Vegas, Baby!

If I could take a vacation anywhere in the world right now, it’d be Vegas. True story. Given a plane ticket with no destination and an unlimited travel budget, I’d go somewhere that Virgin America regularly flies from my town for $49. (I’d certainly stay somewhere nicer than I did last time, however. I bet room service at The Cosmopolitan is spectacular.)

I love Vegas for a lot of reasons. One, I like food, booze and gambling, so traveling to a town that doesn’t encourage me to be a better person is certainly my idea of a vacation. Two, there is no city in America that pays more attention to its image than Las Vegas. We agonize over New York skyscrapers and god knows you can’t put up a sidewalk cart in San Francisco without an Environmental Impact Review, but when it comes to “look at me” architecture, everything flies in Vegas. Some of it is effective, some of it is over-the-top gaudy. But if you’re looking to try a ridiculous idea that won’t take off anywhere else in the world, you can sure make an attempt of it in Vegas.

When we went on a trip back in February, we accomplished three tasks: finding everywhere on the strip that you could get a solid beer, finding the cheapest poker tournaments, and wandering through every single mall in every single hotel we stumbled into. (Mind you, Vegas is quite cold in February, and we didn’t know that, so let’s just say my big visions of laying out by a pool and rotating my way through every tropical drink on a menu were cut short.) You could spend a week going through casinos, taking pictures and analyzing architecture and you’d still miss half of it. I spent the early part of my career working at an architectural firm that specialized in large public spaces and an interior design firm that specialized in retail spaces, so Vegas is sort of a playground for me. As I mentioned, this trip was awhile ago, so some displays have most likely rotated by this point.

Bellagio exterior, daytime

The Bellagio is one of the newer hotels on the strip, constructed in 1998. All the structures on the strip are massive, so finding a way to set yourself apart is often important. There are two main drags that run through the strip, and the Bellagio is right in the center. While there’s a strong amount of automotive traffic (the main roads are at least four lanes), most of the traffic you’ll find here is pedestrian. How do you draw attention to yourself? In the case of the Bellagio, setting your main building far, far off the strip and separating yourself from the sidewalk by an eight acre lake with regular fountain shows set to booming music is a pretty great method.

The Bellagio structure itself is gorgeous, but you’d never know it if it butted up against the sidewalk. And they’re doing neighboring hotels quite the service by devoting so much of their property to open space – everywhere you look, from one side of the lake, you’re set so far apart from everything that the scale of these huge buildings is really put into perspective.

And, of course, with such a majestic exterior, you’ve got to follow the experience with a majestic interior. The Bellagio doesn’t disappoint.

The Cosmopolitan is the newest hotel on the strip and had been open for only two months when we visited. (It officially opened in December 2010.) Its aesthetic entirely focuses on modern, hip luxury – the flashing lights and slot machines are there, but they’re obscured by clean lines, crystal, and spaces that interact with caution, gently transitioning into one another but functioning separately.

The juxtaposition here between soft texture and hard, graphic lines is an excellent way to provide separation for the various lounges you encounter on your way into the casino. This softness+blocky neon motif continues for most of the first floor.

The use of crystal here would be over the top just about anywhere, but somehow in Vegas it manages to remain classy. They’re clumped together here, hundreds and hundreds of them stacked upon one another, creating an elegant centerpiece.

Elsewhere, we keep with the crystal theme and provide an extra textural element that’s meant to slightly obscure what’s behind it without separating it entirely. This is how The Cosmopolitan leads you from space to space – it gives you a glimpse into what’s to come but makes you wonder what’s really back there.

No detail is spared attention – what you see here is the vehicle entrance to the Cosmopolitan lobby. This view is too easy to overlook. It’s where cars will drive in and therefore offers the largest opportunity to get dirty immediately. It’s such a simple solution to just decide you don’t care about this sort of entrance and devote most of your attention to the actual lobby – after all, this is hardly a stopping point and really just exists as a transition. But here, the luxury starts when you exit your vehicle, not just after you’ve grabbed your bags and walked in to the door. It’s not every day you see white lampshades in a parking garage.

