By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/10/2009 9:02:47 AM ET 2009-11-10T14:02:47

While much has been made of CityCenter’s difficult birth , far less attention has been paid to the design behind it. It’s a design that speaks in equal parts to the challenges of the Las Vegas Strip, the unsustainable sprawl of the Las Vegas Valley (now home to 2 million people) and a fundamental shift in American demographics.

“After 30 years of suburban flight, people are moving back into the urban core,” says Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners (the ad agency behind the “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign). “You see it in Boston and Chicago, and we’re going to see more of it in Las Vegas. People are increasingly interested in living in a place where everything they want — shopping, restaurants, entertainment — is nearby.”

And residents aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the shift to a higher-density, more pedestrian-friendly Las Vegas.

“We’ve grown so big recently that moving around has become a burden,” says Vassiliadis, who believes CityCenter represents the beginning of a trend toward more destinations within a destination: “Las Vegas is going to evolve into something like Paris [the one in France, not the one up the street] where you spend one day in one arrondissement and go to another the next day.”

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“CityCenter is Las Vegas entering the 21st century,” agrees Christopher Leinberger, a professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s fundamentally different than anything else that’s been built in Las Vegas before — modern, high-density, mixed-use — but it’s following the lead of metropolitan areas around the country.”

Competing resorts, conflicting visions
For the majority of visitors, the Strip is Las Vegas, but as any local resident or zoning official can tell you, most of it isn’t even in the city. Rather, it’s in the unincorporated township of Paradise, as are McCarran Airport and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).

That jurisdictional tidbit is not insignificant. “The resorts on the Strip were developed to fight with one another,” says James Murren, CEO of MGM Mirage, “thematically, of course, but also from an access perspective. There’s been no urban overlay on this market at all.”

Slideshow: Viva Las Vegas!

The result is a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly destination and a jumble of architectural themes that span the globe and mimic more than 4,000 years of history. (Only on the Strip can you find an ersatz Eiffel Tower and mock Colosseum just down the street from a small-scale Big Apple.)

But four years ago, visitors to the Strip got a hint of something else with the opening of Wynn Las Vegas. “Steve Wynn was the first one who said maybe we don’t need to hitch our wagon to somebody else’s theme,” says Robert Dorgan, director of UNLV’s Downtown Design Center. “If we just create a nice, elegant space, people will be attracted to it.”

That’s the goal at CityCenter, which utilized a group of world-renowned architects — Helmut Jahn, Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster, among others — to create a destination that stands on its own architectural merits. “Most resorts in this town look backward,” says CityCenter President and CEO Bobby Baldwin. “They’re models of other places. Our ‘theme’ is CityCenter.”

The result is like nothing else on the Strip. Pedestrian-friendly public areas featuring large-scale artworks and outdoor dining venues are surrounded by a half-dozen high-rise towers — together, they utilize some 2.7 million square feet of exterior glass — and give the Strip something its basically never had before: a bona fide urban skyline.

Master planning for a new demographic
CityCenter represents five years of planning, millions of man-hours of labor and a blend of architecture and engineering uncommon even in Las Vegas, complete with four high-rise hotels, two condo towers and a 500,000-square-foot “retail district.”

Murren is optimistic about his company’s multi-billion-dollar project sitting on 67 acres.

For him, one of CityCenter’s most notable elements is also one of its smallest: a “pocket park” in the middle of the complex. Compared to the glass towers that surround it, it’s easily overlooked — some trees, a few paths, assorted seating areas — but it speaks directly to his vision of CityCenter as a modern, pedestrian-friendly urban environment.

“People are going to walk through CityCenter; they’re going to go into that little pocket park, and they’re going to be awestruck by the fact that right there is a statue of a reclining woman and child in travertine marble created by Henry Moore,” says Murren, who happens to have a degree in urban studies.

“They’re going to drink their coffee, look through the trees and see the Maya Lin piece in the Aria lobby. They’re going to wonder what the heck it is, and they’re going to walk in there to find out.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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