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Desert Companion

Our favorite buildings

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Photo credit: Christopher Smith

An unapologetically subjective guide to the structures and spaces that define our city — and make it beautiful both inside and out

 

Eye-Catcher

Las Vegas Library

The immediate thing to love about the Las Vegas Library is not its pedigree — it was designed by starchitect Antoine Predock — or even its stylized wink at the desert, which so few of Vegas’ major buildings acknowledge. (Indeed, most deny it.) Instead, let me direct your attention to the toybox playfulness of its shapes: cylinder, block, cone, plane. It’s just fun to look at. (For a building.) Viewing tip: Don’t think of the shape-jumble as the expression of some complex architectural theory, though it surely is — Predock’s a very smart man, after all. Rather, imagine them as oversized toy shapes, which renders the whole thing rather funny: a building made of building blocks. And remember that it was originally built to house a children’s museum and — building blocks of knowledge! — a library. I can't resist a building that so joyously enacts its guiding spirit. Now, sure, you might wonder if its flagrant distinctiveness is a bit glib, too show-offy for the neighborhood. Please. A drab cityscape serves no one. So celebrate the cheery impudence of the Las Vegas Library. Then note the way its sandstone responds to the desert; and that it was designed by a preeminent talent of Southwest modernism. — Scott Dickensheets

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Morelli houseHistory Lesson

Morelli House

The home of former Las Vegas Sands bandleader Antonio Morelli miraculously escaped the wrecking-ball — a rarity among local landmarks — surviving today as a brilliant example of midcentury architecture, characterized by post-World War II Atomic-era optimism, newness and creativity. The low-slung, 3,300-square-foot residence was built in the exclusive golf course subdivision, Desert Inn Estates, where Betty Grable, Wilbur Clark and Robert Mayheu were neighbors. Although the neighborhood was razed in 2002 for the Wynn Las Vegas, the Junior League rescued Morelli’s little-known cultural gem, moving and restoring the building’s bold horizontal lines, deep shaded overhangs, natural materials and organic interiors with Vladimir Kagan furniture. The home reflects a sunny outdoors lifestyle with an airy and transparent design made popular by modernist Southern California architects R.M. Schindler, E. Stewart Williams and Paul R. Williams. The asymmetrical wood-and-glass building has a long, gently sloped roof covered with crushed white rock to reflect sunlight; it also cantilevers to create shaded eaves. A patterned concrete-block screen creates textural variety that catches sunlight throughout the day, casting playful shadows across the building’s surfaces. The central space, meanwhile, is a soaring pavilion with exposed redwood beams and clerestory windows that frame the home, rising above two flanking wings for the kitchen and bedrooms, which are divided by low partitions for an exaggerated sense of scale. The living room has a pleated copper fireplace set against a white stone wall that serves as a sculptural focal point, communal hearth and gathering place. A butt-joined floor-to-ceiling glass wall faces north, toward the backyard, allowing daylight to stream inside, blurring the distinction between indoors and out. The 1959 home, designed by architect Hugh E. Taylor with active input from Morelli, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It now stands at Bridger Avenue and Ninth Street and is open for tours by appointment. — Tony Illia

 

Fremont StreetKitsch

The Fremont Street Experience

The Fremont Street Experience is  an oxymoron: a public pedestrian mall warped by the covetous warrants of the private sphere — enclosure, entrancement and entrapment. Canopy-covered, feature-clogged, the Fremont Street Experience is open urban space that’s been fermented.

And yet its grinning sketch and funk keeps us honest about ourselves. The Fremont Street Experience is like that juvie record you can’t get expunged, that regrettable tattoo you’ve thought about getting removed but haven’t. What stays your hand? An unconscious reckoning that maybe it’s not such a good idea to always lie about yourself. And, you admit, you’ve grown fond of it on the most superficial terms: So the Fremont Street Experience doesn’t work quite like the instruction manual says. The light show blazes, but, hey, it said nothing about scruzzly panhandlers and bad Michael Jackson impersonators and dead-eyed, skeletal bevertainer girls robotically swaying their skirts to a guy in a wig singing Whitesnake hits. But those gritty free radicals give a kitschy lie to the formal intent suggested by plannerese like “pedestrian plaza.” Embrace the Experience. Raise your plastic football filled with margarita and shout a foul prayer to America on the big, big screen. — Andrew Kiraly

 

StratospherePlacemaker

Stratosphere

I often think of Lurch, from the Addams Family, when I look at the Stratosphere Tower: freakishly tall, ungainly, not notably articulate. Lumbering. Heavy. “Generally,” creator Charles Addams once said, “the family regards him as something of a joke.” That’s the Stratosphere, all right. Resembling nothing so much as Bob Stupak’s middle finger to his detractors, it lacks the surreal grace of the Space Needle, or the embodied aspiration of Tokyo’s SkyTree, or the flaming wizard-eye of Mordor’s tower. But here’s a thought experiment: As you drive around the next week, take note of how often you can see it. From a distance, it lords over the skyline. Closer, in midtown or Downtown, it peeps between foreground buildings, its gaze following you, orienting you in the valley. That makes it the very essence of architectural placemaking in Las Vegas. No joke. — Scott Dickensheets

 

High RollerEye-catcher

The High Roller

The fact that the High Roller looks like it should have been there all this time suggests we’ve needed its presence for longer than we’ve realized. Not the ride, but the form: in a scan of our skyline, it’s a baubled bracelet that can readily shimmer with the rest of the Strip, but one whose roundness and elegance suggest a welcome feminine principle at work among the masculine monoliths of Las Vegas Boulevard. Consider that contrast: Hulking and glitteringly opaque, most of our casinos reward a lingering gaze with the suspicion that (oh dear) they might just be (sigh) flimsily themed cash-traps after all. The O shape of the High Roller is earnest, honest and hopeful. And, like a new pushpin on a faded map, the High Roller acts as an additional clarifier of the Strip, taking its place among the Stratosphere and Luxor as statement-making structures that tell the Vegas story: one is about one of our crazy stepdads, one is about that embarrassing cosplay phase of our adolescence, and one is about growing up cautiously — but confidently and gracefully. — Andrew Kiraly

 

Angel Cathedral

Cool Story

Guardian Angel Cathedral

Cathedrals are often designed to raise your eyes and spirits toward the heavens, and historically, the most celebrated have been breathtaking, ornate buildings with vaulted chambers that elevate religious worship. And yet each time I drive to the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Las Vegas Strip, I have to be very careful not to miss it — it’s a small A-frame building tucked into a fold between the Encore and a mini-mall, between a towering LED sign advertising “Surrender” — a nightclub, not a message to the spiritual seeker, and a billboard for “Illusions” — a magic show, not a prompt for metaphysical rumination.

And this is why I love the Guardian Angel so much. In its humble space, which it has occupied since architect Paul Revere Williams designed it in 1963, it has consistently thrown Vegas’ most ostentatious buildings and hedonistic themes into delicious juxtaposition with, of all things, quiet contemplation of God.

By itself, the cathedral is a charming modernistic take on the traditional basilica. It’s front façade shows a blue, red, yellow and white mystical-realist mural by Antonio Morelli of an angel and the words, “Prayer,” “Peace,” and “Penance” in tiger orange. That scene is set atop a simple, midcentury yellow-and-white diamond pattern on the lower walls, and the front doors lack ornamentation. The cross tower is also modest, and beneath it stand simple, elegant sculptures of Mary and Joseph with Jesus as a boy.

One knows instantaneously, of course, that these are not Caesars Palace statues that may begin to talk on the half hour; they are the holy family. And although I am not Catholic, I adore that jarring mental twist: a quick shift to sincerity from the widespread folly of the Strip. This is the beauty of the Guardian Angel that I treasure, and why, once in great while, I go to the 12:10 p.m. daily mass.

It’s open to the public and has drawn nearly a hundred people each time I’ve been there: casino workers, tourists, homeless people, Catholics and non-Catholics, old and young, English-speaking and non-English speaking. The priest’s deep, chanting prayers and devotions echo through the nave, bouncing off of huge mystical-realist stained-glass windows over spartan wood pews, and a calm that is otherwise foreign on the Strip takes over. After communion, people file out, most genuflecting before the massive, wooden sculpture of Christ on the crucifix that hangs by two Cirque-like wires from the ceiling near the altar.

Before returning to the Strip from this most unlikely moment of cloistered meditation, some visitors pause to light a votive prayer candle — but not with a flame. Here, appropriately, the votives are electric and the push of a button lights a single bulb, among rows of many, many lights. It’s delightful. — Stacy J. Willis

 

McCarran

McCarranEye-catcher

D Gates at McCarran Airport

The word “slick” has a bad rep: “Smooth and superficially impressive but insincere or shallow” is how my dictionary puts it. But it also defines slick as “done or operating in an impressively smooth, efficient, and apparently effortless way.”

So when I laud Concourse D at McCarran International Airport as slick architecture, it’s not damning with faint praise. I’m saying, this is one smooth, impressive, efficient, effortless piece of architecture. Designed by Tate Snyder Kimsey in 1998, the 45-gate building remains the best contemporary structure in the city — and it’s clearly superior to the airport’s new Terminal 3, a somewhat leaden, perfunctory building completed in 2012.

The D Gates are a dream of sleek, sophisticated air travel. With an exterior of glass and elegant blue and grey metal panels, the D Gates are the future, the real future, not some silly Googie-Jetsons future, but a future that is recognizable and plausible and actually real.