The lobby itself is no slouch, either. Remember that this is a brand new structure built from 2006-2010 – there was never a need to hide hundreds of bulky cables, CRT monitors, computer towers and printers. This is a hotel where you’re checked in via iPad – who needs big, closed-off front desks that keep you separated from the staff? The desks keep the space open, and the romantic styling of the furniture lends warmth to a space that’s so modern and clean it could otherwise run the risk of appearing sterile.

The screens lining the walls behind the desks are a small-scale interpretation of the massive motion graphics displayed on oversized columns throughout the rest of the lobby. As you can see from all the people standing around, they’re certainly visually compelling. I’m glad they resisted the temptation to make these informational – it’d be overwhelming. These screens solely exist as constantly variable texture. There are layers of depth here – if you want to get up close, you certainly can – but they’re ultimately just there to provide visual interest from any distance. The mirrored ceiling keeps the illusion extending upward and lends a little height to a (comparatively) low space.

 

When I was working in retail space in 2007, we were seeing the beginning of the interactivity trend. We didn’t have iPads yet, but we did have iPhones and other touch-screen devices, and with the invention of large-scale multi-touch screens (the Microsoft Surface was predicted to change the retail industry at that point), and we knew that we’d be moving that way over the next few years. It’s a little surprising that it’s taken so much time for us to move in that direction, but we’re still working out the kinks. The Cosmopolitan uses an interactive display in lieu of traditional floor maps, enabling you to get more information than would be possible on a static display. An interactive display is particularly effective in this sort of environment – a two-story shopping mall might not really benefit from an interactive floor map, but this multi-use skyscraper has a little too much going on to make print an effective option. And when you’re checking people in via an iPad, you’ve sort of already committed to digital options anyway.

The All Saints store in The Cosmopolitan takes a scaled-down approach to interactivity in their store, but does it quite successfully. Their aesthetic is entirely handmade and raw, but their target audience is the digital generation. In order to keep the focus on their products, unmarked display walls are combined with informative iPads. See a pair of boots on the wall that you like? Check out the iPad to see what they’ve got in stock and how much they’ll set you back. It makes for a really great experience if you’re wandering through the store browsing – no massive signs competing for your attention, just beautiful products.

The outside’s no slouch either. Their sign repeats the company name over and over in lights as a graphic element with a nod to Vegas, and a store with a glass front creates a defined interest by lining the front walls with antique sewing machines. All Saints prides themselves on keeping up a unified aesthetic but always contextualizing themselves into whatever space they’ve got – this is All Saints Vegas, and it’s done quite well.

One building over, inside the Aria, we found the Porsche store. A dark, mirrored back wall contains little pieces of motion graphics, without interactivity but still in a constantly fluid format. We weren’t as impressed with the technology here – the execution of the graphics in the wall is flawless, but the content isn’t much to look at. The motion design isn’t as strong as it could be and they’re ostensibly using it as a display to entice you into their products. I would have expected a little more out of a luxury retailer, but I’m not quite their target market, either.

When The Mirage opened in 1989, it was the most luxurious resort on the strip. There are bits and pieces now that seem outdated, but it’s been through enough changes over the years that it holds up relatively well to the test of time. The layering from the street view is great – it pushes you back from the main structure, employing a technique similar to the Bellagio, but instead of leaving that space open it gradually ramps up its landscaping to eventually pull your eye up to the height of the building. The gold windows, particularly when the sun catches them, are a sight to behold.

The space division in The Mirage is a little more traditional than The Cosmopolitan, but ultimately chooses to stay relatively open. The bar pictured above takes on a very different aesthetic than the other individual spaces around it, but leaves the front entirely open and just separates using low walls, so you can see in and out with ease. They’re relying on individual visual design to differentiate rather than focusing on actual dividers, to a pretty successful result.

 

 

The most separated of The Mirage’s spaces is Revolution, a bar that also functions as the last thing you’ll see before you enter The Beatles’ LOVE theater. It’s also one of the most recent designs here, opening in 2006. It’s a great space. The huge lettering at the front provides a great divider for the space, the bar itself is beautiful, and the design effectively bridges the aesthetic gap between the shiny casino behind it and the clean, bright theater just past it. And I’m a sucker for a gorgeous back bar.

