The MGM National Harbor casino and entertainment complex looks like a cruise ship beached high on the banks of the Potomac, deposited there by some great flood of the river, like the Ark on Mount Ararat. It is a long, narrow structure, 1,600 feet from end to end, with parking decks that step down the hillside mimicking the aft end of a giant party boat. Above the parking is an open-air plaza with a fountain, embraced by the arms of a long and aerodynamically sleek roof. A lightning rod above the roof looks a bit like a short mast or a large flagpole at the stern — yet more nautical gestures.
The resemblance to a cruise ship isn’t accidental, says James E. Beyer, senior vice president for design and construction at MGM Resorts International, the gambling empire that has built the $1.4 billion complex in Prince George’s County. Original design sketches resembled a ship, and the idea carried through into the way the finished product lifts people above the river and seems to be in forward motion, and even into the built-in furniture of its hotel-room design.
Edward Abeyta, of the Dallas-based firm HKS, which oversaw the design, says the architects were also inspired by the monumentality of Washington’s memorials, especially the Washington Monument, and the capital city’s street plan, in which avenues are always meeting streets at sharp angles, creating nodal points for statues and parks. One edge of the knife-blade-shaped hotel tower is aligned with the Mall, too far away to be anything but a subliminal reference. But anyone who studies the razor-edges of the tower, a glass-clad structure shaped like a parallelogram, will detect a reference to the sharp corners of I.M. Pei’s National Gallery of Art.
Cruise ships are highly efficient machines for monetizing consumption, and that is also the purpose of this structure, which features not just a 125,000-square-foot casino (equal to the gallery space at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), but also 15 dining areas, a spa, convention rooms, a 3,000-seat theater and a shopping complex. It may not surf the wine-dark sea, but it is just as self-contained as one of Disney’s or Carnival’s floating entertainment mills, or any of the all-inclusive mega-resorts of Cancun.
Once you’re aboard, there’s little reason to leave. Spectacle surrounds you, dangling crystals and undulating ceilings, a giant chocolate fountain constantly circulating two tons of sweet liquid death, video displays bringing a simulacrum of nature indoors, art and ornament commissioned from local creators, and, of course, people, who are an essential part of this weird phantasmagoria. Wealth and class become part of the scenic drama, too, with separate VIP entrances to the casino, and also to the theater, where the proles can look through windows as they come up the poor-man’s escalators and watch the VIPs drinking in their own social spaces.
Luxury and fantasy have been the essence of casino architecture at least since the early 19th century, when European backwaters sought to attract and fleece the aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike. Casino design served multiple purposes: to amuse idle blue bloods, to gild over the ugly manipulation of greed at the heart of gambling, and to give the nouveaux riches a sense of belonging to the aristocratic realm for which they pine. As Dostoevsky reminds us in “The Gambler,” the entire milieu was fake and designed to attract fakers, and the biggest fakery of all was the pretense that this was all respectable.
National Harbor isn’t just a casino but a “destination resort.” This means several things. It isn’t the sort of place where the riffraff feed quarters into one-arm bandits. There are plausible reasons to go there (to eat, people-watch, shop) that don’t involve gambling. And best of all, many of those who do gamble will go home, at the end of the day, to places far from the District. So the local economic benefits of the casino, which include employment and tax revenue, may outweigh the social costs of gambling, which will fly home to Pennsyltucky or Abu Dubai with the problem gamblers. It’s a win-win, or, as Donald Trump says, a win, win, win.
The building that sits on the low bluffs of the Potomac like Fitzcarraldo’s landlocked steamboat serves many functions, and if one can’t call it beautiful — it is too big, strangely sterile and ungainly, and its real purpose too genuinely transparent — it is nevertheless a fascinating structure. Think of it as a machine. Abeyta, the architect, refers to the casino as “the chassis,” which is centrally located along the spine of the rectangular building. VIP visitors access it from a valet parking porte-cochere at one end, while “self-park” visitors enter through the elevators at the opposite end. The casino gives access both to the outdoor west terrace and, to the east, the “Conservatory,” a large atrium that ties together the hotel, shopping, meeting rooms and access to the theater.
If this were any ordinary building, you would be able to see through the casino so that the logic of the building, all carefully laid out along the “keel” line of the boat, made sense. But the interior of the casino (designed by KNA Design) has been filled up and discombobulated with so much stuff — bars, lounges, gaming tables and partitions — that there is no direct view. This is intentional, because casinos are designed to disorient, delay and distract.
The German critic Walter Benjamin said, “Gambling converts time into a narcotic,” which explains why casinos tend to want to eliminate any indications of the passage of time, such as clocks or windows (this one actually has a few glimpses of natural light). But modern casinos also turn architecture into a narcotic, and this is no exception. The ceiling and surfaces of the gambling area use textures and materials the way social media uses news, clickbait and cat videos, with seemingly endless variety, no particular organization, but always the promise of more and different around the corner. It is a disordered gathering place for all the cultures of the world (the range of references and allusions on the video-gaming machines is dizzying), and there is a strange cosmopolitanism to the place.
The casino has one section devoted to Asian gambling, which MGM’s Beyer says is distinctly different in feeling (less about “blowing off steam” in the American sense, and more philosophically obsessive, like a spiritual pursuit) and in the games preferred (baccarat, especially). The restaurants offer everything from Vietnamese banh mi to tacos. A sculpture by a Chinese artist that greets VIP visitors to the casino posits this cosmopolitanism as a game of lighthearted fisticuffs played out on the field of money: Liao Yibai’s “Fighting Cash” is a polished stainless-steel work that shows Chairman Mao and Benjamin Franklin boxing between two curling bills of Chinese and American currency.
It’s remarkable that the art is forthright about the dark side of all this, reminding visitors that China is going to eat America’s lunch, if it hasn’t already. The plebes who come through the opposite casino entrance encounter an equally bracing sculpture, by Bob Dylan, who has welded together the detritus of machinery, metal chains and hand tools to make a hellish portal of America’s lost industrial greatness. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, of reopened coal mines or new auto plants, and connect your electronic cash vein to the digital wheel of fortune, and dream a while as you get poorer and poorer and poorer.
But gambling is a powerfully adaptive metaphor, reconfiguring its meaning to each new age and place. In America, it once stood for our dream of making no little plans, building big, taking risks and bluffing through every difficulty. Advertisements for MGM’s new facility borrow that rhetoric. “It is very easy to think small . . . if you are going to do something, don’t stop halfway . . . ” reads an MGM newspaper ad, conflating the real estate developer’s mantra with the gambler’s folly. But today, the dreams that fire the chassis don’t have the same luster, the same hope. It is the dream of escape, of delay, of holding off the inevitable as long as possible.
Still, that’s powerful stuff, fuel enough to make it seem as if this chic metal ship is actually going somewhere. And so the boat glitters on the hill, its tower beckoning to passersby on the Beltway, its giant video screens promising a new divertissement every night. Of course, the ship seems to be plowing its way uphill to no avail, and when you get off, the world won’t be any better than it was when you got on. But no expense has been spared to make the world twinkle while you’re there, and even though we all know it’s a lie, no one is fussing much about lies these days. Enjoy the illusion while it lasts.