With the growth of Native American gaming into a multibillion-dollar resort industry, it’s no surprise to find the casinos themselves evolving into showplaces of inspired entertainment architecture on a large scale.
It’s a topic about which celebrated designer Joel Bergman is passionate. “We’re long past the time when some sprung structure or other temporary design for a bingo hall, or whatever, can suffice,” said the architect who helped codify the Las Vegas Strip “megaresort” with properties like The Mirage and Treasure Island.
Tribal gaming is now part of the “mainstream,” as he puts it, “and as a consequence they don’t just build casinos but projects that are highly competitive within their own markets and with amenities that can compete in the national marketplace. In many cases they’re extending the customer base beyond their local markets.”
The Barona Band of Mission Indians’ Barona Resort & Casino, the Shakopee Sioux’s Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and the Snoqualmie Tribe’s Snoqualmie Casino - all designed by Bergman Walls & Associates - are leading examples of how expansive the marketing of casinos has become in Indian Country and how “project”-oriented, to use Bergman’s term, the architectural thinking that’s giving it scale and substance.
“To begin with, most Native American projects follow very specific programs,” Bergman explained, “depending on whether they’re in highly competitive areas or whether they’re in high-traffic areas or not. That sets the tenor for the ‘intensity’ of the design.”
As a result, he added, “Most are heavily themed.”
Barona, for one, would adopt the look of its environs, a cattle ranch originally, and Bergman Walls would make that integral to the property’s identity.
“It was, in fact, a working ranch,” Bergman said. “Which led to so many great ideas. When we brought it to the tribe they loved it.”
Snoqualmie, set amid lush mountain forests about 25 miles from Seattle, was similarly designed to meld its identity with the beauty of its surroundings. “We went out of our way to disturb the land as little as possible, so it’s not even visible from the highway,” Bergman said. “It looks like a cedar lodge. It just spills down the hillside.”
The rustic warmth of a lodge, the motif that also has defined Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel, is being taken to glorious new heights as part of a $633 million expansion and renovation at the western North Carolina resort.
Few casinos, tribal or commercial, can boast a setting as rich in natural splendor as Harrah’s Cherokee’s - nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains on the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Tom Hoskens, a vice president of Cuningham Group Architecture and the firm’s lead gaming architect, called it “a magical place”.
“You drive through these layers and layers of curves,” he said, “and the slopes off in the distance are floating in mists and soft grays. It’s absolutely beautiful. So when the tribe approached us for the redesign [Cuningham designed the original casino and has been associated with the Eastern Band of Cherokees since the 1990s] we sought metaphors in the soft, curvy tops of those mountains in the exterior shapes.”
The idea of “metaphor” is central to how Hoskens and Cuningham approach design.
“We have a philosophy that goes something like this: Every building has a story to tell, and it tells the story of the vision of the client,” Hoskens said. “So every project is very specific to its environment and the client. If it’s a tribe it’s the history, the culture, the region. That’s what you extract, and if you succeed you create an environment that is totally unique. If it’s done right we say the building actually has a soul.”
The “soul” of the new Harrah’s Cherokee will encompass a journey of sorts through interior spaces defined in terms of four “paths” - “Earth/Water,” “Rivers and Valleys,” “Woodland Moon” and “Mountain Breeze” - each with its own design, materials, colors, its own relationships to form and light - call them “metaphors,” as Hoskens does, “each one truly unique,” he said.
The Isleta Pueblo Indians’ Isleta Casino & Resort is another project Hoskens speaks of with pride. Cuningham took the pueblo’s rich history as the inspiration for a new hotel, developing designs taken from the metaphors of “adobe,” “feathers” and “pottery.” A 90-foot glass atrium seems to soar skyward on feather-like sunscreens. The spa, the “Spa Jar,” as it’s called, is constructed in the shape of Isleta Pueblo pottery.
“Tribes are very sensitive to their environment and very often insist that a design is respectful of nature and the ecology,” said Bergman.
The Shakopees’ Mystic Lake, located just south of Minneapolis, one of the largest tribal casinos in the country with 4,000 machine games, 100 blackjack table and a 600-room hotel, and one of the most amenities-rich - attractions include a 2,100-seat showroom, an 18-hole golf course, a spa and fitness center and 67,000 square feet of meeting space - presented Bergman Walls with the chance to create something “absolutely magnificent” in the service of the more expanded offering that tribal casinos strive to achieve.
Mystic Lake, to take a prime example, is constantly being enlarged, improved, modernized, Bergman said - always a “property in transition,” as he terms it.
“All the upgrades are with an eye to what I’m talking about: expanded rooms, food and beverage, convention facilities, and on and on. And the look of the property is absolutely magnificent, and the look we’ve established there rivals anything we’ve done anywhere. And it came as a mandate from the tribe: ‘We need to be competitive. What can you do to give us an edge, to keep our customers happy?’”
It’s the strategic thinking of a true resort industry.
“We deal in entertainment architecture,” Bergman said. “And to the extent that people like to spend their discretionary dollars having fun, we want those folks who use these venues, whether they’re dining or drinking or just hanging out, we want them to have a good experience. So that trend - that these are spaces that have a story to tell, a ‘theme’ - that will continue.”
Hoskens couldn’t agree more. “The concept of metaphor, this is a philosophy we use not only in Indian Country, we use it in our Asian work, and we’re even bringing it into Las Vegas. It adds a rich layer to a project. It’s about evolving, creating great works of art. This is not about a sterile shape or form but something with meaning and reason and logic behind it. It is what separates great architecture from the also-rans. And it’s the key to great design.”