Vices, Hidden and in Plain Sight

Imagine a casino-resort complex built by a world-renowned architect responsible for iconic buildings on multiple continents. From the start, it’s designed to be more than a mere gambling hall: It will have unparalleled convention facilities, restaurants helmed by celebrated chefs and buildings that look nothing like anything that’s been seen in Las Vegas before.

If you’re MGM Resorts International, you’ve just built CityCenter. It has posted operating losses each quarter since it opened; the company is attempting to implode the Harmon, which was to be its gateway structure. While it’s debatable to claim that it’s a failure, it certainly hasn’t been a catalyst for a dramatic rebound on the Strip, as MGM CEO Jim Murren forecast it to be, and no one’s claimed that it’s been particularly successful.

But if you’re the Las Vegas Sands Corp., owners of the Venetian and Palazzo, you’re presiding over the Marina Bay Sands, which recorded $585 million in net revenues in the first three months of this year—nearly double what the company’s Las Vegas properties brought in. And the Marina Bay resort is still ramping up.

So why have two projects, both of which tried to go to market with more class than sass, had such different fates?

Any real estate agent would be happy to tell you the simple answer: location. The Marina Bay Sands is one of only two casinos in Singapore, a relatively wealthy city-state that’s about 200 miles from the nearest casino. CityCenter, on the other hand, opened on a saturated Strip that was experiencing falling visitation and revenue numbers. Those trends have since reversed, but CityCenter has nowhere near the upside of the Marina Bay Sands.

Plus, when Singapore strives to be unlike Las Vegas, it’s a lot different than Las Vegas striving to be unlike Las Vegas. Singapore is a famously orderly, patriarchal state that wants to maintain its tidy image even as it taps the Asian gaming market.

“Singapore’s leaders looked at Las Vegas as having a theme park, kitschy style,” says Kah-Wee Lee, a Singapore native and architecture scholar who spent the last month as a research fellow at UNLV. “They set conditions like ‘We want an iconic structure, not sphinxes or volcanoes.’ For Marina Bay, they wanted something that would fit in a global city—New York, Tokyo, London.”

The Singaporean rejection of all that makes Las Vegas Vegas says a great deal. The leadership didn’t want to sully themselves with anything as gross as an honest-to-goodness Las Vegas-style casino, so they instead approved gambling only in two “integrated resorts,” in which the gaming floor is concealed from public view, and there’s no hint of opulent excess on the outside.

That’s a complete reversal of the way that Las Vegas Strip resorts developed. And it affects every detail of the Singaporean buildings. One of the most important elements of successful Las Vegas casinos, Lee has found in his research, is that they all feature easy access to both the hotel and gaming floor via a drive-through porte cochere. But there’s no such convenience in Singapore, even though the revenue for Singapore’s two casinos is expected to equal or surpass that of the entire Las Vegas Strip.

Singapore even charges a sizable casino-entry fee to residents. All visitors must pass through checkpoints where their identity is verified. Nonetheless, it’s often difficult to find a place at the tables. It’s impossible to deny that gambling’s doing just fine without everything that we’ve been giving people for decades.

Which begs the question: Has casino design passed us by? Or are we still the best in the business—the face of global gaming—precisely because we stay true to our roots?

Maybe it’s best for us to keep embracing what others run away from. While casinos proliferate around the globe, it’s important that Las Vegas never forget what put it on the map: being honest about gambling. Clearly we no longer have the pent-up demand that’s powering Singapore, or the booming Chinese wealth that vaulted Macau past us. But we don’t need our casinos to look like museums. Traditionally, Las Vegas doesn’t worry about coming off classy in big-city parlor talk; it worries about whether its guests are having a good time. When other cities define themselves as the opposite of Las Vegas—kitschy, garish, vulgar—we shouldn’t forget that being all those things put us on the map, and a great many visitors still love us for it.