(Still) Learning from Las Vegas
How hybrid uses and spaces are transforming the Strip
On the eve of the recent grand opening of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren commented, “People thought (we) wouldn’t spend money to build parks and public spaces, devote valuable real estate on the Strip to these outdoor nongaming spaces. Well, we’re doing that and we’re going to prove that’s economically successful.”
Murren’s comment highlights an extraordinary shift from a primarily introverted visitor environment to one that is increasingly extroverted. But how does Populous’ architecture and landscape design for the space fit within the broader context of the Strip’s ongoing evolution as the epicenter of global entertainment?
Situated a block west of Las Vegas Boulevard, T-Mobile Arena is a striking addition to the eclectic architectural icons which continue to morph into new amalgamations of form, scale and technology. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s seminal book, “Learning from Las Vegas” (1972), was the first comprehensive urban analysis that characterized the structure and form of the city’s signature entertainment corridor.
Supported by their architectural design studio from Yale, Venturi and his colleagues documented early typologies of Las Vegas casino resort complexes, describing their unabashed reliance on imagery and signs as “decorated sheds.” These were in stark contrast to contemporary modernist architecture which relied on the pure expressiveness of a building’s volume, which they described as “ducks.”
1972 : 2016
Today’s casinos are much grander and more elaborate than those of the 1970s, but if you take away much of the ornament, the basic casino development model has remained relatively unchanged until fairly recently. Venturi and his team concluded that “This architecture of styles and signs is antispatial; it is an architecture of communication over space; communication dominates over space as an element in the architecture and in the landscape.”
T-Mobile Arena, on the other hand, has managed to balance both communication and spatial definition by sculpting an architectural form that is seamlessly integrated. Eye-popping digital signage surfaces, for example, weave throughout its sequence of architectural and landscape spaces.
While Venturi’s team analyzed the urban conditions of the Strip, Bill Friedman performed an exhaustive analysis of over eighty casino design typologies in relation to the environmental psychology of gamblers, publishing his results in a 680-page book called “Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition” (2000).
As a gambler, casino executive and professor, Friedman codified his research into thirteen design principles that guide decisions including building appearance, main entrances, spaciousness, ceiling heights, circulation paths, lighting, sound and arrangement of casino tables and machines. According to Friedman, “The only relevant consideration for casino design are these: What percentage of visitors gamble? What percentage return to gamble? Nothing else matters.”
Choreographing pedestrian flow
A popular fixture in the lore of casino fantasy, of course, is James Bond. Author Ian Fleming held a similar theory as Friedman, but had a slightly more poetic way of putting it: “The first thing he noticed was that Las Vegas seemed to have invented a new school of functional architecture, ‘The Gilded Mousetrap School’ he thought it might be called, whose main purpose was to channel the customer-mouse into the central gambling trap whether he wanted the cheese or not.”
As Jim Murren pointed out, the new arena is a non-gaming attraction to the Strip, yet it still follows similar patterns that Friedman and Fleming describe by choreographing pedestrian flows that lure visitors into the venue. Friedman’s twelfth principle describing “Exterior Casino Design and Perception,” however, is elevated to a new level by the arena’s adjoining plaza and park, which integrate Marco Cochrane’s Bliss Dance sculpture, large steel canopies by IHC Studio Metalix and landscape by !melk.
Breaking out of the box
That’s not to suggest, however, that landscape is an altogether new concept along the Strip. In fact, the most photographed spot in the city is the Bellagio Dancing Fountains, set within an 8-acre lake where afternoon and evening shows attract tourists from around the world.
Opened last year, the Linq Promenade is a more similar precedent to T-Mobile Arena’s civic plaza, both of which rely heavily on shade to provide relief from Las Vegas’ extreme desert climate. Other spaces such as the Paris Casino’s Beer Park roof terrace have also made recent appearances on the Strip, continuing a new trend in indoor-outdoor entertainment environments.
The Bellagio, however, was the first of the new generation casinos, a ground-breaking design that blended architecture and landscape in a radical departure from Friedman’s conventional models, spurring what author Jonah Lehrer described as “a kind of arms race of luxury design in Las Vegas.” Lehrer explains that Roger Thomas, head of design at Wynn Resorts, “reinvented the look of the modern gambling hall by deliberately violating every previously accepted rule of casino design.”
In some ways, Thomas has turned the old casino model inside-out by flooding spaces with natural light, adding bright colors, introducing flowers and landscape, and organizing gaming floors around high-quality furnishings and lighting fixtures. The Cosmopolitan has continued the trend of pushing design boundaries, both spatially and stylistically.
In other places along the Strip, visitors are often caught doing double-takes to confirm whether environments are artificial or real: the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace convincingly present a simulated outdoor streetscape with a serene sky overhead, for example, while the Bellagio’s Conservatory presents a real botanical garden that rotates with five seasonal themes: Chinese New Year, spring, summer, fall and winter.
Hybridizing the Strip
These and other bold embellishments of casino environments have paved the way for more creative design approaches to find their way into the Strip culture, responding to new program offerings like those at T-Mobile Arena. Concerts, nightclubs, sporting competitions, outdoor events, and alternative food & beverage formats will continue to push boundaries of entertainment as we know it in Las Vegas. New spaces, materials, and technologies will influence the creation of hybrid environments that respond to tastes and preferences of millennial customers as well as other visitors curious for new adventures and experiences
We are in the midst of an exciting transitional period of the Strip from single-dimensional models into yet-to-be-imagined multi-dimensional environments. But as we embark on creating new realities and new fantasies, it is still important to remember the roots of what has made Vegas special: to continue to learn from Las Vegas.
John Shreve is a senior principal at Populous and practitioner of architecture, planning and urban design with more than 25 years of experience. To learn more about the Strip’s architectural evolution, send John a note.