Nevada Week | Sphere’s impact on Las Vegas architecture, entertainment | Season 6 | Episode 17

Date:

-We move now to the Sphere.

More than a month after opening, Las Vegas’ newest landmark continues attracting global attention for its contributions to both architecture and entertainment.

And here now to expand on its influence in these areas are Glenn NP Nowak, an Associate Professor of Architecture at UNLV; and John Katsilometes, Entertainment Reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Gentlemen, welcome to Nevada Week.

Okay, so tech billionaire Elon Musk described the Sphere as “exquisite beyond words.”

That’s when he visited here recently, put that out on X, formerly known as Twitter.

For each of you, and I’ll start with you, John, because you reported about his visit there.

Is his description justified?

(John Katsilometes) Half of it is justified, the exquisite part.

It can’t be beyond words, because we still have more words to write about it, to explain it.

So it has to be– that’s what I’ve been saying is he’s got the “exquisite” part right, but as far as “beyond words,” you know, we can’t say anything is beyond words.

But I was impressed that he was there and that he was so forthright in his assessment of it, you know, someone who’s seen a lot in his life and career.

-Right.

Glenn?

(Glenn NP Nowak) For Elon Musk to say it’s beyond words, I think is really important.

It reminds me of my dad’s saying that “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

And so here, John and I are.

We’re going to try to talk about this.

And to put this into words is really difficult, but we’re gonna, we’re gonna give it a shot.

-Let’s start with each of your lines of work.

What makes the Sphere special in the entertainment world?

-What I’ve been saying about the Sphere since I’ve experienced the two ticketed shows, Postcard from Earth and the U2 concert is, it’s a lot.

And that means that covers everything.

It’s a lot of technology, a lot of entertainment value, a lot of effort, a lot of cost for the consumer and for the, for the developers.

I think in this city, when you can bring something that is truly groundbreaking that nobody’s ever seen before, you’ve really achieved something today, because I’ve seen everything that comes through Las Vegas in the last quarter century.

I’ve never seen anything like this.

So I think from an entertainment standpoint, it’s doing something that nobody has done before at this scale, and the next step to me will be how they can move forward with different programming, different music acts, and sustain the momentum.

But as far as what they’ve done right now, the entertainment facet of it has met the hype.

-I wonder about the future performers there and how much pressure they now have on them in terms of set design, to come up with something spectacular.

I mean, what do you have to do to be able to perform there and do it justice?

-That’s– I think that’s one reason we haven’t seen a second band or a second act announced is there is that requirement.

You know, it’s more than just being able to sell tickets.

It’s having to achieve what U2 has been able to achieve with Achtung Baby in their, you know, in their production show, which is: Do you want to be the second act to come in there and falter?

You have to have a lot.

You have to have a lot of money and a lot of ingenuity.

You have to be able to reach a lot of fans over multiple generations.

And I think that we will see somebody do something very different from what U2 has achieved.

I’ve heard like Fish, for example.

The jam band will come in, and they’ll do something entirely different than what U2 has achieved with an unbroken video display all throughout, rather than each number being a production unto itself.

But it’s a very good question.

And I think that that is a factor in why they have not announced one or two more residency productions is that requirement.

-U2 has extended– Glenn?

-I think there is some pressure associated with it.

But I would also imagine it has artists really excited, that they are now rethinking how to, how to put on a show; that this is a brand new medium, and it’s going to change the way music is presented, the way film is presented.

And I think it’s also getting architects to think very differently about how we integrate digital technology.

I think one thing that really makes the Sphere special is that it’s arguably the most comprehensive integration of architectural form and digital technology.

We’ve seen big screens before, but it hasn’t affected people the same way that we see– you know, people will line up on the sidewalk or crowd the median just to get a view of the Sphere because it’s doing something that we haven’t seen in architecture before.

It’s also, I think, going to change the way we see urban development springing up around the Sphere.

Everybody from hundreds of hotel rooms, thousands of hotel rooms have a unique view now.

And they’re making those rooms more valuable, more desirable.

And so as the city builds up around the Sphere, I think it’s going to influence the way future buildings are built.

-How difficult was the Sphere to build?

-I trust it was one of the most difficult construction projects of the last century.

