|April 30, 1993
|Fine Arts 12b, Harvard University
|This may be the best thing I wrote at Harvard. It was certainly the most fun. It was for an architecture course and studied the inner landscape of two Las Vegas casinos.
|Even though I wrote it and supported it, I do not actually believe the thesis of this paper, which is that internal space of casinos is intentionally confusing. While this is somewhat true, I think this is really more of a happy accident (at least for the casinos I analyzed).
|Steve Wynn, then owner of the Mirage, agrees with me. Several years after writing this paper, I sent him a copy. In a reply, he pretty much harshed on the paper, saying that the designs of these casinos was the result of "confusion not cunning".
|In any case, it was fun to write. I knew I hit the correct tone when the TA wrote a comment on the paper cautioning me to “avoid becoming a parody of yourself”.
|The section headings are all titles of Guns ’N’ Roses songs.
“Viva Las Vegas,
Turning day into nighttime,
Turning night into daytime,
If you see it once, you’ll never be the same again.”
— Elvis Presley
“Livin’ ain’t the word…
’Cause it’s all about money.”
— Public Enemy
“You see this? This is sand. You know what it’s gonna be a
hundred years from now? It’s gonna be sand! Nothing grows here!
Nothin’s gonna grow here!”
— Sam Kineson
“That’s what’s goin’ down on the inside.
Don’t let this get around to the outside.”
— Van Halen
While celebrating Christmas over margaritas in the Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas, my uncle laughed at the speech of the dancing statue of Bacchus in front of us, saying “This is the most honest town in the world.” I had to agree; Las Vegas makes no pretense about what it is. It is no secret that casinos, given half the chance, will take your money. That is a fact of gambling, a fact which, while obviously not flaunted by casinos, is neither denied nor hushed up. Even so, certain Las Vegas casinos work in a very subtle way to separate you from your money, most notably through their use of internal space.
Caesars Palace and the Mirage, two neighboring hotel/casinos on the Las Vegas Strip have been internally (and, to a lesser extent, externally) designed almost solely for the purpose of increasing profits. The casino layout, lighting and access manipulate gamblers in an almost unnoticeable way specifically designed to keep them within the casino and to keep them gambling.
In order to understand the execution of such a manipulative design, something must be said about its motivation, which in this case is making money by providing gambling services. To fully appreciate how this is done, a little must be said about the economics of gambling. From the player’s point of view, making money gambling is a matter of luck, skill and strategy. From the casino’s standpoint, however, none of these factors are relevant; all that matters is volume. Gambling works because the games are set up in such a way that both the player and the casino can reasonably and logically expect to keep these outlooks.
For any given bet a player might make, he or she has a realistic chance of winning that bet. For example, a bet on the pass line at a craps table* has an almost fifty-fifty chance of paying off. The key to all of Las Vegas is that word “almost”. The game of craps is organized so that for any given bet, the odds of the player losing are slightly greater that the odds of the player winning. The margin between the two is called the house advantage. The pass line at craps has one of the smallest house advantages of any bet in Las Vegas: 1.4%. One way of looking at this is that, after 1,000 pass bets are made, the house will have won, on average, 14 more bets than it lost. After 10,000 pass bets are made, the house will have won 140 more than it has lost, on average.
This basic premise is what makes Las Vegas work. It allows a player a real chance to win money while simultaneously allowing a casino to consistently make money. For the player, his chances of winning remain constant. For the casino, however, they only make money consistently on one condition: lots of bets are made.
As shown above, more bets made gives more bets won by the casino, on average, and therefore the more money made. A risk for the casino, however, is that since each bet has no effect on the bets that precede or follow in terms of outcome, it is possible that the actual results on any given day will not be “average”. Some days they might do better, some days, they might do worse and even lose money. The statistical chance of this happening, however, grows vanishingly small as the number of bet increases, so the more bets that are made, the greater the likelihood that the “average” scenario will actually be the case.
This leads directly to the casinos most profitable business strategy: run the casino in such a way that leads to the most bets possible. They can do this in two ways: attract more and more gamblers, and see to it that the gamblers, once inside, stay gambling for longer periods of time. The two casinos investigated in this paper actively pursue both tactics, but apart from giving free alcohol to gamblers, other casinos mostly ignore the latter, concentrating instead on enticing customers inside. This is done in many ways, but, as this is an architecture paper (all evidence to the contrary aside), only the way in which architecture accomplishes this task will be discussed here.
