"Casino?" I thought. "I better put on a sport jacket."
Don't get me wrong. I think that casino gambling represents just about everything that is wrong with this country. It is a cotton-candy industry of empty economic calories, with deeply troubling secondary effects of addiction, poverty and crime. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Pittsburgh should have nothing to do with this foul enterprise.
And yet, I wanted to look special. Long touted, at least by its owners, as a gem on the banks -- sorry, the North Shore -- of the Ohio, the sort-of-newly opened Rivers Casino is clearly supposed to exude festivity and demand a bit of dressing up. Indeed, it turned out to be an experience of layers and thresholds, veneers and borderlines.
Alas, I was the only person in the whole joint wearing a sport jacket without a nametag.
Clearly, this place is not aimed at condescending culturistas such as me. Whatever illusions regarding self-importance or cultural relevance I may have, I don't believe for a second that one of those over-wrought video games (and there are acres of them) is going to do anything but take my money. I was, however, willing to be seduced by entertaining design.
Maybe that was the real shock. On its ground level, this place is filled with row after row of slot machines. They all seem to be minor variations on the same flickering-screen, rotating-grid premise, long since appropriately nicknamed the one-armed bandit. I've given up on considering these things entertaining, but I would have been happy to see some deference to architecture, planning or spatial experience in the layout here. A clear path? A sense of organization? But no. Sure, there are bars and restaurants, but losing yourself in the vast acreage of the slots is clearly much of the goal.
Because the designers are not amateurs. Las Vegas-based Bergman Walls & Associates, who specialize in casinos (among other building types), are responsible for much of the architecture, and they give the place its regal bearing. As in Buick Regal. They clearly know exactly what variety of finishes -- in wallpaper, carpet, plastic laminate, ceramic and wood veneer -- will give the sense of being in a place slightly nicer than a regular mall. (Project representatives credit interior design to Cleo Design, Floss Barber and the Hannah Jones Group.)
What's curious is the difference between places that are slightly luxuriant, such as the casino's main entry and certain bar spaces, and those that are botched and neglected. Count the big cylindrical "drum" as botched. The 86-foot-tall volume facing the river on the casino exterior fails to function as either a smooth circulation space or much of an effective overlook. The gigantic hanging light inside is both cheap and clumsy. From inside this space, at night you can see moving lights race along the horizontal accents of the building, an entertaining feature that is like Jenny Holzer's convention-center light piece for a post-literate age.
Pittsburgh-based Strada is responsible for the exterior architecture of the building, and it is not up to the thematic consistency or the thoughtful detail of the firm's best work. It says "curving office park" rather than gem. The firm's designed riverside landscape does seem as if it will be a pleasant amenity once it grows in. But the promised permeability of the building itself, with many doors simply to walk in from the riverside trail, is not effective when all the doors are closed and locked. That tiny change makes a huge difference.
Unfortunately, the tiny change that makes no difference at all is the use of wavy metal bands to mitigate the mass of the parking garage. This thing is a grotesque behemoth that Bergman Walls wildly misrepresents in its online promotional videos: It's much larger than that document indicates. The people who complained about the garage before it was built were exactly correct. The poorly executed design is especially lamentable when the elegantly composed and well-resolved West General Robinson garage by PWWG Architects is visible nearby.
My tossed-on outer layer of clothing was easy enough to remove ... which is more than can be said of the worst architectural missteps of the Rivers Casino and its garage.