” recognize, say, Aria
architect Cesar Pelli’s name from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,
or appreciate the luxury of Mandarin Oriental’s other high-end properties. “They are vacationers who may gamble,” says Murren. “These are
the kinds of people who stay longer and spend more.”

For Vegas residents, the pitch might be tougher to swallow, especially as CityCenter’s two not-yet-open all-residential Veer towers loom over a city bereft with real estate woes. This is a region which is seeing a
crushing 14% unemployment (MGM Mirage recently
had to lay off 9,000 employees at other properties). Two luxury
projects, Fontainebleau and
Echelon, sit
unfinished, and on the eve of CityCenter’s opening, the Sahara
announced it was closing two of its three towers
due to lack of demand. But Murren positions CityCenter’s opening amid financial setbacks as a real
economic boost for the city. CityCenter created 175,000 jobs during the
project, and Murren seems
upset that he didn’t create more. 50,000 people applied for 12,000
on-site jobs, the single largest hiring effort in the country. “Really, I can’t think of a better time to open,” said Murren. Besides, he says, CityCenter has already inspired other pockets of urbanism and development around the city, pointing to a new brain research center in Vegas designed by Frank Gehry, urban study programs at UNLV, and a new building proposed for the local performing arts center.

CityCenter’s civic aspirations aside, Murren also feels some
responsibility to make it the city’s richest cultural center, which it very well might be at the moment. In this
valley of two million
residents, and over 35 million annual visitors, there’s no art museum:
The 59-year old Las Vegas Art Museum closed its doors February 28. While casinos and resorts of Vegas may have had fantastic art in their
collections in the past–some of CityCenter’s pieces even came from the Bellagio’s
collection–it was mostly limited to a gallery setting.
CityCenter might be the city’s best hope for a well-curated collection the public can access–a vast 67-acre sculpture garden focused on socially- and
environmentally-responsible work, where art just happens to be found in
a casino, hotels and malls. Murren waves at the work of Maya Lin, whose piece is
installed on the wall behind him: 3,700 pounds of reclaimed silver
drizzled into the shape
of the Colorado River. “If not us, who?”
said Murren. “Who else will bring these artists?”

citycenter Maya Lin

Maya Lin’s Silver River, evoking the shape of the Colorado River

Don’t get Murren wrong: It’s not all cosmopolitan upper-crust entertainment. Cirque du Soleil makes an appearance with its crowd-pleasing Viva Elvis! and there are universally-intriguing fountains–five!–by the same company who made the Bellagio’s showstoppers, WET. And it’s not to say that Nancy Rubins’ 200+ canoes, kayaks and rowboats exploding into a spiky sculpture in front of the Vdara or Jenny Holzer’s LED-lit VEGAS that streams 18-foot words under a parking arcade don’t qualify as downright spectacle, even if they don’t feature swashbuckling, scantily-clad pirates.

And while it was too soon yet to see if his investment made the intended
impact on CityCenter’s first trickle of guests, Murren had observed at least one promising moment with an employee.
A security guard stationed near Tony Cragg’s sculptures had informed
him today of biographical information about the artist, said Murren.
“She had gone home and looked up Tony Cragg on the Internet.”

[Jim Murren photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America]

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato