When you pull up to the Bellagio, the five-star casino resort in Las Vegas, you
pass an eight-acre man-made lake with roughly 1,000 fountains that come
to life in an hourly show of music and light, dancing and spraying in a spectacle
that rises 460 feet in the air. You then enter the lobby, where an enormous,
kaleidoscopic installation by Dale Chihuly—more than 2,000 hand-blown glass
flowers—hangs down from the ceiling like a vortex. You feel as though heaven
must reside on the other side.
After settling into your room, you must decide which of the many attractions
to take in: The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, the Bellagio Conservatory and
Botanical Garden, and O, Cirque du Soleil’s permanent show, are among
the top options. By day, you can unwind at the resort’s world-class spa and
browse the selection of 20-plus luxury boutiques; at night, choose from six
decadent nightclubs and lounges, plus a smorgasbord of culinary adventures
ranging from farm-to-table fare to small plates by Julian Serrano, the
Oh, and, there’s also gambling.
“My job is to create emotional
excitement that endures—spaces that
are so layered that they are as much
fun to walk in to the 200th time as they
were the first time.”
—ROGER THOMAS, WYNN DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT
If the Bellagio were your textbook for casino design, it could be titled
The Design of Magical Kingdoms. What happened to the dim, smoke-filled
halls lined with guys who look like they just stepped off the set of Bugsy?
Old-school casino design—low ceilings, no clocks or windows, and maze-like
carpeting leading you from one gaming area to another, now referred to as
“gaming” design—was pioneered by Bill Friedman, a gambling-addict-turned-casino-manager and a consultant to scores of casino developers across the
globe. Friedman, a Las Vegas native, literally wrote the book on the topic,
several actually: Casino Games, Casino Management, and Designing Casinos
to Dominate the Competition.
“I lived through the Golden Era of Las Vegas when the remnants of the
organized crime gangs that had brought in booze during Prohibition basically
built The Strip,” says Friedman. “Casinos mesmerized me from the first
time I walked into one as a child. They were completely different than what
we have today, both in the markets served and in the way they are designed
In fact, casinos of the era would come to be criticized for some of the very
things that made them work in their day, aspects of design that wouldn’t
be recognized as important until years later—24-hour-a-day energy
consumption and the negative effects a lack of natural light and fresh air can
cause among them.
Friedman spent his career analyzing the relationship between interior design
and casino profitability. His model was to create a dense labyrinth of gaming
spaces that focused on the needs of serious gamblers, not casual tourists.
These were places you could literally get lost in, which was exactly the idea.
He believed expansive rooms, open sight lines, and elaborate décor diverted
people’s attention from what casino owners of the day wanted them to do—
gamble. In Friedman’s mind, the gaming equipment was the décor. Hotels,
entertainment, and other amenities were part of the package, but these were
a sideshow, often operated at a loss, to the casino floor.
In the 1990s, the “playground” school of casino design, which emphasizes
open, resort-like layouts and elaborate interiors, began to take root. This
approach, which persists today, still caters to serious gamblers, but attempts
to reach a much wider audience: tourists, conventioneers, bachelor and
bachelorette parties, wedding groups, and pretty much anyone else looking
for a thrilling destination. Gone are the low ceilings. Natural lighting is in,
as are “barns”—casino lingo for large, open gaming floors designed to create
a sense of wonder. And, gambling is just one of the many attractions. At a
number of today’s casino resorts, the whole family is welcome; mom, dad, and
the kids all will find something of appeal. Revenue from the gaming floor is still
important, but it doesn’t make or break the entire operation as in days past.
In the atrium of Wynn
Las Vegas, a colorful
floral display changes
throughout the year.
(Image: Barbara Kraft)