CityCenter’s sharp-edged silhouette has now become a familiar feature of the Strip’s west side. I can still remember the kitschy façade of the Boardwalk, of course, but my memories have faded at least as much as the crappy old mannequins that used to occupy the seats on the crappy old fake roller coaster.
I actually drove through CityCenter last Sunday, and I marveled at how natural it seemed for Harmon to swoop between the shiny towers, rise up over the freeway, and pop out on the other side. The Panorama Towers are now connected to their spiritual home on the east side of I-15. They must be enjoying their release from exile, but the rest of the neighborhood looks like a hobo who just woke up at Buckingham Palace. It’ll be interesting to see whether gentrification is nigh.
Swooping back, I decided to park up at the Bellagio. That way, I could grab a ride on the new tram that connects City Center with its two bookends, the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo. I checked out the Chinese New Year’s display in the conservatory on my way to the tram, happy to be reminded that we’re entering the year of the tiger. It’s the year of the metal tiger, to be precise. Maybe that’s a good omen for CityCenter’s sabertooth skyline, I was thinking as I slipped inside a shiny blue lozenge. It could use a good year.
The tram looks a lot like the Las Vegas Monorail, but the price—free—is significantly more appealing. I got off at Crystals, the shopping mall. I think we’re not supposed to call it a mall, but the word does describe it. It’s a big interior space full of stores and restaurants. The only other word that came to mind as I migrated from cavernous level to cavernous level was “airport.” I couldn’t suppress the feeling that I should be looking for a duty-free shop as I headed to a gate.
Like a world-class air terminal, Crystals is dotted with “art.” I liked the stand of clear plastic cylinders, each with its own water tornado swirling inside. The display of flowers and colorful vegetation forming a median down the center aisle was pretty, too. For a few minutes, I stood entranced by a large, several-story-high wooden structure. From above, it had reminded me of the skeleton of an ancient ship. From floor level, the shape was far more reminiscent of an alimentary canal, complete with esophagus, stomach, and bowel. The stomach, appropriately enough, was alive with white-coated waiters moving amid white-clothed tables. I’ve since read that I should be calling this edifice a tree house, but my first uneducated impression lingers even after digestion.
My other impression of Crystals is that while I was in there, I could have been anywhere. Even Bangkok? I asked myself. Sure, why not? Or Rio, Milan, New York—Louis Vuitton and Cartier don’t give anything away. The stores in Crystals aren’t the sort to be hawking plastic lamps in the shape of the Vegas sign, and I got the feeling that anybody dressed like Elvis would be escorted to the door. While there were plenty of people wearing jeans and sweatshirts, I couldn’t suppress the feeling that they were flouting the dress code. No, there aren’t any signs telling you to wear a suit. There’s just a general frown in the air, as though Crystals was built for a better class of people than the sort who drink beer out of a plastic football.
From Crystals, I headed over to the Mandarin. All I knew about it beforehand was that it has been touted as the epitome of Asian luxury and has a lobby on the 23rd floor. Out front, doormen in black tails and — no kidding — top hats stood near huge funereal black sculptures shaped like table lamps. The effect teetered between glamorous and laughable. I was reminded of the fabulously lovely Oriental hotel in Bangkok on the one hand and the Addams Family on the other. Fortunately, the 23rd floor is quite beautifully appointed. The tea room, which has a terrific view over the Strip, was full of people enjoying their Darjeeling in stylish glass pots warmed over candles. The cakes and crumpets looked delectable. Also on the 23rd floor is a bar that opens at five and a restaurant with limited evening hours. All worth returning to, I noted, mostly because of the views.
My last stop at CityCenter was the Aria. On my way, I sidestepped another of the art works the development is so obviously proud to feature. This one was a Claes Oldenborg sculpture of a typewriter eraser. It sits inside a little guard rail adorned with a sign admonishing passersby not to touch. Whoever made the signs for CityCenter had a lot of those “do not touch” placards to make. I haven’t done the research, but I’m willing to bet that there are more anti-hand warnings at CityCenter than on the whole rest of the Strip.
Stepping inside the Aria’s casino, I felt immediately that I had returned to Las Vegas. The throng inside seemed to reflect my feeling—it was much larger and happier than the subdued group checking out Crystals. I didn’t stay for long, but I saw that the poker room and the sports book were quite popular. The latter had lots of comfortable seating, even for those who weren’t betting.
Back on the tram, I tried to sum up what I felt about CityCenter, but it wasn’t until I was walking back though the Bellagio that it began to hit me. The common assessment of today’s Las Vegas Strip is that themes are dead. The Venetian was the last great replica property, and places like the Luxor and Excalibur are hopelessly passé. “New” Vegas is all about chic sophistication, which is why Treasure Island got rid of its big skull, tarted up its pirates, and shortened its name to “TI.”
Themes aren’t gone, however. The Bellagio may not be a replica of a specific town, but there’s no question that it draws its ambience from Italian sources. Mandalay Bay isn’t a carbon copy of a real place, but its Southeast Asian personality forms the basis for its look and feel. It dawned on me, as I walked back by the “Year of the Tiger” display, that CityCenter also has one of these more diffuse themes. It’s “city” with a small “c.” From skyscraper to sidewalk, CityCenter is an artificial rendering of a generic urban center. Its creators were systematic in copying common features of cities everywhere while omitting anything that might suggest an actual location.
In “real” cities, CityCenter seems to be telling us, art lives inside fences with small placards attached, telling us why we should be impressed (and that we can’t touch). In “real” cities, art is serious. It may occasionally be cute or funny, but only if it’s the work of certain artists licensed for kitsch by the art police. It’s never organically connected to the building it adorns, but rather added on after the fact, to make stark architecture look less severe. It must be cordoned off and labeled, so the great unwashed will realize that they’re looking at genius and keep their grubby mitts to themselves. I think CityCenter’s architects did all too excellent a job of designing their faux metropolis, creating first their sleek, sharp towers and then adding appropriately vetted bits of art in the same way a public art program in Chicago or Philadelphia would.
It was no wonder, I realized, that I felt the place frowning on people dressed like tourists. In the same way it’s always dusk inside the Venetian, it’s always business hours at CityCenter. It was only when I stepped inside the Aria’s casino that I felt as though the five o’clock whistle had blown.
My thoughts were underscored as I passed the Brooklyn Bridge on my way down the Strip. There was the Statue of Liberty getting squirted by its adoring tugboats. New York New York is a jolly, after-hours version of a city – a place you go for a beer, not to see your accountant. The whole place is unlicensed kitsch, but that’s exactly its appeal. It’s off-the-clock fun.
Then came the Luxor. The giant stucco Sphinx has no placard explaining its merit or identifying its creator. In the art world, that dwarfs it next to Claes Oldenborg’s Typewriter Eraser. Is CityCenter admonishing us to grow up and get serious? To make our buildings taller and sleeker and our art smaller and classier? I can’t help feeling as though it’s like a condescending adult looking down its nose at Peter Pan for not growing up and wearing Armani.
I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for the dumpy old Boardwalk and its silly old fake roller coaster, and, to be honest, I don’t. What I do feel sad about, even as I admire the expensive surfaces and high-class fingerprint-free sculpture, is that the Boardwalk’s shiny new replacement seems to think “fun” is out of style. I wish it all the best in this year of the metal tiger, but even though it houses a show inspired by Elvis, the King has left the building. Actually, it’s pretty obvious that he was never allowed inside in the first place. Fortunately, that’s okay. He fits in better where I saw him as I left — posing with laughing tourists across the street at the Hawaiian Marketplace.