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Art: The Vital Center

LV Convention Center

A new photo exhibit celebrates the Convention Center’s glamorous past, even as the facility prepares to leap into the future

The Las Vegas Convention Center, a hulking icon encompassing 3.2 million square feet — the equivalent of 55 football fields — has seen some of the world’s most culturally momentous events, including back-to-back performances from The Beatles in 1964. Muhammad Ali beat Floyd Patterson there in 1965 (pictured), and Billy Graham used the venue for evangelical crusades between 1978 and 1980. The famous facility, which turns 60 this year, is celebrating with a photo exhibit running May 1-June 4 at the Clark County Government Center.

“World leaders and a host of U.S. presidents have spoken in its halls,” says Las Vegas News Bureau director and show organizer Lisa Jacob. “The exhibit is a timeline of noteworthy events in the history of the Las Vegas Convention Center from 1959 through 2019, illustrating its impact as a gathering place.” The center, however, is perhaps best known for hosting mega-conventions like the Consumer Electronics Show and Conexpo-Con/Agg, helping attract 42 million visitors to Southern Nevada in 2018. It’s the high-octane fuel powering the valley’s tourism engine responsible for 400,000 jobs and $60 billion in annual revenue.

But the Convention Center is also a civic landmark, a visual monolith that shapes and defines the cityscape. “It’s arguably one of the most significant structures and destinations in Las Vegas,” said Dwayne Eshenbaugh, 2019 president of the Las Vegas chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Indeed, the center is a fascinating microcosm of Las Vegas itself — always evolving, growing, morphing, and reinventing. It’s presently undergoing its 14th expansion since 1959, adding 1.4 million square feet, or about the space of the Empire State Building. Convention Center management kicked things off with a national design competition — an audacious move heralding the project’s runaway ambitions. The winner, Atlanta-based tvsdesign, in association with Design Las Vegas, beat out some impressive rivals, including starchitect Rafael Viñoly, whose work fills coffee table art books.

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Ultimately, the proposal that prevailed understood elemental truths about the Las Vegas psyche and culture. It aims to create a sensory and immersive environment that captures the imagination with a sense of  possibilities. More than just eye-candy, the strongly seductive architectural design makes a bold statement as a self-anointed symbol for Las Vegas excitement and dynamism. The center addition, in fact, resembles a Modernist piece of origami crafted from glass and steel with aggressive cantilevers, a pinched roofline and large transparent entryway expanses that let the desert sunlight filter indoors. It will help anchor a “district” upon completion in 2021, forging a seamless experiential lifestyle link between Strip mega-resorts and the Convention Center. The goal is a simultaneous nod to its “history of unique architecture,” says convention center chief Steve Hill, while still forming a “strong identity” that complements its surroundings.