Tasting Las Vegas

CityCenter is neither, but at least it tastes good

January 30, 2010 · Leave a Comment

I know that Mike and I started this blog to discuss the food scene in Las Vegas, but we also want to look at the dining scene in the larger context of Las Vegas as a whole.  Given how much has been gambled on the success of CityCenter, and how much it has been touted as a new paradigm, I can’t resist the urge to put in my two cents.

Since I am now a Las Vegas resident–I’d say Las Vegan but I’m allergic to the word ‘vegan’–I feel it is my civic duty to start with something positive regarding this newest addition to the strip.  CityCenter is large and impressive.  There is at least one great restaurant I’ve tried so far, Sage, which I raved about in an earlier post.  I look forward to sampling Julian Serrano, Silk Road and Twist, among the many dining options CityCenter offers.   CityCenter also offers a helpful solution to the problem, “where can I find a $7,000 men’s bathrobe?”   That solution is the  Crystals Luxury Cathedral (mall seems to pedestrian a word for it).  So people of the world with money: please come to Las Vegas, visit CityCenter, and spend copious amounts of your money.

Now that that’s out of the way, I have some Ginsus to sharpen re: CityCenter.  I don’t know why I thought it would be otherwise, but the truth is CityCenter is neither.  Not a City.  Not a Center.  It’s a hotel, casino, and condo complex with a resident Cirque show.  It blends high-end shopping with fine dining, a casino, a swank nightclub, and luxury living.  Did I mention that there is also a Cirque show?  You can understand what all the buzz is about–combining these elements has never been done before in Las Vegas.  Well…Unless you count Treasure Island, The Bellagio, The Mirage, Wynn, Caesars, the Venetian/Palazzo, the MGM Grand…wait–the Venetian and Caesars don’t have Cirque shows (though one might argue that Cher’s wardrobe qualifies as a Cirque production…)

The point is, there’s very, very little innovation or new thinking in CityCenter to my mind–other than its architectural daring and its carelessly curated, haphazardly arrayed art, CityCenter is essentially the Bellagio on steroids.  This in itself isn’t a crime; what irritates me about CityCenter is its name-implied pretension to urbanity, to community, and to seriousness.  CityCenter is a monumentally self-serious space that is devoted to completely non-serious activities.

In a recent interview in the Las Vegas Review Journal, Bette Midler lamented the fact that the movers and shakers of Las Vegas will invest no end of money in real estate, and almost none in people or talent.  There’s a lot of truth there; Las Vegas, which seeks to compete with major cities like New York and London when it comes to food, lacks the cultural vibrancy of, say, Reno.  It’s embarrassing but true–Reno has both a professional chamber and symphony orchestra, in addition to resident opera and ballet companies.  I would imagine that one could fund the operations of all four of those institutions for at least ten years, and still not spend the $40 million CityCenter spent on its much-discussed public art.  True, a gaming property has no responsibility to nurture culture, but given our current economic times CityCenter’s excess seems flagrant and misplaced; its lack of interest in civic impact feels miserly.  I doubt much if any of the $40 million art budget went to local artists.  Speaking of the public art, I especially wonder whose inside joke it was to acquire Claes Oldenburg’s giant typewriter eraser, which suggests at once negation, obsolescence, and absurd scale.

And absurd is the only way to describe the scale of CityCenter; you could easily re-tile a space shuttle in the spectacularly vast dead space of the Daniel Liebeskind-designed Crystals; maybe there are plans to fill it somehow (a black-box theatre, dance studio, recital hall, any performance space would get my vote), but for now the cold, oppressively cavernous Crystals swallows everything, dwarfing rather than framing the water-themed kinetic art works on display (one involving whirlpools, the other ice).  Liebeskind’s aggressive angularity screams Fisher-Price Frank Gehry to me, but with none of the ingenuity or grace.  What makes Gehry’s spaces work is his breaking up of interior space–the now-iconic Disney Hall in LA is a prime example: inside, it is a thoughtful layering of intimate spaces, culminating in a concert hall that manages to feel like a living room that just happens to seat 1500 or so.

Aria is equally problematic; it proves why the term ‘tasteful casino’ remains an oxymoron (though the recently opened M, with its smaller scale and more sedate locale, almost pulls it off).  The gargantuan self-seriousness of City Center’s design concept, and odd design choices, are especially glaring and out of place in a casino.  Some examples:  I had heard that there was a Maya Lin sculpture somewhere; it turns out it is the squiggle of silver hung behind the check-in desk.   Worse, it is hung in front of a giant window, where it is lost in the visual noise.  If you look up while standing in the lobby, the combination of glass and girders unpleasantly recalls the Port Authority bus terminal in New York.  The seating areas of Jean Phillippe Patisserie suggest a carnival ride that has recently encountered an IED.  The brutal, imposing gated entrance to Bar Masa looks as if it is awaiting barbed wire, and the iron letters “Arbeit Macht Frei” above it (minimalism is not exactly what casinos do best).

For me CityCenter fails totally as an urban space, not achieving even the plastic, Disney-like urban functionality of Town Square or The District (where at least you can buy groceries, or a newspaper, or god forbid see an artist or musician at work).  But CityCenter is too big to fail, as our politicians are fond of saying, and probably only locals (clearly not the target market) will even notice or care about its flaws.  Time will tell if it succeeds in its current form, or if it will have to reinvent and adapt down the road (not necessarily a bad thing).  If I lived at Vdara, for instance, I think I’d curse the lack of a Whole Foods, or any convenient food shopping, but then maybe Vdara isn’t really designed for living but for visiting–a tourist, after all, tends to eat out for every meal.  But that begs my initial question–why pretend, then, that there is anything new or different about CityCenter?

No, I’m afraid CityCenter in its current form cares only about sucking money from those who have too much to spare, and in that it certainly has a lot of company in this town.  So lament the fact that all of CityCenter’s resources will contribute nothing of substance culturally to the city, and then do what I do–get over it, and go back for the food.

–Michael Manley

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