Architects leaning toward Strip skies the sky in Las Vegas

In a city of whimsical designs – think pyramid, castle and New York skyline – two leaning, curving high-rise towers seem destined to emerge as an architectural icon in Las Vegas.

All they’ve got to do now is build them – no slam-dunk because of their unique design .

The towers will house 810 loftlike condominiums, soaring 36 stories above Las Vegas Boulevard and prominently serving as the gateway to MGM Mirage’s USD 7 billion CityCenter.

MGM Mirage revealed the final design of CityCenter a month ago to plenty of murmuring, most of it directed at what some real estate folk were calling „the leaning towers of Las Vegas.“

The towers are the creation of German-born architect Helmut Jahn, known for sleek, ultramodern exteriors and unusual shapes. His Murphy/Jahn firm in Chicago built the seven-building Sony Center in Berlin and the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

In order to plan CityCenter, the nation’s most expensive private construction project and its largest collaboration of name-brand architects, MGM Mirage split the project into three components, with the final piece – the retail and condominium area – coming together more recently.

About a year ago the company initiated an international design competition and selected Jahn’s firm to work alongside Studio Libeskind, the creator of the retail center, and Rockwell Group, which is designing the pedestrian areas.

MGM Mirage bought into the leaning tower design to create the kind of bold look the company wanted as a visual gateway into CityCenter.

„The angling creates a sense of motion“ as well as more openness and light, said Tony Dennis, executive vice president of CityCenter’s residential division.

They appear to stand in parallel fashion from a north-south perspective, with the lean obvious from an east-west perspective. Most passers-by will view the buildings from the skewed perspective.

MGM Mirage asked for the most creative and challenging designs architects could cook up. The company didn’t mention leaning towers.

„It wouldn’t make sense for us to shoehorn them into a certain look,“ Dennis said. „These (designers) are the best in their respective fields. These designs are forward-thinking. We are trying to capture the imagination of the city.“

The unusual design is just one of several aspects of the project that run counter to conventional Las Vegas rules. The main casino-hotel, for instance, will sit behind the condo towers without the typical Stripfront location or dramatic landscaping of tropical plants, water fountains or statuary. And the hotel tower will be shaped as an elongated S, not the more-efficient Y shape, for dramatic effect.

Pisa, Italy, is the home to the most famous leaning tower – by way of a geological quirk.

The world’s first intentionally leaning towers are in Madrid, where a group of architects created twin office buildings that lean toward each other at 15-degree angles. The towers, known as Puerta de Europa, opened in 1996, triggering controversy for their bizarre, ultramodern shape.

The Murphy/Jahn towers may be one of Jahn’s more creative efforts, but he’s no newcomer to innovative designs.

His firm received the American Institute of Architects‘ Architecture Firm Award, one of the highest honors in the field. The firm is known for unusual geometric designs driven by collaborations with engineers and scientists.

One example is the pencil-shaped Messeturm office tower in Frankfurt, Germany – a striking combination of a square, circle and pyramid in contrasting materials. The building, about the same height as the TransAmerica building in San Francisco, was Europe’s tallest building until 1997.

Jahn is also no stranger to controversy. The 1985 opening of his glass-enclosed State of Illinois Center in Chicago triggered complaints and lawsuits over sweltering indoor temperatures. Critics blamed the building’s design; Jahn blamed the building’s ventilation system.

Jahn’s Las Vegas project is the latest take on a new design trend.

„In the ’80s it was all about how you decorate the top of the building,“ said Ronnette Riley, a New York architect who heads the American Institute of Architects‘ design committee. „Now architects are pushing the entire form and creating complicated shapes by twisting and turning.“

Such designs are possible with the help of computer software that wasn’t available 10 or 20 years ago, said Riley, who worked for one of the architects who built the leaning towers in Madrid.

„This is so much more sophisticated,“ she said of the Las Vegas design. „I’d rather a building make a statement than be in the background. The play on geometry is going to be very exciting.“

Las Vegas architect Joel Bergman, who helped design the Mirage, Treasure Island and Paris Las Vegas, among other local resorts, said the towers will make other cutting-edge designs „look tame.“

In one sense the towers aren’t that far removed from the themed casinos that were popular in years past, Bergman said.

„It’s entertainment architecture,“ he said. „Buildings that twist and bend are a new kind of theme. All the architects are running out to do it to impress each other.“

Architecture critic Alan Hess says CityCenter and the arrival of well-known architects like Jahn will elevate the status of Las Vegas among the highbrow world of designers but may miss the mark for the average tourist.

„As skyline icons, the two towers will grab attention for a while, but their abstract shapes won’t have the lasting power of the Stardust sign, the Luxor pyramid or Excalibur’s castle,“ said Hess, who writes for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and is the author of an architectural history of Las Vegas. „They don’t have any lasting meaning linked to the general culture.“

Out-of-town architects don’t necessarily understand the dynamic of Las Vegas, which is all about luring customers with fanciful designs, Hess said.

He approved of MGM Mirage’s larger strategy, however. The creation of mini-cities with multiple hotels, condos and other attractions „is the next logical step“ in Las Vegas‘ super-sized development, Hess said.

Jahn said he welcomes the chance to ply his trade in a town that encourages the unexpected.

„I don’t think we could have done this in Chicago or New York,“ where urban, residential construction follows a fairly conservative pattern, he said.

Las Vegas has witnessed its share of tricky designs, including the Luxor pyramid with its cantilevered hotel rooms and inclined elevators, and the Stratosphere, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Now on the drawing board: the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer’s Institute, a provocative Frank Gehry design playing off building blocks and a crumpled shell of glass-and-steel latticework.

Jahn’s leaning towers appear dangerously askew – accentuated because each one will also twist along its vertical axis like a curving parallelogram – but are structurally in equilibrium, with each building’s mass equally distributed on either side of its center plumb line.

The design will challenge engineers but benefit residents because their views will be less obstructed than would be in a conventional high rise, he added.

While appearing to be smooth glass from a distance, the building’s skin will feature horizontal metal blades that will shade floor-to-ceiling windows from Las Vegas‘ notorious heat. The illuminated blades will slowly change colors.

The towers, part of nearly 3,000 residential living quarters at CityCenter, are expected to be complete by 2010.