From the Manipulative Space to the Integrated Resort
The gambling industry, rebranded as gaming at least since the AGA’s founding in 1994, has been evolving from stigmatization toward a family-friendlier image with broader entertainment options. Architects with experience in casino design have observed a corresponding shift in priorities and forms. Mark Yoshizaki, senior vice president at the global hospitality design firm WATG (formerly Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo), described to AN a shift from old-school spaces exemplifying hostile design—short on windows, clocks, intuitive circulation, and signage, built to maximize players’ time at the tables—toward more of a playground model, the integrated resort (IR), conducive to longer stays (three or four days) by broader populations. In IRs, distinct pathways allow underage people and other nongamblers to bypass casino floors, and amenities include hotels, restaurants, retail, live performances, pocket parks, and youth-oriented attractions. As in a city, betting in an IR is only one draw among many.
“I did start my game experience in Las Vegas, in the heart of where all the gaming is; it has a certain vibe to it,” Yoshizaki recalled. “There [are] no beaches; there’s nothing to be said of as far as the surrounding areas…. In Vegas, everything drives traffic through the casino floor for every nickel you can get. But in these urban IRs, it’s more important to make sure you’re respecting the community as a whole.” In one new IR, the Yaamava’ Resort in suburban Highland, California, east of Los Angeles, WATG added a 17-story, 432-room hotel, a 2,800-seat theater, and other luxury features to the former San Manuel Casino, once a small bingo hall, taking steps to broaden its appeal and control effects on nearby residences and schools. The casino and tribe (the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians) have committed gaming-floor earnings to a local tax program, Yoshizaki says, funding access roads, streetlights, and emergency services.
“When you get into urban areas for casinos, there has to be a very careful consideration of where those gamblers are coming from,” Yoshizaki continued. When local residents are the main customer base, “you’re not really drawing any new money into the cities,” but in a project designed, scaled, and located to attract out-of-state and international travelers, outside a central city or in a tourism district, “that’s where you can really benefit from getting the tax revenues, because it’s new money; it’s outside money.” (This is where designers can learn from overseas casinos with private spaces dedicated to the “whales,” or wealthy, high-stakes players.) Planners must also consider how the gamblers are coming: a transit-accessible site, perhaps on a city’s perimeter, “is seen more as an underutilized entertainment zone that has potential to add to its already fairly reputable amenity base, so we see that as a good draw to reduce the amount that happens in the heart of the cities. We’re not adding car traffic or anything to the inner cities.”
To compete with online games and “pull people out of their chairs,” Yoshizaki recommended designing IRs with both positive attractors in the form of diverse experiences and operational features that can deter the inevitable “negative elements [that] are somehow attracted to these venues”: well-lit sidewalks, video screening, satellite security stations, and open spaces. “At least to tribes and the gaming operators that I’ve worked with,” he summarized, “I’ve always felt like I’m helping to create a more positive environment, to help eliminate those negatives that come along with it with great design. Having a blend of hospitality interlaced into the gaming environment creates a better offering than just gaming for gaming’s sake.”
A Racino Grew in Yonkers
Jay Valgora, founder and principal of STUDIO V, worked on the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, where a 45-foot glass wall and a porte cochere of curving, latticed steel covered with ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) foil give the casino area a rare level of transparency. The shed/box model for gambling spaces, he said, “is completely cut off from its surroundings, has no relationship to its community, no relationship to time or space, and basically is decorated to try to create a theme or an idea to distract you from reality.” Rather than isolate patrons, he preferred to connect them to the site and its history: the garden elements of the surroundings, the cable-stayed canopies of an earlier iteration of the building, and a sculptural form that “leaps out of the hillside and actually grows out of the topography of the site…. It’s not an alien intervention; it really grows from the nature of the place, and I think that if we do a new casino for New York, it should have the same effect.”
“The urban casino should be a spectacle,” Valgora contended. “I think New York City is deserving of a better casino. We need something from a design point of view that absolutely cannot be the straight-out-of-the-box Las Vegas.” Instead, the city’s casinos should present “an urban spectacle that’s all about the arrival of people, the enjoyment of the activities, people gaming, people dining, people eating, people arriving, coming and going, creating the choreography and the drama of arrival…. I think these are all elements of the new urban casino.” He continued: “I love how we could update Learning from Las Vegas, where instead of being inspired by roadside architecture and using that as a design tool, we’re now inspired by the nature of the city itself.” In this example, the inspiration translates into broad glazing rather than artificially lit black-box enclosures; vertical stacks of activities rather than a single horizontal gaming floor; and site-specific artwork like Empire City’s “80,000 polycarbonate panels, [an] abstraction of the skyline of New York City” rather than replicas “trying to make it look like Paris or Polynesia or Rome.”
The city’s best entertainment venues, Valgora noted, “have very little lobby space; they always project their energy onto the exterior through marquees,” using streets themselves as lobbies and functioning as a “machine for interaction of people.” At Yonkers or at other local sites, he would like to see casinos respect the grid, “the one element of New York that must survive above all else.” Valgora offered that “the opportunity of a casino or an entertainment complex [is] to address the edges of the city, and if it can actually connect them together and unite them, then I think it would succeed…. The cityness of New York is completely inescapable, and the urban casino must embrace that.”
Developing an urbane, neighborly, connected casino model, Valgora suggested, is a logical next step in the city’s long-running dialectic between order and energy. “The notion of modern architecture originally tried to destroy the city,” he said. “Modern architecture now is making our cities more sustainable, more green, more resilient. I wonder if there is a way that modern architecture, through gardens, light, glass, relating to time and place, can actually even tame the casino.”
The policy component of that effort involves ensuring that the wealth these businesses channel becomes more solution than problem, directing revenue to housing, social services, and transit, not simply from players to profiteers. The design component can address the post-pandemic hunger for social contact, 24-hour edginess, and “this essential idea of New York, which combines these two ideas: perfect control and perfect random chance.” Perhaps urbanity and casinos are a natural fit after all.
Bill Millard is a regular contributor to AN.