In 1965, a hotel owner named Jay Sarno began construction on a new hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, and decided to set his creation apart from the competition by modelling it on a Roman palace. Caesars Palace was really no different from any other big hotel, but the Roman arches and columns stuck on its façade, not to mention the tunic-clad cocktail waitresses inside, were such a hit that the place spawned a generation of imitations, each aiming to outdo the last in eye-popping extravagance. Las Vegas became the world’s largest theme park, with hotels intended to make you feel that you are in Venice, or Paris, or Egypt, or New York, or Bellagio, or on a pirate’s island, or among King Arthur and his knights. Or—given that these weird simulacra have become famous in their own right—that you are, quite simply, in Vegas. Sarno’s palace was vulgar and crude, but his achievement is one that even the most accomplished architects can only envy: he defined a city’s style.
But it’s been clear for a while that Las Vegas has been running out of themes. The trouble is that its effects rely entirely on dazzlement, an over-the-top gigantism that gets old fast. By this point, you could do a hotel that reproduced Angkor Wat or the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and no one would raise an eyebrow. [...] And in 2004, when the hotel company MGM Mirage (now known as MGM Resorts International) was looking for a way of filling in a sixty-six-acre site between two of its properties on the west side of the Strip (the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo), it hit on the idea of turning the plot into a showcase for modern architecture.
The complex is called CityCenter, and it is the biggest construction project in the history of Las Vegas. It has three hotels, two condominium towers, a shopping mall, a convention center, a couple of dozen restaurants, a private monorail, and a casino. [...] the project contains nearly eighteen million square feet of space, the equivalent of roughly six Empire State Buildings. [...] There are major buildings by Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Viñoly, Helmut Jahn, Pelli Clarke Pelli, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Norman Foster; and interiors by Peter Marino, Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis, Bentel and Bentel, and AvroKO. There are also prominent sculptures by Maya Lin, Nancy Rubins, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. “The idea I wanted to convey was to bring smarter planning to the development process in Las Vegas, to expand our boundaries of knowledge,” Murren told me. “Las Vegas is always looked down upon. CityCenter is a counterpoint to the kitschiness.”
But whether Las Vegas wants to be rescued from kitsch remains to be seen. [...]
The developers are counting on these modern buildings to have the same visceral impact that visitors to Las Vegas are used to getting from make-believe historical architecture, or from Trump-style glitz. They don’t. [...] the underlying risk of the CityCenter project is that good buildings next to outlandish ones will look quiet and bland. Caesars Palace and its progeny are crass but iconic. The CityCenter buildings are sophisticated, but you wonder, finally, if they are all that memorable.
Even though there is more density to CityCenter than there is to anything else in Las Vegas, and more sophistication to its architecture, it doesn’t feel urban. [...] Indeed, as you drive around the site, you suddenly wonder if CityCenter only appears to be different from the rest of the Strip. After all, cutting-edge contemporary architecture by the likes of Libeskind and Foster has been migrating steadily into the cultural mainstream for years. Now, perhaps, it has reached the point where it is familiar enough, and likable enough, to be just another style available for imitation, like the Pyramids or Renaissance Venice. CityCenter is the Las Vegas you already know, but in modernist drag.
The Sky Line, “What Happens in Vegas,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010, p. 95