posted by Matthew Bushey, AIA
I have a love/hate relationship with Las Vegas. I’m drawn to the bright lights and architectural wonderland, but after a few days, the sensory overload starts to get to me, and I start to long for the tranquil mountains of Vermont. On a deeper level, I struggle with the fabricated authenticity of the mega-resorts, and the environmentalist in me loathes the scale of flights, lights, and air conditioned rooms in such a fragile desert environment.
But let’s put these issues aside for a moment and focus on the merits of Sin City: it is one place a designer can go to find everything under the sun: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is a laboratory of design ideas, and every few years, the whole thing reinvents itself.
During our latest trip to Vegas (strictly business, of course), a lot of our attention was focused on the hotels of the brand-new CItyCenter development, still celebrating their grand opening. But some of our favorite interiors were located elsewhere on the strip as well. These are our top five Las Vegas interiors. (click the photos below to zoom in for a closer look.)
1. TWIST at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
In an earlier post, I mentioned the new ARIA hotel, the centerpiece of the 18-million square foot CityCenter mega-development. This is the largest and most expensive commercial project in the history of the U.S. At the front of CityCenter, directly facing Las Vegas Boulevard, sits the 47-story Mandarin Oriental, a non-gaming hotel and residential tower designed by Kohn-Pedersen Fox. The lower half of the building is comprised of hotel guestrooms and suites, while the upper half is the residential portion. When entering the building, you immediately zip up to the 23rd floor Sky Lobby, where you’ll find the registration desk, Mandarin Bar, and Twist Restaurant.
Twist by French chef Pierre Gagnaire was designed by Adam Tihany of Tihany Design, one of the marquee names of architects and designers brought in to design the CityCenter development.
The restaurant interior is illuminated with 300 glass globes that seem to float from the ceiling. The walls are finished with sculpted art panels that look like cracked eggshells. This motif is picked up again on the menu and table linens. And surrounding it all are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Las Vegas strip.
2. FIAMMA TRATTORIA & BAR at MGM Grand
This space in the MGM Grand has a lot going on. The Fiamma Trattoria is an Italian-inspired restaurant but has a very modern, “upscale rustic” design. It is very Vegas, edgy with a hint of romance.
Materiality takes a back seat to light and form. The restaurant has dark wood floors, modern furniture, and dramatic lighting. We were especially drawn to the backlit marble tabletops, and the chainmail fireplace flue surround.
The space lacks an overall cohesion to pull everything together, and I’m not sure if the overindulgent explosion of forms pairs well with the simple flavors of Italy. But still, there are so many clever and attractive moves here that it warrants a spot on my top five.
3. VDARA HOTEL LOBBY
The Vdara hotel is a smaller, quieter, non-gaming hotel that is located next door to ARIA, on the more private side of the CityCenter site.
The opening of CityCenter just last year marked a huge break from the themepark approach of the latest chapter in the history of Vegas hotels. Up until now, the grandest spaces on the strip were built as reproductions (or variants) of world cities such as Paris, Venice, and New York. These spaces are replicas of something else. They are fakes.
CityCenter turned the page on that chapter, with an array of hotels and residences based on nothing more than pure architectural modernism. I see here a use of original design as a means of achieving authenticity. It makes sense, then, that CityCenter also invested so much in an impressive collection of modern art. MGM Resorts, the owners of CityCenter, spent $40 million for 15 original pieces that are sprinkled throughout the buildings and grounds.
One of the best spots to experience some of these masterworks is the main lobby of the Vdara Hotel. Behind the reception desk is one of Frank Stella’s most prominent pieces, “Damascus Gate Variation I”, from 1969, an 8 x 32 foot shaped canvas of semicircles in luminous colors. It was reported to us (by the amiable young girls behind the reception desk) that MGM paid $5 million for this piece. Just a few steps away, hanging in the main lobby opposite the Bar Vdara, is “Lucky Dream” by Robert Rauschenberg, a 1999 collage of found images that is heralded as one of his masterpieces. Around the corner, in the concierge lobby, is a new commission by the American artist Peter Wegner: “Day for Night, Night for Day”, two towering sculptures of colored paper on opposing east and west walls, 34 and 45 feet tall, respectively. And right outside is another new commission by the sculptor Nancy Rubins, “Big Edge”, a 57 by 75 foot long conglomeration of rowboats, canoes and other water vessels merging into a gravity-defying “blooming flower”.
Together, these pieces constitute some of the best works from some of the biggest names in Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Post-Modernism.
4. WOLFGANG PUCK BAR & GRILLE at MGM Grand
The Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grille is an airy, summery space that stands as a peaceful retreat within the harsher environment of the jarring casino. The restaurant opened in 2004 in the MGM Grand.
Wolfgang Puck forever changed the culinary scene in Vegas with the opening of his signature restaurant, Spago. This Bar & Grille is a continuation of the celebrity-chef phenomenon, with a thoughtfully designed interior. As described on wolfgangpuck.com, “Designer Tony Chi combines the energetic feel of the beach lifestyle and the cool beauty of a garden to capture the essence of the casual elegance of the California dining experience”.
We liked the simple wood furniture, with thoughtful details like the accentuated barstool feet sitting on a light wood floor. Tablecloth fabric is stretched over ceiling panels arranged overhead. And there is a playful use of translucency and transparency in the patterned glass that surrounds you. The whole thing feels like a summer picnic.
5. FIX at the Bellagio
Many Vegas interiors are offensively busy, bombarding you with an explosion of forms and colors, intended to get your heart pumping. At the Fix restaurant in the Bellagio hotel, you’re greeted with a soothing atmosphere of flowing forms that are just as exhilarating as anything you’d find elsewhere on the strip, but without the tacky razzle dazzle.
The interiors of FIX are based on a simple gesture that is carried consistently throughout the entire space. The restaurant is enclosed from floor to ceiling in curved Costa Rican padouk wood. Even the mechanical systems are integrated into the flowing curves. If you look carefully, you’ll see the wood planks dip slightly to reveal a fresh air register. Some very complicated coordination took place here to make this seem as simple as it does.
You can’t tell by these photos, but the space is also completely open on one side to the main floor of the Bellagio casino, allowing for prime viewing. The sinuous curves enveloping the entire room provide a sheltered sanctuary from which you can safely observe the debauchery beyond.