When Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts) opened the Las Vegas hotel-casino The Mirage in 1989 it cost around $630 million, sported an active volcano in its forecourt and marked a turn in the fortunes of a city that had lost the ability to believe in the art of not having a soul. Essentially an enormous sign, a wayfinder to plastic heaven, that labyrinthine world of slot-machines, chips, bunnies, tobacco, whisky cocktails and great loss, the Mirage’s exploding frontage revolutionised the strip, spawned a series of similarly opulent neon-lit wonders, and gave the impression of turning the business of losing fortunes into a luxurious pastime.
Impression is right, because as a recent piece for The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer rightly - in this case - suggests, The Mirage was the scented gateway to nothing new: Wynn and Roger Thomas, Wynn’s chief interior designer, may have invented the most ornate front door in modern history, a hotel to beat all hotels, but the casino itself, says Lehrer, was much the same. In keeping with a set of principles that, according to Bill Friedman, who wrote Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition, are designed to play havoc with the fundamentals, with time and space, with our sense of where and who we are, The Mirage was divided into small mazelike spaces, its sit-down tables partitioned off so as to reduce lines of vision, its ceiling low, its equipment cheek to jowl , the impression of busyness guaranteed by an interior architecture wholly dedicated to loosening purse strings – over extended periods of time. It’s exterior and antechambers may have revolutionised the Strip, but at heart it was a sunless den.
And for good reason. When it comes to understanding the success of a well located Las Vegas casino, where so much is passing foot-traffic, the only thing worth measuring is the ratio of player-to-visitor. Friedman’s research showed that while, between 1996 and 1998, 87% of Las Vegas’ visitors gambled an average of 4 hours a day, the most successful of the megaresorts could only do the same with a relatively paltry 10% of its visitors, the least successful scraping by on a conversion rate of 2-3%. Why? Because, says Friedman, the megaresorts had made a pigs ear of the interior, the wayfinding system, the gambling hall. Potential gamblers don’t want to play in a barn. They don’t want to know the time. They don’t need ‘yellow brick roads.’ They shouldn’t sense anything else happening, somewhere else, over there. They want intimacy, a closed off space, a world made entirely of their own hopes and dreams. Disney, Hollywood – a giant volcano, white tigers, a tank full of dolphins – may lure first timers through the door, but fat visitor numbers, plywood quackery and colourful distractions do not a mousetrap make.
Or so says Friedman. Very comprehensively. And it’s an interesting concept. Busyness attracts, isolation keeps. The gambler, whose internal space is without limit, must play within a highly regulated space. Comprehesive, interesting, but not enough. Wynn may have listened (largely) to Friedman this time round, but, as Lehrer says, his next groundbreaking enterprise, The Bellagio, appears to have turned Designing Casinos... on its head. An enormous fountain outside, the interior voluptuous, grand, enormous, a wayfinding system centred on the sunlit gods of wine, waste and taste, The Bellagio broke most of Friedman’s rules – and in the process broke hall takings by a factor of 4. It seems that gamblers, says Lehrer, gamble more given the chance to sit on chairs sourced in Italy, in spaces lit by great shafts of sun, surrounded by evidence of skilled craftsmanship. Lehrer calls it a ‘$1.6 billion gamble on psychology’. It paid off - in spades: The Bellagio is a latter day Versailles, only this time the god is a handmade fantasy, and not a king.
So, big and high and filled with clocks and natural light. Was Friedman wrong? Well, yes, in the sense that his design principles were shown to be profitably ignored; but also, no: Friedman postulated that design, after location, is more important than marketing, number of rooms, management and operations, and while he may even be wrong here, there is no doubt that it is fundamental to engineering atmosphere, movement, habit, profit. In Vegas, every square foot of a casino is analysed on the basis of its profit making potential. Poorly used machines, tables and decor are moved and changed if and when required. Roger Thomas, says Lehrer, will test an unused chair for its ergonomic failings. A gambling hum beats cacophonic interruption. Wynn’s most radical departure, The Wynn Las Vegas, while a homage to everything Friedman takes umbrage against, is a system of feints, of nooks and crannies, its central feature a splendid surprise. Design has always - from El Rancho to the Flamingo to the Sahara to Caesar’s Palace, the Luxor to Wynn’s many enterprises – been crucial to the success of the casino.
Even so, more no than yes. Friedman, for all his statistical wherewithal, was out of step – culturally as well as historically. Out of step almost the moment his book went to press. An ex-gambler and recovering addict, his design was made for a different, older Las Vegas, a city made for gamblers, for a limitless, internalised world of unfinished business; a place to play, and play, and play. There is no winning or losing in Friedman’s design. The gambler plays simply to continue, positioned perfectly before the machine, a life beyond matter, beyond fun, beyond care. Friedman’s design is the gambler’s design, a wayfinder to the mousetrap, to a plugged in opiate-like reverie, the desert, the no-world against which America once judged itself. It still exists, in Las Vegas, in America, but elsewhere, in repeat player land, back behind the Strip. Wynn’s world, by contrast, is such that he could, when designing The Wynn, contemplate no exterior signage, a building dedicated to the pursuit of leisure, to the luxury of safari, a building built to entertain, to produce a customer experience like no other.
Such a world is the America of late Hollywood, of a hugely confident Disney, of stories, of beginnings, middles and ends, the seemingly privileged innards of a stunning spectacle. While no less a trap, it is one made of choice, of the casino, yes, but also of restaurants, of sport, of hotel luxuries, retail stores, of a wayfinding system bent on awe. The Wynn wants its punters to eat, play, tour, to go to bed. It wants the fresh faced gamer (not, note, gambler), the amazed tourist, the super entertained. It sells (luxury) stories, lots of them, for lots of money. Visitor to player ratios? Tsk: guest to spender ratios, more like. The Wynn is a mighty big live-in dream, a super tale, an enormous themepark, the vanguard of a new and corporate Las Vegas, a Las Vegas that is America designed, a fantasy city, a city ‘that exists,’ as Wynn once said, ‘because it is the perfect America' - a utopia, then, an advert in 3D.