Architecture review: Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas

Frank Gehry’s buildings can look unfinished or unruly — even a bit chaotic. But they often have surprisingly direct metaphorical stories to tell.

Walt Disney Concert Hall is a joyously informal ship of state for a city keen to come together, if only for a few hours, in a collective experience. Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica, a modest pink bungalow the architect wrapped in colliding layers of corrugated metal and chain link, is an unabashed affirmation of the workaday, un-pretty built landscape of Southern California.

In the case of Gehry’s newest project, the riotously sculptural $100-million Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, the story is about the depths — and ultimately the limits — of the human mind.

It’s the poignancy of that architectural narrative that ultimately helps the building, which will open officially with a gala celebration Saturday night, overcome its reliance on some of Gehry’s most recognizable architectural gestures. For me, and I suspect for other critics and architects, some of these strategies — intentionally crude detailing, exposed structure and the casual juxtaposition of dramatic and banal spaces, to name just three — have lost more than a little freshness over the years, particularly as the size and budgets of Gehry’s projects have soared.

At the Ruvo Center, which rises from a wide-open intersection about a mile north of the big casinos lining the Las Vegas Strip, the familiarity of those elements is balanced by a deep, affecting humanism at the building’s core. This is surely in large part because the Ruvo Center’s mission — the complex is dedicated to research on and treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurological diseases — is one Gehry has fully embraced.

Casino magnates and other potential clients here have been courting Gehry for years without success. The architect agreed to design a building in Las Vegas this time for two central reasons.

He struck up an immediate rapport with Larry Ruvo, a Las Vegas liquor distributor who was compelled to start a neurological research facility after watching his father, Lou, struggle with Alzheimer’s.

And Gehry has his own personal interest in research on brain disorders. His longtime friend and analyst, the late Milton Wexler, saw a wife and three sisters-in-law succumb to Huntington’s disease. At Wexler’s request, the architect joined the board of the Hereditary Disease Foundation more than 30 years ago.

Gehry told Ruvo he’d design the building only if Ruvo added Huntington’s to the list of diseases the new center would treat and study. The complex further expanded its offerings when the Cleveland Clinic, the multidisciplinary healthcare research and treatment center in Ohio, reached an agreement with the Ruvo Center to operate the Las Vegas facility.

Gehry’s design splits the complex into a pair of separate and essentially freestanding wings. A four-story structure to the north, which holds medical offices, patient rooms and research space, is relatively straightforward, a collection of stacked boxes in white stucco and glass.

To the south, across an open-air courtyard, is a soaring, single-room event space beneath a wildly undulating stainless-steel roof. This is among the most impressive interior spaces that the architect’s firm, Gehry Partners, has produced since Disney Hall opened in 2003. Its appeal will help underwrite the mission of the Ruvo Center, since the organization plans to rent it out nearly every weekend to outside groups.

The two sides of the Ruvo Center stand in clear opposition to each other. It’s tempting to assume that they represent the classic left-brain, right-brain dichotomy: the office wing is rational and contained, the auditorium free-flowing and fantastical. One side is a written score, the other an improvisation.

This gap also seems to suggest the divided loyalties of architects, who have to pay equal attention in their work to practicality and creativity, order and desire. Gehry, in particular, makes use of an approach to design that shifts between the analytical and the fully intuitive.

But the more time you spend walking from one side of the building to the other, the more it becomes clear that its symbolic aims are deeper and richer than that. The sensibilities of each section seem to have seeped into or infected the other.

The office wing, for all its rationality, is not a pure geometric shape but a jumbled, unsettled collection of boxy forms, stepping back as it rises and tracing a subtle arc along the streetfront. The auditorium exterior is based on a classic rationalist grid, albeit one that appears to have been draped — or to have melted —over a series of rising and falling forms.

In fact, it is precisely the close, fluid relationship between these two seemingly opposed sides of the building — rather than their separation — that gives the design its surprising emotional punch. With its intimate scale, the building allows easy access from one wing to the other across the narrow interior breezeway. The walls facing this space are painted in a range of bright colors, and the outdoor area is topped by a sagging steel canopy that seems to have grown out from the roof of the auditorium like a hanging garden, casting a shifting collection of shadows on the ground below.

The unobstructed, informal movement that the design promotes from one wing to another suggests the way we use our brains every day, flowing from left-brain to right-brain thinking and back again without noticing the difference. Given the work that goes on inside the Ruvo Center, the design is a reminder not to take that kind of movement for granted; it is a monument to the wonders of the human mind even as it is also a refuge for patients seeing those wonders slip away.

From that point of view, despite its outward resemblance to a number of earlier Gehry projects, the Las Vegas design marks a modest turn in his long career. For decades Gehry explored ways to make his buildings look incomplete — to suggest that they were not fixed but in the process of becoming something else. That fact alone made his work almost unfailingly hopeful, not to mention the opposite of nostalgic. It was about growth and forward-looking energy.

In Las Vegas — perhaps because of the kind of treatment and research that the Ruvo Center is dedicated to, or because Gehry himself is now 81 — the architect, while continuing to mine some very familiar aesthetic territory, is also hinting, in the slumping forms of the steel roof in particular, at themes such as decline and decay. A similar tonal shift is apparent in Gehry’s recently unveiled winning design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which with its twin rows of unadorned pillars has a stripped-down, even somber cast.

That’s not to say that the Ruvo Center is a despairing piece of architecture. It is anything but. And yet it seems unafraid to confront in architectural terms the damage that brain disease can do — and arguably, in a broader sense, aging itself.