In Business Q and A
Paul Steelman, architect, Steelman Design Group
Interviewed by Liz Benston / Staff Writer
Architect Paul Steelman got his start in Las Vegas working on the
Mirage, the first modern megaresort, for Steve Wynn. Nearly 20 years
later, Steelman is embarking on a new challenge: building his first
megaresorts on the Strip from the ground up.
Two of his upcoming projects, the 2,750-room Montreux resort at the New
Frontier and the 4,000-room Fontainebleau resort at the site of the
former El Rancho hotel, are located at the north end of the Strip — the
site of the biggest makeover in Las Vegas history. Both are expected to
open by the end of 2009.
Steelman is known for remodeling several Las Vegas resorts and designing
casinos in smaller markets around the world. He has worked on more than
80 casinos in more than a dozen states and countries.
Most recently, he designed the Sands Macau, a property that went from
blueprint to opening in 600 days and paid for itself in a year. The
property, owned by Venetian owner Las Vegas Sands in the Chinese
province of Macau, was the region's first Las Vegas-style casino and
features high ceilings and natural light. The property lends a Vegas
touch to Asian feng shui principles of design.
Steelman is known for his outspokenness and for taking risks.
Specializing in casinos — an industry where success is largely based on
following tried-and-true formulas — means sticking to a set of rules,
one of which is to create new and interesting attractions that can draw
customers from other properties.
Question: How did you break into the casino business as an architect?
Answer: I graduated from college in 1977 and grew up 4 miles south of
Atlantic City. In 1978 they passed gambling in Atlantic City. I was
working for my father, who was an architect. We'd do a job and it would
take a couple years to build it. It was one of the slower, more boring
processes I was ever part of.
I was fortunate in 1979 to get a job with Resorts International with my
father. I said, "Boy, these guys are building from their drawings
tomorrow!" It was such a quick, fast-action thing and I loved it. Soon
after that I met Joel Bergman, who was in town. Joel, who's kind of from
the Martin Stern school of casino architecture, indoctrinated me into
My very first client was Steve Wynn, who I worked for for approximately
nine years until I opened up my practice in 1987. It started with me in
a little office on Sahara Avenue. I had one person and then five people
and then my revenues grew from $155,000 to $35 million. We've done about
2,100 projects, 55 casinos, 250 restaurants, 40,000 slot machines.
We've designed a lot of different product and a lot of (nongaming)
activities that go along with our profession. Now the other (nongaming)
activities are becoming the core of this movement. Without them we
wouldn't have CityCenter, we wouldn't have Montreux.
Architects and designers have been saying that themes are dead in Las
Vegas. Do you agree and what does this mean for the Strip?
We built the first of what we consider to be the first modern casino in
Helsinki, Finland. The Finns gave us that opportunity about five years
ago. The Finnish people are digital everything. They're a very
technologically-advanced society. We asked them if we could do a digital
casino. When we saw the financial reaction to it and focus group
reaction to it, we said this is a trend that will transcend everywhere.
Our second modern casino was the Sands Macau, where we introduced a new
concept called the stadium casino. It was not a themed casino. It
wouldn't put you in a place and time. There are a lot of things wrong
with exactly themed properties. We consider Luxor and Excalibur as
exactly themed properties.
We don't really consider Bellagio as an exactly themed property.
Bellagio, if you've ever been to the city, looks nothing like the
property. Bellagio is a creation of Steve Wynn and his architects. All
architecture is historically based. That is around to stay. But the
actual going to a theme? Face it. Young people today, the millennium
generation, they are going to go to Egypt. They're going to go to
Russia. They've been to China. They're not going to be happy in some
plasticized, faux-finished thing and they're certainly not going to be
Gambling has to do with fantasy. That four-hour experience in a casino
seems to go by rather quickly. We feel a theme that is somewhat
indescribable but has the right emotional characteristics is in the
future of casino gambling.
