Steve Wynn reveals his back to basics approach in creating transporting and intimate hotels.
Crisply manicured hedges in the garden outside Sinatra transport diners across the Atlantic.
No one relishes a back-to-the-drawing-board moment like Steve Wynn. When he began conceptualizing Wynn Las Vegas, he knew that his ideas would need to stand up against some of the most successful on the Strip: his own. So in approaching his design, he dug all the way down to instinct.
“When I bought the Desert Inn and was standing looking at the land that is now Wynn,” he says, “I knew that I would have to compete with the first hotel on the Strip that had not been constrained by budget. With Mirage, I’d had to watch my money; I’d built a $600 million hotel in a $200 million town. But by the time we got around to Bellagio, the town was established and I tripled it up. So now I was going to compete with one of my own hotels that was a no-budget job on a big piece of property with a primary location, and I thought, Well, what are we going to do here?”
He examined the realities of the land he was standing on. In 2005, some would say that a property that far north on the Strip could only be a secondary location. But not Wynn, whose philosophy is that the hotel makes the location, not the other way around: “The hotel is the destination. The Dunes went broke where Bellagio was—twice.”
Wynn had already designed a tropics-themed casino with a spewing volcano and an elaborate paean to a town on Lake Como, and it would be easy for a less progressive hotelier, faced with designing another hotel, to get mired in what the next special effect would be. Instead, Wynn rejected every preconceived notion one might have about a Las Vegas hotel. “I said to myself, I need something that resonates with human aspiration. And I laughed a little bit at this little bit of personal dialogue and then said, That’s the right way to think of it, Steve. But what does that mean?”
One of Steve Wynn’s favorite views, on the Esplanade at Wynn.
For Wynn, it meant going back almost to the primordial soup. “We had to get hold of the primary sources that resonate with people,” he explains. “Why do we love sunny days or hate dark cloudy days? Why do people love being near the water? The truest way to create a destination that people will want to return to is by linking it with the human desires for light and air and water that transcend design. Now you’re getting to the nitty-gritty. That is how you resonate with human aspiration.”
Every new design is an opportunity to learn from a past project, says DuRuyter Butler, Executive Vice President of Architecture for Wynn Design and Development. In this case, Wynn quizzed his inner design circle on their favorite places in Bellagio, and with no other cues, he says, the Wynn Design and Development principals invariably turned to the kinds of places that humans seem genetically programmed to love. Butler and Roger Thomas, Executive Vice President of Design for Wynn Design and Development, liked a certain terrace because it looked out onto the water, while someone else cited a meeting-room balcony surrounded by trees that looks over a pool. “I was not surprised,” Wynn says. “All of us were gravitating toward spaces that opened up to the outdoors, with water and sunlight.”
Onto these basic human instincts, Wynn layered the simple movement of the arabesque—the swooping shape that best describes both the Wynn and Encore towers. “In a town where action and movement are important, a curved tower gives some subliminal excitement,” he explains. “Your eye processes information sequentially, so a curve makes you follow it. Wherever possible, we don’t go square; we slant and curve and go round.”
Another reason for the curve was to create a sense of intimacy. “We had explored an exploited Italianate grandeur at Bellagio at the expense of everything,” Wynn says. “In order to have a big lake, I pushed the lobby all the way to the south. I made compromises.” What resulted, Butler explains, were walking distances that can surpass the length of a football field. Cutting back on those distances and creating a welcoming, hospitable environment became the goal, Wynn says. “What’s better than grandeur? It’s intimacy. Nobody ever talks about going to the biggest hotel in the world. People want to go to the most intimate place. Intimacy trumps grandeur.”
Part of creating intimacy involves connecting indoor and outdoor spaces, adds Butler. “At Bellagio, we took that to one level: Bellagio looks out at the lake from some places, but out on some ugly street views from others. At Wynn, it was important to us that when you were inside, you were in a beautiful place, but also that you look out at something pretty.”
Ask Wynn about his favorite place in the hotel— a site where human aspiration meets design—and you’ll get an unexpected answer: an unmarked spot on the Wynn Esplanade about halfway between Louis Vuitton and Chanel. “There is a moment when you’re walking between those stores and you can stop and see the carousel horses in the distance. All of a sudden, the fronts of the shops turn left and those wonderful round columns, with their crosshatched travertine design, are marching around the corner at Chanel. They’re backed up by the natural light pouring in on the trees of the atrium, and on the floor are the big flowers that Roger took out of scale in the tiles. The space sweeps, you think something’s happening around the corner, and it’s an exciting little moment.”
An exuberant floral carousel by Preston Bailey in Wynn’s atrium lends a feeling of perpetual spring.
But those sun-dappled little atriums throughout Wynn and Encore represent something of a design correction themselves, Wynn adds. Partway through the construction of Bellagio, he had the notion of opening up indoor space into a conservatory. On an afternoon flight from Paris, he was looking at a copy of the hotel floor plan. “The high-rise was poured up to 20 floors, but we hadn’t started the public area yet,” he recalls. “I was looking at the lobby and the L-shaped building where my office would be, and I said to myself, That’s too good a location for my office. There are no seasons in the desert, and people come three or four times a year. Suppose I could have cherry blossoms like Washington, DC, in the spring and orange and crimson in the fall.”
Wynn has no compunction about scrapping an idea midway through construction, says Butler. Every day is an opportunity for a course correction. “My role is to take these ideas and make them a reality,” he explains. “Sometimes we’ve already broken ground, and sometimes we’re already far along on a building. One time in particular, I said, ‘You know, I have to keep my staff excited, and now we’re going in a different direction.’ And he has said, ‘When we’ve done radical departures, did we ever make the project worse or did we always make it better?’ He’s right. Every time we’ve radically departed from the original plan, we’ve made it better. We don’t call them departures now; we call them ‘betterments.’”
Wynn Palace opens in Cotai in 2016, and Wynn’s newest hotel, in Everett, Massachusetts, follows in 2017, but while the designs may be different, you can be sure he approached them with the same core idea. “Forget the television and the anti-theft devices and the computers,” he says. “Forget the marble and the hand-woven fabrics. That’s stuff. What are we doing here? We’re creating places with an unusual guest experience that people will want to repeat and love, and we’re filling them with people who are as proud of these places as I am.” And in creating that unusual guest experience, Wynn may go so far as to tame the elements—or at least recreate them. During a New England blizzard, what will it feel like in the new Everett hotel? Wynn smiles. “It’ll feel like spring.”