words Paul Davies
Taste? Subtlety? Understatement? In Las Vegas? Resort tycoon Steve Wynn’s new hotel-casino-experience on the Strip may turn out to be a bigger gamble than he thought.
It started with news of a mountain, a mountain being built on the Strip to hide something very special. This sounded surreal even by Vegas standards. I was goggle-eyed with anticipation as we rode from the airport: “A mountain! Hiding stuff! In Vegas!” As we pulled up and stumbled into the hot night air I said, “Where’s the bloody mountain?” Wynn Las Vegas was already looking enigmatic.
Wynn Las Vegas is the city’s newest casino-cum-resort, and it leaves all the others behind in both strategy and excess. Clocking in at $2.7bn (that’s $1bn more than the Freedom Tower), it is both the tallest (45 storeys) and the most extravagant presence in the city. Each hotel room reputedly cost $750,000 to build. But it’s not just the expense: the venture has thrown out the Vegas rule book. No more big show on the Strip, no more theming, no more theme park replicas even, just original beauty.
Steve Wynn is the man who put the Bang! back into Vegas casinos. With the erupting volcano at The Mirage (1987), the pirate battle at Treasure Island (1993) or the 300ft dancing jets of water at Bellagio (1998), he brought Vegas back to the boil. He is also the man who, realising casinos are basically sheds full of junk, arranged that junk in such a spellbinding way as to make these spectaculars the most profitable casinos in the world.
Behind all the excellent hype – “Michelangelo took three years to paint the Sistine Chapel, your room took four” and “This is the kind of place God would build if he had the money” – Wynn’s in a pretty calculating mood. The Wynn marks a total shift in its relation to the Strip by almost pretending not to be there at all. Assumed wisdom pre-Wynn was that a show on the Strip brought you customers, but the problem with that was that you could see the shows for free. Deciding that curiosity was humankind’s most powerful emotion, Wynn decided to hide it all behind a man-made mountain with waterfalls. You have to go inside if you want the “goodies” at The Pool of Dreams.
Late at night, the first thing I recognised about Wynn Las Vegas, was the smell: eucalyptus at the front and jasmine at the back. The other noticeable thing was the girls. The girls in Wynn Las Vegas were like the building, fully accessorised in matching tints, like they were all extras in Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Las Vegas” on Sky TV.
A rather grand staircase with two bending escalators leads down to a bar overlooking a lake towards what looked like a giant movie screen twinkling like a waterfall in the trees. This is the Lake of Dreams, where if you are lucky you will catch a giant beauty rising up to sing Paganini, among 4,000 lights. This is all very high-tech, relying on projections and ephemeral bits of entertainment rather than ornate finishes. There are no knobbly bits of architecture.
Apart from a certain baroque flourish, there were no knobbly bits inside either. Later, strolling the Esplanade, past smiling suited security men, I discover that the Wynn is considerably more subtle than I thought. Without its guests, it is dressed impeccably well. And Las Vegas is a place where buildings still get dressed, where naked expression doesn’t work, where buildings seduce. The interior needs the lexicon of couture; there are bold patterns, muted complementary colours, rich details in tassels and edgework, and twinkling fittings under soft lighting. The Wynn is dressed perfectly, serenely. This is Vegas being tasteful.
They say New York makes you hard and California makes you soft; well, today’s Las Vegas makes me sentimental. The bits of Vegas I like are not the environments like the Wynn, although I see the cleverness in turning everything that was public show or sign into private marketing opportunity or niche. It’s clever, but I don’t like it. The Wynn may be Louis Vuitton brown, but at noon on an unusually grey Las Vegas Thursday, it just looks brown. How far we have come from a drive along the Strip being the essential Vegas experience.
Will people appreciate Wynn’s personal renaissance? My taxi driver to the airport thought most people were disappointed: “No Wow! factor like they got with The Mirage, Treasure Island and Bellagio! They won’t come back,” he said, cheerily.
[Paul Davies’ new book, Las Vegas Diaries, is out now at £40]