How the resort casino also revolutionised architecture

How the resort casino also revolutionised architecture

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 Posted by Andy McCarron
Mixed-use architecture: (re)defining public space

Over the past 25 years, large-scale casino resorts have grown to become the industry’s most lucrative land-based gaming model. While these projects continue to hit headlines in terms of construction costs and revenues generated, the sheer scale of today’s mixed-use leisure and entertainment destinations has also given rise to a new branch of architecture that is making waves around the world.

If you were to ask anyone with even a passing interest in the gaming industry to describe a casino, they are more likely than ever to depict a large, resort-style location with many interconnected leisure and entertainment elements – and not just a building filled with slot machines and table games.

Yet while today’s mixed-use gaming destinations have been a success story on both sides of the Pacific, they are still a relatively new phenomenon. Opened in November 1989, The Mirage Resort and Casino in Las Vegas is widely credited as pioneering the resort model that has since been utilised (with varying degrees of success) in markets around the world, from Southeast Asia to South Africa.

With a construction cost of $640 million, The Mirage was the most expensive hotel-casino in history. Steve Wynn’s gamble paid off, however, as the Polynesian-themed resort – which featured 3,000 hotel rooms, shows, attractions, restaurants, a miniature zoo, one million square feet of public space and, of course, gambling – attracted a new generation of Las Vegas tourists and helped to reverse a protracted decline in the city’s visitor numbers.

Although the resort model is still less than 30 years old, mixed-used destinations are already etched into public consciousness. This is unsurprising, as developers continue to build record-breaking entertainment meccas that now dwarf The Mirage in terms of both scale and ambition.

The so-called ‘megaresorts’ of the 21st century certainly have the potential to generate major returns, but they also present many risks – not least in terms of economic sustainability. The mantra ‘if you build it, they will come’ will do little to allay the concerns of an operator faced with declining visitor numbers and colossal daily running costs.

As is the case with the major shopping malls of North America and the new influx of large-scale family entertainment centres in the Middle East, casino resort developers find themselves at the forefront of architectural innovation, as they address the unique challenges posed by the mixed-use model.

At this year’s Integrated Systems Expo (ISE), which took place in Amsterdam earlier this month, Ole Scheeren, an award-winning German architect renowned for major mixed-use projects around the world, shared his vision of contemporary architecture and the evolving idea of ‘public space’.

“I have long been interested in how architects connect people to each other through the spaces we design,” he said. “I am also interested in how we connect buildings back to the urban environment; to the city and the public domain.”

Over the past 10 years, Scheeren has been the brainchild of many celebrated experimental developments, many of which make use of what he calls “connective architecture” – buildings that take into consideration not only the spaces they create and occupy but also the flow of their inhabitants.

From projects such as the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing – a massive 540,000sq.m building that mixes public and private spaces – to the mooted ‘Olympicopolis’ in London, which brings together various cultural and media institutions, Scheeren’s said his architectural developments “underline the importance of social clusters – they are all about the getting together of people, the exchange and the social aspect of the building”.

According to Scheeren, today’s major mixed-use developments address what he calls the “challenge to create spaces that are no longer defined by separation but by overlaps”. However, while he admits that architects have long been concerned with ‘scripting’ the experiences of others through design, it is important to give visitors choice and freedom to move around a public space as they see fit.

“Which means of escape do we offer by the things we do? How much do we all script the lives of others, and how much do we decide for them? How much do we let them decide? I think it’s very important we ask ourselves how much we want to script, how much we want to control. This is something we can’t underestimate,” he said.

Scheeren went on to discuss the growing popularity of ‘smart buildings’, which refers to developments that utilise connected systems to increase efficiency and improve sustainability. While he encouraged operators to pursue technological opportunities, he maintained that technology should be considered a tool, or something that works hand-in-hand with design – and not in its place.

“I don’t know if it’s worth developing a building that uses little energy but is really horrible to inhabit. If a building doesn’t function, if people don’t want to be there, it doesn’t matter if it uses a little bit more or a little bit less electricity because it won’t be inhabited properly. The quality of our life is the most important measure for everything, and only then come the tools through which we can perfect that. It can never become the controlling mechanism in itself.”

Totally Gaming says: Scheeren’s approach clearly resonates with today’s mixed-use casino resort destinations. We need look no further than Las Vegas Sands’ major developments in Macau or the mooted Queen’s Wharf Brisbane project in Australia to see the importance of architectural design. Here visitors are transported seamlessly from casinos to retail to restaurants and shows; each area relates to the next, while simultaneously maintaining its own character. It will be interesting to find out what the next step will be. 

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