Although this paper is mainly interested in the workings of the internal casino space, enticing passer-by to enter is largely (if not solely) a function of the exterior of a casino. Las Vegas being Las Vegas, however, “standard” architectural forms are somewhat unhelpful. Take this description of Caesars Palace, for example:
The front colonnade is San Pietro-Bernini in plan but Yamasaki in vocabulary and scale; the blue and gold mosaic work is Early Christian tomb of Galla Placidia. Beyond and above is a slab in Gio Ponti Pirelli-Barouque, and beyond that, in turn, a low wing in Neo-classical Motel Moderne. … Within the Piazza San Pietro is the token parking lot. Among the parked cars rise five fountains rather than the two of Carlo Maderno; Villa d’Este cypresses further punctuate the parking environment. Gian de Bologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women and statues of Venus and David, with slight anatomical exaggerations, grace the area around the porte cochere. Almost bisecting Venus is an Avis, as sign identifying No. 2’s offices on the premises. (Venturi, et. al., pg 51.)
Analyzing such a structure in the same way as you might analyze a real Roman temple would be a nightmare. Fortunately, in Learning From Las Vegas, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown offer a different way of looking as such a building as a part of a complex order of the strip as a whole, as part of an emerging method of embodying commercial enterprise. Frederic Jameson—in an all-to-rare moment when he was not quoting Hegel or a multitude of other thinkers—perhaps summed up this view when he said that the designers of such buildings…
…no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a different, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system of the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using its lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically “learned from Las Vegas.” (Jameson, pg 39)
Or, in other words, Caesars excites us because it is an embodiment of what we find exciting about Las Vegas. It is an embodiment of the commercialization of luck, of the Las Vegas experience.
I think this is crap.
Well, perhaps not entirely. Although it seems lofty, overly academic, and generally expressed in writing rife with intellectual masturbation, the idea that Caesars is Las Vegas and vice versa is at least reasonable. We are pulled into a casino as we are pulled into any other place of commerce, as if it were any other store, in this case one that sold the Las Vegas Experience. The oversized sign does grab our eye from afar and holds our attention until we enter, just as Venturi suggested, but the architecture of places like Caesars Palace and the Mirage is a bit more powerful, a bit more actively engaging than that. Venturi and his ilk seem to place lots of relevance on the exteriors of Strip casinos; however, they are interested in them as a model for commercial strips worldwide. Although this is a persuasive tactic and is helpful in understanding commercial strips, to place the Strip in with other commercial strips is to misunderstand casinos. Absent from their analysis (and, in many ways irrelevant to it) is the way in which a specific building might operate on the public, with its own agenda.
Both Caesars Palace and the Mirage, for example, have architecture so stunningly odd, even taken out of the Las Vegas context (or, perhaps, especially then), that one cannot help but wonder what is inside. The large, black techno-sphere of the OmniMax™ theater of Caesars Palace somehow manages to integrate itself with the bizarre Romanesque of the rest of the building. It speaks pure decadence, which almost requires investigation. The Mirage, on the other hand, compares to nowhere else on Earth, with its sleek golden-glasses tri-spoked tower and (need I even mention) the volcano exploding every 15 minutes from the lake which is the front lawn (see Plate 2). We all know it’s a gimmick, but ignoring its lure, once in front of it, is a superhuman undertaking. The pure physical impact of the two casinos from the outside make it nearly impossible to pass either place without entering.
In addition, both use an almost blatant method of enticing customers in through architecture: conveyor belts. In the days since Learning From Las Vegas, the car has become not only unnecessary to a Las Vegas vacationer, but actually undesirable. Where, as Venturi points out, the Strip and it’s hotels were once designed around the car, foot traffic now reigns. (Newer hotels, like the Excalibur have parking lots so far away from them that the use trams to cart in guests from the parking lot to the hotel.) Additions were made to Caesars Palace which cater to foot traffic, mainly the addition and integration of three “people movers”, conveyor belts which bring customers from the street down the long distance to the hotel previously traveled by car. The Mirage has an almost identical system. In both cases, the journey down the movers is accompanied by a friendly recorded voice lauding the features of its respective hotel. Naturally, this voice can be heard near the street entrance to the movers, attracting even more people. Also, the movers are covered, offering shade from the Las Vegas sun. While this last doesn’t sound all that significant, a typical summer day in Las Vegas can easily break 100 degrees, and the intense heat is much easier to ignore by someone sitting inside a building in New England reading papers than by someone in front of a shady doorway, inviting him or her within.
