LAS VEGAS -- Like a lot of Las Vegas marriages, the one between the Venetian Hotel and the Guggenheim Museum was born of some seriously misplaced optimism. Presided over by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, with St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum standing by as a comically out-of-place bridesmaid, the union was planned in the late 1990s, when the Guggenheim brand and the transformative power of high-design architecture both seemed unassailable.
But it was fragile from the start: Though Steve Wynn had opened a small gallery at the Bellagio a couple of years before, there little evidence to back up the notion that large numbers of visitors would abandon the card tables and slot machines to look at art in a museum setting. And the timing could not have been worse: The Venetian unveiled its pair of Koolhaas-designed museums in October 2001, just as the number of travelers to Las Vegas was plummeting in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
As a result, the divorce -- which became final Sunday evening, as the hotel closed its Guggenheim Hermitage Museum for good -- hardly comes as a shock, because the hotel had already shut down the larger of the two museums in 2003. That space, which Koolhaas dubbed the “Big Box,” was quickly turned into a theater where “Phantom of the Opera” now plays eight times a week. Wrapped in walls of Cor-ten steel, the suite of galleries that survived until Sunday -- the “Jewel Box” -- made up the architectural equivalent of the couch in the living room, where the unwelcome husband sleeps until he can find a place of his own.
So what to make of this starter marriage between starchitecture and the Strip? Is it a cautionary tale about museum satellites or something closer to a worthy experiment, a bit of transitory culture for a transitory city? What does it say about the legacy of Thomas Krens, the swashbuckling Guggenheim director who stepped down in February?
Most residents and tourists will barely register the loss of the museum, which drew 1.1 million visitors over nearly seven years. The Venetian will simply morph, with the menacing ease of a comic-book villain, into its latest, post-Koolhaas incarnation. The Jewel Box is reportedly set to become a sizable Louis Vuitton boutique. Still, the Guggenheim foray does offer some lessons, particularly when it comes to differentiating between spectacle as defined by leading architects and as it exists in Las Vegas.
For Koolhaas -- and for his Rotterdam-based firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture -- the Vegas closure has to sting. Certainly it’s a reminder of a fact we all forgot for a time in the glow of his triumphant 2004 Seattle Public Library -- that on the whole OMA’s attempts to build in the U.S., plagued by misjudgments as well as plain bad timing, have not gone well.
More than any other leading global architect, Koolhaas has made a point of taking his designs to mass audiences and trying to engage and learn from them in equal measure. Indeed, Sin City seemed a perfect fit for his firm, a proving ground for his ideas about spectacle and architectural authenticity in a post-authentic age.
The fate of the Guggenheim Hermitage suggests how tough it is to maintain even a faint blip on the celebrity radar in this city. As Elizabeth Herridge, the director of the Guggenheim Hermitage, told me last week, Frank Gehry is famous here -- but only because of his recent work designing jewelry for Tiffany. The Koolhaas name, on the other hand, never meant much; on the Strip, Rem’s Q rating couldn’t even match Rita Rudner’s.
During his controversial reign, Krens turned the Guggenheim into the art-world equivalent of a colonial power, seizing opportunities for expansion around the globe. And as with any failed colonial enterprise, the hand-wringing and the postmortems are going on back in the home country, which is to say in New York and in the museum world. But as always, those discussions are far more relevant, going forward, for the abandoned colony itself.
Las Vegas at the moment is a boom and bust town simultaneously. The newspapers are full of stories about construction projects stuck in credit-crunch limbo. The neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city are studded with foreclosures. But signs of realized ambition are also more evident here than perhaps they have ever been. They include Donald Trump’s new gold-tinted condo tower -- at 64 stories another example of the gaudily banal architectural style he long ago perfected. The Venetian now has a gigantic sister hotel in place next door. Called the Palazzo, it includes more than 3,000 rooms, with construction costs of nearly $2 billion.
More to the point, there is the huge CityCenter complex, which will feature condo, casino and retail space inside buildings by a clutch of big-name architects, including Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, Helmut Jahn and Rafael Vinoly. It remains a beehive of activity, rising steadily toward completion in late 2009 or early 2010. That project, with a budget of $8 billion, will offer a bigger and higher-stakes test of the idea that authentic contemporary architecture has relevance here and that design itself can be a draw.
Of course, its owners have hedged their bets on that score. Although the individual buildings will likely seem crisply restrained and well designed by Las Vegas standards, the sheer scale of the place -- more than 18 million square feet, arranged in a ring of five towers -- will offer its own kind of ostentation.
Without a substantial offering of showmanship, contemporary design has never proven to be a magnet in and of itself in Las Vegas. Inside the new Palazzo, for example, just a short walk from the former site of the two Guggenheims, there is a new noodle restaurant called Mainland. Designed in an impressively cool, colorful style by Paris-based architect India Mahdavi, its interior rivals any new restaurant in L.A. But during lunchtime on a recent weekday, it was basically empty -- far quieter, in fact, than the museum downstairs, which thanks to free admission in its final month was drawing a respectable stream of visitors.
That, in the end, suggests the odd fatal flaw of the Koolhaas project here: It kept the town’s maximalist aesthetic at arm’s length, rather arrogantly refusing even to aspire to the spectacle we all expected of it. (The stunning UFO-like Koolhaas library in Seattle, a city where spectacle for its own sake is often looked down upon, has no such reservations.) Both sections of the museum were blunt and austere, incisions into the brocaded fabric of the larger hotel -- and the larger city, for that matter -- that came off as aloof rather than refreshingly unadorned.
The design suggests the divide that has always existed in Koolhaas between populist impulse, however opportunistic, and cunningly discriminating taste. Though he is an unusually gifted designer, and though he holds rather romantic notions of engaging the masses with his work, he remains very much a critic at heart. His mind naturally moves to dissect the world rather than assemble its fragments. (In that sense he is the perfect negative image of Gehry.) He was able to see quite clearly what Las Vegas didn’t have, in other words, but not what it needed.