Our Delicate New Icon

The Ruvo building smartly and gently fits into the fold downtown

When Larry Ruvo was ready to bring his Alzheimer’s research center to life, he was upfront about his ambitions. He wanted a name architect to design his building—because that would attract attention, interest, support and money. Ruvo got what he wanted—Frank Gehry, the most famous living architect in the world. Now Las Vegas will see if it gets what it wanted—an iconic piece of architecture—when the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health fully opens in May.

Gehry’s Ruvo Center is really two buildings. The first is an outpatient medical office where patients suffering from neurological diseases, and their families, can meet with physicians, get blood work or MRI tests. The second is a rentable events center, a space intended for parties and weddings (or “creating memories” as the organization puts it); revenue generated there will support Ruvo’s medical operations.

Credit: Francis + Francis

Credit: Francis + Francis

Gehry designed the events center, which fronts the corner of Bonneville Avenue and Grand Central Parkway, to be the visual dazzler—in other words, to look like a Frank Gehry building. From the south, the building presents a recognizable Gehry face—a swirling mashup of curving, cantilevering forms, where walls smoothly curve into roofs, and roofs return the favor, all draped in brushed stainless steel panels. The random curves and metal-paneled exterior recall Gehry icons such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and the Pritzker bandshell in Chicago.

Toward the rear of the building, the stainless steel panels seem to “rip off” from the building and form a steel trellis that overhangs an outdoor courtyard nestled between the two buildings. In a nice gesture to public space, the courtyard will be open to all and will even include a sandwich and coffee shop.

Nevertheless, it’s the rear building, where patients and doctors will work together to “preserve memories,” that is the greater accomplishment. An elegant, blocky checkerboard of white walls and large glass windows, the somehow chaste rear seems to respect the fundamental seriousness of the research aims of the facility while giving the building breathing space and something that approaches serenity. Right now it faces nothing but empty dirt, but as the city’s 61-acre Symphony Park project unfolds, this quietly dynamic façade should make for a good neighbor.

Although the flashy steel events center may be a little old hat, the interior is still a marvel. Rising 75 feet at its highest point, the space is punctuated from all directions by 199 coffered windows of varying sizes and different angles (though all basically rectilinear). Gehry has created what feels like a kind of cathedral of light, a place where looking up in any direction infuses the spirit with optimism.

So, how does it fit in with its neighbors? The Ruvo Center holds its own with the similarly scaled but more sprawling red sandstone of the Clark County Government Center. It also sits across the street from the monolithic World Market Center complex of windowless wholesale furniture warehouses. From some angles the World Market Center threatens to swallow the four-story Ruvo—which is not a big building—but on the ground, walking by, the Ruvo asserts itself.

Gehry says he wanted to make the building a jewel, and he has succeeded. But it’s not a jewel that impresses with its shine but rather one that succeeds in winning you over because of its delicateness. Despite the big steel girders holding up the trellis mid-building, the underlying feeling of the Ruvo Center is one of preciousness and fragility, a building that is constantly breaking itself down and tentatively remaking itself.