The focus groups in Macau — we asked them if they liked the overall
theme and appearance of the Sands, which has no theme. Ninety-eight
percent of the respondents said yes. Modern architecture is going to be
great for Las Vegas. It's going to increase our tourism by a lot. You
can see the increase in popularity among young people to clean, simple
design. The difference between the modern architecture of today and
yesterday is that we have the most powerful computers ever built that
allow our modern architecture to be a lot easier to explore.
With place themes going by the wayside, does this mean the Strip is
going to look more like Manhattan decades from now, with skyscrapers
everywhere? MGM Mirage's CityCenter is a new model for this urban look.
We hope it's not Manhattan-like. From what I've seen CityCenter is a
combination of great architectural low-rise planning. You see a lot of
high-rise buildings but they are lighter, they have more of what we call
respect for the sky, where the edges are kind of blurred and the
building has some reflective qualities so at sunset it looks a little
red, at night it looks a little blue. It is not a bold-brush building
that stands up and says, "Look at me."
If we become Manhattan and we become smoggy and Manhattan-y and rushed,
we lose the suburban aspects of our quality of life. If we lose that
kind of landscape aesthetic we will lose a lot. Landscaping, buffers,
the integration of water in our design, those types of things are really
important to the overall aesthetic. You might vacation one or two days
in Manhattan but I'll bet you don't take a four-day trip there. Maybe
your first time, but you don't continually do a repeat visit as a
MGM Mirage says it is trying to create an urban core with CityCenter. Do
you think that's possible in a town where people drive everywhere and
people are only visiting a few days at a time?
I think urban core is an architectural term. I think what they're trying
to do is shift the center of the Strip, which is kind of matriculating
to the north. You have Fontainebleau, Montreux, Echelon, Encore. You
have $30 million being invested from Spring Mountain Road to Sahara.
When they're saying the urban core they want to be sure that they are
(where the action is) at the center of the Strip. Our street is so
successful because it's a linear shape. Part of the attraction is
walking from place to place. MGM wants to do their part.
Tell me about Phil Ruffin's Montreux resort. Who came up with the name
We gave Phil Ruffin several ideas. He gave us his vision of what the
property might be. He's not a guy who likes office building
architecture. He doesn't feel that it fits in Las Vegas. He feels that
the architecture here has got to have a certain solid style to it.
Buildings of all glass that reflect what's around them feel office-y,
feel like work. Work and gaming don't go together. That relationship
with work shortens the visit. He said, "We don't need a modern project.
We need a project that will hit mainstream America. We do not need a
piece of cutting-edge architecture." We analyzed all the successful
properties in Las Vegas. We've probably designed about 40 casinos in
Switzerland. One of the ones I designed was in Montreux, the Lake Geneva
town that's home to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Montreux has this
architectural quality of lakeside yet beautiful yet not overly themed
If we put these together with his desires to have a solid building, this
particular project could have the same relationship to a town or city as
some of the better projects in Las Vegas. He has asked a lot of people
about this. "How does Montreux sound? Can people say it?" Most people
can relate the word and the spelling and understand what it is.
Tell me about some of the resort's features. What's special about the
We're probably the only people to put our pool on (the roof above) the
Strip. This resort is planned to have the best of everything. The best
traffic control. Beautiful frontage on the Strip to be able to capture
people off the Strip for all these people-watching venues. Great retail
shopping. The Golden Door, a famous health spa, and convention center.
The biggest ballroom in Las Vegas at 116,000 square feet. All of the
convention space is situated around the pool — the ballroom, meeting
rooms, the wedding chapel.
What about the property's giant observation wheel that everyone's been
talking about? Where did that idea come from?
Phil and his girlfriend rode in the London Eye maybe five or six months
before we started this project. This is not a ride. This a beautiful
piece of architecture. I was on it this month. We stood there in the
cold, gray, rain and paid $56 a ticket to get on it and ride it for 31
minutes. You're looking at Big Ben and the Parliament building but it's
nowhere near as exciting as our town. He wanted to put his own version
of the observation wheel. It's designed not to take away from the
elegance and design of the resort and hotel in the northeast corner.
It's located around the public end of the building.
Are you modeling this project after any particular properties in town?
