Going through my “My Documents” folder, I happened across something I wrote just after the Aria opening. It’s pointless little anecdote about my completely inconsequential run-in with Cesar Pelli.
This was back when I still had the energy to write things on spec, which is broke writer-speak for “no one’s hired me to do this, but I’m vaguely hopeful that I can sell it somewhere, so I’m going to write it anyway.” Needless to say, I never found a place for it, which happens distressingly often when you write things on spec. Knowing this, I thought it would be a great idea to write my next book without a contract in hand, which is why I’ve got a nearly-complete manuscript and no contract today.
Anyway, I thought some people might get a kick out of traveling back in time to mid-December, 2009, when the sky seemed the limit for CityCenter and I was still trying to figure out what it all meant. So without further ado, I present something that has finally found a home.
Brush with Greatness
Before I tell you what happened that afternoon in Las Vegas, I should make one thing clear: I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. I’ve written three books about gambling history, including one that traces the evolution of casinos on the Las Vegas Strip as essentially suburban institutions. I blog on the subject just about daily, turn out a few articles each month, and spend a big part of my day just talking to people about the context of the latest casino news. If there’s one thing I should be qualified to talk about, it’s casinos.
Yet a moment at the opening of the latest Strip casino, Aria, left me at a loss for words.
Aria’s the centerpiece of CityCenter, a multi-billion dollar development that brought notable architects from around the world to Las Vegas, was a chance for me to get a personal perspective on the history I study as it unfolds. It’s like a Western historian getting the chance to tag along with Lewis and Clark.
So as I explored Aria ten hours before it opened to the public, I was mentally writing an article for a local weekly about how the resort puts a fresh spin on the casino hotel, hoping that I could avoid the term “paradigm shift,” at least for the first few paragraphs.
Pausing for a second in the main lobby, across from the Maya Lin sculpture that hovers behind the front desk, the ceiling seemed farther away than anything I’d ever seen in a casino.
Aria plays with volume, light, and space, I wrote in my mental notebook, in ways that no other Las Vegas casino has to date. It’s a decisive break from the reigning Strip design philosophy, which is to cocoon the visitor in comfort and sensation from the moment he steps inside. It’s not afraid of letting the outside in, of drawing energy from the surrounding streetscape.
We’d been told that CityCenter couldn’t be explained, just experienced. Yet it’s precisely my job to explain things like what makes the latest casino resort to open different from the dozens that have come before. And I thought was doing a bang-up job.
Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted architect Cesar Pelli, whose firm Pelli Clarke Pelli designed Aria. He was walking across the lobby in an impeccably understated suit, looking not merely distinguished and not yet venerable, but positively august. This was a man who’d command respect anywhere, let alone in the lobby of a building that his team had designed.
Pelli, the former dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, has created some of the best-known buildings in the world, including the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. He’s received more than 200 awards, including the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. There are few architects more accomplished.
I turned to face him. He made eye contact as he drew closer.
And I, who was in the process of writing word after grandiloquent word that put this significant addition to the Strip into its historical context? What did I say to the man who deserved to hear it?
I got a polite nod and a smile, a fair trade for a vague compliment.
Where was all of my measured prose about light and volume? If I didn’t want to run the risk of sounding like a pretentious jerk, why not just “I’ve been in a lot of casinos, and this doesn’t look like anything else I’ve seen? Great job!”
It’s because I realized that I, as far as Mr. Pelli could tell was just some guy in a thirty-dollar tweed jacket, wasn’t in much of a position to pass judgment on one of the world’s most eminent living architects. If I tried to explain that I had something in the way of qualifications to assess his team’s creation, I’d sound like I was more interested in impressing him than expressing gratitude. Not wanting to do either, I took the easy way out: a simple, barely articulate expression of amazement.
“Really. It’s just …incredible.”
He allowed me another smile, as if indulging a child, and left me again explaining the building to myself.
… and with its astonishing views that juxtapose taxis swirling around the central traffic circle, the freeway and streets to the west, and the Spring Mountains in the distance, Aria is the perfect distillation of the urban West. It’s an ambitious, transformational….