We chat with Michael Prifti, principal at BLT Architects and executive architect at Revel about the massive $2.4 billion resort.
In the July issue of HD, we profiled Kevin DeSanctis, CEO, of Atlantic City’s newest mega resort, Revel. Here, we chat with Michael Prifti, principal at BLT Architects and executive architect at Revel, who was charged with coordinating the massive, $2.4 billion resort, and all of the various players involved (some 65 design firms).
HD: How has the Revel experience been?
MP: It’s been an interesting experience in many ways that I never would have anticipated. We helped design a busy interior. We helped with form design. It’s just been a fascinating experience.
HD: Have you ever worked on a project this long or this intensely?
MP: Longer in some cases, not as intense. Not as intensely and certainly not of anything that had a billion, multi-billion dollar price tag. The largest experience for me up till then had been on hundred million dollars and in one case a building in Washington had taken ten years from start to finish, but that was an unusual review and approval process. Lots of late night dinners in DC for that. This was incredibly fast paced, a fallow period, and an incredibly faster pace in the most recent year.
HD: So you started in March of 2007?
MP: We finished up our documents in late 2008. We were working with Arquitectonica from Day One. They were the initial designer for the core and shell. There are 65 design firms who have worked on the property.
MP: Arquitectonica had the initial design role. We probably had the largest role by responsibility, volume. A lot of our work you’ll never see. We designed all of the back of house. I’ve asked people who have been throughout the domestic U.S. properties, and I infer from all the comments that I got that there may be, at best, one better back of house than ours. And I think that is really a key to impeccable guest service and the happiness of the staff.
HD: Well, that impacts the front of the house so much more than people realize.
MP: Right, and they’ll never know. That’s the whole idea – they should never ever know.
HD: Were the 65 firms all funneling through you in different regards?
MP: Most of them. Occasionally they were contracted directly to Revel, but we still coordinated them. For instance, Arquitectonica was contracted directly to Revel, but we coordinated heavily. We would be in their offices on a weekly basis. They would then come to our offices. After the first three months it was fifty-fifty whose office we were going to be in. After the first six months they were meeting in our office because it was a rolling handoff of work. Then by the end of the first year their role was, in effect, completed and we began to work with not only ourselves, but also a whole host of interior designers, landscape architects, and the usual spectrum of consultants and specialty consultants.
So an example is nearly every chef came with his own preference for an interior designer. Our associate SOSH from Atlantic City was the architect and firm of record for all the restaurants. Similarly, a lot of the retailers, not all of them, but a lot of the retailers come with their own interior designer. They’re the architect and firm of record for all of the retail. The interior spaces of the building are a whole amalgam of interior designers. Some are Arquitectonica, some Cagley & Tanner, some Sceno Plus, some BLT. It depends on the space.
HD: I can’t even imagine what your weekly meetings were like for this schedule.
MP: Well, the project was divided up. We were very deliberate in the way we divided the work and very clear about it. We had a set of drawings that were called the ‘all drawings’ which sort of took all the fit-outs and dropped them in even though there were dozens of design firms. You know, so here’s a restaurant space which joins a retail space which joins a public space so there are three different design teams going on right there. We would take all the plan information and electronically drop it into an amalgamated plan which we would regularly make large format plots, mount on boards, and keep in Revel’s offices so that whenever anybody came to make a presentation we always had a state of the art reference set. ‘This is what you’re adjoining. This is what they have. Here’s a rendering of their intention for their space. How are you playing nice as a neighbor?’
We never expected homogeneity. We wanted great similarity in the effort of design intensity. So I sat in on nearly every meeting along with Revel. One of the big tools that we set out – documentation standards, design protocols: we had a common website for sharing information. We had regular meetings within each segment of the property. Then at the end of each phase, particularly schematic and design development, we had multi-day presentations.
So two weeks before we had the meeting, the director of design and construction of Revel and myself were scripting the agenda, honing it, allotting minutes, and calling everybody up and saying, ‘This is what we think you need to present. Are we forgetting anything?’ And the entirety of the leadership of the team would be present. You were learning about adjoining areas and if you had something worthy to say based on past experience or insight you were expected to say it. No holds were barred. Everybody was extremely respectful.
HD: I know you didn’t want one look for every space, but you definitely wanted on vision for the hotel. Was that challenging or was that part of the exciting part?
MP: There were three of us on the team—two from the owner and myself who regularly offered the cups of Kool-Aid. We spoke for the project. I believe that’s probably why they have you speaking to me today. It isn’t just that I’m an architect and I know the space and can speak about it, it’s that I understood very quickly what the vision was from Kevin DeSanctis as the head of the project and then could express that to everybody else on down the line whether they were there at the beginning or they came along later. Because opinions were welcomed I would often say directly what I thought. If it happened to be accepted, well, I felt good, if it wasn’t I tried to learn from that to give better observation the second time.
