MGM Mirage's CityCenter development, as the name suggests, turns the Las Vegas format on its head. In the middle of the desert city's postwar sprawl, the company has erected a dense, urban environment of boutique hotels, condominiums, and entertainment and gambling facilities designed by some of the world's most famous architectural talent—Cesar Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, Helmut Jahn, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Norman Foster.

But this forest of glass skyscrapers would mean little without some cohesion on the ground. This role of the glue is fulfilled by Crystals, a 500,000-square-foot shopping mall designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind with interiors by the Rockwell Group and lighting by Focus Lighting. This low-lying building—an assemblage of metal-clad, shard-like volumes—acts as a go-between for the disparate structures and as an ambassador for CityCenter to the rest of the Las Vegas surrounds: It links each of the adjacent towers via voluminous retail-lined common spaces and establishes a street frontage along Las Vegas Boulevard. “The intention was to create a spectacular urban project in a place that was full of kitsch,” says Libeskind, “to transform The Strip into a place that has integrity, with spaces that are unique and that give people a chance to see the world in a new light.”

To hone their approach to Crystals, the Libeskind/Rockwell/Focus trio set down a design narrative: a journey through an urban forest. For the Rockwell Group this meant establishing distinct settings within Libeskind's cavernous, multilevel wrapper. “We tried to create areas where people can meet and commune, different sorts of venues that people weren't used to seeing in Las Vegas,” explains David Mexico, Rockwell's principal-in-charge. These settings include the Tree House, a latticed wooden structure that engulfs a dining area and resembles a contraption that could have been from a book by Dr. Seuss; the Hanging Gardens, a passageway lined with tree-like iron structures that support planters; the Grand Stair, a wide, sweeping staircase that includes a broad mezzanine occupied by three wooden café pods; and the Flower Carpet, a low bed of flowers planted in a certain pattern that will be changed out seasonally, which was inspired by the Flower Carpet of Brussels. In addition to these points of interest there are two water features by Wet Design: “Glacia,” a collection of carven ice totems that rise up from a frozen subroom in the basement each morning, which melt throughout the day; and “Halo,” a succession of transparent acrylic tubes containing vortexes of water.

Inspired by nature and the effect of light as it dapples through the tree canopy, the metaphor of the urban forest also inspired the lighting design. “When you're in a real forest the lighting is dramatic. Light comes through the trees leaving a pattern on the ground, there are clearings where light hits a waterfall, and there's backlighting of the canopy,” says Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting. “[Crystals] is a walk through an urban forest and we have tried to capture many of the same qualities.” To realize this sylvan lighting effect, Focus was challenged with balancing levels of light on the set pieces (the Tree House, Hanging Gardens, Grand Stair, and Flower Carpet) with those of the building's interior envelope in a way that would both create drama and blend the constituent parts into a cohesive whole.

The shard-like volumes that make up Crystals create dramatically sloping ceiling planes that reach as high as 120 feet. Throughout the space, clerestory windows and skylights flood the interior with daylight and open up views to the desert sky and surrounding towers. This keeps visitors oriented and connected to the outside, and sets the tone for the electric lighting scheme. Focus Lighting treated the ceilings and walls as an extension of the sky, uplighting the entire expanse with approximately one thousand LED fixtures that shift colors to match the quality of sunlight throughout the day. Rather than use color-changing technology to flash saturated colors, Focus combined RGB LEDs with amber and white LEDs to achieve a mix that simulates the gradual diurnal progression through warm and cool light. As night approaches, the overall scheme becomes more intense as it interprets the colors of sunset. At night, though, the overall aesthetic remains subtle. In certain places the mild tones are accented with spots of color, bringing to mind colors that might come from the light of a neon sign or from a TV glimpsed through a window, reinforcing the urban theme. No matter what the time of day, however, the walls and ceiling, which are painted off-white, reflect the shifting colors back down to the ground level, enveloping pedestrians in an aura of gently kinetic light.

Since the building's geometries are so complex and there is no typical condition, each 50W LED uplight, which were placed on window ledges and in the recesses atop the walls, had to be individually aimed. This was a massive job for Focus Lighting, requiring two different team members to be on site for significant periods of time (the longest duration was five consecutive weeks) to oversee the elaborate process. An equally intense degree of detail was demanded in lighting the set pieces and water features, which combine integral fixtures with theatrical lighting techniques. “We wanted to completely integrate the Rockwell features within the Libeskind surrounds,” says Gregory. “To accomplish this we used lighting within the features to cast tonal color and pattern on the ceiling above, acting as an ephemeral reflection of the features below.”

The Tree House features resin rings backlit by warm-white LEDs, while 150W metal halide lamps with gobo patterns highlight the structure from slots in the ceiling and walls. Similar fixtures also wash the Hanging Gardens, though here the luminaires are tempered with gobo filters that create a dappled light. Three 39W metal halide fixtures recessed in the base of each tree accent their forms. The Grand Stair boasts pink agate tread risers backlit with 5W-per-linear-foot cool-white LEDs, and acrylic elements in wooden railings backlit with warm-white LEDs. Again, 150W metal halide theatrical source lights shoot down on the stair from slots in the walls and ceiling, accenting the café pods as well as other points upon the steps. The Flower Carpet is also illuminated by the 150W metal halide fixtures, though 150W spotlights augment the scheme to help the colorful blooms pop.

Focus Lighting got more adventurous with the water features. “Glacia” was lit from above by 150W CMY color-changing metal halide fixtures, while 400W metal halide flood-lights in two color scales—one pushed to the warm extreme of the Kelvin scale, the other to the cool extreme—create contrast that helps to add depth to Halo's water vortexes.

Unlike other casino resorts in Las Vegas, CityCenter does not welcome visitors with aisles of slot machines. Arriving from the street, if you want to get to any gambling, or to anywhere in the complex, you have to pass through Crystals and be engulfed in its urbane version of Vegas glitz and glam. In Libeskind's words, “It's a reinvention, a new way of harnessing the city's energy.” It's also a prime example of how, when designers coordinate their efforts from the start, the integration of lighting and architecture can change the way people perceive the world around them.


Project Crystals, CityCenter, Las Vegas

Client MGM Mirage, Las Vegas

Design Architect Studio Daniel Libeskind, New York

Architect of Record AAI Architects, Toronto

Interior Designer/Architect The Rockwell Group, New York

Lighting Designer Focus Lighting, New York

Project Size 500,000 square feet

Manufacturers / Applications

B-K Lighting Small accent lights with 35W metal halide MR16 lamps integrated into the Tree House and Hanging Garden features

ETC (Electronic Theater Controls) 150W metal halide spotlights—with pattern templates, color filters, and textures for decorative lighting effects—located in slots at sloped ceiling locations

Edison Price Recessed PAR20 20W and 39W metal halide downlights at flat ceiling locations

Lighting Services Inc 150W metal halide spotlights (some 39W and 70W as well) mounted on catwalks and track in slots at sloped ceiling locations

Martin Architectural 150W metal halide spotlights to illuminate the “Glacia” sculpture feature

Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast luminaires with standard RGB LEDs and custom white/white/amber ColorBlasts to uplight the ceiling, which are located at ledges at the skylights and semi-recessed in walls