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COMMENTARY

It's No Mirage

Vegas' New York-New York condenses urban sprawl while the Big Apple goes glitzy.

December 22, 1996|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

LAS VEGAS — A cluster of New York's great iconic monuments plunges upward into a Nevada sky. Oddly out of proportion, soaring Art Deco towers and Modernist skyscrapers loom over Ellis Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, all huddled together in the vast nothingness of the desert. It is a freakish apparition.

When New York-New York opens Jan. 3, Las Vegas' newest hotel-casino complex will be a titillating fusion of fantasy and reality. At a cost of $460 million--nearly six times the amount of Manhattan's annual expense budget for cultural affairs--the massive structure is an eerie reproduction of the real city at one-third scale. But these gleaming skyscrapers will house 2,035 hotel rooms, and the dense casino below will compress the chaos of Times Square, Little Italy and Wall Street around the ubiquitous slot machines and gaming tables.

Ominously, the fate of both New Yorks--the real and the artificial--also mirror each other.

While Las Vegas is creating an uncanny imitation of a real city, Manhattan today is increasingly becoming a playground for wide-eyed tourists: Disney has already begun to transform New York's once-seedy 42nd Street into a sanitized corporate dream. Both cities now compete for the same tourist dollars. Vegas' New York-New York is a lens into the city of tomorrow. Who is to say which will be the more real?

Founded on the desire to escape the binding conventions of daily life, Las Vegas is a city where barriers between good and evil, authentic and fake, good taste and bad have no meaning. Mock Egyptian tombs are laid out near tropical rain forests. An ornately painted piano from Versailles stands next to a rhinestone-embedded baby grand. Queen Elizabeth's gold-rimmed crystal goblets are reproduced and engraved with Liberace's initials. Value judgments seem beside the point.

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New York-New York is the first casino to attempt to re-create a contemporary city. Veiled in secrecy until it opens, its interior is still off-limits to journalists and critics. But wandering around the exterior is like driving up over the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan--you are confronted with a world of seductive secrets and broken dreams. It is clearly a fake, but who cares? That is its allure; this dream, full of saccharine nostalgia, seems deceptively safe and cheerful. There is no suffering here; if you run out of money you discreetly disappear.

To the hotel's designers, Neal Gaskin and Ilia Bezansky, the real city was irrelevant. Rather than visit New York, they scrupulously inspected images from travel books and studied architectural drawings. Nevertheless, their intent was to create an "authentic" city. New York-New York is not a cartoon but the world's largest piece of Pop art, Gaskin says. Either way, it is something new for Vegas--its object is not only to imitate a city but to usurp it.

New York-New York completes a quartet of casinos at the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. Across the street, the gigantic MGM-Grand masks its casino and Disney-like theme park behind a cool corporate facade and a giant, glowing lion's head. Nearby, the Excalibur rises like a splashy cartoon of a medieval castle across from the Tropicana's leafy paradise. Each has a bluntly cheerful theme set in the gloom of the desert strip.

From the exterior, the new complex is a carefully proportioned, three-dimensional construction. The 12 hotel towers are set back and staggered to give the illusion of free-standing buildings. Below, a seemingly random clutter of monuments--Ellis Island next to Grand Central Terminal--evokes a hazy sense of reality. The result is neither convincingly real nor completely fake. The illusion holds.

History and time are suspended, as if the city were dipped in formaldehyde. The Art Deco Empire State and Chrysler buildings are flanked by icons of corporate Modernism from the 1950s, including Park Avenue's glistening stainless-steel Lever House and Mies van der Rohe's more austere Seagram Building. With facades constructed of hard fiberglass, each monument is preserved forever in a perfect state of agedness--neither too fresh nor too worn.

Inside the ground-floor casino and restaurant areas, designed by Yates-Silverman Inc., that mock grittiness will be carefully fine-tuned; steam will rise from steel manhole covers in the casino and faded curtains will hang in false windows. Central Park's tranquil ponds and bum-proof benches will be shaded under 50 artificial trees, while Little Italy, which struggles to survive in the real Manhattan, will be securely frozen in time, its back alleyways crowded with graffitied stoops and wrought-iron fire escapes.

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