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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

A Space to Play

(c) Ed Quinn/Corbis

by Jack Cheng

The history of architectural design on the Las Vegas Strip begins with the casual Western themes of the 1940s, continues on to the whimsical fantasies of the 1950s, the extravagantly decadent 1960s and the family friendly theme park 1990s. Most commentators, from Tom Wolfe to Venturi, Brown and Izenour in Learning from Las Vegas focus on the bombastic exteriors. UNLV professor and practicing architect Zia Hansen described casino interiors: "Casinos used to be called carpet joints. In the old days all you had to do was to put a red carpet on the floor, red wall covering, some huge crystal chandeliers and lots of brass! That was enough to create a level of passion that enhanced spending and gambling." Casino interior designs have been just as spectacular and possibly more important to the bottom line as exteriors.

The Early Strip
The first casinos on the strip were the Old West themed El Rancho (1941) and Last Frontier (1942). The former incorporated exposed wooden roof beams and Native American designs while the latter sported a two-story stone chimney and wagon wheel chandeliers.

In 1946 Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo, a building that alluded to the sleek, horizontal lines of post-war motels and was equipped to make any modern Los Angeles resident feel at home. The interior design was similarly jet-age, with hip circular patterns on the ceiling and abstract patterns on the carpet. The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling described the pastel greens of the carpet and the pink upholstery of the furniture as "warm tones that slug it out with the air conditioning." Although the next two casinos built on the Strip were the Thunderbird (1948) and the Desert Inn (1950), the displaced style of the Flamingo freed future casinos from any references to the local habitat.

During the 1950s, the Sahara, the Sands, the Dunes, the Moulin Rouge and others were designed in modernist style with North African, Floridian or Parisian themes. The new competition prompted the Last Frontier to be made over in 1955 as the New Frontier; even the Flamingo was remodeled in 1953 to stay relevant.

Themed Casinos
Then, Jay Sarno arrived. A real estate developer based in Atlanta, he made a deal for some land on the Strip and told his wife, "I'm going to design a casino with lots of columns and statues and fountains and tons of marble." In 1966 Caesars Palace opened to great success. The Roman theme echoed throughout, from the Italian cypress trees along the driveway to the swimming pool in the shape of a shield, and the togas worn by the service personnel. The oval casino area was topped by a low, blacked out dome with lit ribbing. The space directed attention away from the particular games and to the excitement of the semi-public space and the crowd itself.

No one else embodied themes in their casinos quite like Sarno, but most large Strip casinos after Caesars relied on the idea of fully integrated themes. Many casino designs from the 1990s either evoked a particular place synonymous with wealth and fun -- Rio, New York New York, Paris, The Venetian, Mandalay Bay -- or a fantasy concept associated with wealth and fun -- the Mirage, Hard Rock, Excalibur, Treasure Island.

After Caesars Palace, Jay Sarno's next development was Circus Circus (1968). Once inside the big circus tent, guests had to slip down a metal slide to the basement casino -- there were no stairs. On the casino floor, sideshows surrounded the gaming tables and trapeze artists flew overhead. The "flying" elephant recruited to be suspended above the crowds could not relax in its harness and so instead walked around the casino randomly pulling slot levers.

The theme was eventually toned down, but the initial concept inspired one of Hunter S. Thompson's most famous riffs: "Circus Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.... So you're down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high, when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine.... This madness goes on and on, but nobody seems to notice."

In Search of Profit
The Luxor (1993), an Egyptian themed black pyramid, took guests from registration to the elevators on a "Nile River" ride past faux archaeological set pieces. Soon after opening, Antonio Alamo oversaw a $450 million redesign of the interior, eliminating the Nile ride and a curtain wall of false stone that hid the gambling floor. "The first thing guests should see when they enter the Luxor is its casino. Period. Not hieroglyphics, not boats, not fancy rides."

Alamo's design choices were not made by instinct or whimsy; the casinos work to sustain the highest profit per square foot that they can. Hansen notes, "One thing that will constantly move is the slot layouts. Every month casino managers will move slot machines around if they do not perform well enough. If a design feature does not work it will be torn down and replaced quickly. It is a question of real estate and what they deliver. In the Mirage some very expensive suites did not appeal to Asian high rollers and they were redesigned after only four months."

With so many casinos packed within walking distance of one another, modern casinos also need to design an interior that encourages hotel guests to stay in their casino. "The one thing you need to know about casino planning," said Michael Hong, an architect who worked on the Bellagio, "is that the whole point of a casino is to get people walking from the registrations to the main body of the casino."

Happy Imprisonment
Bill Friedman has made a career of analyzing casino design and profit, and consulting on casinos internationally, including Las Vegas' Mirage. His thirteen design principles include: "1: A physically segmented casino beats an open barn" and "8: Low ceilings beat high ceilings" to create a more intimate space for the gambler and "11: Pathways emphasizing the gambling-equipment beat the yellow brick road" which discourages creating obvious passageways that lead people past the gambling areas without stopping.

Professor Norman Klein describes a successful casino floor as a "Happy Imprisonment," a mousetrap for consumers. "You have infinite choice, but seemingly no way out. Casino spaces are scripted particularly as ergonomic labyrinths. Entrances and exits remain askew. The atmosphere is immersive. Finding your way back from the bathroom can be difficult." Walls of slot machines send you towards ... more slot machines.

All the Senses
The layout is only the first element to keep players at the tables. Architect Hong: "[T]here are all sorts of sophisticated ideas on how to put the customer at ease, for instance, on how to make the gaming tables more like dining tables at home so that you feel more comfortable. There is also a kind of olfactory technology that brings smells and aroma to the slot machines and the casino generally so that people stay longer. Decisions such as on gaudy carpet colors are all very consciously taken." Ambient sound is designed as well. "Cacophony is avoided," Klein notes, "as well as aural specificity. The entire place hums blissfully."

The interior design of casinos continues to evolve, influenced by retail spaces and theme parks as much as by the history of casinos themselves. The paths, views, sounds, and smells are manipulated all in the effort to create a memorable and pleasurable experience. The architects even use storyboards like a film would, to create the story that the guest will become involved in. It's all about getting into your head. The late architectural historian Reyner Banham noted, "Las Vegas takes some established trends... and pushes them to extremes where they begin to become art, or poetry, or psychiatry."


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