It didn't take long for a charged subtext to emerge when roughly 500 architects gathered to hear Steve Wynn and architect-developer Anthony Marnell at Wynn Las Vegas last week. It was the unspoken issue that circled the American Institute of Architects 2005 National Convention, namely that 25,000 guardians of design ideals should convene in vulgarity's ground zero.
Seated onstage in a rose-and-salmon meeting room whose coffered ceiling was accented with parasol-like adornments, Wynn and Marnell looked as if they were about to lead a genial book discussion. After speaking expressively about the increasing sophistication of the contemporary resort guest ("And so we dial up our moments, we decide what our experience should be..."), Wynn got to the point: "Well, here you are, the AIA in Las Vegas, Nevada, of all places. What happened to you? Did you get confused?"
Marnell, of Marnell Carrao Associates, Wynn's architect for Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio, noted that his client focuses on meeting customer needs. "We are not about excess here," he asserted. The laughter was more genial than derisive, but the moment nonetheless unfolded a phantom conflict between purists and hedonists. It was chimeric because most architects, after all, are about the business of pleasing their clients and the public, and for the most part the audience was deferential.
But Wynn waxed defensive, although never less than gracious. He mentioned several times negative comments by critics that his building was "banal." The curling, bronzed, glass-sheathed tower reflected the need to provide visitors with floor-to-ceiling views, he said. "That's what happens ... if you think about the guests. Does that make us crassly commercial, or is this what the architecture is supposed to be about?"
It is, of course, and architects know that better than anyone. Only a handful of stars are hired to design trophy buildings, and the profession long ago rejected the notion of erecting elegant ego sculptures. At its best, architecture is about meeting grubby, programmatic needs with flair or distinction, and Las Vegas is a laboratory for doing just that. In a sense, Wynn was right that his critics "didn't get it."
But it was clear they got to him. Several times he cited a review by Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne, at one point even quoting Hawthorne's withering remark that the supposedly themeless Wynn Las Vegas betrayed the motif of "mid-rise office tower in Houston, circa 1983." Nothing gladdens a critic's heart quite like hearing the target of an unflattering review quote its most felicitous phrase.
Aside from the fact that the presumed conflict was illusory, the unfortunate thing in all this was that Wynn spoke evocatively, if a little fulsomely, about his design imperatives. Outlining his taste for the nourishing effects of water and sunlight, his affinity for Henri Matisse, even his "six-month quest" for the tower's bronze skin, Wynn made it clear that meeting and exceeding the customer's needs is more than merely formulaic. He even acknowledged "the trace of an evolutionary process" toward more subtlety in Las Vegas design.
One audience member rose to praise Wynn's chestnut-toned tower for its simple refinement, but wondered why that quality had been checked at the entrance.
This hints at the need for an evolving sense of subtlety in Las Vegas. Architects please their clients by pleasing the public, but the best do it with the least obvious effort, inside and out. Wynn and Marnell might have helped remind architects of this by dealing with the imagined tension between taste and indulgence.
"I think the issue has been brought to the fore," said Wynn. "I hope you will deal with it."