Monday, May. 08, 2006

Steve Wynn

Your first reaction is to stifle a giggle, as you would listening to a little kid get really serious about his ideas for inventions. I'm going to build a giant dancing water fountain in the desert ... Nice, wholesome American families will fly to Vegas to gamble ... Slot players will pay to see Picassos and Gauguins ... People want to see two fey Germans play with white tigers ... And I'll have puppets pop out of the waterfall. Sure you will, Steve. Now it's time for your bath.

But Steve Wynn, 64, is not only a great salesman of insane ideas and a clever real estate player but also the gaming industry's most brilliant designer. For the Wynn Las Vegas, his $2.7 billion, 2,716-room hotel (an additional 2,054-room tower is on the way), he spent a year walking the 215-acre Strip property, jotting down ideas for the space and changing the rules he had created to make Vegas boom in the '90s. Instead of luring the suckers with beacon attractions right on the Strip—like his dancing waters at the Bellagio, pirate ship at Treasure Island and volcano at the Mirage — with Wynn Las Vegas, he hid the waterfalls, puppets and giant screens behind man-made mountains, reserving them for his diners, gamblers and guests. The draw isn't glitz; it's buzz. He dropped the theme-hotel motif and made the hallways low and intimate. He broke the most basic rule of casinos by flooding the place with natural light. And he focused on small, calm spaces.

It's Vegas not as wild insanity but rather as an escape from the wild insanity of daily life. Wynn has become the anti-Trump, hiding the bling, de-gilding the chandeliers, putting the Ferrari dealership in the back. The greatest creator of spectacle has redefined spectacle as an inner experience—or at least as much of an inner experience as you can have while playing blackjack. Which means playing it by the pool.

The newly meditating grandpa Wynn is moving a bit more slowly than he used to. But his ideas are getting only bigger. He's going to export his vision of Vegas—the übercapitalist, guilt-free overindulgence—to China, with the Wynn Macau, scheduled to open Sept. 5. If someone can teach the Chinese how to skip the ugly growing pains of capitalism and get right to the pretty parts, it's Wynn. Plus they already love tigers.

If they're smart, they'll listen. Because in the next millennium, when people study the U.S. empire, they won't be looking at buildings created by Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry. They'll be looking at our temples of pleasure, the buildings where we packed in as much America as would fit. And, somehow, Steve Wynn has done it in a way we won't be ashamed of.