We Can Learn A Lot From Las Vegas

by Geoffrey Butler, AIA

No, I don’t mean about gambling or how to cram 36 hours of excitement into 24 hours. I was thinking that we, as architects, can learn a lot about our profession by studying what they have done there and how it has worked out. To be sure, there is a lot about Las Vegas that is larger than life and grander than grand ever thought about being. The sheer scale of the development there blows my mind.

I just got back from a four day trip there to celebrate my brother-in-law’s 60th birthday. The fact that he has made it 60 years is amazing given that he is an attorney – but that is another story. This time we stayed at the Aria Casino and Resort in the new City Center Development which MGM Mirage developed with significant help from their friends at Dubai World. The project was started by MGM Mirage; Dubai World became a joint partner during the project’s construction phase. It is the largest, privately-funded construction project in the history of the United States.

With a cost somewhere above $11 billion, this project took a very large collaborative effort of many large and signature architects and construction specialists. Pretty tough to get your arms around the project. It is truly something you have to experience. Sometimes, as is typical Vegas, you suffer from sensory overload. Just too much to experience.

Looking at it from a distance, you sense some pretty impressive sculptural elements in the development. Not all of them “speak” to each other. That could be what you get when you have four major elements each designed by high profile signature architects. Each element alone is impressive and significant. However, I do not think that they relate to each other, they merely connect and sometimes fight for your attention.

Down on the street level, at the base of these buildings they lose focus. There is no human scale and there is nothing to make a human walking alongside them feel comfortable. They are somewhat harsh as they do nothing to protect you from the sun, and the rain (if and when it ever does rain), the heat and the wind. The extensive use of glass adds stress and further reduces any shade provided by one building with reflected sunlight from adjacent buildings.

When you go into these buildings you are immediately impressed by the extensive use of granite, marble, glass, steel, exotic wood and a multitude of materials. Way finding in these facilities has been relegated to extensive signage programs, diagrammatic maps and good old fashioned humans who seem to be everywhere pointing the way for visitors. To be sure, with something this large, way finding cannot be intuitive. Add to that the sales and marketing effort which forces everything and everyone to have to go through the casino to get to anything.

The really neat and zoomy things they do to accentuate spaces has to make you wonder what they were thinking. Take, for example, this image:

This wall, in a hall off the Sky Suites area of Aria has a foil wallcovering behind 3″ diameter tubes floor to ceiling set off of the wall with standoffs of varying depth. It sort of undulates. Looks neat.

Now think about this: how do they clean the dust off the wall? The spacing between the tubes is maybe 6″ and the deepest standoff is 30″. In five years when this foil is dated looking, how do they change that wall covering? How do they change the lamps?

This is a case where zoom and effect was considered and maintenance and long term costs were not.

The lighting and the use of water falls and fountains does help to make the place feel special. They can be used as landmarks in finding your way around. Even their artwork is special. Check out this sculpture. (I think that is what this is called).

That looks like the result of a college fraternity trip on the Buffalo River!

However, on a more practical and common sense level, they missed some little things. In the rooms, they went to a high tech electronic system that manages all the lighting, draperies, temperature, sound systems and the TV. I spent three nights there and still could not figure out how it all worked. Push one button wrong and you plunge the entire room into darkness and turn off the TV (right in the middle of a show). It takes frantic scrambling to get everything turned back on. On the last day, I discovered that they have “lighting scenes” programmed for you to use. One for wake up, one for everyday use, one they called “romantic,” and one for watching TV. As part of the scenes the draperies open or close, fully or partially, lights dim or go on or off, music plays or not, etc. There should be a manual for this.

But guess what? There are no receptacles by the bed. Anything that you have that you want to plug in has to be plugged in on the desk across the room. I have sleep apnea and have to have a CPAP machine to sleep. They had to bring me a bright yellow industrial strength extension cord to run across the room from my bed to the CPAP machine. This was a tripping hazard in the middle of the night on the way to the john.

Incidentally, the desk across the room is right in front of the 42″ LCD TV. So, if you want to work on your laptop while your wife watches TV, you have a problem.

Spending time wandering around this massive development provided you all sorts of things to ponder and learn from. There are some really innovative things they have done which you can file away and possibly apply to projects we may have. there are also things you can file away as something to not do. there are things we will never get the chance to consider doing simply because of the cost and complexity. Maybe that is what is great about architecture, most of what we do is unique and special and, for the most part, are not repeated over and over again. We have to learn from the success and failures of our fellow design professionals.