They’ve, they’ve undoubtedly had to sort of reinvent or come up with new ways of constructing, because it’s the largest sphere on the planet.

And not just big in terms of its physical size.

We can take a tape measure to it and confirm that it is, in fact, bigger than any other spherical structure.

It’s heavier.

You know, we can crunch those numbers and quantitatively tell you it’s big, but it’s also qualitatively a sphere, a space that creates an experience unlike anything else.

So I think that’s also– you know, back to trying to express this in words.

We can maybe get close to conveying how exceptional this building is, but until you actually go and experience it… That’s what makes architecture such a fun art and science, that you can describe it in many objective terms.

But until you actually walk into a space and understand how it all comes together, that’s the magic of what’s happening at the Sphere.

-Yeah, 100% on that.

It is very difficult to explain what the Sphere is until you’ve actually been there, and convey that feeling.

I go back to the third song in the U2 show is even better than the real thing, okay?

And they bring a montage of Las Vegas images over the top.

It starts here and it comes over in front of you, and you’re sitting in a fixed position.

It’s every Las Vegas cliché ever, multi-fold.

Everybody’s on this thing: Elvis, Siegfried & Roy, showgirls, Wayne Newton, all of the– Austin Butler as Elvis, the Rat Pack, splashed across this thing, the Strip.

And as it’s coming down, you’re watching it come down.

And when it gets to about this point–and the band’s raging.

They’re playing the song–you feel like you’re coming back.

Your body tells you you’re moving up as this is moving down.

And I grabbed the seat in front of me.

I held onto it.

Others are doing the same thing.

I was looking for a couple of friends in front of me, and they turned around and they’re like– we’re all like, Whoa!

We didn’t move.

This is not moving.

Our minds were telling us that that was what was going on.

I had not had that kind of feeling in a concert production ever.

So this is an example of what you have to be aware of.

And you got to be ready for what’s coming next in the Sphere, Postcard and the U2 show.

And that’s exactly what you’re talking about.

-Could this– you bring up the Vegas clichés.

Could this have debuted in any other city besides Las Vegas?

I mean, obviously, it could have, but why Las Vegas is a good home?

Or is it?

-Well, James Dolan– James Dolan as the developer, the man who has founded it, his answer to that is Las Vegas was a willing partner from the beginning.

He had a well-received audience with the casino executives in town and the elected officials who saw this and said, If we can make a difference, let’s commit to it, and then we’ll work out the details later.

He could not do this in New York where he lives, James Dolan said.

-Why?

-Because there’s space limitations.

There’s bureaucratic limitations.

And you know, his relationship with the people who would approve this is not particularly, you know, it’s not a particularly inviting conversation for them.

And where do you– exactly where do you put this, and how much is it going to cost?

-The Las Vegas community really understands that this town was built on entertainment, and so there’s, I think, a willingness to, to accept this as a, as a design challenge, as an opportunity to capitalize on a lot of design and construction expertise that is right here in Las Vegas.

You know, the construction workers were undoubtedly part of what made Jim Dolan’s sketch come to life.

It’s one– it’s one thing to dream it up.

But then you get some of the best experts in their respective fields all coming together–architecture, engineering, construction, management–and that’s really what it takes.

And that’s, that’s what Las Vegas has sort of proven over the last several decades.

You know, some of the biggest, most expensive structures on earth, you know, privately funded or not, are right here in Las Vegas.

And so there’s this track record of showing that we can make these sorts of things happen.

-Yeah.

-And I wanted to ask you about Postcard from Earth.

-Yes.

-That is a project of Darren Aronofsky, the director of movies like The Wrestler, Black Swan.

– The Whale.

– The Whale.

His willingness to work on a project like this with the Sphere, what does that say about the Sphere?

-Well, they wanted somebody who had artistic credibility in a theatrical context, first of all.

And he was hot at the time when they– he had just done The Whale, which led to an Academy Award for Brendan Fraser as best actor.

And somebody who was willing to, you know, embrace the new technology.

The camera technology that they’re using has never been used before.

And what impressed me about Postcard– it’s about a 60-minute, 50- to 60-minute experience in there–is it’s not just a visual, you know, conveyor belt of scenes around the world.

It has a message in it.

There’s a through line, a storyline about conservation and sustainability and protecting our planet that runs through this, this theatrical experience, which I think takes a lot of guests unexpected.

