On Casinos: A Lesson in Urbanism from Las Vegas

Casino.  The word evokes a visceral reaction for most.  But embrace them or despise them, casinos are no longer an exotically rare commodity confined to Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City, and a few remote tribal properties. Casinos more and more are becoming an urban phenomenon.  And as more casinos spring up, it’s more important to integrate their design in an urban context.

Old or new, whether situated in Las Vegas or Biloxi, Mississippi, casinos historically have mimicked a medieval fortress, walled off from the city—and the competitors—around them.The ferocity of this approach was intentional, on all sides. Municipalities traditionally viewed gaming at best as a necessary evil.  And many operators viewed city dwellers as an unfortunate occurrence.  What resulted from this mutual dislike and distrust was a joint agreement to isolate the casinos. So casinos typically are on the edges, across the tracks or the eight-lane highway, or relegated to the river’s edge—if not the other side of the river.The casino doesn’t interact with the city.  And it doesn’t interrupt the city.

Meanwhile, as debates over expansion and economic necessity rage at ballot boxes and in city halls, more casinos take root.  Once limited to gambling, they’re now associated with a wider entertainment experience—including what is now referred to as “gaming,”theatrical spectacle, shopping, and dining. In keeping with this, the 21st century casino is called upon to reexamine its relationship with the urban fabric that surrounds it.  And nowhere is that challenge more evident than in the place where legalized gambling became a civic industry.

Half a century after Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi wrote Learning from Las Vegas, we are reexamining how Las Vegas can learn from the rest of the country.  As urbanists, we have created many urban plans and many urban places with people in mind. And now we’ve been hired to rethink Las Vegas for Caesars Entertainment. Our expertise is not gaming; it is human behavior. But Caesars was interested in the intersection of human behavior and gaming, and so we are forged a master plan for all of their holdings—about 350 acres straddling two miles of the famed Las Vegas Strip. The end result is a $550 million project of retail, dining and entertainment called The LINQ, currently under construction.

In Las Vegas, you always want to build what nobody else has. You want to be new and different.  And what is new and different in Las Vegas is true urbanism.In what is largely a patchwork quilt of multiple fortress-like city-states, an open environment with the appeal of the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Miami’s Lincoln Road would certainly be new. And it would certainly be different to experience Las Vegas as a place where pedestrianism and social interaction are valued and encouraged rather than dismissed and discouraged.

To do this, we created points of access and porosity in major and minor fashions.  We had to create connective tissue much as you would find in Paris, where you walk through the medieval city to the boulevard. We found inspiration in traditional Las Vegas architecture, as well as architecture from the 50s and 60s, to encourage the feeling of a truly indigenous place.  And we planted questions of surprise and delight in the form of plazas like those found in a European city that has 19th and 20th century interventions. The objective was to create an interactive landscape where people want to be.

Venturi and Scott Brown maintained that Las Vegas was about the sign and the automobile.  We think it can be about the person and the pedestrian.We think the future of gaming in an urban context is in this vision—that in the urban fabric, a casino can be designed as an entertainment destination, one that pays homage to its surroundings and cultivates, not an “us vs. them” mentality but a “good neighbor” context.  We think our project has the potential to reset the table—maybe not just in Las Vegas, but in other urban environments as well.

And Caesars is willing to bet a half-billion dollars that we’re right.

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