Sven Van Assche
Vice President of Design, MGM Mirage Design Group
Sven Van Assche made the hard decision 20 years ago to leave his native Connecticut for the desert horizon of Las Vegas. Fresh out of Yale, where the one-time Art History major had acquired a taste for architecture, Assche (pronounced “ash”) decided he wanted to learn about design and construction in a real-world setting. He took a leap of faith, moving to Sin City, where a casino design/build firm had offered him a job.
Flash forward 20 years, and Assche is now vice president of design for MGM MIRAGE Design Group. The company is completing the multi-year development of the $8.5-billion Las Vegas CityCenter, a phalanx of six towers. In addition to the Aria casino hotel, the project has high-rise condominiums, shopping, entertainment and a Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
“We’re all still a little bit numb” about the sheer size of the place, he says. With good reason: At eighteen million square feet, CityCenter is three times larger than Bellagio next door.
Design, however, is the real attraction of CityCenter, rather than immensity, says Assche. If the size of the project dazzled him, Assche might feel equally dazed by the starry list of designers he was able to enlist: Foster + Partners for The Harmon, a hotel complex; Cesar Pelli for the ARIA Resort & Casino; Rafael Vinoly Architects for Vdara; Kohn Pederson Fox for The Mandarin Oriental Hotel; Studio Daniel Libeskind and David Rockwell for the Crystals “retail environment”; and Helmut Jahn of Murphy/Jahn for the Veer condominium tower.
With CityCenter, a challenge for both MGM Mirage and Assche was to demonstrate that architecture with a capital “A” could make an impression on the hallucinatory Las Vegas streetscape; the Strip remains the most flamboyant corridor in the world. The style for the project therefore needed to be strong: Las Vegas Boulevard is no place for the architecturally timid. The highbrow structures had to be tough enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with Vegas casinos—buildings so large they are almost cities unto themselves.
One obvious difference between CityCenter and the rest of the Strip is the emphasis on for-sale residential units. The cost of land was a big factor in the decision to build housing, according to Assche. In the early years of the decade, “the land economics in Vegas went from $8 million an acre to $30 million,” he recalls. At those moon-shot prices, “it makes sense to build a profitable product at a high density.” Housing was the only investment that could justify the heavy cost of the land.
High land prices, of course, translate into high-end housing, and those prices seem to home in on a narrow but affluent group of buyers. The profile, according to Assche, is “someone who already has a second, and a third or even a fourth home in other places around the world,” he says. The challenge, he adds, is to “convince this person, who already comes to Las Vegas regularly, that his or her home-away-from-home should be here.”
Design may provide one answer The most daring architecture in CityCenter can be found at Crystals, the 500,000-square-foot retail and entertainment environment designed by the iconoclastic Daniel Libeskind, best known for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the winning (but unbuilt) scheme for an office complex at Ground Zero in Manhattan. With Crystals, Libeskind takes on Las Vegas with great confidence. With his strong personality and unwillingness to compromise, Libeskind might have clashed with the casinos on a large scale: an architectural Godzilla vs. Mothra, with similar results for the neighborhood. Instead, his admirable solution is to meet the flamboyance of the Strip with his own language of tilting angles and shapes that defy structural logic, both used in highly expressive ways. As designed by Libeskind, Crystals looks like a falling-down house of cards suddenly frozen in time—albeit, one frozen in an elegant way. The interior architecture is by David Rockwell.
The overall goal for the design of CityCenter, according to Assche, is to create a “story line” for both visitors and residents. Visitors might begin their “story” with a trip to the casino, followed by a leisurely exploration of Rockwell’s highly theatrical interiors for Crystals, a stop for drinks and dinner, and then back to the casino or the hotel room or home.
In these interweaving stories, “the guests themselves become part of the entertainment, part of the spectacle,” he explains. “Our goal,” Assche adds, is that “you are not just a spectator but a participant. You’re part of the show.
Images courtesy of CityCenter.