You know, they don’t expect that to be the case in something like the Sphere.

But Postcard from Earth is going to be the driver of revenue from the entertainment side of this, more so than U2.

U2 takes a lot of the– you know, the vast majority of ticket sales go to the band.

But Postcard is running up to four times a day, 5,000 capacity, about 4,800 to 5,000 people each showing, and that– and it’s a fixed, you know, static production.

So they just run it, run it, and that’s going to be– the message of the Sphere will be delivered that way over time, at least a year.

And that’s where the money is gonna come from.

-Glenn, have you thought about whether other schools of architecture are going to start talking about Las Vegas architecture as a result of the Sphere?

-Absolutely.

And they’re going to, they’re gonna talk about it a lot differently.

For many years, schools have taken fleeting interests in Las Vegas, from as far back as Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi when they wrote Learning From Las Vegas.

But these are often architecture students that spend a couple days or a week on a field trip in Las Vegas trying to understand what makes Las Vegas Las Vegas.

And what we’re seeing is our students at UNLV are able to really fully immerse themselves in the built environment.

We just took a field trip of about 20 students to the Sphere.

We saw Postcard From Earth, and the lessons learned and understanding how this starts to change everything, not just the Strip, but it’s now starting to draw tourists off the Strip.

It’s bringing locals around the spectacle, the phenomenon of the Sphere.

I think now architecture students everywhere are going to look at Las Vegas a little more fully, understanding that there’s a whole lot more to it than just a single boulevard.

-The last time each of you received this kind of hype around the opening of a building in Las Vegas, when was that?

-I would say it was probably City Center, I think, if when you take everything together, because City Center opened in the face of a serious recession.

There were a lot of naysayers about the scale and scope, if it was even going to come to fruition.

It was a real test of were we gonna get to the finish line.

The Sphere reminds me of the discussion of that, you know, What are we doing?

A lot of people are like, you know, the cost kept escalating, the opening kept moving, you know, according to conditions.

-Supply chain issues because of COVID.

-Definitely, yeah.

And so that’s what it reminds me of, you know?

And incremental openings.

Also the Sphere is open to different, you know, with different productions.

But, um, you know, as I think about the Sphere and all that planning– and this may be, Glenn, I can ask you about this, Glenn, is in the U2 show, they have obstructed-view seats.

I don’t know if you guys have heard this.

It’s not evident in Postcards, because they don’t sell that lower-seated level, the 100.

But the 200-level comes over the top of the 100-level, about halfway all the way around.

And I’m wondering from an architectural strategy and execution standpoint how that would happen.

Is that something– what do you think of that concern in a place that has had so much thought and resource and planning as the Sphere?

Have you studied that at all?

-Great question.

-I’m not sure if, if that was going to be a known issue at the time of construction or if it’s simply part of the process.

Not every seat is equal, right?

And there are ideal seats in every venue around the world.

Do you want to be in this location or that?

And consequently, that’s why we see, you know, different tier pricing.

So, you know, they’ve acknowledged that, you know, some seats are better than others.

And I think you learn from those.

If and when– if or when we see another Sphere built, you know, that might be one of the subtle adjustments that is made.

-Yeah.

I would guess that they would look at that.

I’m just wondering how your students, if there was ever discussed when they did their field trip about that particular issue, because it came up late.

And for somebody who studied, who’s in the field, I was just curious about what they would think of it.

-Last question.

What are we going to be saying about the Sphere in 30 years, Glenn?

-Wow.

I think it will, it’ll be remembered, this day, this season of its opening and all of the hype.

We’ll quickly be able to recall, just like John did when City Center opened.

Or you know, I would– I would also think Lou Ruvo is one of those.

We have moments where we have brought starchitects in to build buildings.

But this is, this is definitely unique.

I think we’ll say the Sphere made us think very differently about our built environment, particularly because of the content in Postcard From Earth, but also because it’s such a game changer in technology integrated into architectural form.

-We have run out of time.

Do you want to add something real quick?

-Changed the face of the Strip forever.

July 4, when they did the exosphere display, was the beginning of that.

Changed the face of how the Strip looks.

-John Katsilometes, thank you.

Glenn Nowak, thank you for joining us.

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