The entrance to LOVE is just plain fun. You’ve got your very own rainbow carpet underneath you, and using shiny white surfaces everywhere simply reinforces the importance of the entrance. The mirrored spheres above the corridor are my favorite, lending an awful lot of visual interest to an otherwise boring dropped ceiling. All lines here pull your eye directly to the silhouettes at the end. Sparkly and shiny and fun.

Across the street and just a few feet down is The Venetian, an embodiment of traditional class and luxury. The Venetian sticks to its image throughout – everywhere you go, the idea is reinforced that you’re standing somewhere fancy. Despite relatively recent construction (late 1990s), it ignores the compulsion to go modern and sticks with what Vegas does best: overdone and big. The structure itself backs up all the flourishes and details, creating a big open space that allows room for them and doesn’t crowd you in.

I’ve been to the Napa Bouchon multiple times (as well as the bakery and Ad Hoc) and am pretty convinced that Thomas Keller can do no wrong. I love the Vegas interpretation of Bouchon – it’s a big, big space, and it’s difficult to make big spaces feel intimate and comfortable while you maintain an air of sophistication, but they manage to do it here. The food is incredible, of course, and they’ve managed to make the restaurant feel like a French bistro without making it kitschy. Certainly worth a visit, and fits in with the Venetian’s grand aesethetic.

 

Also contained in The Venetian is the original Sin City, which is ultimately a small kiosk in the retail/dining area. The Venetian has allowed all of its outside vendors create whatever space they want, and Sin City opts here to stick with their aesthetic (this is one of three locations on the strip for their brewery) instead of molding to the architecture around it. It would almost feel more out of place if it DID stick to The Venetian – Sin City has a pretty strong image, and this bar only seats about ten people in a very small space. I love little kiosks like this. The visual design is really strong, and even though you’re only separated from The Venetian by your own back as you sit on the bar stool, it really does feel like a separate world.

The bar top is the same one used at the larger location in the Flamingo (I haven’t visited their third location, so I’m not sure if this is standard across all three). A little swirly and disorienting, but fits in really well with the bad-boy Sin City branding. And if you’re nice to the bartender, after awhile she’ll pass you these shots, which taste an awful lot more like Mountain Dew than you would imagine. I think there was a cactus on the label. It was a long trip.

Unfortunately at the exact opposite end of the strip from where I was staying is my very favorite location to get a good beer, Pour 24. I’ll save all the descriptions of why this is a great beer bar (I’ve got another spot¬†for that sort of behavior), but this is also my favorite example of a kiosk-type location in Vegas. Pour 24 is in New York, New York, and has little to do with its surroundings. It is entirely open – not even a low dividing wall here – and overlooks the casino floor. It’s also gorgeous. The displays for liquor bottles are an awfully fun visual element and they’ve come up with a simple blue-and-yellow color palette that’s reinforced throughout the small bar without being a punch to the face. It’s unassuming but sort of draws you in at the same time. Televisions are placed high enough to not really disrupt the space but I can attest that you won’t strain your neck if, say, you’ve got a terribly important basketball game to watch. (Though we certainly don’t need to be concerned about THAT this season, but I digress.)

And my word, look at that bar. Drinking a beer in a complimentary color certainly helps.

And on another beer-related note, it’s fun to contrast Pour 24 with another one of the (only) beer-focused spots on the strip: The Pub at Monte Carlo. I just love the back bar here – when you’re contending with around 100 tap handles, it’s difficult to figure out what to do. They’ve left a lot of space between the taps and the front of the bar to enable their large staff to move around and pour, but that pushes the tap handles pretty far back from the customer. To give you an idea of the type of bar they’re running here, they’ve used the high ceilings to display a series of beer logos, and while I wish they were putting in a couple more of my favorites instead of playing so heavily to the macro breweries, it certainly does scream “this is where you can get a beer”. The space is just huge and really demands a centerpiece of a bar, and they’ve accomplished that reasonably well here.

I might live in San Francisco, but I love Las Vegas. Everything competes for your attention to varying degrees of success. The approaches here certainly wouldn’t work everywhere, but we can stand to learn a lot from the attention to detail. I can’t wait to see what’s changed on my next trip.

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