'Starchitect' Libeskind Reinvents the Mall

Though the $8.6 billion CityCenter development in Las Vegas is in trouble, architect Daniel Libeskind is optimistic

Architect Daniel Libeskind walks into a spare, empty conference room in his Manhattan office on a chilly, gray day. He is smiling.

Despite the recession, shrinking construction budgets, and the near-bankruptcy of his biggest current project, his voice bubbles with enthusiasm about the new directions he's taking, including shopping malls. He's also embarking on projects much smaller than the $90.5 million Denver Art Museum for which he's known. The Polish-born designer, for instance, is working for the first time on everyday products such as doorknobs and lights, as well as prefab houses.

He's happy to discuss the global economic downturn, which he sees as a time for businesses and architects alike to learn how to be creative by coping with fewer resources. That includes a smaller staff, as Libeskind himself has recently laid off employees—he won't disclose how many—to cope with the building bust. His firm currently employs 70 in New York and another 70 in satellite offices in Milan and Zurich.

"The world is suffering. But this is exactly the time to do exciting things. It's not the time to hide our heads," says Libeskind. "It's when we have to use our imaginations to try new materials, new ideas. Not just add gold and chandeliers!"

Libeskind's highest-profile project today is also his most troubled: a shopping center within the MGM Mirage (MGM) CityCenter development in Las Vegas. The $8.6 billion complex on the Strip includes work by such other "starchitects" or celebrity designers as Norman Foster, Cesar Pelli, and Rafael Viñoly. Deeply indebted MGM averted bankruptcy in late March only after getting waivers from creditors and pumping more money into the 68-acre collection of hotels, condominiums, retail, offices, and a casino.

Shared Commitment

The 62-year-old architect believes the project will live on, though, given MGM Mirage's persistence with its creditors to keep it going. "The MGM Mirage's commitment to completing the CityCenter project is a vision we share," he says.

The CityCenter mall is the second he has designed. The first, the 1.5 million-sq.-ft. Westside Shopping & Leisure Centre in Bern, Switzerland, draws 15,000 to 25,000 visitors a day. The $440 million retail complex opened last October and hosted 67,000 visitors on its opening day—far more than the 15,000 Libeskind expected.

Libeskind made his name by creating dramatic cultural institutions with angular, jagged silhouettes, such as Berlin's Jewish Museum, not shopping centers. But he thinks his portfolio shouldn't be split into two categories. "I don't believe in this old-fashioned distinction between cultural and commercial projects, as if we live in split worlds," he says. "Architecture is about everyday life, not just about going to a museum. I want to blur and erase the lines between culture and commerce. And it's a fact that museums want to be successful economically, too."

For the Westside project in Switzerland, he wanted to reinvent shopping. So he moved beyond stores and restaurants and added such unusual offerings as housing for the elderly and a gas station. Echoing his museum blueprints, the floor plan is more a labyrinth than a series of straight lines leading from shop to shop. Some stores have entryways that don't have typical rectangular door frames but instead are made of uneven angles. The idea is to present products, from dresses to furniture, in unusual ways—like works of art in a museum.

New York architect David Rockwell says incorporating museum elements in a mall makes sense. Commercial real estate developers could learn from cultural institutions, which often feature elements intended to catch people's eye or draw attention to a stage or sculpture, he says. "Libeskind brings artistry to the commercial aspects of architecture," observes Rockwell. "He creates amazing environments for people to connect and share experiences."

Libeskind's Las Vegas mall is smaller—it will cover 500,000 square feet—but just as unconventional. The structure has jutting peaks, rather than rectangular boxes. "Just because an architect is known for his or her museums or a particular venue doesn't mean it is all they are capable of," says Sven van Assche, vice-president of design at MGM Mirage, which owns the complex with Dubai World.

Scaling Back

Libeskind is used to creating big budget projects such as CityCenter with large-scale, intentionally crooked walls and ceilings. These are his design signatures, meant to evoke surprise in the people who visit his buildings. So his fans—and critics—might be truly surprised that the architect is looking to remake objects on a tinier scale. These are well-timed, and potentially well-priced, for a recession.

For example, Libeskind says he will launch a new prefabricated housing system this summer with Proportion, a Berlin-based firm specializing in prefab. It will feature off-center roofs and windows, similar to those found in Libeskind's museums and malls, only scaled down so that individual homeowners can afford them. He won't discuss the price, but he emphasizes that buyers can mix and match elements, such as adding or subtracting rooms to give them control on what they want to spend.

He is also designing much smaller items, including light fixtures, bathtubs, and doorknobs, for a variety of European manufacturers, including Italy's Olivari B. and Germany's Hoesch Design, although he says it's still early to discuss when these will be on the market and who will distribute them. But they should expand his audience.

"I believe people want a 'wow' experience in their lives, not just when they visit a museum," Libeskind says, emphasizing that during such glum times, businesses really need to supply "wows" to draw customers. The businesses include, of course, his own.

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