Such is the immensity and information overload that is CityCenter, that it may be some time before this spectator can fully wrap his brain around what is — for better or worse — the Strip’s equivalent to that famous detonation in the desert at Los Alamos, N.M. Whatever one’s feelings on the matter, the de facto city (or “strip city,” to use MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren’s preferred term) that is the Las Vegas Strip will never be the same. Every Strip project from here on out will either take its cue from CityCenter or be a calculated reaction against it.
One reader has already dubbed it “City Enclave,” in reference to the manner in which it seems to turn its back upon the Strip. Access is mainly achieved via long passages that snake their way through skyscraper canyons. But I’m calling “baloney” on the notion that you can go to CC if you feel you’re in need of a quick fix of New York City. CityCenter is no more a true urban experience than Avatar is a documentary film — and no more of a Big Apple substitute than the cartoonishly imitative New York-New York, just down the street.
Which is neither here nor there, because Las Vegas trafficks in illusion and CC provides the feel of urbanity without its rougher components. Here, everything is beautiful, the flow of cars and trucks is strictly regulated, and there’s a Jenny Holzer installation where a billboard might otherwise go. Touring journos are repeatedly told that CC is for “the most discerning travelers,” which sounds like a euphemism for “people with fat wallets” and — with 5,900 rooms to fill, the theme of elitism can only be pushed so far. (Also, “discerning travelers” are likely to frown up on the infamous “shat phone,” a toilet accessory that is omnipresent in CC.)
In many respects, CC is the anti-Steve Wynn. Regardless of how much or little Murren has seen of Encore or Bellagio, nearly everything in CC is designed as though in reaction against Wynn’s style.* There are exceptions, like the standard rooms at Vdara, which are like a poor man’s Encore, narrower but with a kitchenette — if that’s your thing. (Tacitly encouraging people to cook for themselves in a city with so much restaurant product seems perverse, but there it is.) A steady trickle of well-heeled guests would appear to testify that there’s a market for the defiantly trend-breaking experience that CC has on offer.
(* — In theory, CC could also be anti-Sheldon Adelson metaresort … but that would require Venelazzo to have a discernible style, which is asking an awful lot.)
If Encore brought back “the red casino,” as Roger Thomas put it, Aria offers the steel casino. The one is fabric, the other metal and stone. Encore is sybaritic, Aria austere. The former is experiential where the latter is Making A Statement. Neither property is the masterpiece that is Bellagio, with its balance and harmony of elements. But, for me, Encore’s vibe is warm and welcoming, while Aria reminds me of the maxim that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.
For instance, the vast North Lobby’s institutional affect sugggests “casino as airport terminal.” The check-in area is truly splendid, though, with Maya Lin’s Silver River suspended overhead and set against the backdrop of a multi-story window. At the far end, Sage, Shaboo and Julian Serrano fan out in a tripartite portal of high-end dining. The two-story window motif is picked up in Café Vettro, which also makes memorable decorative use of stepped-form glass sculpturing.
However, it’s a jarring disconnect to move from the radiant lobby into the penumbral gloom of the casino floor itself. Aria can boast one of the dullest casino floors on the Strip, a space that connotes anything but pleasure. The standardization required by server-based gambling translates into a slot floor of monotonously clone-like machines stretching into infinity. A lonely Wheel of Fortune carrousel and two Sex and the City slots will become important points of orientation. (“I’ll meet you at the north Sex and the City bank.”) This is a huge step backward in the casino experience.
Ditto the design decision that resulted in guests having to traipse from check-in across the casino floor, in a giant L-shaped route, to reach the guest elevators. This is a throwback to archaic notions of Vegas design that were thought to have died a decade ago. Aria resurrects that mindset and let’s hope it doesn’t prove contagious.
While its companion towers, Vdara and Mandarin Oriental, are harmonious in affect, Aria “speaks” in a Babel of conflicting stylistic languages, the apparent result of too many designers getting their oar in. The bigger, more user-friendly version of Jean Philippe Patisserie is all sleekness and chrome, and more than a bit fanciful — as opposed to the very literal-minded poker room, designed to look like a deck of cards, basically.
Bar-restaurant Union is dark and arboreal, which complements the lounge on the casino’s opposite site, which is dominated by thick faux tree trunks. Union’s sister venue, a lounge/high-limit-gambling area called The Deuce is ostentatiously exclusive. It’s outfitted with large sliding windows through which one can see the (theoretically) beautiful people living it up. The design subtly continues some of the motifs from Union, but with an accretion of gold plating.
Gilt is one of Aria’s few unifying elements. The gold-tile walls of Lemongrass are meant as an augury of good fortune. In the Sky Suites lobby, gilded metal is omnipresent. For a subtler touch, the overhead lighting fixtures in Aria’s hotel hallways echo the serpentine form of the building itself. In addition to 568 oversized suites, Aria also boasts 442 Sky Suites, spread over two-dozen floors. Whether these represent a stylistic triumph comparable to MGM Grand’s Sky Lofts, S&G cannot say, as our tour was confined to a couple of hotel rooms — and very nice they were, too. The Panoramic Suites, both at Aria and Vdara are not only stunning in their wraparound configuration but they’re as luxurious as any timeshare found on the Strip … and more fashion-forward than most.
