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April 17, 2014

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Architecture Review:

Lou Ruvo Center design defines purpose of facility

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Tom Gorman

The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health will open in May.

Lou Ruvo Center: Designed for the Mind

Join us on a tour of the almost-complete Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, where world-famous architect Frank Gehry's unique design has attracted a lot of attention - both good and bad. After two years under construction, the $74 million architectural wonder will finally celebrate its grand opening on May 1st.

Lou Ruvo Center

The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which features a unique, twisting architecture, is nearing completion for its opening in May. Launch slideshow »

Lou Ruvo Brain Institute

The structure that houses the virtually completed Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, four years in the making, can challenge your idea of what a Las Vegas building is. Why are the forms a jumbled, twisted series of misaligned openings arranged among unfamiliar forms? Is this thing even finished? Where are my red tiles?

The design, by controversial star architect Frank Gehry, has had this destabilizing effect on Las Vegans since it was unveiled in 2006. Articles have questioned its seemingly disheveled mass as an inappropriate center for Alzheimer’s patients. Will the design add to their bewilderment, increase their anxiety? Is it beautiful in some strange, modern way or just plain ugly? This is the rare building that can win arguments as both best and worst building in the city.

That’s one clue that it’s a great piece of architecture.

The Ruvo facility is made up of two parts: the events center, topped by the dramatically curving and folding stainless steel roof, and the medical clinic.

Businessman Larry Ruvo, whose vision created the facility, challenged Gehry to create something truly unique within this city — a space that would entice, educate and celebrate life.

And so the Lou Ruvo Center, unlike many of Gehry’s projects, has combined high architecture with an even higher purpose. Where his other projects are works of art in themselves, the Ruvo Center marries the mind and spirit into a complex of forms. Not since the California Aerospace Museum in Los Angeles has the interior form represented the purpose of the facility as compatibly as Gehry has achieved in the Ruvo Center.

Within the seemingly overwhelming chaos of its events center lie recognizable forms and materials that calm. The design doesn’t seem likely to add to the anxiety of an Alzheimer’s patient any more than their previous, static clinics did. Indeed, it makes you aware of your surroundings in a way that more traditional architecture usually does not. It acknowledges the spirit of the mind. Inside, the glimmer of the metal panels fades, replaced by a dance of light streaming through various openings. There is a sense of tranquillity, of joy. This is obviously a space that has been created to make a difference.

Meanwhile, what the exuberant clash of metal above does is attach an image to the disease, an icon in the form of the building that can help position Alzheimer’s disease at the forefront of community awareness. Love it or hate it, you know the purpose of the clinic, and that is the real joy of meaningful architecture.

Any notion of chaos disappears once you enter the clinic itself. The entry is calming, scaled to fit a family of caregivers and their ailing loved one. Patients at the Ruvo Center do not sit for extended periods in nameless waiting rooms; instead they are greeted by a lobby filled with natural daylight. Gone immediately are the memories of sterile medical interiors, replaced by the impassioned personal touch of the architecture and the staff.

Even the corridors reflect this bond the clinic has with its patients. The corridors are slightly curved to avoid the sense that patients are on a never-ending journey down long, straight, fluorescent hallways. Instead, you focus on the daylight pouring into the hall through the open exam rooms. In place of the harsh white glare we know from visits to doctors’ offices and hospitals, here the artificial light has been turned upward, providing a well-balanced glow as the light is bounced from the ceilings.

This feeling is new and joyous. For too long we have allowed exam rooms, offices, even our classrooms to be environments devoid of life, inspiration and joy. The lack of daylight that we have accepted into these spaces seems less than humane. At the Ruvo Center we see firsthand the levitation and warmth that daylight brings to our lives. The exam rooms radiate hope, inspiration and delight. One is not lost in the confusion of unfamiliar forms but treated to a serene, calming atmosphere. One can only hope other medical providers — and, beyond that, other community institutions, especially schools — embrace this methodology. How different might the debate over student performance be if children were learning in nurturing spaces like this?

Great architecture has the power to motivate a community, to establish a strong sense of place — if we don’t settle for ordinary buildings that look eerily similar to most other dull structures that line our city. Buildings developed to simply enclose a function. Years ago, critics attacked the cost of the “Taj Mahals” we supposedly built for our libraries (much as some have questioned the cost of the Ruvo Center). That stigma has persuaded local governing boards to pause in their pursuit of architectural excellence, and that has hampered Las Vegas from becoming a community.

There is some concern, but not of Gehry’s or Ruvo’s doing: The Ruvo Center stands as the gatekeeper of the 61-acre Symphony Park, Las Vegas’s new downtown that will mature in 2012 with the opening of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. As iconic as the Ruvo Center has become, one must ask if the surroundings work in conjunction with the center or against? Within a stone’s throw from the center stands the County Government Center, the World Market Center and the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, each isolated and anchoring its own corner of the intersection. But even great buildings, as the Ruvo Center could become, are still isolated objects if they do not embraced the public realm.

If the street is not readdressed to form this connective slice of plazas, streets and landscapes we will have another icon to itself. It will not be enough if the 61 acres address only the immediate master plan. They need a larger voice that will see beyond those boundaries and address the larger context of our emerging new downtown.

For now, with the Ruvo Center, along with CityCenter and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, we’re marking a time in which Las Vegas has weathered economic devastation with several buildings that express belief in a better future. Great architecture is the result of an impassioned client and a talented architect who understand that the project can be larger than both of them. Such was the case with Larry Ruvo and Frank Gehry.

Eric Strain is principal of the Las Vegas design firm assemblage Studio.