Can the Smith Center Revive Downtown Las Vegas? Inside the $470 Million Cultural Center

In Las Vegas, when people refer to “culture,” it usually involves French-Canadian acrobat savants, ersatz monuments, or dancing fountains, but change is afoot. This month, Sin City welcomed the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a megaproject that was set into motion during headier, pre-recession days. We dispatched writer Doug McClemont to try his luck at getting an inside look at the newly opened cultural complex, and he came up trumps.

Photos: Steve Hall/HedrichBlessing

Most narratives of current state of things in Las Vegas include “overbuilt” or “downturn” in the very first sentence. Indeed, since roughly 2006 the fortunes of the legendary desert oasis have changed for the worse. Visitor spending in the destination city is on the decline, the housing market remains troubled, and MGM’s shining new star City Center, a 72-acre sprawling complex of hotels, gaming, condos, and high-end retail at the heart of the Strip, posted an operating loss of $45 million in the fourth quarter of last year. So this might seem a strange moment to be celebrating the construction of a new $470 million cultural center on the outskirts of the (still more beleaguered) downtown area. But then again Las Vegas&#8212that ultimate paean to pastiche and panache&#8212is not known for its introverted ways.

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a lavish art deco-influenced, multi-purpose complex that features music, visual art, theater, and education opened earlier this month. It dominates a 61-acre site in a former rail yard that is now called Symphony Park. “All of the budgeting was done in the old economy,” according to architect David M. Schwarz, “the Center was built in the new.” As a result, the architects were able to utilize high-end materials and avoid troublesome cost-cutting concerns when creating Las Vegas’s newest addition. A 170-foot tall bell tower with 47 imported bronze bells is just one opulent feature of the inviting collection of buildings.

Inside the complex, wrought metal railings, cognac-colored marble walls, and velvety “patron amenity rooms” are poised to welcome interested or curious local residents for solo performances, ballet, as well as the Las Vegas Philharmonic. It features a main stage that can be structurally (and somewhat magically) converted for any type of performance from Broadway traveling productions to string quartets. Local papers are dutifully crowing that the Smith Center will revivify the downtown area with its state-of-the-art acoustical engineering and array of class acts.

Architect Schwarz, whose venerable firm is known for erecting stately concert halls worldwide, is good-natured and professorial. He exudes the confidence that financial success can endow and frequently sports a suit and sandals look that could be considered eccentric only in business circles. Faced with the task of creating a “cultural mecca” ostensibly aimed at locals, the architects looked to the nearby Hoover Dam for inspiration. Schwarz credits that 1930s project as being integral to the formation of Las Vegas itself, positing that the thousands of workers “turned Las Vegas from being a sleepy town into a center for nighttime activity.” The dam’s massive structure is punctuated by bronze winged figures and deco accents.

Any building by Schwarz’s team can appear to contemporary visitors with modernist taste to have stepped out of the dusty past. His firm’s aesthetic is referential toward history as opposed to being personal or progressive, a fact he proudly owns. As the architect was heard to lament, “we have become so used to architecture as fashion.” As if to provoke a continuation of the ongoing classical vs. contemporary debate, the Smith Center is just a block or so away from the curved metal functionless façade of the Frank Gehry-designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. The delicious incongruity between buildings is not lost on Schwarz, who wryly remarks, “their backs do very well together.”

Although the long term success of the Smith Center in reviving downtown Las Vegas remains to be seen, insiders say that tickets are already almost sold out a year in advance. The entire enterprise originated as a part of former mayor Oscar Goodman’s vision for a “New Downtown.” Why not? Las Vegas is the perpetual importer of nearly everything cultural. And the concept of “high culture” finding a home in the 24-hour, glitzy desert gambling town is nothing new. Steve Wynn’s Strip properties such as Wynn and Encore boast luxury as their “theme,” and Prada and Picasso have long since taken up residence. So if you happen to pass the recently established Mob Museum (another Goodman brainchild) on your way to hear the Philharmonic, it will be a reminder of where you are: a place that was (over)built on hubris and contradiction.

Doug McClemont is a New York-based writer and curator whose work appears in publications from Saatchi Online to Art+Auction. Follow him on Twitter @duggworld.