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Architecture review: Frank Gehry's Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas

In some ways, this new design is a throwback to his studies in incompleteness, but there's a story to be told there.

May 19, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Reporting from Las Vegas — Frank Gehry's buildings can look unfinished or unruly — even a bit chaotic. But they often have surprisingly direct metaphorical stories to tell.

Walt Disney Concert Hall is a joyously informal ship of state for a city keen to come together, if only for a few hours, in a collective experience. Gehry's own house in Santa Monica, a modest pink bungalow the architect wrapped in colliding layers of corrugated metal and chain link, is an unabashed affirmation of the workaday, un-pretty built landscape of Southern California.

In the case of Gehry's newest project, the riotously sculptural $100-million Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, the story is about the depths — and ultimately the limits — of the human mind.

It's the poignancy of that architectural narrative that ultimately helps the building, which will open officially with a gala celebration Saturday night, overcome its reliance on some of Gehry's most recognizable architectural gestures. For me, and I suspect for other critics and architects, some of these strategies — intentionally crude detailing, exposed structure and the casual juxtaposition of dramatic and banal spaces, to name just three — have lost more than a little freshness over the years, particularly as the size and budgets of Gehry's projects have soared.

At the Ruvo Center, which rises from a wide-open intersection about a mile north of the big casinos lining the Las Vegas Strip, the familiarity of those elements is balanced by a deep, affecting humanism at the building's core. This is surely in large part because the Ruvo Center's mission — the complex is dedicated to research on and treatment of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and other neurological diseases — is one Gehry has fully embraced.

Casino magnates and other potential clients here have been courting Gehry for years without success. The architect agreed to design a building in Las Vegas this time for two central reasons.

He struck up an immediate rapport with Larry Ruvo, a Las Vegas liquor distributor who was compelled to start a neurological research facility after watching his father, Lou, struggle with Alzheimer's.

And Gehry has his own personal interest in research on brain disorders. His longtime friend and analyst, the late Milton Wexler, saw a wife and three sisters-in-law succumb to Huntington's disease. At Wexler's request, the architect joined the board of the Hereditary Disease Foundation more than 30 years ago.

Gehry told Ruvo he'd design the building only if Ruvo added Huntington's to the list of diseases the new center would treat and study. The complex further expanded its offerings when the Cleveland Clinic, the multidisciplinary healthcare research and treatment center in Ohio, reached an agreement with the Ruvo Center to operate the Las Vegas facility.

Gehry's design splits the complex into a pair of separate and essentially freestanding wings. A four-story structure to the north, which holds medical offices, patient rooms and research space, is relatively straightforward, a collection of stacked boxes in white stucco and glass.

To the south, across an open-air courtyard, is a soaring, single-room event space beneath a wildly undulating stainless-steel roof. This is among the most impressive interior spaces that the architect's firm, Gehry Partners, has produced since Disney Hall opened in 2003. Its appeal will help underwrite the mission of the Ruvo Center, since the organization plans to rent it out nearly every weekend to outside groups.

The two sides of the Ruvo Center stand in clear opposition to each other. It's tempting to assume that they represent the classic left-brain, right-brain dichotomy: the office wing is rational and contained, the auditorium free-flowing and fantastical. One side is a written score, the other an improvisation.

This gap also seems to suggest the divided loyalties of architects, who have to pay equal attention in their work to practicality and creativity, order and desire. Gehry, in particular, makes use of an approach to design that shifts between the analytical and the fully intuitive.

But the more time you spend walking from one side of the building to the other, the more it becomes clear that its symbolic aims are deeper and richer than that. The sensibilities of each section seem to have seeped into or infected the other.

The office wing, for all its rationality, is not a pure geometric shape but a jumbled, unsettled collection of boxy forms, stepping back as it rises and tracing a subtle arc along the streetfront. The auditorium exterior is based on a classic rationalist grid, albeit one that appears to have been draped — or to have melted —over a series of rising and falling forms.

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