Essays

The Last Boom Palace of the Second Gilded Age: Las Vegas & Libeskind

The CityCenter development, on the Las Vegas Strip, attempts to provide an alternative to the city. (photo by Robert Polidori, via newyorker.com)
An entrance to Daniel Libeskind's crystalline shopping mall. Prada puts the finishing touches on their very own wall. (photo by author)

Daniel Libeskind, until recently, was one of the high-end architect’s of choice for war museums and somber memorials. Jagged, clean-faced metal-clad shapes torn by sharp little windows characterized a style that took trauma and produced memorial. The style was similar to Frank Gehry, but no curves to suggest the wry, playful smile of decadence at work — something I always see just beyond the magnificent and smooth sheet steel smiles of Gehry’s structures. And no 90 degree angles, either; everything is crooked, everything is asymmetrical, everything is torqued into the misshapen fragments that we piece together in turmoil to remember the parts of the past that are not pleasant. A friend who lives in Las Vegas said of the mall Libeskind designed for Las Vegas’s CityCenter: “I can never figure out how to walk around that building.”

“The Crystals” is the crown jewel of Vegas’s luxury capital that they’re calling CityCenter. Seeing the building, and browsing its boutiques — the kind of boutiques in which I will never be able to purchase so much as a shoelace (Tom Ford, Lanvin, etc … ) — had me wondering whether Libeskind had signed a contract at knifepoint or under influence or just to make some quick Las Vegas dollars.

A little history: MGM Resorts International is the development company that owns the Bellagio, the Luxor (Egypt in Nevada), Mandalay Bay (southeast Asia in Nevada), the MGM Grand Las Vegas (with the lions), NewYork-New York, Circus Circus, the list goes on … basically, they own half the real estate that matters along the Vegas strip.

Back around the time when the shingles on the housing bubble were showing their first troubling signs of stress, MGM Resorts International was hatching a development scheme intended to flush some of Las Vegas’s sin out of sight. The ideas was to build a development (touted as the biggest in U.S. history) that would serve as a magnetic palace of high design. With Helmut Jahn, Pelli Clarke Pelli, Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly, and Daniel Libeskind participating, the finished project would usher onto the Strip a hitherto unknown level of sophistication, and with it new and plentiful vacation and gambling dollars.

Barely an angle of 90 degrees anywhere in the dizzying interior. (photo by author)

Then the bubble burst and all the money evaporated beneath the desert sun and Vegas went from being the fastest growing city in the United States to the hardest hit by impossibly lax credit, and the concrete and steel pouring into CityCenter melted into the desert air. Harry Reid begged the banks to keep the dollars flowing as the sophisticated towers rose above the strip but his Senate Majority pleas fell on deaf ears or else they got his current campaign into a lot of hot water, and finally there was nothing left to do but tacitly admit that this kind of insane development in these austere economic climate was impossible without money from Dubai, and that’s how Dubai World got their hands on a 50% ownership stake in the biggest development in US history.

Gucci and Prada are buffing their exterior entrances to an elaborate sheen; an enormous exterior wall is covered over in plate-metal Louis Vuitton monogram all while a few streets away one in fifteen houses slips beneath the waves of the foreclosure tide; and suddenly the use of Libeskind’s name looks much more like an advertisement or a desperate call for help than a stamp of approval.

Squint and you can just make out the monogram exterior — who really signed their name to this building? (photo by author)

It’s confusing, really, who does this development tie to whom? Is Vegas saved by the power of starchitects? Walking through rooms that use and discard aesthetics as fast as flipping through a pattern book, there’s a certain desperation to entertain and entice that brings with it a luxurious uneasiness. CityCenter may be the first thing to happen in Vegas that does not stay there; its low ceiling twinkling with ten thousand slots like an attempt to burn its own permanence into an artificially starry night, one-armed-bandits beckoning in disuse while outside, and over the broken teeth of the mountains in the distance, the rosy-fingered sun sets a final time on the last boom palace of the second gilded age.

I guess maybe Libeskind did it anyway — maybe he’s gone and built a monument to a time and place in a way that he never thought he would; maybe he’s made himself the starchitect analog to the Great Jay Gatz. Then again, maybe not.

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