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July 23, 2014

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Tom Gorman on how Frank Gehry’s design for a medical research facility elevates Las Vegas to a new stage in the eyes of a public that has long considered the town the center of architectural knockoffs

On two separate levels, Las Vegas grew up on Saturday. We should take pride in what occurred, and those who watch - and deride - Las Vegas from afar should take notice.

Detailed plans for the construction of a medical research center were unveiled and, for once, the cheering by civic boosters was not unjustified hyperbole.

Frank Gehry, perhaps the most recognized name in the world among living architects, took the wraps off his newest project: the design of the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Institute. No matter how his design is judged - and I'm only an armchair architecture critic at best - Saturday's announcement says two things about Las Vegas.

First, it provides strong evidence that something is actually going to come of those undeveloped 61 downtown acres that is some of the most important real estate in Nevada.

Here, at the junction of the valley's two freeways, plunk in the center of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan region, the city can point to honest-to-God development. And, to boot, it's stuff of the highest order - medical research on a disease, Alzheimer's, that strikes us when we are most vulnerable and puts untold pressure on children-turned-caretakers.

Moreover, the mere fact that the design for this research center has sprung off Frank Gehry's drawing board and his team's computers brings the highest level of credibility to a city scorned as an architectural circus.

To be sure, Gehry's vision for the Azheimer's Institute doesn't trumpet a sea change in the aesthetic future of Las Vegas. The town's architecture has been evolving over decades.

Las Vegas' changing face proved fascinating enough in 2001 that the Smithsonian Institution invited members to attend a three-day study tour of local art and architecture. It was conducted by a Las Vegas City Hall cultural arts specialist.

The tour was prompted by Las Vegas' transition from conventional casino architecture to more complex and thrilling resort designs and the city's emerging embrace of high art.

I went along as a reporter and remember standing in front of the Venetian when the tour guide explained that what was within arm's reach was built of genuine stone - and that much of the facade that was out of reach was carefully sculpted and painted Styrofoam.

The group applauded Las Vegas for having elevated fakery to a fine art. A man from Minneapolis contemplated the Strip architecture and remarked to me, "Whether you like it or not, it's unique in the world. It doesn't need any excuses."

But serious architecture is a measure of a city's greatness, and Las Vegas has been hobbled. How can a city recruit world-caliber architects when the city's benchmark includes the likes of a glass-encased pyramid, a mock New York skyline and a replica of the Doge's Palace? At least we do really good architectural knockoffs.

But with his aggressive arrival in Las Vegas, in Gehry we're getting a genuine article. And other world-class developers and architects now have peer permission to invest here, as we continue to advance from the ridiculous to the sublime. Architectural antics had their place for a while, but now we're going legit.

Gehry has played here before. When the Venetian recruited the Guggenheim and Hermitage museums to open galleries here, Gehry was called to design the installation of "The Art of the Motorcycle." (It was displayed in the larger of the two gallery spaces, which has since been closed in favor of live theater.)

Whether Gehry was a party to pop culture or High Culture doesn't really matter; he ventured into Las Vegas with the hope of making a difference.

But the Venetian's museums were not publicly apparent to passers-by, and so Gehry's presence in town wasn't obvious.

Now, however, we will have a world-class building for all to see, in a public space at the core of the city. It will not be a gambling palace or a temple for gluttonous living, or a high-rise designed to turn eyes in a competitive condo marketplace.

With deep gratitude to businessman Larry Ruvo for priming the financial pump on this $50 million project, and to Frank Gehry for his genius, we will now have a new kind of trophy in town, one in which we can take pride for all the right reasons.

A full century after our founding, we can now boast of a building that has nothing to do with making money or seducing tourists. It is a facility whose function is pure and noble, designed by a man whose work around the world has generated awe and amazement.

Let us celebrate because Las Vegas, a place renowned for disposable architecture, will now have an authentic building for the ages.

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 259-2310 or at [email protected]

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