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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Nevada At Work: Up and Down the Strip, Architect Sees Reminders of His Work on Projects Past

14 August 2006

Joel Bergman dislikes awards.

He doesn't enter competitions for them. He believes the application process can give away too much inside information about his company, one of the gaming industry's leading architectural design firms.

So when the Global Gaming Expo Institute awarded Bergman the 2006 Sarno Lifetime Achievement Award for Casino Design in May, he wondered who in the company submitted the application.

The recipient of the prize, named for legendary Las Vegas gaming pioneer Jay Sarno, was chosen at random by the American Gaming Association, producers of the G2E Institute.

The award recognized Bergman's excellence in the field of casino resort design and construction.

Bergman's résumé resembles a trip down Las Vegas Boulevard. That's one way he shows off his work to out-of-town visitors.

"I have a four-passenger convertible and on a nice summer night, I'll give my guests a tour," the 69-year-old Bergman said. "They get to see everything and I give them a little history of my own personal involvement."

The Southern California native designs, what he calls, "entertainment architecture."

Bergman spent 15 years working with Atlandia Design, the in-house architecture firm for Steve Wynn's Mirage Resorts. His first casino project was in the early 1970s when he helped design the Las Vegas International, now known as the Las Vegas Hilton.

In his career, Bergman has played a role in helping develop or redevelop The Mirage, Treasure Island, Paris Las Vegas, Bally's, Sahara and Caesars Palace. The Golden Nugget casinos downtown and in Laughlin also carry Bergman's signature.

But Southern Nevada isn't his only canvas.

In Atlantic City, Bergman worked on the expansion at Resorts International and is currently working on the Atlantic City Hilton.

As gaming expanded nationally, Bergman and his company, Bergman, Walls & Associates, which he founded in 1993 with partner Scott Walls, continues to leave a mark. The company designed the Barona Valley Ranch in San Diego, the Agua Caliente Casino in Palm Springs, the Suquamish Clearwater near Seattle, L'auberge du Lac for Pinnacle Entertainment in Lake Charles, La.

Bergman has been in the business for so long, he's now redesigning casinos he originally developed. Colony Capital has enlisted Bergman Walls to remodel the Atlantic City Hilton, which Bergman first designed 28 years ago for Wynn when the casino opened as the Golden Nugget.

"The Golden Nugget was the first project I did for Steve and now we're doing it again. How cool is that?" Bergman said.

Bergman has also found his way into condominiums. His company designed the Trump International Hotel & Tower and the Residences at MGM Grand for the Turnberry Group.

Question: How has gaming's expansion changed your business?

Answer: Gaming is now everywhere and it's created opportunity for ourselves and a number of other designers in our small universe. We've confined ourselves to the United States, but we've also done some projects in Australia, Hungary and Greece. We've chased some rainbows in South Africa, London and Macau but, primarily, we prefer to work with American based companies.

Question: How many gaming projects is Bergman, Walls working on now?

Answer: We have 64 different casino projects in various stages. We have jobs in Atlantic City, proposals in Pittsburgh, jobs in Indiana, Michigan, St. Louis, Lake Charles, New Orleans, just outside Minneapolis, Seattle and we're the architect for a pair of casinos in Barstow, (Calif.). We're also doing a number of smaller projects inside casinos, such as remodels at Bally's, Paris and Caesars.

Question: How has design changed over the years?

Answer: Buildings are designed, in my case, by putting pen onto white paper. We use computers in our job but don't let anyone tell you they use computers to design buildings.

The goal is to create an entertainment package. It still comes down to creating a space, or a facility full of spaces, that people like to be in. From the moment people hear about a property, the design experience begins. In their imagination, their minds fill in the spaces in anticipation of coming to a property. We have to exceed that anticipation, and we've been lucky to do that.

Question: Is there a difference in designing condominium-hotels as opposed to casino-hotels?

Answer: The condo-hotel is an unlimited market and I personally love the concept because it's a way for people to own a place in Las Vegas.

The biggest challenges are the expectations of the Florida developers who have built a lot of these projects. In Florida, they have one thing in common, balconies. We quit putting balconies on buildings here for various reasons. We're creating both. Trump International was designed without balconies, while all the Residences at MGM all have balconies.

Question: What are some of your favorite projects?

Answer: Generally, it's the last one I did. Nevertheless, there are a couple I consider extraordinary. The Golden Nugget Atlantic City, now the Atlantic City Hilton, runs consistently behind the Borgata in total win per square foot. That says something for both management and the facility.

In Las Vegas, there are so many. But Paris Las Vegas stands out because it was the first complete project Scott Walls and I did after starting this company. Everybody loved it. People from France came over and said how much they enjoyed the experience.

Question: What do you hope to accomplish in theming a hotel-casino?

Answer: Life is about living it. We try to create projects where the architecture and the theme tells a story. I think people like to have a story told. When it's done right, the experience is hard to beat. It's a wonderful myth that comes to life.

Question: What themes are left to try?

Answer: We have books with proposed projects with different themes. We have a London theme and an Asian theme that I liked so much, I incorporated it myself. I'm still looking for a developer who would like to go forward with it. We even have an Irish themed casino, way beyond what the Fitzgerald did.

Question: Are there any hotel-casino themes that won't work?

Answer: Somebody once brought an Addams Family-themed casino idea to me. Obviously, that never happened. One theme I like, but don't believe will ever work, is a sports-themed casino. It's just too narrow.

Question: What was the experience like working with Steve Wynn during that period of growth in the 1980s and 1990s?

Answer: There are only so many times that you can vacillate between (being called) Michelangelo and the lowest form of draftsman that ever existed. Steve was tough and he still is. What's interesting is that a person who is as thin-skinned as I could be with him for so long. When it came time to move on, as much as he asked me to stay, we both knew the time had come and gone. We have a good relationship now and we see each other from time to time.

Question: Do you believe the designers get enough credit?

Answer: Never. When an article gets written, the owners never remember who their designers are. Most of us live for approval and after the cash, when the owner mentions us in a good way, then we get approval. We all need to be appreciated.