Casino design is no game of luck - Saturday 12th of March 2005

While all the buzz in Hong Kong recently has been about the rebounding economy, just a short distance across the South China Sea, in Macao, a hum of a different sort can be heard as a host of new casinos has begun transforming the city into a gambling mecca.

In a meeting room in the heart of Sands Casino, Paul Steelman, president and CEO of Paul Steelman Design Group (PSDG), beams at the prospects that lie ahead. The chief architect for the recently opened Sands has arrived in Macao to inspect recent additions to the building he designed and to address a group of fellow architects, among them leading names like Callisons and KPF (Kohn Pederson and Fox), who are eager to hear about the success of his latest project.

And well they might. Steelman is one of the world's leading casino designers, having worked on over 80 casino and entertainment related projects in a career that spans nearly thirty years. The success of the ands has made casino developers and other designers sit up and take otice.

"Currently, there is no other casino in the world like it," Steelman says proudly. "The Sands incorporates a lot of new ideas and innovations which have never been tried before and it has been a resounding success." By challenging existing conventions to create a unique building, the casino expert has boosted the profile of his company and attracted new business as a result.

The design of the Sands has undergone substantial changes since its first presentation, but fundamentally, the design concept is the same, says Steelman. "We had a bare site which was actually reclaimed land that was unusual in shape and restricted geographically, and we needed to put one million square feet of building on it. It was quite a challenge. Basically we have incorporated the myriad facilities demanded by the brief into a very effective design, and wrapped the exterior of the building around it like a skin."

One of the fundamental differences in the design of the Sands is the layout, Steelman says. While casinos are usually planned to spread out, with gaming facilities developed horizontally and any hotel towers placed above them, the Sands breaks this rule and layers multiple gaming and entertainment facilities above one another.

The design is based around a spatial layout which Steelman refers to as a "stadium" design. The main gaming floor is situated at the centre of the building with secondary spaces wrapping around it in a series of arcs. By carving a vertical space through the building, Steelman visually connects the different facilities which all overlook the atrium. Curving the spaces also adds interest and complexity to the design as the perspective of the occupants and their experience of the space is always changing as they move through the building, he says, and "this makes the gaming area always their focus".

"Normally there should be no stairs within a casino, because it makes t easier for players to move around the complex. It is also believed that it is not effective to have gaming areas on upper floors since these will not be frequented by players. The higher the floor, the less traffic will pass through, thus making above ground gaming areas not desirable," he says. "The Sands has shown that, given the right design, gambling areas above ground level can be made to work.

"We also have adaptable gaming rooms, so that a gaming space can be a single unit with one table in it, or be combined into a larger space by opening up dividing screens," he says.

In another departure from convention, external lighting has been allowed into the building. While most casinos block out any references that remind gamblers of the time, Steelman lets light in and combines it with special effects lighting and other digital effects to create different moods at different times of the day.

Instant appeal

While most building structures are designed with longevity in mind, casinos are the exact opposite, which itself creates a challenge, says Steelman. "Architects normally strive to create a timelessness to their buildings, where the value of a building is understood only after a long time. A casino's value can be assessed as soon as it opens and visitors' interest must be captured within minutes."

To achieve this, the Sands again stakes new ground, blending rich materials and ultra-modern, high-tech forms that, while not thematic, infuse the space with an opulent aura.

Modern casinos are moving away from strongly "thematic" developments like the MGM Grand, with its faux pyramids and Egyptian themes or the Venetian, which recreates Venice, Steelman says. While casino designers will still want to impart a sense of excitement and wonder to the designs, the buildings will have their own identity and sense of place, their own character, which will not be mere copies of something else.

"The Sands incorporates new ideas and thinking in modern casino design. The irony is that while Macao strives to become Las Vegas, Las Vegas casinos are moving away from that and will start looking at doing the kinds of things we have done here."

"In the future, we will see more casinos that possess a longer lasting, more timeless quality about them like this one," Steelman says. n the better projects, "the building itself is the attraction and what draws people to come."

For Steelman, the rush may have already started. PSDG recently completed new facilities, a regular "must" for any casino, including the Pearl Room, a luxury extension to the gaming areas and the Paiza Club, an exclusive by-invitation-only members floor that includes private gaming tables and complementary suites. It is also getting ready to begin phase-two works for the Sands on an adjacent site. The company has also entered into talks to design a project in Korea.

"We are the only company that produces full 3D renderings of our projects," says Steelman. "Our presentations take viewers on a virtual reality tour of projects before they are built. We use software like Renderfarm to create a comprehensive presentation."

Also boosting optimism is the recent announcement by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, owner and operator of the Venetian in Las Vegas as well as Macao's Sands, of a multi-billion-dollar casino-resort development on the large tract of reclaimed land that lies between Taipa and Colane Islands known as the Cotai Strip. When completed, the strip will boast some 12,000 hotels rooms operated by leading hotel operators like Hilton Hotel, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental and Sheraton.

Steelman is looking forward to the new development and the future in earnest. "Macao is one of the few real casino cities in the world, and the pre-eminent gambling city in China. What is happening in Macao is tremendous. The city is developing into one of Asia's premier destinations."

Steelman says, by and large, the local government has been supportive of the new casino developments but does not think it will become a Las Vegas-style casino city.

"I see Macao developing along more traditional grounds. The local planning authority is interested in seeing buildings as fitting into a greater context of the city.

"In Las Vegas, casinos are always being pulled down and rebuilt," he says. "Every number of years, old projects are pulled down and new ones go up. This is a requirement by casino owners and players who are always looking for something new and exciting and fresh."

"I see Macao developing along different lines, in that the city has to be true to its culture," says Steelman.

As well as moving away from thematic designs towards more fundamental principles, buildings here will be more sympathetic and incorporate local design elements and features related to its history as a Portuguese colony and being part of China, he says. This will make them look different from other cities, where casinos do not pay attention to the contextual issues of their locales.

Family fun

Another trend which will influence the way Macao develops is the changing face of its visitors. While Steelman notes that, till now, the majority of Macao's gamblers have been older males, the new projects will target a more diverse market.

"Casinos nowadays are oriented towards the family," Steelman says. "Macao will need to do the same to capture a larger share of the tourist market."

In a fully developed casino/entertainment site, gambling only makes up about 10 per cent of the attention of the family tourists, he says. "They are busy spending their time and money seeing a whole range of activities, including the shows, shopping, theme parks, restaurants and other attractions. Las Vegas is the leading casino city, but it also has attractions outside of gambling. This is also something that I see happening here."

Part of Adelson's stated long-term plan for China is the development of non-gaming attractions in neighbouring provinces, a strategy that is in agreement with one of two schools of thinking regarding gaming, Steelman says.

"Casinos work best in a critical mass, where a critical mass creates a true casino city," he says. "The alternative is developing one casino that is open to tender."

Hypothetically speaking, he sees no reason why mainland cities, if they were large enough, could not operate their own casinos.

While innovative design, a willingness to strike in new directions and expertise gained through years of dedicated specialization have brought his company success, perhaps Steelman's best move of all was entering the business in the first place. "Casinos, by their very nature, are about change," he says. "They are always having to reinvent themselves. Those who do not start from scratch, will add new facilities and attractions "every couple of years". This is necessary "to keep customers coming back for more", as well as to attract new customers, he says. All of which means "I'm never out of work".

"The casino business and building is all about one-upmanship. Everyone is trying to outdo each other, and with each new casino, the bar is raised higher. That means everyone has to raise the standard of their product to remain competitive."

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