DESIGN: Elegance vs. opulence: the ‘Wow’ factor
by David Kranes
January 1, 2010
With most areas which fascinate me — theater, art, music, sports — I can produce a long list of heroes. Finding a hero in the world of casino design is much harder. Jon Jerde comes close. David Rockwell comes close. But neither comes as close as Steve Wynn.
When either Jon Jerde or David Rockwell designs a casino they’re essentially ghostwriters. You might say the Bellagio is Steve Wynn’s “story” as told to Jon Jerde.
Steve Wynn doesn’t like being called a visionary, but he is one. A rough, raw man, he has amazing grace. He grows blind and yet he sees. Wynn’s a man with increasingly tunnel eyesight — yet broad vision.
Charlie Rose, in his “The Man Who Helped Reinvent Las Vegas” interview with Wynn on “60 Minutes” last April, asked him why it was he cared so much about what a casino looks and feels like. And Wynn, who confesses to being a man who’s always loved the beautiful, said that his greatest pleasure would be for a visitor to walk into one of his casinos, look around and say, “Wow!”
Wow’s a simple word: three letters only and an almost involuntary, primal expression of another simple three-letter word — awe. You don’t have to think “Wow!” It’s that basic. And yet what Wow encompasses is broad and profound. It expresses respect and admiration and humility and congratulations. It expresses reverence and surprise and delight. If any of us can elicit a “Wow” we feel pretty good about it. Wow comes from the heart. It’s pure. It’s not mucked up. There’s little that’s hotshot or phony about it.
Scientists aren’t usually the first people who come to mind in discussions of beauty; but the truth is, scientists talk a lot about beauty. Mathematicians will talk about the beauty of an equation. And most of the time when a scientist means beauty he uses the word “elegance”. An extraordinary theory or mechanism is “elegant”. Elegant’s a good word; something that’s elegant makes you go “Wow”. That which is elegant is astoundingly complicated in its simplicity. When a thought or gesture or arrangement can convey so much with (seemingly) so little, that is elegant. In the world of elegant there’s very little wasted stuff; very little wasted motion. To its great strength — and almost by definition — elegant is economical. One look at Las Vegas’ City Center, even in its unfinished state, tells you it’s not elegant.
After The Mirage, a lot of casino operators thought they were copying Steve Wynn. Some things, yes, they were stealing from him (and from his success), but most of Wynn’s copiers (please include Sheldon Adelson’s The Venetian) were mistaking opulence for elegance. They were confusing decoration with décor. Opulence is the drunk at the dinner party who keeps repeating everything he says, and in a loud voice. Elegance is the quiet guest, the woman who says only a few things, all of which are compelling and surprising and mysterious. You can’t wait to get away from the drunk. You hunger to spend more time with the woman.
If elegance prompts an involuntary “Wow,” opulence triggers a reflexive “Hmm”.
“Hmm” is a response which, though it struggles to give due credit for all the stuff, is a sound more filled with questions than with approval and admiration.
If you’re in an elegant casino, and the business is brisk, it feels vital and active. In an opulent casino the same level of business feels crowded. Designers of elegant casinos see the larger picture. Designers of opulent casinos sometimes see themselves as the larger picture. Elegant design is always careful, and though it doesn’t boast, the care’s impressive. Opulent design is, too often, flair-ful — and does boast, though its boasting’s not impressive. In an elegant casino, players pick up the designer’s assurance and security and discover it to be an environment in which they, as well, feel assured and secure. In an opulent casino, players become infected with the designer’s uncertainty and feel insecure. “Wow”-eliciting, elegant casinos are decisive; they generate the sense of lucidly made decisions. “Hmm”-eliciting, opulent casinos are indecisive; when you dine in them it’s harder to make your choices from the menus.
An elegant casino floor layout is at once simple and complex — multiple elements, but all dovetailing seamlessly, fitting; nothing calling attention to itself; instead, being. A guest would never stand in an elegant casino and exclaim, “Whoa! Look at all those slots!” or “Look at all those tables.” An elegant casino would know better than to massively dedicate half-acres of floor space to any single activity. Leave such dedicated tracts to the opulent casino.
Elegant is intricate yet clear. Opulent is overwrought and astigmatic. Elegant you’re immensely proud of, but keep working on. Opulent you’re sort of satisfied with, but leave behind you and move on.
You get the idea.
We need more elegant casinos. The notion that anything worth doing well is worth overdoing is wrong. We are a nation of conspicuous consumers (or were), but we don’t like being reminded of it in public.
Think Wow! Think elegant.
David Kranes is an award-winning playwright, author and university professor who has been consulting with casinos for the past 15 years, both in the United States and Europe, on how to make their spaces more “explorable,” more enjoyable and ultimately more profitable. He has recently finished a casino design book, “More Adventurous Playgrounds”.
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