It is inside the casino that architecture begins to play its most crucial role, especially in the case of Caesars Palace and the Mirage. The internal space of these two casinos functions with a simple premise in mind: to keep customers within it. The execution of such an idea is extremely subtle; it is not so much that people are prevented from leaving but simply not encouraged to do so. Rather aggressively not encouraged. This is perhaps best illustrated by Caesars Palace, where the layout of the public spaces within have the effect of confusing those within it.
Although not an official plan of the Palace, Map 1 gives a sense of organizational layout sufficient to illustrate this purpose. Where many hotels have just one casino, Caesars has two or three spread throughout its ground floor. From the map, it can be seen that there are at least three different ways to get from one of these casinos to the other, all without leaving the building. You can (and very often do) go through one “corridor” and return through another, often unaware you are back where you came from. Note on the map the somewhat arbitrary way the sections C-F are divided, with, for example, the Olympic Casino spanning two sections. Few landmarks can be found within the rather vast casino areas; note how each casino has a Megabucks Slots area near an entrance (C-4 and E-9), each of which are adorned with the same sign.
The map also shows the oddly curved walls and rooms that seem to jut out for no apparent reason (C-2, E-16, D-3, F-1, etc.). These serve to jumble the internal landscape, slowly warping your sense of direction. The oddly organic shapes of these walls provide a false anchor, as you can look at one to get your bearings, look away, and when you look back, be uncertain as to weather you were looking at that curve, or the one next to it. There are no windows. All light is created, providing no means of gauging direction by where light is coming from.
Exits in this environment are extremely hard to spot. In keeping with fire codes, they are all marked by lit “exit” signs, but in an environment where neon, flashing lights and sirens is the norm, this is hardly helpful. Retracing your steps (assuming you even can, which is not likely) often doesn’t help, as some doors to the outside function only as entrances, not exits, in particular the people mover leading to section F on the map. And in perhaps the least subtle of all the ways you are encouraged not to leave, the people movers which pull you in do only that; there are no people movers that go the opposite direction, taking you back out to the street.
This same method of controlling exits is used with the Forum Shops connected to Caesars (see F-4, as well as Map 2), a standard up-scale shopping mall. A people mover takes you into the mall’s entrance, but the only way to leave the mall is through the casino inside Caesars. It is also no accident that getting to the exit entails walking down a winding central artery, passing every store inside the mall. This system not only manipulates a visitor into spending some time in the casino (at which point the internal space of the casino can work its magic) but allowing all the stores to pull him or her in as well.
What cannot be seen on the map of Caesars is the layout of the tables and slot machines. Taken alone, the spaces of the casinos might seem rather easy to grab hold of visually, however, the tables and machines are arranged in such a way that passing through the casino requires winding through and around them. To this, add a few more facts: the slots are tall enough to block your line of sight, the casino is jammed with people, there are flashing lights everywhere, when you walk through a casino your often pay more attention to the gambling excitement around you than on where you are going. All of these facts are common in any casino, but when combined with an internal spatial layout that is fully aware of such facts and works in a way to enhance their distracting power, like the layout of Caesars Palace, the effect is often the distraction of those within such a space, and the postponement of rational thought by them. The end result: they take longer to get out of the damn place than they would have otherwise, often much longer.
Other elements of the inside of Caesars enhance this confusing quality, disassociating time and space. Although not strictly speaking designed space, within the confines and influence of Caesars, the elements of clocks and lighting act as architectural elements, forming a key part of the intent of the internal space.
A casino has no clocks.
By implication, casinos have no time either, they are always open, a sort of perpetual twilight. This is accentuated by the lighting of casinos. They are very dark. This both enhances the attraction and distraction of the flashing lights, as well as hide the borders of the room you are in. As Venturi and Brown say in the one page in which they discuss Las Vegas interiors…
the combination of darkness and enclosure of the gambling room and its subspaces makes for privacy, protection, concentration and control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with the outside light or outside space. This disorients the outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space and time. one loses track of where one is an when it is. Time is limitless, because the light of noon and midnight are exactly the same. Space is limitless, because the artificial light obscures rather than defines its boundaries. (Venturi, et. al., pg 49)
When lost in such a timeless, infinite plane, there is little else to do but gamble, and the spirit of the place is such that gambling is likely. This is the desired effect, that you will wander around until you sit at a machine or a table. And once at a table, you will stay.
In the passage from Learning From Las Vegas above, the first line is perhaps the most meaningful. Just as the inner space of a casino discourages you from leaving the casino, the lighting and use of space around any given table encourages you to stay at the table. You feel in control, protected, invulnerable; you keep betting.
