"I'm fascinated with some of the architecture, fascinated with it," the legend on the line insisted. "I mean, that little one with the castle that looks like a cartoon?"
"Yeah, the Excalibur," I answered knowingly, expecting a punch line.
"That knocks my socks off," the legend said in all seriousness. "You never see anything like that on that scale outside of Disneyland, you know? But Disneyland doesn't ever build it that big. So it's fascinating to see—it's enlightening too. It's interesting. That's one of my favorite buildings there."
In my head, I'm saying, Are you shitting me? But you don't ask a man like Frank Gehry that question. At least not that way. Instead, I said it this way: "The Excalibur castle is your favorite building on the Strip?"
He laughed. "It's one of my favorites."
Shhh. Don't tell Cesar Pelli, who gave us Aria, or Helmut Jahn, who designed the Veer. Or certainly not Lord Norman Foster, who has had the ignominy of envisioning a hotel-condo tower for CityCenter, only to have it shorn nearly in half because of construction defects, and then used as a billboard for an Elvis show. CityCenter's fine, but $8.5 billion later, the man known—debatably, but still known—as the Greatest Living Architect has a soft spot for ... the Ex?
"One of the critiques of CityCenter is that the architecture is evocative of architecture of a lot of other cities," Gehry said. "I know Vegas is trying to become a real city, so that's the discussion and they kind of achieved it. But when you see it finished you say, 'God, I wish it were more Vegas.'"
It's such a strange remark, especially considering that the fact that we now have a Gehry building is also part of the discussion of Vegas becoming "a real city." But that was the strange tension that ran throughout my half-hour interview with the 81-year-old visionary, a vacillation from what would seem like indictments to high praise for our city.
The Gehry building we now have houses the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, west of Downtown. It's that swoopy, curvaceous steel structure with 199 windows of different shapes and angles that looks strikingly and somewhat fittingly like a melted-down brain. The architect himself insisted the inspiration was not some deconstructed cerebellum but rather just the graceful Bernini-esque draping of fabric over a lumpy surface. "I realize that some of it looks like that, but no, I wasn't trying to do that," he said. "That was accidental."
Maybe that's true or maybe it's just important for Gehry to not have his creation seen in the same vein as so many famous Vegas structures that do intend to evoke or replicate something specific. It's hard to tell.
Keep in mind, Gehry has had many chances in the past to create for the Strip. He met with Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson about designing what ended up being the Palazzo, for instance. "It just didn't feel right. I don't think we would have really gotten along." He and Steve Wynn are pals—is there any creative genius Wynn isn't chummy with?—and they've spoken of a collaboration, but "Steve designs everything himself and it didn't seem like there was a real place for us."
And, most notably, he was invited by then-MGM Mirage CEO Terry Lanni to be a part of CityCenter. "I just couldn't get my arms around it, you know?" he recalled. "I probably even needed the work."
Gehry tries really hard to be neutral or positive about Vegas, but he tends to veer too far one direction or the other to be credibly in the middle. I asked him about a remark he made in 2006 to Libby Lumpkin, the former executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, about how he'd stayed away from Vegas because "everything had been done, everything had been corrupted." Corrupted how?
"If you build an Eiffel Tower, you're corrupting the purity of the Eiffel Tower," he said. "If you build The Venetian with canals that are kind of a cartoon of the real Venice canals, you're corrupting the original. I don't know if it's a negative, but that's what I mean."
See what I mean?
Gehry's issue with Vegas isn't architectural. It comes down, as usual, to gambling. Gehry's father sold and serviced slot machines in his native Toronto, and he'd tag along as his dad delivered and repaired them. They cluttered the basement of his home, too. He found the business depressing, a view backed up in later years by finding it sad to watch people in Vegas casinos playing slot machines.
"It's not that Las Vegas isn't great," Gehry said. "Las Vegas is quite a startling conglomeration of buildings and ideas and is very exciting. I'm just not into gambling that much. It's just my own stuff about it."
When Southern Wine & Spirits honcho Larry Ruvo came calling in late 2005 about designing the institute, the Vegas liquor kingpin said he was met with immediate resistance. Ruvo recalled that Gehry turned him down flat and that he had to fight for the full 45 minutes promised with the guru; Gehry said he simply warned at the onset that he wasn't "inclined," but quickly came around when he learned it was for a brain-disease research facility.
That hit Gehry's sweet spot. For 30 years, Gehry has been on the board of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, which has funded research that has made breakthroughs on Huntington's disease. Ruvo's aim was an Alzheimer's facility, because his father had died of that disease in 1994; Gehry said he'd do it if Ruvo would expand the mission to other neurocognitive disorders. That broadened focus would prove providential three years later when the Cleveland Clinic sought to create just that sort of multidisciplinary program and learned of Ruvo's similar efforts in Las Vegas.
Gehry has enjoyed a proper Vegas courtship. He's had gin with Mayor Oscar Goodman—"I don't know if any one of us went on a binge or anything"—and he says Ruvo is always offering to send a private plane to bring him to town for stuff. He's not interested in gambling or "shows like those" we have here, but he'd come more "if Jerry Bruckheimer gets a hockey team there. I talked to Jerry a lot about it." Those Canadians sure love their hockey.
Now that Gehry has one building in Vegas, though, he's seriously considering more. He said he essentially agreed to design something for his friend, the South African casino mogul Sol Kerzner, before Kerzner's plans fizzled amid the recession. That came after he designed the Ruvo building. So has Gehry's experience with the Ruvo center altered his impressions of Las Vegas at all?
"Well, let's see what the acceptance of the building is," he said. "I guess that will color it for me."
Yikes. Now I'm worried. It's gonna be tough, but here's hoping we can all muster up at least as much love for it as we have for the Excalibur.