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|Creative casinos: public art, entertainment or both?
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
£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
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
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.
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."