Until Caesars has all your money.
Neighbor to Caesars Palace is the Mirage. Having no real historical theme, the Mirage is lauded as being a true original. “By challenging all the old rules and setting new standards for design, ambiance and entertainment,” a travel guide says, “the Mirage is likely to revolutionize hotels and casinos in much the same way Disney did theme parks.” (Sehlinger, pg 95) While from an aesthetic and atmospheric standpoint, this statement is right on the money, in terms of internal space and use of architecture to further its profits, the Mirage stole every trick it knows from Caesars Palace and intensified it.
It uses the same one-way people mover tricks, pulling people from the street and not vice-versa (in spite of the arrow which appears to indicate otherwise on Map 3). The Mirage also enhances its ability to discourage people from leaving by having only one real public exit location. All others are reserved for guests or for emergency use only.
While the map of the Mirage looks like its layout is somewhat more sane than that of Caesars, the reverse is actually true. Many of the spots on the casino floor completely block vision and travel through them. For example, the casino near the Mirage Buffet has a large section of blackjack tables, each inside an opened walled thatched roof hut. Next to it is a bar island. Also, tall palm trees abound in the place, especially around the atrium (see Plate 1), making sight from one side of the casino into the other casino problematic.
There are pathways connecting the various parts of the main public area of the Mirage, almost like trails cut through a jungle. This is in fact what they are, for the slot machines and tables and trees are so thick that these paths are really your only true source of movement through the hotel. It is significant that all these paths lead to the atrium (which, by the way, is about 50% plastic plants). Passage through the atrium is via a wooden foot bridge, maybe five or six feet wide, and curved, so that the exit is not visible from the casino. It differs from the other paths in that you do not walk through it on a whim. Compared to the other paths available to you, it is somehow more severe, a place you need a reason to enter.
One of the key features of the Mirage’s whole internal set up, is again, a non-spatial element, acting to enhance the effect of the inner space. In the Mirages case, this element is that of the sign. The only way to figure out how to get where you are going in the Mirage is to follow the signs; you simply cannot see the places you might want to be (the shark tank or the white tiger cage, for example) from the casino. These signs are organized in an incredibly confusing way, evoking shades of the Loony-Tunes cartoon’s white picket signs, with arrows pointing in every direction to every city imaginable. More sinister is the fact that the signs show you only vaguely where you want to go. To truly get there, you have to wander through tens of meters of dense slot jungle, usually to find another semi-helpful sign. In the interim (at least for my family) a group trying to find something specific within the Mirage gets split up when one of its members gets momentarily distracted by the exciting goings on at a nearby craps table or winning slot machine. (A stray member was usually found plugging quarters into a video poker machine, ahead two vodka and tonics.) At that point, it is back into the maelstrom of the casino to find the lost member, and often losing more, or stopping to play blackjack on the way.
Mirage lighting is somewhat brighter than Caesars Palace’s. This would seem to refute Venturi’s statement earlier about darkness being security, but in fact, brighter light works in the Mirage, because the theme and feeling is that of a laid-back resort, where you are among friends in paradise. Dark lighting would actually hinder this effect. Here, the inclusion into paradise provides the same security found in anonymity within Caesars.
Leaving nothing to chance, the mood is set within the Mirage by piped-in music (or occasionally live music from the Lagoon Saloon). Jimmy Buffet is a favorite, turning the Mirage into a communal Margaritaville.
All the music and signs and lighting would be completely ineffective, however, without the basic internal working of the Mirage being so convoluted. The jungle-like aspect is a very subtle, encouraging assault on our sense of adventure, simultaneously skewing our sense of direction and logic.
Without actually barring anyone from leaving, the Mirage and Caesars both use internal space to put a subtle psychological pressure on people to remain inside, thus insuring a high profit margin for themselves. The gamblers stay voluntarily—a decision which they could easily reverse provided they take stock of their situation and find it the logical thing to do—inside an environment which discourages such awareness. The subtlety of this environment is perhaps even more effective on the Strip. After all, who expects subtlety in a place like Las Vegas?
*This is a bet that the dice roller with either a) roll a 7 or 11 on his first roll, or b) roll a 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 or 10 on his first roll and then roll a duplicate of what he or she rolled before he or she rolls a 7. This bet pays off at 1:1, meaning that winning a $5 bet will win $5 (and you keep the original $5, obviously).
Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).
Sehlinger, Bob, The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas, (New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1992).
Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown and Stevn Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977).
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