If you look up, the architecture of CityCenter largely succeeds. In the sky, the dramatic curves of both Aria and Vdara anchor the pastiche of glass-and-steel buildings. (Only one building steps out of rhythm: the Harmon, Norman Foster’s boutique hotel, which suffers from being 28 stories instead of the planned 49, thanks to construction defects).
On the human level, a different story emerges. Elevated bridges or complex traffic circles joining the buildings preclude pedestrians the feeling of ever being on a street. “Public” space is virtually nonexistent. Yes, 67-acre CityCenter is all private property, but given its intention to be a place where people from all over the world congregate, few places allow visitors who don’t want to eat or gamble to sit down. That is too bad because there are some great moments on the ground, too.
A park, enclosed by fences and easy to miss, slopes between the entrance to Vdara and the Bellagio employee parking garage. A trail leads down to the base of the garage. True, there’s not much here, but when you turn back, it’s like you’re catching a city in a garden: The landscape frames Aria and Vdara perfectly. The lack of signage—I doubt even the PR docents have been down here—refreshes, because it feels like it’s a found space. Another little square park lies at the very end of the convention center. But CityCenter should be stuffed with places like these, serendipitous spaces that give you breathing room from the dynamism while letting you take it all in. (Inexplicably, the only part of the park with benches is itself cut off by two locked gates.)
The best space at CityCenter? Aria’s vaulted, soaring lobby. Filled with light, and with long, stone benches, it’s the one space—better even than the nearby “pocket park”—with both movement and repose. Although not exactly a place in which to hang out with a book, the lobby does manage to convey some of the essential energy and occasional grace of real cities. (By contrast, the casino floor itself disappoints, a dark and gloomy space that suggests an uneasy cross between a nightclub and a forest.)
CityCenter, of course, was never really going to become a city center for Las Vegans. Too much money is on the line for it to be anything other than what it is—a showpiece resort for tourists and collection center for global businessmen. That’s as it should be. We are better served by thinking of CityCenter simply as an emblem of quality design, and the apotheosis of the Strip’s transformation from Desert Kitsch to Global Sleek. Whether the design sophistication of the new resort will take hold in the city itself remains to be seen.