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Sun 17 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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CityCenter of lights

MGM Mirage calls on ‘starchitects' for its newest project in Las Vegas.

Never before in North America has an architectural collaboration of such scope and magnitude been undertaken.

In fact, given the size and complexity of Las Vegas's 18 million ft² CityCenter project, executive architect JF Finn of Gensler is hard pressed to recall a similar undertaking, anywhere in the world.

To be sure, projects of similar size exist, but no private project has ever brought together the talent and level of experience found in CityCenter, and certainly not since the first day of the project.

We manage, advise and cajole. Sometimes we’re the psychologist; sometimes we’ve got the whip in hand; and sometimes we’re in there with our sleeves rolled up with a big fat pen and we’re sketching for the client. Essentially, we’re an extension of the client.

"Projects of this size in China, the Middle East and India are normally led by a construction consortium where a huge construction/engineering conglomerate is leading the charge," says Finn.

"It's usually led by the government or there is some governmental influence."

CityCenter's sheer size

Operating under the direction of a business pro forma developed by MGM Mirage (MGMM) Corporate that weighed the amount of land it owned against skyrocketing real estate prices in Las Vegas, a mixed-use development was the only feasible way forward.

"It didn't make very good business sense to use that property for just a casino hotel...The return on investment for something like that wouldn't be enough to justify using the property," says Sven Van Assche, vice president of design for CityCenter.

MGMM does approximately US $250-400 million in capital improvement work annually, which includes architectural and interior design, and of that number, around 25-30% is done in-house.

Anything more than that is usually outsourced to a host of consultants. The CityCenter project was a similar dynamic.

After realising that the CityCenter programme represented a mixed-use project-a dynamic with which MGMM had no experience-and was three times denser than any of its previous projects, MGMM sought the advice of expert urban planners.

"When we decided how we wanted to manage the project, we realised that we did not have the manpower to manage a property of this magnitude."

"There was no way for us to hire and train the people we would need to manage the project in-house. So, we went outside of our box," says Van Assche.

Though it took nine months, Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn (EEK), Cooper, Robertson & Partners and Robert A.M. Stern Architects developed three separate masterplans for the site.
Ultimately, EEK's diagram was chosen and within the two months of choosing the winning design, MGMM's board of directors sought to break ground.

The CityCenter design charrette

For many of these architects, both men and women, the initial response was ‘What? Do you want me to design the newest volcano or pirate ship?’

In an effort to facilitate discovery within the Las Vegas context and market to a diverse clientele, it was decided very early to commission different architects for different sections of the project.

MGMM studied districts and cities like SoHo, Manhattan, Picadilly Circus, Rome, Paris and Roppongi Hills (Tokyo) to try to understand the draw of mixed-use developments.

They realised that people experience spaces in different ways and to cater to those myriad tastes, CityCenter would need to offer a range of styles and identities.

"To set [visitors] in a uniform context where the vernacular is similar throughout the complex is counter-productive to achieving that identity," says Van Assche.

Once the masterplan for the site was completed, MGMM and Gensler interviewed between 25-30 architects for the individual properties within the project.

As the plan continued to develop, in November 2005 they invited around 10 Gold Medal, Pritzker Prize-winning architects to take part in a design charrette for the ‘front door' to the property, coined SoBella (south of Bellagio) by EEK.

"We knew we'd have to have at least 4-5 architects collaborating together on the project simultaneously, so we brought them together at the charrette to see how well they'd ‘play together in the sandbox'," says Finn.

The initial response from several of the architects invited was equal parts confusion and intrigue.

According to Van Assche, it was a challenge to explain to them that they were being aksed to bring their vision to Las Vegas, not to have it moulded into the next themed hotel/resort.

"As soon as we got a chance to explain to them our vision, they were very excited about the opportunity," says Van Assche.

The CityCenter team

Once finished, CityCenter will incorporate a 4,000-room hotel, two 400-room non-gaming hotels; 2,650 luxury condominium and hotel/condominium units and a 500,000ft² retail district.

Moreover, all of the buildings in CityCenter are aiming for LEED Silver certification.

Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects designed the hotel/casino. Foster+Partners designed the non-gaming Harmon Hotel and Residences. Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) designed the non-gaming Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Residences, Las Vegas.
Rafael Viñoly Architecture, LLC designed the Vdara Condo-Hotel. Helmut Jahn of Murphy Jahn designed the Veer Towers. Studio Daniel Libeskind designed the Crystals Retail District. and Rockwell Group designed the Retail District's interior architecture.

Equally impressive is the amalgam of industry specialists who complete the CityCenter team. It was masterplanned by EEK; constructed by Perini Building Co.; and funded by MGMM.

Meanwhile, management of the construction component is being done by Tishman Construction Corporation and Gensler is managing the design component.

"[CityCenter] is the first time I'm aware of where the client put an architect in the position of managing a project this size, as opposed to using a construction or finance company to do it," says Finn.

A project in Las Vegas that boasts an all-star cast of architects, designers and engineers begs the question of whether MGMM intentionally commissioned those big names to parlay them into big tourist draws.

"It wasn't important to have the names," says Van Assche. "It was important to have their talent...I think the architects we hired all have their own set of skills and are very comparable to each other."

The CityCenter precedent

While the CityCenter project makes for great headline fodder with phrases like ‘signature architects', ‘biggest-ever project' and ‘first mixed-use development' attached to it, there is a much more important issue at hand.

Because per-acre costs on the Las Vegas strip hover between US $25-30 million, it is has become financially irresponsible for architects and developers there to build single-building hotel/casinos.

Cost of land, combined with the sustainability inherent in urban mixed-use developments, makes better business sense to go compact and vertical than spacious and horizontal.

"Las Vegas is ripe to do something like this simply because of the amount of land that is available. While I believe that we are the first [mixed-use development] in Las Vegas, I do believe this a paradigm that will continue here."

"I think we've seen the last of the single hotel/casino projects," says Van Assche.

"Las Vegas has always been this way: When the themes were working, everyone went with themes; then, everyone wanted a resort; now, everyone is looking for urban mixed-use. Absolutely it's a new paradigm for Las Vegas," adds Finn.

Within the last decade, Las Vegas has garnered global attention for its built environment and become a bona fide architectural hotspot. Likewise, America is full of potentially sustainable cities facing increasing property values.
Because of this, it is conceivable that a move toward the urban mixed-use paradigm in American architecture rests with the success or failure of Las Vegas and the CityCenter project.

CityCenter challenges

"The pace, size, complexity and number of players involved in this project makes communication the number one challenge. It always has been and will continue to be so," says Finn.

Broken up into three interconnected blocks or components, A, B and C blocks represent teams of designers, an architect of record and a leadership and management structure.

The blocks then come together under Gensler's direction as executive architect of the project.

Bearing in mind Finn and his team need to communicate to team members around the world, effective communication is crucial. "Combined, we have around 105-110 meetings per week," he says.

While organising worldwide communication seems like an impossible task, Finn admits it has its limitations but argues that the richness of conversations is one of the most exciting parts.

"Philosophical discussions between people like Helmut Jahn, Bill Pederson and Greg Jones (Pelli Clarke Pelli) on how best to use a curtain wall is kind of cool," says Finn.

The other major challenge that has plagued the CityCenter project since its inception has been the procurement of materials and the unpredictability of world markets-steel being one example.

"I think very quickly everyone discovered that steel was going to be expensive and scarce and that competitive bidding wasn't realistic."

"Not only were we competing against ourselves but also everyone else that was developing projects in China, Dubai and Europe," says Finn.

To combat the impending shortages, MGMM decided to accelerate everything on the job so they could procure enough steel and other key materials to finish the project.

The site challenges meant that the designers and architects had to be responsive to construction challenges, which, according to Finn is a balance that remains a huge complexity for the project.

"I've never seen anything like this project," says Finn.

"It has had to operate as one cohesive comprehensive project but allow each of the smaller components within it to have their own voice and yet not deviate too far from the standardisation of it."

Stats76acres

18million ft²

Start: January 2005

Finish: November 2009

Current status: 50% complete with the shell core construction.

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