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Creative casinos: public art, entertainment or both? 08/03/2014
Simon Tait
A digital artist-in-residence has been given a free hand to create the ambience for London's new supercasino, The Hippodrome

A non-gambler might imagine the casino to be a dingy, smoke-filled basement where booze is trafficked and the sun never shines. That's how it was. But it might be time to revise your preconception as London's biggest and newest casino has the gambling joint of old graduated to a centre of entertainment, and this one has turned to art to make its atmosphere new and unique.

The Hippodrome Casino has commissioned the country's first digital artist-in-residence, whose task is to capture "the spirit" of the Hippodrome. It seems an anomalous combination – gambling and aesthetics – but it's in the ethos of a new kind of supercasino this place is introducing.

£50m has been spent on restoring the Grace II* listed building to its Edwardian splendour, adapted to the 21st century, with the blessing of the theatre heritage watchdog The Theatres Trust and English Heritage.

Not only have the proprietors, octogenarian Jimmy Thomas and his son Simon, hired the digital artist Thomas D Gray as resident, they have already installed his 57-panel digital artwork that surrounds the main void of the interior.

The cost of the piece and of value of the residency are not being discussed, but there is evidence of more than a passing commitment to art in the approach of the Thomases to the casino, which they opened 18 months ago in the heart of the West End. Former bingo hall proprietors, the Thomases already have 11 conservation awards for their sensitive refurbishing of former theatres and cinemas.

The Hippodrome Casino stands on the corner of Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road. The 114-year-old building was built by the prince of theatre architects Frank Matcham for Edward Moss and his Empire chain, for the then princely sum of £250,000, but it was never actually a theatre; as its name implies, it was an indoor circus that doubled as a music hall. The first show starred a 10-year-old Charlie Chaplin. The galleries were cantilevered, removing view-limiting columns, and it had a retractable glass roof.

In 1909, Matcham remodelled the Hippodrome to become a music hall proper, and after the first world war it was London's first jazz venue. In the 80s it became Stringfellows, a black box illumined by explosions of strobe lighting. It was a rave venue in 1990s and early noughties, but in 2005 lost its drinks licence after the police objected to its renewal, and shortly afterwards it closed. It was in private ownership until the Thomases bought it in 2009.

Their first act was to restore the Matcham decorations. "We had drawings, and there was enough of the plaster modelling left to take mouldings, so we decided to do it properly," says Simon Thomas, CEO of the Hippodrome Casino now. "When we came here we saw the character of the place, and how we could make a different kind of casino with its own character. Our answer to Las Vegas."

Artist-in-residence Gray, Chicago-born but for 24 years based in London, was commissioned to make the artwork to surround the main floor. He worked with Zaha Hadid, creating the installation for her 2009 Burnham Pavilion in Gray's hometown. His production company The Gray Circle created the extraordinary effects for the stage version of Lord of the Rings.

His Hippodrome piece is a melding of images: London; roulette wheels and blackjack dealing; the Matcham building – the personalities that are fixtures in the Hippodrome now and have been in its long past. He had to make eight presentations before his ideas were accepted, and then there was no hindrance. The piece was made in five months, with a team of six filming and editing. "At any second there could be 100 images," says Gray.

"The main issue was, is it art or a commercial?" he adds. "If it's commercial it becomes cheap – people being sold something – and there was no question that it would be art. We were very much able to keep to our idea, grabbing the essence of the casino."

The residency will mean a new fantasy for the building: images appearing in frames in the ladies' toilets; surreal images on the stairwells and in the large basement gaming space; the big circular ceiling will become a changing window. "It's more of the spirit of the place," adds Gray.

Simon Thomas is in no doubt that he is introducing not only a new kind of public art, but a new entertainment: "We are the Hippodrome – the DNA of West End goes through this place. A quarter of a million people are coming through here each year, and it has to be right for every one of them.

"You don't have to gamble to enjoy yourself here, and people who have been have always had a good time, even if they can't remember why. The Hippodrome is a piece of art internally and externally. We've taken it back to the heart of the heritage and added a more contemporary use. The trick for us is finding a balance, and that's why Thomas is here."

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