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December 18, 2014

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Six Questions: Joel Bergman, architect of themed megaresorts

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Leila Navidi

Joel Bergman, the architect who designed Caesars Palace, the Mirage and Treasure Island, says the plans for new Strip projects concern him because people visit Vegas “to be entertained, not educated.”

Known for his Disneyesque designs for Caesars Palace, the Mirage and Treasure Island, architect Joel Bergman is a champion of the themed megaresort. His “entertainment architecture” was cultivated under Steve Wynn, giving him a ringside view of the past few boom and bust cycles on the Strip. After serving as Wynn’s in-house architect for 16 years, he co-founded Bergman Walls & Associates in 1994.

What do you make of the nonthemed resorts under construction, with their geometric shapes and sleek lines?

We’re the architect for Fontainebleau Las Vegas, which is a slicker form than something we’d normally do. At CityCenter, everything seems to be jammed together and in conflict with neighboring buildings. People come to Las Vegas to be entertained, not educated. They don’t want to look at buildings like they’re museum pieces.

Our buildings say, “Come on in, have a good time.” We created a mythical ranch setting for the Barona Valley Ranch Resort in San Diego and a pirate adventure world at Treasure Island. These are familiar, comfortable settings that are also magical. That’s what worries me about some of the new places, particularly CityCenter.

What does the economic decline mean for a town built on big dreams and expensive gambles?

The downturn is the worst I’ve seen in my 40-year career. We’re going to lose some places and more jobs. The problem is going to be exacerbated because developers are not going to refresh things as often. Some older properties are going to become even less appealing and more people will stay home.

If costs continue to rise, how will resorts be profitable in the future?

Land costs will go down and construction costs will level off. But the challenges are real. People are spending less.

What does Las Vegas need to trigger another boom?

We have to come up with other features that make Las Vegas appealing. We need to build more, larger rooms with living areas and bigger bathrooms to attract conventioneers. We need to build on our strength in retail.

What makes a resort successful, from a design perspective?

It’s a place where people feel comfortable and their needs are satisfied. When Walt Disney created theme parks, the attractions that fantasized about the past were more successful than those based on some future world. No matter how bad the past was, it’s something they can touch and feel.

You’re charged with designing buildings that are visually stimulating and profitable. Are those goals mutually exclusive?

Not at all. You don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of money. You spend the right amount of money for the budget. Everyone thought we spent an inordinate amount of money at Mirage. We spent money wisely and we did just fine.

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