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A glitch in the glitz

Times Staff Writer

You've probably heard by now that the Wynn Las Vegas is something of a rarity: a new hotel and casino on the Strip that doesn't have an architectural theme, the way the Venetian, the Paris, the Luxor and countless others do. But it turns out the Wynn does have a theme — just a very odd one:

The theme is midrise office tower in Houston, circa 1983.

Those ubiquitous commercials may assure us that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But the only thing that appears to be happening behind the mirrored-glass windows of this 50-story, copper-colored behemoth, which cost a staggering $2.7 billion, is some filing, memo-writing and worried talk about the state of the natural gas market.

Since this is Las Vegas, you could forgive a project of this scale and budget for being baldly derivative of some architectural masterpiece. You could understand total, unrepentant kitsch. Yet über-developer Steve Wynn has decided instead to wrap the most extravagant creation of his career — a career that has been a case study in extravagance — in a determinedly banal architectural skin.

All that is forgotten, of course, as soon as you step past the man-made mountain that separates the curving hotel from the Strip — topped by hundreds of actual trees rescued from a redesigned golf course out back — and into a riot of entertainingly indulgent interior decor. It becomes clear quickly that you are not in Houston as soon as you reach the atrium. This is an only-in-Vegas garden setting, filled with an explosion of flowers, where the chirping sounds are produced not by birds but by slot machines.

And it becomes at least plausible that $2.7 billion was spent on this place. There is raised ornament covering the ceilings and decorative swirls on the carpets that lead into the casino area. The marble floors are inlaid with mosaics based loosely on Matisse paintings. Only a color scheme of chocolate brown and cinnamon red helps moderate the tone.

That atrium lets some natural light flow into the casino itself, but not nearly as much as the Wynn's marketing effort, which seemed to promise a sun-splashed interior with views of the desert in every direction, led us to believe.

Because the design world continues to revolt against the high-end minimalism of the 1990s, the persistently luxe interiors of the hotel, which are largely the work of Wynn's longtime lead designer Roger Thomas and the Jerde Partnership, feel almost cutting-edge. The key word is almost, given the déjà vu that descends in some of the hotel's grander exercises in scene-setting. Thomas' Lure lounge on the ground floor, for example, is little more than a shrine to the recent work of Philippe Starck, particularly his designs for the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan.

The Wynn's most expensive restaurants, which include a desert outpost for the French chef Daniel Boulud, are pushed right up against the mountain. They offer dramatic views of the design's centerpiece: a series of waterfalls that pour down the mountainside and into a wide reflecting pool, which hotel officials would prefer you call a lake.

Upstairs, the rooms, with floor-to-ceiling glass, offer some staggering views of the Strip and surrounding mountains but also show signs that work crews rushed to finish them. The elevators go all the way to floor 60, but that's only because the numbering system skips 40 through 49 altogether; Chinese gamblers consider the number 4 unlucky.

Wynn himself, of course, is not directly responsible for the architecture of his new hotel. That high-pressure job went to an in-house team of architects led by DeRuyter Butler. But like Steve Jobs, who has claimed design credit for the smart minimalism of the Apple stores, Wynn is not exactly the kind of boss who is liberal in spreading credit around.

The architects who work for him understand from the outset that their designs will be merely one cog in a gigantic and hugely impressive marketing machine. Wynn's name goes on the facade, the roulette wheels, the coffee cups and the shampoo bottles. Butler's name didn't even make it into the press kit.

For a while, actually, it wasn't going to be Wynn's name in those spots: It was going to be Le Rêve, French for "the dream" and the title of a 1932 Picasso portrait that Wynn owns. (Along with several other paintings from Wynn's collection, including works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, it is on view in the hotel's small art gallery. Admission is $15.)

But then the war in Iraq began, and relations between the U.S. and France soured.

"The name Le Rêve is very closely tied to France, which was an opponent to our political approach to Iraq," Butler, the architect, told Lodging, a trade magazine for the hotel industry. "It wasn't anything derogatory toward France, but Mr. Wynn started to look at other potential names."

Clearly, he didn't have to look far. "Le Rêve" wound up becoming the name of the hotel's main stage show; there is also a theater being built on the site for a Las Vegas version of the puppet-satire "Avenue Q."

Las Vegas has always been an architectural world unto itself. Tourists and French philosophers alike make pilgrimages here to gawk at its grand simulations and its almost-real skyline. Even if it's getting denser and more like a big city, for better or worse — the population of Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County is rapidly approaching 2 million — you can't apply the same set of architectural standards you would in another American metropolis. What would be ridiculous elsewhere can still be weirdly thrilling here, especially when it's set against the Strip's backdrop of funhouse urbanism.

Still, it comes as a surprise that any developer would want to spend nearly $3 billion on a project and not at least make an attempt to give its facade some visual character, either with sheer bombast or by hiring a well-known architect. Can you imagine being DeRuyter Butler, given so much money to work with and allowed to do so little with it architecturally?

To give the Wynn's budget some perspective, consider how it compares to some recently completed Los Angeles landmarks: The $2.7-billion figure represents roughly 16 Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, 10 Walt Disney Concert Halls and, adjusted for inflation, about 2 1/2 Getty Centers. It is also roughly double the annual budget for the public schools in Clark County, one of the largest districts in the country.

At a time when MGM Mirage, Wynn's main rival, has hired Cesar Pelli and Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects to help design a massively ambitious, $6-billion mixed-use development for the middle of the Strip, Wynn himself seems content to mine perhaps the least interesting period of American architecture — the very last gasp of Late International Style corporatism — for aesthetic inspiration.

And only months after Harrah's Entertainment enlisted Daniel Libeskind to help design a proposed casino for Singapore, Wynn is opening a hotel that suggests that he worried that working with a strong-willed architect might have compromised his aesthetic vision, such as it is.

He's not alone among Las Vegas developers in suffering that sort of anxiety: Directly across the strip, Donald Trump is building a 64-story hotel and condominium tower that promises to be just as uninspired and flagrantly eponymous as the Wynn — and to use even more mirrored glass.

But at least every single pane of glass in Trump's building, which is being designed by the local firm Bergman, Walls & Associates, will reportedly be tinted with 24-karat gold. That's precisely the sort of ridiculous design gesture that the Wynn could have used more of.

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