Learning from Las Vegas

Working as a designer in the entertainment mecca yields surprising insights, Alex Woogmaster says.


Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown reshaped the course of modern American architecture with their 1977 book, Learning from Las Vegas. The book grew out of a student trip to Las Vegas.

Our client Alex Woogmaster also first came to Las Vegas as an architecture student. Now he lives and works there, as a designer at Wynn Resorts. Wynn and its imitators have changed the look of the famous Strip quite a bit over the past forty years. We asked Alex what, if anything, he thought architects and designers could learn from Las Vegas today.

Q: When did you first see Las Vegas? What did you think?
I visited Las Vegas for the first time while I was working on my thesis, studying the relationship between architecture (really interior design) and seduction. During that trip I saw firsthand how casino interiors were being formulated towards the ‘seduction’ of guests, though maybe ‘enticing’ is a nicer word for it.

My friends and I went to the XS nightclub at Encore, and that’s where I felt that someone had truly hit the nail on the head: Upon entering the club, you pass gilded figures that beckon to you as you gradually approach the grand staircase, from whose top landing you see the entire club unfold before you. You own the entire place from that vantage point, seeing the lights, the bars, the glittering booths, the beautiful people, and as the music crescendos, you feel wealthy, sexy, and powerful. We were completely enchanted, and fell under its spell like everyone else. [We highly recommend a full video tour if you haven’t been.]

Q: And now here you are, helping weave more spells!
My original plan was to work here — Wynn Design and Development, the studio responsible for XS — for two years, taking a purely academic standpoint. I expected to find almost mathematical precepts for designing tacitly ‘enticing’ spaces, and then move on to apply those rules to the world of diplomatic architecture. Instead, I’ve learned is that there are no design codes for this: It’s purely a matter of intuition. I think that good designers in Las Vegas think deeply about how human beings ‘feel’ in every corner. It’s about details as much as it is about the big picture. Most of all, it’s about moving completely into a design — imagining yourself as though you were inside, and caring deeply about every single design ‘moment.’ I think a lot of Las Vegas spaces suffer because designers or owners are careless about the outcome as budgets get tight. A budget doesn’t mean that quality needs to suffer — it means we need to pay even more attention to the small things.

I think that designers are also coming to learn that ‘luxury’ is not as much about ‘opulence’ as it is about ‘comfort.’ And that goes as much for service as it does for interior design. There are plenty of over-the-top hotels in Las Vegas, but I think the ones that are truly successful are those that make a guest (and the staff, too, importantly) feel considered, valued, and cared for… and yes, of course with great elegance. Obviously I think the Wynn and Encore do this best.

Q: What does Las Vegas need to learn from elsewhere?
We have to build more permanently in Las Vegas. Most casinos here are not much more than concrete and plastic, and as a designer, I react physically to the materiality of the spaces — it is easy for me to be reminded that I’m in an artificial environment. If we tell our guests and citizens that they don’t deserve the best materials, they’ll respond and act accordingly. If we design spaces with the attitude that it can be torn down (or imploded) easily, I don’t think we’ll develop as a city. We are beginning to take more pride in Las Vegas architecture at large, but we need to do so much more consistently. I missed the days of the Rat Pack, but many Las Vegas natives remember a time when everyone wore their Sunday Best to walk the Strip. I’d love to see that return.
That’s part of why I love working for Wynn Resorts. Steve Wynn and my mentor, Roger Thomas, understand that the human experience is critically tied to our surroundings. They invest heavily in marbles, decorative metals, top-quality furniture, and the finest quality textiles, because it changes the way that people feel and behave. I think that one of the most significant ways we can make this city feel more established, and make our guests and citizens feel more elevated, is to build the city to last, and with dignity.
To that end, I’m thrilled that our civic architecture is becoming more substantial, with monumental public spaces like The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas, and the Sahara West public library</a>. We need to be proud of our city for it to grow, and we need environments in which to feel elevated, and aspirational. America doesn’t boast soaring churches and palaces as in European cities, so it’s up to buildings like these to teach us that we are small, and yet capable of achieving great things.

Q: What are some of your favorite places in Las Vegas?
The Wynn is an obvious first stop for special events and out of town guests — I take great pride in the property, and have had a hand in some of its aesthetic self-reinvention. I still think it offers the best service in the city, and the visual environments are simply transportive. Lakeside and Wing Lei are my favorite restaurants, but it’s fun just to walk around and marvel at the resort in general.

Q: Other restaurant tips?
When I want to stay close to my Summerlin neighborhood I love the Italian specialties at Due Forni, and Sunday brunches at DW Bistro are always a treat. The funny thing is that most restaurants away from Las Vegas Boulevard are located in strip malls, so you don’t always expect to find these surprisingly transformative experiences. I love Eat Downtown, too, which is totally worth the travel. Extraordinary food, and distinct environments, all of them — with a local sense that we’re all part of something special.

Las Vegas continues to unfold for you the longer you stay. There are countless hidden surprises that make each day rich, and it usually takes one friend showing a recent discovery to the next. Often times the establishments have been there — quietly but successfully — for years.

Q: Hailing from the Eastern Seaboard, how are you coping with the Las Vegas heat?
There’s a famous comic of two skeletons in the Nevada desert, where one turns to the other and says “yeah, but it’s a dry heat.” That’s pretty accurate for our 115 degree summers, but we also have some incredible lightning storms out here. They transform the entire skyline for about an hour, and when they’re through, you’d never know they occurred except that the air is suddenly fragrant and wonderfully fresh. The natural environment here can be extremely dramatic.

Top image via picshype.com.

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