Shaping the buildings that shape the casino business

ICR - Paul Steelman buildings
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With a career spanning over four decades, Paul Steelman has designed buildings for the leading lights of the gaming industry, and his company Steelman Partners was ranked the 91st largest architectural firm last year. In an feature interview, he discusses several of the core design and planning principals involved in casino architecture.


The backend – infrastructure, kitchens, and laundrys etc – forms a major part of a casino resort. Is there a trade off there between back of the house efficiency and energising the casino venue?

As time has gone on, we’ve looked at all sorts of ways to try and minimise the labour required to service casinos in the back of the house.

Steve Wynn was a big proponent of this with The Mirage, which has all those restaurants, buffets, and coffee shops but they’re all serviced from one 27,000 sq ft kitchen. That kitchen was actually the heartbeat of the design because Steve, at that particular time did not believe in spreading out the kitchens, due to labour issues and things of this nature.

Another feature that we’ve seen develop over the passage of 30 years, is that many casinos are now built on top of an elevated ground floor.

This is for a couple of reasons, firstly to give the building some presence on the street or around its landscaping, so it appears to sit up a little bit. Additionally, this enables you to have various service points connecting to a common back of the house area that allows you to diversify your approach to creating the necessary tandem-based activities to energise the casino in certain ways.

Most of the casinos in Macau are like that and most of the new casinos in Las Vegas as well. Conversely we have several projects that have the back of the house somewhere up in the air, so that it splits the levels.

So there are different solutions to handle this aspect of design, the most judicious way is the original Mirage way, which is to create one singular back of the house and plan your front end around it. However that is not the most desirable way for people to energise a casino in today’s world.

How much does the theme of the venue impact on the design, is it overlaid on top of the infrastructure base or is it developed in tandem?

Casinos can be planned in a number of ways and there are multiple approaches toward theming, however most of the theming occurs in small sections, with the exception of the major attractions.

A resort normally consists of a set of stratified casinos, usually five that divide the venue into specific target markets. We also believe that within a given market other than Vegas, a casino requires four additional elements or attractions to promote an extended visit.

If you determine your major attractions first, whatever those might be, for example the lake at the Bellagio or the Lake of Dreams at Wynn – something of this nature – it help s in defining the overall design. Most of our casinos have between 10-12 attractions, either paid or free.

If the attractions are determined then that could affect the overall look or theme and in some cases it does.

We prefer that the attractions make sense with the overall offering, instead of it being piecemeal, where you have a plethora of different activities that don’t come together.

If you look at some of the more tied together resorts here in Las Vegas and Macau, you can see that; the attractions do make some sense with the exterior design and theming and consequently the branding that goes along with it.

You’ve observed that there are no mirrors in casinos, how important is the effect of a venue on a customer’s sense of self?

I think the perception of self plays a huge part in the length of time people gamble. They have to feel empowered to be in the casino, that idea of “ I can beat this place”.

Sense of scale is a bad thing, if you feel very small in a casino, one in a million visitors, it doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t feel personal. Quite frankly that’s why the ceilings in Steve Wynn’s properties are all 14ft high.

So the sense of scale and the shaping of the building is very important for the overall financial health of the project.

The point about mirrors goes back to vanity and your inner feelings about yourself. Casinos are meant to take you to another brighter, more exciting, more captivating space. If you add mirrors, like one of our old clients did, first of all you make the casino a lot darker as you’re doing something that absorbs light and secondly, in terms of yourself, well, you look up and realise you are not James Bond.

Consequently we’re very cognisant of the finishes, of the colours and the lighting colour – if the lighting temperature is not correct, people look blue, and a casino full of blue people doesn’t look good.

Light is a significant factor in your designs, to what extent do you use natural light in a casino venue as opposed to artificial light?

There’s no real ratio, we actually have to lobby a lot of casino operators to do it. Basically, the old school view was that a casino should be a dark, night time environment 24 hours a day. This would then be artificially lit to create brilliant spaces.

While there have been some windows in casinos, utilising natural light, there have been statistics which show that slot machines actually make less when there is natural light shining on them.

Consequently when we did the Sands Macau, we did a very large east window, with kind of a gold tint and which gave the casino a very unique look in the day yet there was really no direct light coming on to it.

When we did Solaire Resort & Casino in Manila’s Entertainment City, we utilised various skylights, and let those skylights go down the junction points in the casino walkways, enabling the casino to have a day lit feeling, without focusing that daylight on the slot machines.

We are firm believers that the industry should be daylighting and we think that millennial customers do not believe in eternal darkness and do not like to live in that environment. For this reason we try to incorporate natural light in every casino we can.

There seems to be a paradox in casino venue design where on the one hand, it should have a scale or intimacy that boosts a patron’s sense of self but on the other hand it should have that wow factor. How do you reconcile these two aspects?

We’re fairly experienced now, and we do believe that the worst thing that can happen to a casino is that it looks empty. So consequently you have to figure out how to design the wow experience in a small space.

Now a lot of people deny that’s really possible, they want casinos to feel huge, so you can see the mall like in the Venetian Macau, which has 500,000 sq ft of casino space. But this is not really the best way, when casinos need to look as if they’re full of people.

One of the poor examples in Las Vegas, that many in the Wynn organisation used to refer to, was the Bally’s Casino, which was originally the first MGM. This was turned the wrong way, it was a long rectangular casino, so you’d see it all upon entry.

Consequently that became a non-design starter for the industry, but we have learnt from this. At Galaxy Macau, while it’s a long, rectangular casino, it is divided into a series of squares or cells, which break the casino down into various components, and the long casino there worked very well.

While they’re built 40 years apart, just small tweaks were needed, but these made a big difference when it came to Galaxy.

There’s a lot of science behind the shapes of these buildings, since it ultimately makes a huge difference to the casino’s financial health and this is what makes planning them so interesting.

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