We know what works financially. Las Vegas is an experimental place for
the world. We know the money-making possibilities of this. We call it
"power space." We have as little nonmoney making space on the ground
floors and as much power space as possible. We will have a collection of
brands, names. Las Vegas not only attracts the gambler. It attracts the
movies, the record industry. Any entertainment industry is interested in
being in Las Vegas and showing off their product.
Besides the wheel, what's really different about Montreux?
I'm not sure that being different is better. Look at the Aladdin. There
are what we consider 70 rules you must follow to do any casino. We
believe that's absolutely important. If you look at the planning of
Steve Wynn's resorts, from the Mirage to Bellagio to Wynn, they still
have the same fundamentals. You have to follow those rules. Then you
have to engage, four, five, six, seven, eight concepts within those rules.
There's going to be a lot of innovations at the Montreux. There's going
to be a theater that's totally unique, where the side seats might turn
out to be the best seats, done by our lighting and theater design
department. There are plans being kicked around between Phil and the
Fashion Show (mall across the street) to create our own Rodeo Drive. The
Golden Door, a 50,000 square-foot health club on the pool, that you can
enter from the casino, is a cool thing.
The retail possibilities are tremendous. It's almost unheard of in Las
Vegas to say, "Here is a major retail anchor on the Strip." His entrance
is right on the Strip. The integration of the check-in, the lack of
distances to walk — all these things are going to be important. The
largest ballroom in Las Vegas will be the most flexible. It's on the
upper level but you will be able to drive a truck up to it. The spa will
have rooms that are connected to it. You can get the spa package, and a
spa room (with its own) elevator (access).
When will the New Frontier come down and how?
The building is designed to start without the New Frontier coming down
first. The timing of it will depend on the rules and regulations of our
state. You could say the end of this year. Will we put a shovel in the
ground before the New Frontier is taken down? Maybe. A lot of it depends
on the county. A lot of it depends on the financial arrangements for the
project, which I'm not that familiar with.
Where is the Fontainebleau in the planning process?
There have been some pre-application conferences with the planning
department. I wouldn't say they're approved, but the Fontainebleau has
had some plans looked at.
What's the timeline for that project?
With them being in the throes of financing I'm not sure it would be good
for me to announce it at this time. Generally it's along the lines of
the Montreux project. Both projects are very tall and height takes time.
The Montreux is about 640 feet tall and the Fontainebleau is about 690
feet. We think that these buildings, at this time, would be the (among
the) tallest on the Strip.
Tell me more about the design of the Fontainebleau.
Joel Bergman is the executive architect and there's an architect from
New York who is working on the exterior look of the building and is
planning the tower's angular shape. We are the design architect and the
interior designer on that project. It has a very innovative interior
attraction. There's a Chinese proverb that says, 'If you want to be
happy for life, plant a garden.' Steve Wynn has always been a part of
that and we've kind of done that in both of these projects.
It does have a unique pool. The pool will be connected to the casino in
a very unusual way. The stadium concept that we demonstrated in Macau we
will demonstrate there. It will also have a nightclub district. We're
looking to reinvent 'restaurant row.' It's going to be a more integral
thing. There will be large Strip frontage. We probably have the only
convention lobby in Las Vegas, a big, attractive space. It will have one
of the biggest ballrooms, at about 110,000 square feet. The building
will be absolutely riveted with views. Windows and views everywhere. It
will have one of the most innovative health clubs in the world.
Will it look much like the famed Fontainebleau in Miami?
My father took me to the Miami hotel when I was 6 years old and opened
the doors and said, "Look, this is a new modern-style hotel." Morris
Lapidus is one of the architectural heroes of our business. There's a
huge connection between the Fontainebleau and Las Vegas and Caesars
Palace. It's very appropriate now. Lapidus was famous for display-based
architecture. It's not that we're copying anything from Miami. We're
utilizing those characteristics that he started. He started an unusual
way to knit a building together. He created an inside-outside building —
with stuff of the inside that is part of the outside. The outside is a
beautiful, modern canvas for the inside.
