Shining a light on Aria—finally

As the centerpiece of CityCenter, the $8.5 billion Strip project that was hailed as transformational before its doors even opened, Aria may have already been subjected to more criticism per square foot than any casino in history.

This is not entirely undeserved, nor necessarily a bad thing: With its roster of all-star architects and designs that fly in the face of Vegas tradition, CityCenter was built to make an impression. And with MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren proclaiming the project a “game-changer” that would deliver a “vision for the future” through superior integration of public spaces, art and design, the public expected to be wowed from Day One.

But the thing most likely to provoke comment from casino-goers about Aria in its first three months hasn’t been Pelli Clarke Pelli’s spacious design or the cutting-edge technology of the guest rooms. It’s that the casino is a bit on the dark side.

Pre-opening press releases hyped the airiness of the building: “Soaring open spaces, ranging from Aria’s three-story lobby to its guest rooms, fill with natural light and evoke breadth and freedom.” It wasn’t surprising that guests expected a casino that looked like an Apple Store lined with slots instead of MacBooks.

That’s not what they got.

“The casino is very nice but very dark,” a visitor from Texas recently wrote on Expedia. Others have been even harsher in their assessment of the lighting. “It’s way too dark, to the point of being forbidding,” commenter Mike P. said on the RateVegas blog.

While there’s some disagreement about exactly how off-putting the gloom is, the general consensus up and down the Strip—whether you ask longtime executives or first-time visitors—is that Aria’s casino is too dark.

You won’t get any argument from MGM Mirage brass, either.

“I think it’s too dark, too,” CityCenter president and CEO Bobby Baldwin says. “And we’re taking steps to fix it. We’re adding several hundred lights to the casino and bringing up the intensity by about 40 percent.”

Baldwin concedes that getting the light level right is part of the bigger opening shakedown that’s likely to last several months longer. Part of the problem is the sheer magnitude of Aria. With more than 18 million square feet to light, designers simply had to make their best educated estimations on how to correctly balance the illumination.

“A lot of the time, lighting is a guess until you turn it on,” Baldwin says. “In addition, we had a few design changes that blocked some of the originally planned light sources.”

Complicating matters, the curvilinear casino floor couldn’t be lit by a traditional straight lighting grid. Instead a carefully balanced four-light system was designed to light the games, not the players.

“You should have light on the layout,” Aria President Bill McBeath says, indicating the felt atop a blackjack table, “not in the player’s faces. Too much light washes people out. We wanted the casino to look more romantic, more atmospheric.”

But with many players complaining that the casino looked gloomy, not alluring, McBeath and Baldwin quickly made the decision to turn up the lights.

“We started working on the light the day of the opening, and we’re still working on it,” Baldwin says. “We’ll be doing most of the work over the next 30 days.”

So next time you visit Aria, things will probably be looking much brighter.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.