When the design firm of New York-based Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, EE&K, laid out a master plan for a site on the Strip known as 55 West more than five years ago, the challenge was to develop a location with New York City-type density but with Las Vegas accessibility.
That's one reason an additional 12 acres behind Bellagio was added to the plan that would soon become known as the 67-acre Project CityCenter.
"I can't remember if it was exactly our idea, but it was one of the first moves because we thought the 55 acres should be integrated and connected with adjacent properties," said Peter David Cavaluzzi, a principal with EE&K who helped the lead the CityCenter master-planning team. "The idea about city making is to extend and connect adjacent areas."
That's one reason CityCenter is connected to Bellagio to the north and Monte Carlo to the south via an elevated tram system.
Cavaluzzi and EE&K turned over the CityCenter master plan about a year into the process to a team of seven world-renowned architects. EE&K laid out conceptual locations for a major hotel-casino, smaller boutique hotels, high-rise residential and a high-end retail mall, all connected by roadways, walkways and the tram. The buildings themselves were just ideas.
Today, as the centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter, the 4,004-room, 61-story Aria resort prepares for its opening Wednesday night, Cavaluzzi is impressed by what took shape.
His biggest surprise was the diversity in the CityCenter skyline, which includes glass structures of 61, 57, 47 and 37 stories.
"It has a lot of energy," Cavaluzzi said. "The high level of design achieved at CityCenter is remarkable."
The idea behind CityCenter was to create a modern urban development, not just another Strip hotel-casino. EE&K spent more than two-thirds of the master planning process on the creative analysis, looking at other urban areas, researching the Strip and trying to understand what was appropriate for the site.
"We knew we had a very valuable piece of property and that we had to make it very dense to seize that value," Cavaluzzi said. "CityCenter was to be like a real city, with neighborhoods connected to each other through public spaces."
When EE&K turned over the master plan, it was up to the seven architectural firms to create buildings and structures that were unique but similar. Gensler, the world's largest architectural firm, managed the design process and kept the lines of communication open between the architects.
The firms had worked on some of the world's best-known commerce centers, museums, airport facilities and public spaces.
"It was intellectually stimulating and rewarding," said Greg Jones, lead architect on Aria for New Haven, Conn., firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. "The work constantly evolved. It was an exciting and fresh process."
Jones said Pelli Clarke Pelli had to work closely with Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, which was designing the Mandarin Oriental because of the common boundaries between the two buildings.
Pelli Clarke Pelli had created four of the world's largest private developments: World Financial Center in New York; Kuala Lumpur City Centre in Malaysia; Canary Wharf in London; and the International Finance Center in Hong Kong.
The company had never designed a casino, in Las Vegas or anywhere.
Jones said Aria needed to have an experience different than any other hotel-casino on the Strip. CityCenter Chief Executive Officer Bobby Baldwin told the firm to take a fresh look at hotel-casino design.
"We were able to give this as fresh a look as anybody on the planet," Jones said.
Aria's exterior has a sweeping glass and steel design that Jones says "offers a shimmering glow at night" now that its lighting features are taking full effect.
Also, detail was given to the hotel rooms, including a chiseled bay window that allows each hotel guest "to step outside the footprint of the building."
Jones said Aria was designed to be the "epicenter" of CityCenter, which is how EE&K envisioned the building on the master plan.
"If there is one surprise, its that the hotel-casino feels much closer to the Strip than I imagined it would," Cavaluzzi said. "I believe that comes from the perspective of looking up. It's a beautiful design."
It took five years to complete the bulk of CityCenter, although the Harmon Hotel has been delayed until 2010. Cavaluzzi said it was built enormously quickly compared with similar-type developments. He said the economic downturn, which nearly derailed CityCenter last spring, makes CityCenter rare in American history.
He likened the complex to New York Rockefeller Center, built between 1932 and 1940, and the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, all buildings constructed during the Great Depression.
"Some of America's greatest public works, such as Hoover Dam, have been accomplished during hard times," he said. "In some ways, CityCenter has faced the same challenges."
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871.