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The Aesthetic Ramifications of Detroit's Gambling Addiction

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Meet a Curbed Detroit contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she brings us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

With Detroit teetering on the edge of insolvency, one can't help but think about those tax-generating engines that prevented all this from happening a decade ago, Detroit's casinos. They've been a part of life here for nearly two decades now, if you count the planning and the mishaps (Rivertown, anyone?), but the permanent casinos and hotels are now an indelible part of Detroit's architectural landscape. Now casinos are showplaces intended to inspire excessive spending, not to elevate the built environment, but let's examine the merits of Detroit's three casinos anyway.

Greektown Casino, designed by Rossetti Associates, is unique in the way it is integrated into an existing commercial district. To its credit, it has kept the streetscape more or less intact and has integrated existing buildings (hi Trapper's Alley!). The massive newly-constructed brick-clad casino and parking deck dominate the eastern part of the neighborhood, avoiding degradation of the pedestrian experience in Greektown proper. But in a classic example of contextual architecture gone wrong, these new buildings provide exactly zero architectural interest.

The glass hotel tower actually does have many elements to recommend it, and is the only one of all three casino hotels that makes an attempt to reflect the time in which it was built. When viewed from the west it seems a reasonable addition to the skyline, but when viewed from other elevations, particularly the east, it is dwarfed by the massive parking deck from which it rises. The juxtaposition of the reflective glass with the bland brick veneer is surprisingly jarring, and as trivial as it may seem, Greektown's traditional-looking signage adds another element that conflicts with the contemporary tower.

All in all, Greektown's best success lies in its ability to not offend. You really can't help but think the original proposed location at Gratiot and I-375 might have provided more opportunities to rise from mediocrity.

Hopping across downtown to the MGM Grand, designed by SmithGroup and Hamilton Anderson Associates, the only gaming operation not locally-controlled when the permanent casinos were built, we find a casino complex that manages to not offend by actually being attractive. What a novel approach! It's not groundbreaking architecture, but clearly some good design choices went into it, starting with site selection, scale and consistency.

Tucked into a dead zone bounded on three sides by freeways, MGM is nevertheless a strong presence as you look up Third Street from Michigan Avenue. Each of the buildings (hotel, casino, parking) is distinct but shares design elements that create the sense everything belongs together. The hotel tower dominates visually, and then cascades into the casino, with the parking deck wrapped around the back.

The deco-inspired exterior obviously has broad popular appeal, and manages to tie into Detroit's architectural heritage without seeming gimmicky. The parking deck had the potential to be an afterthought, but stainless steel decorative elements keep it appealing despite its mass. The only glaring (literally) misstep would be the giant LED billboard that sends a beacon over I-75 straight to Midtown. I guess it's a good thing there isn't much housing across the freeway.

Speaking of glaring missteps, let's talk about the Ilitch-owned Motor City Casino. My mother had two words to describe this kind of garish exercise in bad taste: new money. What. The. Hell.

Motor City Casino actually started out relatively amazing. The adaptive re-use of the Wagner Baking Company building for the temporary casino was an inspired move, both in terms of preservation and Detroit authenticity. And then someone made the mistake of deciding it would be a great Detroit theme to make the permanent casino automobile-inspired.

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When all was said and done the permanent casino, designed by Giffels, Inc. (with "legendary hot-rod car designer" Chip Foose as part of the design team) appeared to grow out of the old bakery building like some kind of high-tech barnacle. And the hotel tower, rising high above its low-slung neighborhood, wears its swooping roofline like a ridiculous party hat and mars every view of the skyline from Southwest Detroit to Lafayette Park with it's LED light show.

Now I will say this: the light show is the best thing about Motor City. It's very clever and makes it the highest profile of the three casinos. But the location on the very edge of downtown, while great for building visibility, is a big lose for those who enjoy an urban vista that doesn't induce seizures.

So there you have it: the good, the mediocre and the ugly. We'll save the interiors for another day, but what are the lessons for any aspiring casino operators who may be reading this? Pick your site well, build from the ground up and don't be a local. Sadly, it seems our own taste level cannot be trusted.

—Kelly Ellsworth

Greektown Casino & Hotel

555 E Lafayette Blvd, Detroit, MI 48226