Despite its reputation, Las Vegas is, visually speaking, a surpassingly orderly place. The Strip anchors the city’s fantasy side, and the low-slung subdivisions and shopping centers hold down the rest.
Which is why the intersection of Bonneville and Grand Central Parkway is so interesting. It defies easy categorization, since it’s bounded by four buildings that, frankly, have nothing in common with each other: the Clark County Government Center, a red sandstone edifice framing a green plaza and bookended by a cool (if somewhat pointless) pyramid; the low and long Las Vegas Premium Outlets, punctuated by sun screens that resemble teepees; the gargantuan, shadow-throwing World Market Center, a series of three cosmic-size boxes that exhibit wholesale furniture; and, last, the still-under-construction Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a dazzling, torquing bauble from master architect Frank Gehry.
In other words, we have the makings of either the most interesting block of architecture in Las Vegas, or a train wreck.
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Make no mistake, this intersection is crucial to the city’s developing Downtown. It forms the edge of the planned Union Park project, home to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and a bushel of new shops and apartments. The city’s bus rapid transit line will run down the heart of Grand Central. But it’s an odd place. It’s at once a destination and merely a place of transition on the way elsewhere, a place for commerce and government, in the center of the city and yet somehow removed. Look around. The Plaza Hotel at the west end of Downtown is close, but you’re not Downtown. Look west. You’re near the 15, very near, but not adjacent. And because all of these buildings (except the Ruvo) are set back from the intersection, in some ways the intersection itself tends to recede. (It doesn’t help that hardly anyone’s around. In 10 minutes of loitering on an admittedly hot afternoon, I saw just two people.)
It’s too early to see how it will all turn out, but clearly it’s the hulking, windowless and fascinatingly large World Market Center that defines the intersection and everything around it. It is the ultimate example of a building creating its own context where none existed. In its way it seems to want to bend everything else in its direction. It’s as imposing as any Strip casino, and yet, unlike them, it is virtually impenetrable.
The question going forward is, how will subsequent buildings respond?
How do you turn this into a neighborhood, which Union Park is certainly meant to be? Gehry’s Ruvo Center is trying to offer a response. His building is really two buildings in one. The front half, which faces the intersection, is a typical Gehry WTF? crushed can of titanium-faced curving forms, inset by rectangular windows. The back is an intriguing, and almost chaste, collection of white blocks and glass windows—it has the feel of a master playing with building blocks.
Right now the furniture mart makes Gehry’s building look small and toy-like. This may not be what folks are expecting from a work by the world’s most famous architect. And at first glance, it threatens to plunge the intersection into complete incoherence. But as the titanium siding works its way up the curling front faces of the facade, the building may become less toy and more jewel. Its delicacy may help balance the gravity-distorting size of the furniture mart and bring the intersection back down to earth, safe for human habitation.
It would be a fascinating and welcome irony if it were the modest size of the Ruvo building, and not the extravagance of its design, that did the most to push Las Vegas in a new direction. Maybe call it dazzle on a human scale.