Vegas CityCenter Opens At Last

With its crescent of intersecting wings and oval glass tower, the Aria casino hotel is the crown jewel of CityCenter, the Dubai-scale, $8.5 billion, celebrity- architect mega-development by MGM Mirage that's dumping a casino and 6,000 unwanted hotel rooms on Las Vegas.

Locals hope it will save their foreclosure-hobbled city.

Over two days, I covered a good percentage of this 18 million-square-foot complex spread over 67 acres, dodging ever- shifting construction barriers as workers frantically rush to make the gala-opening deadline of Dec. 16.

CityCenter dwarfs anything built along the Strip and cost about three times as much as the 2005 Wynn Las Vegas.

"World-class architects raise the bar in Las Vegas," James Murren, the chairman and chief executive officer of MGM Mirage, said in an interview.

The complex was supposed to invent an exuberantly cosmopolitan future, drawing sophisticates with sleek contemporary architecture and a $40 million art installation program (lovely Henry Moore, stunning Frank Stella, ingratiating Claes Oldenburg).

Yet CityCenter struggles to find its tone. Manhattan architects Kohn Pedersen Fox produced a stiff 47-story Mandarin Oriental hotel trimmed in desert-red panels. Stats: 392 Asian- inflected Art Deco-style rooms, $228 to $4,000; 227 condos; Twist restaurant under chef Pierre Gagnaire.

Shopping MallIt stands aloof from an adjacent jumble of shardlike forms shingled in stainless steel: This is Crystals, a 500,000-square- foot shopping mall by Studio Daniel Libeskind that digs the Strip's wow spirit. Inside, a canyon-like two-level interior rises in spectacular tilting Cubist facets. There's plenty of room for a 70-foot-high wooden folly by David Rockwell (designer of "Hairspray" on Broadway) that resembles a ship's hull frozen in the shape of lava-lamp goop. You can dine inside it.

Rockwell's arty plantings and burbling water columns clash with Libeskind's sculpted expanses of white drywall. Still, Crystals is a fun antidote to the smothering fairy-tale pomp that has become the Las Vegas norm. Stats: Prada, Gucci, Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton, among others. Announced restaurants: Eva Longoria Parker's BESO and Mastro's Ocean Club.

You can access Crystal's stores directly from the aptly named 37-story Veer residential towers. They appear to sway because architect Helmut Jahn's gimmick is to tilt them five degrees in opposition to each other. Stats: 335 slick loft-style condos, many with sloping floor-to-ceiling glass shaded by horizontal fins.

Design Phoned InThe design of the oblong Harmon Hotel, 28 floors in nervous patches of blue reflective glass, has been phoned-in from London by Foster & Partners. Due to construction problems too costly to fix and a sinking market, MGM Mirage lopped 21 floors of condos. It opens next year. Stats: 400 rooms; Mr. Chow restaurant.

The knife-edge curve of Rafael Vinoly's Vdara Hotel is suave, with a decorative palette of calming warm woods and gold fabrics befitting its non-gaming nature. Stats: 1,500 suites, $149 to $2,000; Silk Road restaurant under chef Martin Heirling.

Viewed from the Strip, this architectural bouquet never forms a crisp, readable ensemble. Instead the massive towers elbow each other impolitely.

Murren conceived CityCenter for a boom but is opening in a bust. Riding a Vegas shift to high-end shopping and high-rise living, he wanted to bring a walkable urbanity missing from the dimly lit acres of the palatial casino-focused resorts.

Some architect of talent should have been put in charge of the baffling spaghetti of sidewalks and roads. They could have become a glorious whirl of human and vehicular movement.

Only Aria, the behemoth designed by architects Pelli Clarke Pelli, fully captures the cosmopolitan style Murren sought.

Confident Shape-MakingThin vertical recesses, like serrations, slim the long, curving wings. Horizontal fins and louvers dissolve the glittering, reflective-glass bulk. Such confident shape-making shows just how much the standard Vegas hotel tower resembles tricked-out public housing.

The inside sparkles as well with a vaulted, wood-clad lobby bathed in daylight.

Aria's casino, by Peter Remedios, is the classiest I've ever seen. With undulating beams of dark wood overhead and a bar dressed in shingles of burnt-orange glass, all that's missing is George Clooney grinning crookedly in a tux.

Stats: 4,000 rooms and suites, $149 to $7,500, range from calming contemporary luxe to sprawling multibedroom lairs in white patent leather and marble; seven celebrity-chef restaurants; "Viva Elvis" (so help me) by Cirque du Soleil.

Unfinished RoomsOnly months ago, the global credit crisis almost cost the megaproject its construction financing. Along the Strip, thousands of unfinished rooms languish in various stages of bankruptcy. Gambling revenues have dropped 23 percent in the past two years. Punishing debt keeps luxury purchasers' wallets closed.

Can CityCenter make it? Murren, a youthful 48, speaking to me in his palatial office in MGM Mirage's Bellagio Resort, said his condo prices are down and "visitation is perking up." He also said that "factually, visitation grows 10 to 20 percent when a major new facility opens." He's spending $30 million on advertising.

Most people I talked to around town, where home values have dropped 50 percent, fervently pray for that bump.

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg's U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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