The D Gates are streamlined and stylish enough to not feel too starchy (like the buttoned-down corporate high-rise architecture of, say, Aria), and yet the underlying symmetry and proportion give the building purpose. There is both weight here and a sense of lightness, ease, charm.

But what really makes it work, beyond the sterling material palette? It’s the large and magnificent full-height entry space, with its map of Nevada on the floor and huge escalators taking you up to the heavens; it’s the warm and abundant sunlight dancing through the building; it’s the crisp signage; and it’s the stunning art: neon and murals of the desert and tile mosaics of the world’s great cities, adorably crafted by area schoolkids.

Air travel is a phenomenal human achievement. The buildings where we leave the earth and return to it should be grand and inspiring, soaring; they can also be cool, sexy, and make us feel like cosmopolitan adventurers. The D Gates manage both. I always feel exalted, optimistic, happy, when I find out my flight is departing from here. The whole place is a giant breath of fresh air, still. — T.R. Witcher

 

La ConchaHistory Lesson

La Concha

Oh, glorious conch shell of architectural delight! Oh, undulating parabolic swoops of gravity-defying concrete! At first glance anomalous to Paul R. Williams’ illustrious catalog, the La Concha Motel Lobby hints at the architect’s elegant and curvaceous commercial interiors. It is also a most perfect interpretation of the midcentury zeitgeist. In a career spanning 50 years and roughly 3,000 buildings, the pioneering African-American architect made several contributions to the valley’s landscape: the Guardian Angel Cathedral, Beverly Green Estates and housing for the Basic Magnesium Plant. But none compare to the La Concha’s exuberant (if modestly scaled) whimsy. Built in 1961 next to the Riviera in the heart of the Strip, the La Concha was restored in 2012 as the Neon Museum’s Visitor Center. (I’m the executive director.) Basking in the reflected glow of a rainbow-hued desert sunset, she’ll leave you giddy with her hushed pink Googie wink. — Danielle Kelly

 

Desert SolCool story

Desert Sol at Springs Preserve

Desert Sol is a cozy hole for stylish Mojave rats, with their environmental awareness all wrapped up in a modern design sensibility. The UNLV team behind the house won second place in the 2013 Solar Decathlon international design competition in part because its leaders understood the importance of a well-defined end user. They created the 750-square-foot space specifically as a second home for moderately affluent folks who want to be able to step out their front door for a hike in the morning, come home and lounge with a book in the afternoon, and throw a fabulous party in the evening— all while minimizing energy and water use.

But there’s no soul without poetry, and the “Soul of the Mojave,” as designers dubbed Desert Sol, wouldn’t move the most committed sun-lovers the way it does without turning engineering feats into gracious nods to nature. The rainwater-capture system masquerades as a decorative fountain flowing outside the kitchen window, which opens like a laundry chute to let in cool air and the soft babble of water. Rooftop sunshades designed to deflect or contain heat, as needed, are made in the image of shadows cast by mesquite trees. And the inside-outside conversation opened by tall windows, spacious decks and distressed wood exteriors infuses the fantasy of camping into the security of home. — Heidi Kyser

 

Veer TowersEye-catcher

Veer Towers

It’s been five years since CityCenter lowered its ponderous, gleaming drawbridge to the masses. Its opening was a bookend, marking the sunset of the big, blingy megaresort era before our new, humbler age of the boutique (The Cosmopolitan) and the upcycled (SLS).
But it also marked a new height of ambition — and pretense. CityCenter was the first casino project in recent memory to make such a posturing, prissy fuss over its art, design and architecture. And when we tugged off the bow and tore away the wrapping paper, we got ... oh, just what I wanted! (fake, flimsy smile): a strip mall island of name-brand buildings — Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Viñoly, Kohn Pederson Fox — that take themselves a bit too seriously. Grooming higher impulses is noble, but in December 2009, for Christmas we got a frigid, Ballardian chapel to design.

Veer Towers saves CityCenter from itself. Designed by Helmut Jahn, the twin towers leaning gently opposite at five degrees bring warmth and conversational energy to what might otherwise be a static architectural food court. Their sway reflects the pedestrian currents and stories of the Strip — the buildings suggest chummy drunks, gawking tourists, buzzed conventioneers hooking up. Their crawling bitmaps of irregular yellow panels add color, movement and dramatic reflections — another dose of life and humanity to deflect the slick brochure vibes coming from the mirrored tuxedo of the Aria, the aggressively demure Mandarin Oriental.

If you’ve only seen Veer Towers from afar, you’re only getting half the story. Walking around the towers for some up-close rubbernecking reveals angles, vantages and unusual kinetics that hint at drama pulsing beneath the whimsy. It’s appropriate that Veer Towers isn't a hotel but rather a residence — people live in these very human monuments to caprice. Indeed, architect Jahn has said the mutual lean has a practical motive as well: To optimize the views for residents, those towers have to get out of each other’s way. — Andrew Kiraly

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