As you walk past the Fontainebleau it will be the most energized
building on the Las Vegas Strip because you will see everything. You
will see the casino, you see multiple restaurants, an unbelievable hotel
lobby, a unique garden attraction. You see what's happening in the
How would you compare the Montreux and Fontainebleau to other resorts in
town? Your designs look deluxe, like these could stack up against the
most luxurious and expensive properties on the Strip.
Absolutely. And they will, I hope that the construction indices here
stabilize and there's no hyperinflation. Basically we're designing a
business here. We're not designing a building. Steve's project,
obviously he's one of the fathers of creative design. But you have to
put Sheldon (Adelson) right up there with him. Sheldon is responsible
for the megabusiness we have here today. It wasn't until the
conventioneers became firmly entrenched here in Las Vegas that we get
all these other activities. Sheldon is a prime mover of integrating the
convention business directly to your casino. The thing that you're the
most luxurious, though, I'm not sure is good.
You also designed the first American-owned casino in Macau, the Sands
Macau. That property is smaller and some might say less showy than the
Strip's newest megaresorts. What was your strategy?
It was blending Las Vegas excitement with eastern sensibilities. We
wanted to focus on dynamic, spatial qualities. It was the first time we
used feng shui. As a fundamental goal we wanted to do the exact opposite
of what everyone else did. The other casinos are low, smoky. There is
not a sense of space, of the volume of people. It is kind of faux Las Vegas.
We have this rule of the three C's: cool, casual and comfortable.
Upscale is really a bad word for us. If you're too upscale, too Monte
Carlo-ish, you tend to shorten the visit. If your (nongaming) activities
are too long you can't (enjoy) multiple activities. Fancy suits,
jackets, ties, it's not that good in Las Vegas. We want to be more of a
common place. We want to have that guy in the little bit better pair of
blue jeans. Casual elegance is a great thing. At the Sands Macau we had
6.6 acres to build on and it was only about 400 feet wide. It was a
long, skinny piece of reclaimed land. We had a lot of planning
difficulties. Sheldon was creative enough to let me do these things
where we lifted the casino onto the second floor and where we created
the volume of interconnected space. A lot of operators would not have
let me do that. They would have tried to handle everything in a very
The Sands Macau will go down in history for being one of the most
profitable casinos of all time. Many others are on the way. What's your
impression of Macau since you've been there? Do you think it will bypass
the Strip in scope and importance?
Not in scope. It will bypass Nevada in revenue. What Sheldon is doing is
building a second Las Vegas. Las Vegas is based on parcels exceeding 100
acres of land. Macau is on an island and like Atlantic City, it's space
constrained. It is the most ambitious project ever attempted by any
single person in the world. When Sheldon is done with all of his Cotai
projects and competitors like Steve Wynn and David Friedman and Stanley
Ho have built theirs it will be second in the world in size. Las Vegas
will always remain the biggest because nowhere else is there the land
volume we have from Sahara to Russell Road.
Casino companies are eyeing other countries in Asia for growth. Are you
looking to grow your company by focusing on Asia?
We have an office in Macau with 25 people. Yes, we want to have more of
an Asian presence. We have major projects right now in Vietnam and
Thailand. The answer is yes, yes, yes.
Are those governments working on legalization and are you already
working on designs?
Sure. Usually we work on some designs to help with legislation, with
what we can build.
What was your most challenging design project and why?
I'd say the most challenging was the Sands Macau. We had to deal with a
very small site. There were a lot of parking and transportation issues.
We were designing it for a different culture and we were a bunch of
Vegas guys. We didn't want to overinsert ourselves. It was a big project
when it opened, the biggest ever constructed in Asia. It had the most
high-limit rooms — 18 — ever constructed at one time. It also had a
unique club, the Paiza Club — cigar rooms, wine rooms, business centers,
sports bars, karaoke bars, facial rooms, suit pressing, shoe shining,
etc. It was a boutique hotel, with 51 suites. When I showed it to (Las
Vegas Sands executives) they more or less turned to each other and said,
"Let's build this." Then it was a race.