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April 24, 2014

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Ruvo Center architect’s form helps direct focus on a cure

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Kristen Peterson

Larry Ruvo, left, led a tour of the nearly complete Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health for architect Frank Gehry, seated. “I was knocked off my feet,” Gehry says about seeing the interior.

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

In his audacious campaign to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, businessman Larry Ruvo is about ready to check off another milestone.

1) Establish a foundation to raise money for a world-class research and outpatient treatment center, check. Its fundraising efforts have been nothing short of remarkable — more than $80 million pledged or collected in 14 years.

2) Draw attention to the project by enlisting master architect Frank Gehry to design the center, check. His scribble on a napkin has been transformed into a catawampus stainless steel structure that appears to have melted and buckled.

3) Bring legitimacy to the effort by partnering with a world-renowned health care provider, check. The marriage with the Cleveland Clinic — which specializes in neuroscience — will support Ruvo’s mission with top-drawer talent and national reach.

And now, four years into his life’s mission, Ruvo in May will formally open the $75 million-plus Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, distinguished by its jaw-dropping activities center for private and community events.

Ruvo is planning to take the show on the road, building a network of facilities to research brain ailments and treat their victims in the name of his father, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. Reno will likely get the first satellite brain health center, he says. Then, the Midwest.

But for now, Ruvo and Gehry, bonded by their concern for neurological diseases, are enjoying the moment, relishing the completion of a facility that, even when framed by the architectural circus of the Strip, can claim iconic distinction.

Ruvo says when he recently ushered Gehry into the center, giving the California architect his first view of the almost-completed facility, Gehry gasped.

Gehry says the experience of seeing the manifestation of his vision literally took his breath away.

“I was knocked off my feet,” Gehry says. “When you look just at the computer rendering, there’s no juice. You have this fantasy in your head, but the drawings and renderings don’t have the feeling. But when you walk in, it’s like a miracle. It is breathtaking. I knew what it would look like, but when you’re there, and you see all the natural light, it all comes into focus.”

Gehry says building in Las Vegas was freeing because “there is no architectural style or language or precedent.” So when it came to his design, “who knows what I was thinking? I just wanted it provocative.”

From the outside, the center’s canopy looks like exotic wreckage, warped and twisted by some ghastly event. But from the inside, its lines sweep gracefully upward 75 feet and appear softer, gentler, even cathedral-like, painted in soft white and with its 199 meticulously spaced windows — none the same size and shape — allowing filtered sunlight to flood the room.

“It has a more spiritual quality than any of us anticipated,” says Libby Lumpkin, an art historian and former executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum who is Ruvo’s curator. “It has a visceral effect that you couldn’t anticipate from the models.”

This space beneath the canopy will serve as a meeting, banquet and special-events room, with a small stage and a full-service kitchen designed by Wolfgang Puck to serve banquets for up to 500 people.

The adjoining four-story medical building offers 27 patient suites and no waiting room, because of how disheartening it can be for early onset Alzheimer’s sufferers to be seated next to ones with more advanced symptoms. Instead, patients are escorted directly to examination rooms.

Neither the clinic nor the events center canopy appears as extreme as the early models depicted them. The clinic initially was designed to look more like children’s building blocks, placed not quite in alignment on top of one another, and the canopy above the events center appeared even more askew.

“Have you heard of budgets?” Gehry says. “You start with a dream image and then you try to mediate between that image and the amount of money you have. In your design, you always overshoot your mark a little.

“But I think it’s better, actually, the way it turned out. It’s cleaner, has more clarity,” Gehry says. “Sometimes when I look at the original models, I feel nostalgic toward them. But I’m pleased with the end product.”

And so is Ruvo, who in his decision to build an Alzheimer’s research center insisted that Gehry — celebrated for his aggressively bold concepts — design it.

For Ruvo, a dramatically designed center was vital in the marketing the clinic to create a buzz to win the attention of philanthropists, doctors and researchers. He needed to show he was serious.

And Ruvo, a liquor distributor in a city that loves its booze, understood the value of impressions. What differentiates the best-selling vodkas from the lesser-selling ones isn’t so much the taste but that fancy bottle and label.

For his clinic, Ruvo coveted a fancy bottle with a great label. To him, that meant Gehry. He made an appointment and flew to Los Angeles to meet Gehry at his sprawling design studio in Playa del Rey.

At first, Gehry waved off Ruvo like some irritating gnat. I don’t have much use for Vegas, Gehry said. I don’t gamble. We really don’t have much to talk about. But Ruvo suggested he not be so rude and before the end of the day the two men discovered their shared concerns for debilitating neurocognitive disorders, including not just Alzheimer’s but Lou Gehrig’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Yes, Gehry said, I’ll do it.

Already, the center’s fundraising arm, the Keep Memory Alive Foundation, was on its way to raising its first $20 million, with a spirit of giving almost contagious among Ruvo’s affluent friends.

Gehry’s work for Ruvo was a smaller undertaking than, say, his sweeping, fluid designs of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997 and the Walt Disney Concert Hall that opened in Los Angeles in 2004, but the three projects have similarities. They are clad in shimmering metal and almost appear more as sculptures than structures.

As Ruvo Center started taking its weird shape at an entryway to downtown Las Vegas’ emerging Symphony Park, Ruvo started getting the notices he hoped for. A year ago, the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic joined the project as the clinic’s operator, signaling a new era of health care delivery in Las Vegas.

The effort to build Ruvo Center has spanned the world, involving structural engineers in India, Poland and Germany and steel fabrication in China.

The project was a bear. So confounding was Gehry’s design that 145,000 drawing sheets had to be hand-designed versus by computer. Eighteen-thousand stainless steel pieces had to be constructed, no two alike. Each window had to be individually cut to its own peculiar size.

So tricky was the assembly of all these pieces — involving 60 to 100 bolts to lock each piece to the next — that surveyors had to monitor the progress with precise global positioning system devices.

Click to enlarge photo

Renowned architect Frank Gehry takes a guided tour of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which he designed.

Ruvo says the finished building will create exactly the kind of provocative reaction needed to draw attention to his mission to collect the best minds to search for a cure for Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases, and for the treatment of sufferers.

In the end, Las Vegas will be able to claim a role in the evolution of architecture, Lumpkin suggests.

The Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao “initiated the wild side of architecture and now, with the global recession, no one is anticipating this high-architecture trend to continue,” Lumpkin says. “This project, along with CityCenter, will bracket the end of this period of extraordinary architecture.”

Gehry downplays his accomplishment. “This is just a pipsqueak of a place. We’re the mouse that roared. But I’m proud of it. I have an emotional attachment to it. I show pictures of it to everybody, so I guess it means a lot to me.”

Four years ago, Gehry credited Ruvo for the guts to unleash him on the project. “Early in the process, Larry gave me a kind of glazed look. But he was brave.

“For me, the excitement will be when he goes into the building and it brings tears to his eyes, and we hug,” Gehry said in 2006. “I’m a romantic.”

Says Ruvo today: “I not only hugged my friend, and thanked him for overdelivering, but I gave him a kiss of respect and appreciation. I love him.”