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August 22, 2014

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Tom Gorman explains he didn’t see the whole picture on first impression of World Market Center’s architecture

The other day I was a little disparaging toward the World Market Center down by the Spaghetti Bowl.

I questioned some of its architectural nuances.

Well, OK, I called the place a monstrosity.

Whatever. But for the life of me, I simply didn't fully understand what it's all about. Here's this giant box of a building filled with air holes, like some travel carrier for a monster cat.

I knew that inside, manufacturers of home furnishings are displaying and selling merchandise year-round to retailers such as Walker, RC Willey and Ashley.

And twice a year, big trade shows will be staged there, attracting tens of thousands of buyers looking for the latest in ottomans and entertainment units (two of the most important pieces of furniture for any man) along with other, less-necessary furnishings such as bed canopies, curio cabinets and sideboards.

Last week, I invited myself down there and got a hard-hat tour with the fellow who is developing the place. I told him I was going to come down hard on his sense of aesthetics, but that I would at least hear him out before I went to print and nailed him.

But now I get it. And what is happening at the site speaks volumes about Las Vegas' bright future as the town matures and diversifies in subtle - but critically important - ways.

I hadn't anticipated the ultimate size of the project. It is huge. All we see now is the 10-story building (shown on the far left in the artist's rendering) and, next to it, a 15-story building under construction.

In six years, there will be eight buildings totaling 12 million square feet of display areas and convention space. It will be the largest facility of its type on Earth, with its buildings connected by sky bridges.

The complex was designed by Jon Jerde, a world-renowned architect who won my respect in 1985 when he redeveloped a sad-sack part of downtown San Diego into the exciting Horton Plaza shopping mall.

Jerde does big projects worldwide. He designed the Mall of America in Minnesota - the largest shopping center in the United States - and Universal City Walk, the retail-entertainment complex in Los Angeles.

In Las Vegas, Jerde designed the Fremont Street Experience and the Bellagio, Palms and Wynn Las Vegas hotels.

When I criticized the first building at the World Market Center, I didn't understand its context. Having viewed the models and renderings, I now applaud the entirety of the project. It is splendid for combining function and form.

The project's scale might seem massive but I'm betting Jerde will minimize it by having fun with geometric forms, glass facades, water and light. The nearly 300-foot-high escalator treatment in the second building will knock your socks off.

Initially, I was annoyed on behalf of motorists traveling along Interstate 15 who will see the massive, less-attractive back side of the complex (not unlike how we view the event centers and parking structures of our casinos).

But I better understand now that the 57-acre project will properly face the city's 61-acre Union Park project. (That's where the Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Institute will be built, hopefully along with a performing arts center, medical and sports facilities, condos and other trappings of an urban village.)

When the whole thing is completed, Las Vegas will finally have a "there" there. We'll have some place to gather as a community instead of at the library on West Sahara Avenue or the Galleria at Sunset mall's food court.

Maybe even more important for the city's future is how the World Market Center signals an evolving business strategy in a town driven by travel and tourism. Our future depends on how successfully we can exploit that economic engine, because we'll never grow wheat or produce steel.

The beauty of the $2 billion collection of furniture showrooms is that it will feed our resort and gambling industry by attracting well-heeled business people year-round. Come for the credenzas, stay for the casinos.

The furniture mart game plan has inspired aerospace promoters to consider a year-round trade-show presence at the future Ivanpah airport complex. Think Paris Air Show, in the desert.

We have developed an unparalleled expertise in the revolving-door convention business. In weekly spurts, the town is swamped by cowboys, computer geeks and clothing manufacturers.

The sprawling World Market Center shows that we can take the convention business to the next level. I can't believe anyone would have ridiculed it.

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

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