Las Vegas Architecture: Imitation and Authenticity

The latest big thing in Vegas architecture is authenticity.  Well, kinda.  It's perfectly understandable that the recently opened Aria hotel and casino should use the fact that it doesn't imitate any other building to differentiate itself.  This is, after all, Vegas, the city whose principal industry depends on manipulation and misdirection, where appearance is a lot, lot more important than reality.  Aria, and CityCenter of which it is a part, is trying something different, and has a stable of pre-eminent architects to prove it.  Helmut Jahn, Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Vinoly and others have all had a hand in developing something real and unique, not an imitation.  Or have they?

To give it the props it deserves, Aria - and CityCenter - is certainly different.  My most recent trip to Vegas was a brief escape earlier this year with Mrs King from the two-fold joys of parenting and the Chicago winter.  We were staying at the Four Seasons but visited Mandalay Bay, Bellagio and the Venetian as well as Aria.  Our overall experience prior to Aria was that Vegas had lost its mojo.  The casinos felt dead, service was uniformly mediocre (except the Four Seasons concierge who was delightful) and the cost of food and drink was completely out of proportion to quality.  Even Bouchon, about which I had been dreaming for over a year, was something of a disappointment.  The room itself is stunning (and a complete imitation of course but of the highest order) but our barman was surprisingly ignorant about his wines, and the red wines by the glass tasted as if they had been left uncorked for several days, which perhaps they had.  The fries were as delicious as Anthony Bourdain had promised but the oysters were only, as they say, satisfactory.

Our experience of Aria was entirely different.  Mojo?  Right there in the casino.  Beyond that, the art is at the right scale.  The floors are beautiful.  The staff seemed happy to be there.  The hotel is set back from the Strip giving that part of the city a new dimension.  But authentic?

Actually, CityCenter is as much an imitation as Paris, New York-New York, The Venetian, Bellagio, Luxor or any of the others.  Not of a particular city, building or monument, but of several, most of which are (not entirely coincidentally) also desert towns.  I'm talking, of course, of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, amongst others, who decided that the best way to attract visitors to otherwise not very attractive places is to hire a bunch of famous architects and get them to build signature wonders and follies.

This phenomenon is known as the Bilbao Effect, after the impact that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim had on the previously unknown industrial city in northern Spain.  Some thirteen years after its public opening, the museum still draws about 1 million visitors annually, three times the number of the city's residents.  Other cities around the world took note and demand for Gehry's work, and that of his peers, took off.  Bilbao itself commissioned work by Pelli, Foster, Calatrava, Hadid and others, some of the very same names now associated with CityCenter.

Interestingly (and possibly even ironically) the one big name not linked to CityCenter is Gehry himself.  But, as you might expect from Vegas, that's not the end of the story.  Although Gehry has declined repeated invitations to build a casino, he was convinced by a local beverage magnate, Larry Ruvo, to design a medical research facility in town.  The building, Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, was named for Mr Ruvo's father who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.  And so things come to pass:  Frank Gehry, whose genius created the Bilbao Effect and inspired the building of Aria and the CityCenter, refuses to be part of the Strip scene and instead builds the craziest-looking and most exciting building in town - funded with the proceeds from the sales of liquor to the city's casinos - whose purpose is to probe memory loss and madness, the frequent companions of addiction to booze and gambling.

So, imitation and authenticity.  Does any of this really matter?  Probably not.  Imitation is one of the most common survival tactics throughout the living world, and humans are among nature's most avid imitators.  And when it comes to Vegas, the last thing its visitors want to experience is authenticity.  The authentic Vegas right now is a city that has the highest home foreclosure rate in the country.  The reason our bar staff and other servers were miserable is that they've been losing their jobs and homes in epic (catastrophe-themed?) numbers.  No, we want to be misdirected, to believe that the most commonsense response to our own personal recessions is to travel to the desert to play not-entirely-truthfully-named "games of chance".  Well, I suppose they're only names, rather like CityCenter.