The upstairs trifecta of restaurants — American Fish, Sirio’s Ristorante and Jean Georges Steakhouse — surrounds a field of 22 sharp pyramids, designed (as were Union and Sirio’s) by Adam Tihany. These are intended to represent “friendly competition in a playful dialogue.” They’d also come in handy for human sacrifices but Vegas hasn’t reached that level of desperation … yet. From a visual standpoint, Jean Georges Steakhouse stands out, its draperies and whimsical bovine decorative motifs suggestive of an upscale and slightly kinky Parisian brothel (which I suspect was the intention). They make a mean foie gras there and can whip up a terrific ginger margarita, too. The JGS service ethic also leaves its two neighbors in the dust.
The spa treatments, we were told, focus on the elements of fire, water, salt and stone. They went a little overboard on the “stone” part, as the quarry-like lobby is very noisy and reverberant — not conducive to relaxation at all. I’ve got one word for Murren: carpeting. You’ll thank me later.
Much has been made of the buffet’s design but it looked like an upmarket college dining hall to me. Ice cream shop Sweet Chill, however, is very inviting in its box-of-crayons color scheme and slightly childlike design. It could not have made a starker contrast to Terrence (across the hall) and Viceroy (immediately downstairs), two boutiques dominated by forbidding-looking forests of steel rods. But if you’re willing to drop $68 on a stuffed panda, Viceroy has a dandy German-made one for you.
As you leave by way of the North Valet lobby, you’ll pass an imposing water curtain that trickles down over hand-cast glass plates. It’s very soothing — or would have been had not the din of very last-minute construction work totally negated the feng shui.
There’s a disconnect here, too. As the hotel’s culturally nebulous brand name suggests, it’s a mishmash (or if you prefer to rationalize, mashup) of Chinese-influenced uniforms and Japanese politesse. For instance, I was handed my digital press kit — the fanciest, heaviest flash drive you ever did see — with both hands and a slight bow, per Nipponese custom. But if there’s a clash of cultures, it’s a soft and pleasing clash, part and parcel of the most dramatically different of the CC properties.
While Aria has Tihany-designed aspects, he was the undisputed auteur of Mandarian Oriental’s interior look and the resultant comity of styles contributes greatly to the serene atmosphere. It’s the hotel you will most want to stay at … and the one an Average Jo(e) can least afford. It even has benches in the elevators, which I hereby decree the second-highest achievement of Western Civilzation (just behind Stargate SG-1).
The Sky Lobby is literally dazzling, both in the way it takes advantage of sunlight, and in its profusion of marble and gold leaf. Twist’s dining area is festooned with illuminated glass bubbles and, since a wine cellar is out of the question halfway up the hotel tower, there’s a glass-walled wine attic instead.
Meant to evoke the Shanghai of the 1930s, when it was the cosmopolitan city of the Far East, the spa is all dark wood and subdued elegance. Heck, just stepping into its lobby instantly induces relaxation. Aria, take note!
A comparable emphasis on wood and fabrics is found in the hotel rooms. The one we visited was uncomfortably hot and it didn’t emphasize the view in the way many other Vegas rooms do. However, the floor plan was well conceived, with an uncongested room-to-room floor. There’s also a marvelous innovation: the “valet closet.” Housekeeping can deliver your newspaper or pick up your room-service trays by dint of a closet that opens from the hallway as well as from in the room. It sure beats the heck out of negotiating hallways lined with dirty dishes and glassware.
As sweeping and impressive as Mandarin Oriental’s meeting rooms are, the smaller and more ornately decorated convention area at Vdara is far more charming. Given its stunning views, Red Rock Resort may still be #1 in this capacity but the elegance of Vdara’s meeting space is not to be gainsaid.
Complements of a similar nature could be directed at Bar Vdara, the lobby, Silk Road (with its “scrotum couch”) and the check-in desk, whose Frank Stella painting’s pattern is picked up in the lobby carpet. This is the quietest and most restful of the various CC lobbies and — given Vdara’s relative isolation — the one where you feel most like you’ve taken a healthy step back from the hubbub of the Strip.
Its hallways are charmless by comparison to those of Aria and Mandarin Oriental. Also, given the commonality of room fixtures between Aria and Vdara (I sure wish I’d had the sales commission on that ginormous order of Philips HDTV sets), each hotel can’t help but feel like an echo of the other. The most obvious difference will be the small dining area plus two-burner stove, coffee-maker, microwave and mini-fridge that even standard rooms have. (It’s double that for a Panoramic room, which is more like an apartment unto itself.) While the bigger units have similar elements, they’re much better arranged and without the cramped feeling.
So there you have it. Does it feel like $8.5 billion? Not really. Nor does it seem like a quantum leap from, say, MGM Grand Detroit, a regional casino you could put on the Strip without apology. Will it succeed? I have no idea.
The sheer difference and world-unto-itself quality of CityCenter are certain to draw great curiosity and foot-traffic, as it’s definitely a must-see space, especially when one factors in the copious amount of artwork on display. (The days of imitation-Classical statuary on the Strip are numbered.)
Were its purposes and commercial appeal more diverse — or if it becomes the Vatican City of conventions in Las Vegas — it could become a thriving little cosmos. But right now, if you’re a middle-class consumer, MGM Mirage is very deliberately sending out the message, “This isn’t for you.” If they hope to fill all those hotel rooms, that’s going to have to change.