the Bridge – Casino Urbanisms

the Bridge – Casino Urbanisms

Stacking Worlds

As a casino complex, Marina Bay Sands (MBS) is unusual because it is cut into two by a road. On one side facing the waterfront are the three pavilions housing the casino, theatre, convention center and retail corridors. On the other side facing the large urban park (known as Gardens by the Bay) are the three hotel blocks. A pedestrian bridge connects these two halves at the fifth and sixth stories. The split is unusual because casino-resorts have always occupied large contiguous plots and the hotel/hospitality functions have always been integrated with the casino floor – understandable given that the operator wants to make sure that gamblers have the most direct and, in many cases, discreet, access between their rooms and the casino. Thus, the presence of the bridge already speaks to some of the peculiar dynamics that shaped this project. I have always joked that MBS is really one of the more dis-Integrated Resorts around the world (though a more accurate term would be “deconstructed”).

Unlike the sky-park, the bridge is nondescript (Fig. 1). It cannot be seen unless one is standing between the two halves of the complex, and, being only as long as six lanes of road are wide, attracts little attention to itself. Yet, it is just as evocative about the stratified worlds of the casino economy and how, at MBS, these worlds come together through design and accident. There is no need to use this bridge if one wants to travel from one side of the complex to the next – one could simply cross the road at the traffic light junction, or use the subterranean retail corridor. Who then use this bridge? There are primarily two groups – tourists and members of the public who wish to walk from the waterfront to the Gardens by the Bay, and VIP hotel guests who wish to walk from their rooms directly to the VIP area of the casino. Both are specialized routes designed to be seamless, one scenic and public, the other discreet and exclusive. For the public, they move from the rooftop of the pavilions to the tree-lined roof of the bridge, cutting through the hotel lobby and finally, following a gentle descent, find themselves in the midst of the urban park (Fig. 2, 3, 4 and 5). For the VIP guests, they take a restricted lift to the fifth level of the hotel block, slide into the bridge and disappear into the opaque box of the casino (Fig 6). The bridge is one segment where these two different journeys overlap – literally stacked on top of each other, but oblivious to each other.

The stacking of journeys is the architectural resolution of two different geometries competing on this site. One geometry emanates from the state, which already manifests in the longitudinal splitting of the complex into two. This split was necessary to conform to the urban grid and transport network already established in the district of Marina South. The geometry further disaggregates the casino complex into separate pavilions and hotel towers, transforming what could have been a massive hermetic object into a porous interplay of solids and voids. The geometry of the state enforces an interpenetration between the public and private realms. In effect, the entire building becomes a public system of bridges and platforms that connects the waterfront of Marina Bay to the Gardens by the Bay.

The second geometry emanates from the hidden core of the casino economy. It attempts to secure within this disaggregated porosity an opaque and isolated zone where the realization of superlative profit can occur. The VIP gaming halls are not the casino floors of the masses, which are easily accessed from the public realm at the ground level. Rather, they are one segment of an extended enclosure, beginning at the VIP registration booth in the hotel lobby, to restricted lifts that serve only the 50th-54th levels of the hotel towers, to the pedestrian bridge that connects the hotel towers directly to the VIP level of the casino. This extended enclosure constitutes the most precious real estate of MBS. If not for the first geometry that splits the complex into two, a bridge would not have been necessary and this world would have, as in all other IRs, remained completely sheltered from the public eye.

I have encountered many bridges in my study of casino urbanism. There are bridges built to connect all the properties of one casino operator, thus preventing customers from leaking out to close-by competitors. There are bridges built to connect casinos directly to ferry terminals, airports, customs gates and other ports of entry. And there is the 55km long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge that draws entire cities closer to each other. Most of these bridges are extensions of the casino economy that push back and cut through the city in order to draw in customers filtered by their “lifetime value”. In such instances, the city appears as a passive terrain fragmented by the private infrastructure of extraction. But the small bridge at MBS tells a different story – it is both a part of the city and a part of the casino. Instead of an asymmetrical relationship between a passive city and a penetrative infrastructure, the bridge at MBS speaks of a more equilibrated relationship where two divergent regimes of value find expression in one space. One regime of value is represented by a totally public network that perforates the casino complex and integrates it into the urban landscape of mundane touristic consumption, and the other is represented by a totally private infrastructure that services the rarefied world of high stakes where fortunes are made and lost in magnitudes unimaginable to the common man. Insofar as this bridge stacks two incongruous worlds on top of each other, it also articulates the symmetrical and conjoined interests of the state and its casino concessionaire.

An Architectural Faux Pas

Incongruity aside, the bridge is an economical solution to the problem of moving two groups of people from one part of the complex to the other. Yet, it also creates some accidental encounters that rub against the regimes of value that make up the casino economy. Much like the uncomfortable view at the sky-park where members of the public could spy on hotel guests bask in the pool, one segment of the bridge allows the public to look down relatively unobserved into the hotel lobby.

Once the bridge enters the hotel lobby, the private VIP level ends and it becomes purely a public infrastructure (Fig. 4). When I visited MBS for the first time in 2010, my experience on this segment of the bridge produced the same delirium as the strange encounter on the sky-park. Like many other curious explorers, we had merely followed the signs to find our way from the waterfront to the Gardens by the Bay. As described above, these signs had led us to the rooftop of the pavilions and the bridge. The journey was clearly designed to present the city as an object of fascination, much like the sky-park, but at a lower level. Thus, it was quite a turn when the bridge brought us into the hotel lobby, suspended above the hotel guests who became unwitting performers of a voyeuristic spectacle. The inversion of value encountered at the sky-park repeats here, for which five-star hotel allows members of the public to saunter through its hotel lobby and look down on its paying guests? As Fig. 6 shows, even the exclusive world of the VIP gambler is not safe from the public’s prying eyes,

While the Sky Park remains one of the most publicized and iconic features of MBS, this public infrastructure of roof and bridge has faded away from public consciousness. I can no longer find any mention of it on the internet – not in materials promoted by MBS nor in individual reviews about the building. The signs that used to point to the rooftop and the bridge seem to be disappeared, though I believe that one can still gain access if one knew about them. Architecture as a thing of concrete and steel has an obduracy that becomes problematic when it cannot respond to the changing demands of stratification. It fixes certain social relationships in space which might be desirable at one point in time, but value-destroying at others. If this problem was solved on the sky-park by putting up new walls to solidify the separation of stratified worlds, then the problem of the bridge was solved by simply letting it sink into obscurity. Still, the segment of the bridge that flies across the hotel lobby remains an architectural faux pas (at least from the perspective of the operator). In 2019, when news was released that MBS had been granted permission to expand its property, I caught some clues of how this faux pas could eventually be rectified. One of the changes permitted was the creation of a new casino space on the 55th floor of the hotel tower blocks. Once this floor is created, the hidden core of the casino economy can, finally, become totally invisible. Though MBS was birthed at the intersection of two distinct geometries, it is slowly but inexorably retrofitting itself to become more like a typical Las Vegas casino-resort.

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Author: Jennifer Martin