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The Architecture of Brain Health in Las Vegas

If you think you can walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Venice canals without crossing the street, you’ve either lost your mind or you’re in Las Vegas. Maybe both experiences are one and the same thing, actually.

With Las Vegas being mostly all about walking endlessly through hotels and losing oneself (and more!) in the sprawling casinos, what’s real and what’s fake soon amounts to the exact same thing. It can be hard for your brain to know which is which. Disoriented by permanently dimmed lights, a pervasive smell of cigarettes and constant chimes from slot machines, it is quite hard even knowing what time of day it is.

Las Vegas being a place where very little brain power is required, what little you bring, you’re encouraged to loose. Nevertheless, ask most people and they will tell you they associate Las Vegas with epic memories, usually rooted in excesses of all kind such as gambling, drinking, spending, but memories all the same. The infamous “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” sums it all.

But what about people who were never so keen on leaving or losing their memories?

Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas. Architecture by Frank Gehry

Indeed there is an often overlooked Las Vegas site where people are not faking “losing it” just for fun. There, patients are rather losing it for real, surrendering to brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, ALS as well as fronto-temporal dementia (FTD) and multiple sclerosis.

Detail from Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas. Architecture by Frank Gehry

This building is the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, commissioned by Larry Ruvo after he lost his father Lou to Alzheimer’s. The building is not hidden or tucked away.

It’s right there and as memorable as it gets.

A well connected beverage entrepreneur, Larry Ruvo hosted a memorial dinner to honour his father in 1995. As it turned out, his friends started pledging and bidding on “nothing” until $35,000 were raised towards research. All this without even trying.

In our day and age, these brain disorders have become so pervasive that finding people, friends and families who are not battling or already lost dear ones is almost impossible.

The next year, Larry decided to really try and organized The Power of Love Dinner which, year after year, raises millions for brain disorders research.

With more and more funds being raised, building the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health was about giving an unforgettable place and face to the cause. Mission accomplished?

Many of you know of architect Frank Gehry for being able to draw a quick scribble to be turned into a building like the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Frank Gehry had always refused to build in Las Vegas until a stubborn Larry Ruvo convinced him. An equally stubborn Frank Gehry only agreed until Huntington’s Disease, a cause he had always championed, was added to the list of brain disorders cared for at the clinic.

The Gehrys also insisted on donating a Peter Alexander sculpture for the adjacent garden.

Entitled Sugar, it adds another beautiful chime to the unique light and space composition of Frank Gehry’s evocative architecture.

Detail from Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas. Architecture by Frank Gehry

And evocative it is. Perfectly illustrating the quest of hopefully derailing the disorders which dissolve the brains of patients treated inside, Gehry gave this building a striking yet chilling outside facade where walls appear to be melting, much like the brains of its occupants.

Looking more closely at the structure reveals a real dialogue between what architecture projects to the outside world and the functions attributed to the building.

The clinic side where patients are treated is not deconstructed à la Gehry. I almost want to say it looks normal and unassuming. The structure is boxy yet functional, preserving appearances of normalcy despite the tragic nature of what patients go through as they lose their memory on the inside.

The courtyard at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas. Architecture by Frank Gehry

The clinic is linked to the Keep Memory Alive Event Center by an extraordinary patio revealing an armature without any symmetry or pattern. It soars with a mind of its own, complex and indecipherable: does it mirror the stop and go, the broken connections and the uncontrollable damage happening within our brains? Certainly. But Frank Gehry does not make it sad.

The courtyard at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas. Architecture by Frank Gehry

Up from the courtyard at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas. Architecture by Frank Gehry

Instead, adding brightly colored columns as beacons of hope, he transitions the clinic to the Keep Memory Alive Event Center which displays the mind-boggling facade of melting stainless steel shingles. There, the typical Gehry deconstructed approach is for all to see. As it resonates too close for comfort – at least for me – it is hard not to stare…

Am I looking at my future? My bag says it all…

A beautiful twist lies in the purpose of this part of the building though. It is an Event Center where memories are made anew. It is rented for events, weddings, concerts and every year The Power of Love dinner is held there, raising funds to hopefully save people’s memories.

Inside the the Keep Memory Alive Event Center at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Architecture by Frank Gehry

I was fortunate to go inside for a tour of this temple-like building.

Inside the the Keep Memory Alive Event Center at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Architecture by Frank Gehry

Church-like and immaculate white, it is a cathedral built on the quick sands of memories shifting next door. There are 199 windows: no two are alike and none are straight.

Inside the the Keep Memory Alive Event Center at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Architecture by Frank Gehry

When faced with such an irrational building, the very reality of Frank Gehry ‘s impossible architecture gives hope.

Built with an incredible amount of control and automation to make such an unconventional building efficient in the middle of the desert, it seems the perfect metaphor to what research manages to achieve by constantly pushing back the limits of what’s feasible. If such a disorienting clinic stands before our very eyes, then cures are surely within reach.

Steve Wynn Wisdom Tree

Wisdom trees support the impressive undulating roof of the overall structure. Each tree bears a plaque, thanking the generosity of donors. One is dedicated to Steve Wynn, a hard-to-miss Las Vegas feature, who also commissioned an extraordinary painting by Pop artist James Rosenquist.

James Rosenquist, Cervello Spazio Cosmico, 2010

Imposing by its 10-by-20-foot size and entitled Cervello Spazio Cosmico, this painting revisits in oil paint what Frank Gehry’s architectural stainless steel drapery makes clear to the outside world: the infinitely fluid and magnificent unpredictability of the human brain which, like the cosmos, leaves us all in awe of its spectacular wonders while leaving us all terrified by the prospect of losing it all.

James Rosenquist, Cervello Spazio Cosmico, 2010

The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is a building you cannot forget visually and one which merits appreciation in honour of all the memories who come to rest and pass there.

Seek it, look at it and imprint it to memory next time you’re on your way to burn a few brain cells in Las Vegas.

To donate to brain disorders research, click here.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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