Dreams of Stone and Steel

Nine spots that put—or should put—Las Vegas on the architectural map

Las Vegas is poised to become an architectural destination—a place to enjoy projects designed by some of the most famous architects in the world. Unlike Chicago and New York, though, Las Vegas has yet to produce a definitive guide to the buildings of the city. This is partly because many of the notable structures are of recent vintage—some residential, some in the hospitality industry, some in the public sector. But it’s also because critics long refused to take the city’s architecture seriously.

The first blow to the notion of Las Vegas as an architectural wasteland was struck in 1968, when a group of Yale University architecture students and their professors decided to visit, document and analyze Las Vegas. Their conclusions resulted in the 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architecture Form (MIT Press, revised in 1977) by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. It was the first time anyone really paid intellectual attention to the nature of the architecture of Las Vegas and its identity. The book legitimized serious study of Las Vegas architecture, but only after three decades and numerous contributions from international architectural stars is Las Vegas beginning to win acceptance as an architectural hot spot.

In 1991, when Venturi won the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize, he received a medallion with the inscription “firmness, commodity and delight”—a tribute to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius’ principles of architecture: firmitas, utilitas, venustas. Las Vegas knows all too well the last of these principles: delight. It recognizes the power of entertainment and spectacle, but strives to live up to the idea there is more to the city than what we see on its surface.

We’ve selected nine notable spots that will give you a sense of what’s behind Las Vegas’ architectural ascendance, and an introduction to the richness of local architecture both past and present:

  1. Today, the only way to get a glimpse of the Las Vegas that inspired Venturi and his team is to pay a visit to the Neon Museum to see the old signs that once lit up the Valley. The museum’s three-acre “Boneyard” contains more than 150 historic signs. 821 Las Vegas Blvd. North.
  2. Photo by Darius KuzmickasThe new Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health from the inside looking up.

    Photo by Darius KuzmickasThe Predock-designed Las Vegas Library and Lied Discovery Children’s Museum.

    A perfect example of the growing popularity of off-Strip destinations is the new Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, designed by Frank Gehry. A balance of architecture and sculpture, the center focuses on the research of treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, and ALS. 888 W. Bonneville Ave.

  3. The only place to visit and pay respect to Pritzker laureate Rem Koolhaas’ beautiful 2000 Guggenheim Museum at the Venetian, which closed in 2008, is next to the hotel’s main lobby, where some of the COR-TEN steel panels that served as the exterior walls to the space remain. The significance of Koolhaas’ engagement with Las Vegas, however, endures: World-renowned architects help bring the city into the world’s architectural discourse, and Koolhaas and Gehry have opened the way for other elite projects.
  4. Photo by Darius KuzmickasCésar Pelli gave us Aria.

    Another Pritzker honoree, Sir Norman Foster, leads the firm Foster + Partners, which designed the Harmon Hotel and Spa at CityCenter. The best place to experience the urban impact of this project is to look at it from across Las Vegas Boulevard. Other star architects who put their stamp on CityCenter include Daniel Libeskind (Crystals mall), César Pelli (Aria) and Rafael Viñoly (Vdara).

  5. Photo by Darius KuzmickasMichael Graves redesigned the Clark County Library.

    Photo by Darius KuzmickasMichael Graves redesigned the Clark County Library.

    The city’s cultural corridor on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard is home to the Las Vegas Library and Lied Discovery Children’s Museum, designed by Antoine Predock. 833 Las Vegas Blvd. North.

  6. In 1990, the renowned American architect Michael Graves did a complete redesign of the Clark County Library and Performing Arts Center. 1401 E. Flamingo Road.
  7. The red stone of the Clark County Government Center, designed by C.W. Fentress J.H. Bradburn and Associates, in association with Domingo Cambeiro, stands in stark and impressive contrast to Gehry’s building across the street. 500 S. Grand Central Parkway.
  8. For a taste of the mid-century modern residential architecture, visit the Morelli House, one of the surviving homes from the old Desert Inn golf course. Most of the homes were demolished when Wynn Las Vegas was built, but the Junior League of Las Vegas and its members took on the project of relocating the house, saving it from demolition. 861 E. Bridger Ave.
  9. Another residential area worth driving through is Paradise Palms, a mid-century modern housing development that backs up to the Las Vegas National Golf Club. The neighborhood is just east of Maryland Parkway, along Desert Inn Road.

The impressive work already on display in Las Vegas stirs hopes for the Valley’s architectural future. Dr. Janet White, a professor of architecture history at UNLV, says she would like to see Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s work come to Las Vegas. Ando is best known for his harmonious integration of buildings and landscape, and his work would be an ideal addition to Las Vegas’ architectural heritage.

It may seem like a dream, an empty wish, but 20 years ago who would have expected guys like Gehry, Koolhaas and Foster to get into the Las Vegas game?