HD: What were you guys hoping to create if you had to sum it up? For Atlantic City?
MP: I’ll say three things and they’re little buzz phrases we use all the time. The first guiding principle was, and I used the phrase ‘of its place.’ When I first met DeSanctis he said the property really needed to be recognizably appropriate and part of the Atlantic City shoreline experience. That it wasn’t a casino, it was a resort and it was to welcome people as a resort in the fullest sense of the word. And by the way, it happens to have a casino in it. So as a resort it appeals to someone who wants to relax and enjoy themselves over a multiple day stay with a wide range of activities from the beach to the private beach, to a pool, spa, salon, dining, entertainment, whatever it is that’s going to float your boat.
It’s also a business hotel that caters to small, medium, and large business groups with assembly space up to five thousand for business events during the day, and those spaces transform into theatrical and performing arts events. Ovation Hall is convertible to a flat floor tradeshow floor, a large dining facility for the largest weddings or business luncheons, and the mezzanine of seating has operable partitions so it can be divided into three lecture halls.
All of that was thought out. And that gets to the second part: the property is transformable. There are things where operable partitions make it from a daytime business use to a nighttime theatrical use, that’s true, but the fact that there are windows throughout the property and the silver blue glass reflects the sky and the surf, it lets a tremendous amount of daylight in. From the get go, the experience in the daytime through the sun alone is different than that of the nighttime. But the way we handled lighting was very highly efficient LED lighting all of which is aimed and computer controlled programmed both for color, intensity, and time. We can have a different lighting atmosphere in the morning than from the evening than from the night. We can have a different experience in the weekdays than we can on the weekends. So the color balance of the light and intensity of the light is distinctly different in the morning than when it is after dinner. And we think that psychologically complements ones enjoyment of the space.
The last thing would be a phrase that I use which is ‘see and be seen.’ The building works very sinuously in plan, but it’s very studied in sections and because it’s a resort in section the elevator tower from the towers does not descend below the hotel lobby. It doesn’t go to the meeting rooms, it doesn’t go to the casino, and it doesn’t go to the entrance. Once you leave the hotel tower elevators and enter the lobby you have multiple choices and you deliberately choose what you wish to do. There’s no obligation to ever set foot in the casino if you don’t want to.
HD: That’s kind of nice.
MP: It’s also a non-smoking property; the only one in Atlantic City. If you go to the hotel and you self-park on the eleventh parking level you go right into the hotel lobby. You’ll never know that there’s anything else on the property. If you want to go right to the casino you park on the sixth parking level and you go right into the casino and you’ll never know there’s a hotel above you. It’s always about unconscious use.
The point I was going to make was see and be seen and this relationship in sections. There’s a conscious disassociation to allow you the choice and your choice is also what goes towards the transformability of the property. It’s a resort that has nothing to do with the casino or it’s a casino and it’s got all this high voltage entertainment with a nightclub and a burlesque, and these big theatrical events, and the retail row that after hours you can have receptions in. Each space has more than one use all of which is like really cool.
On the micro scale all of the floor levels are manipulated. In the hotel lobby there is a seating area that’s raised 18 inches with a fireplace so when you’re seated you’re at eye level with passers by so you’re not in any diminished role vis-à-vis them. The same is true in the casino and nearly all of the restaurants. We have a space called the dining enclave where three restaurants and the ultra lounge all come together with vistas across the space that interconnect. At the bottom of the semicircular space, which is only eighteen feet above the boardwalk, I can recognize you if you’re outside and you can recognize me inside—it’s a great, wonderful space to look at the ocean from thirty seven feet above sea level.
In the main arrival places on Revelry, which is the big casino floor, there are two story spaces and the breakout space for the meeting center above looks down into it. When you’re on a breakout from your meetings and you’re checking voicemail and email you can watch the passersby and they can look at you and wonder who you’re talking to on that cell phone. The retail row has casual seating in it. If you’re a significant other and you’re bored stiff while your friend is shopping you can sit out there and just watch people as they walk by. It’s all about social interaction because we believe you may not be an outgoing person, but you enjoy watching others having a great time. That’s a different form of entertainment, an indirect form. Perhaps you might be motivated to try something you hadn’t tried before because you see somebody else enjoying themselves.
HD: What other design features are you really proud of or admire?
MP: There are tons. In the second month of the project I put together a PowerPoint, which amalgamated everybody’s rendering and I called it ‘Wayfinding the Wows.’ I’m up to like a hundred slides for all of the signature spaces. If I was an arriving guest I would drive up Connecticut Avenue which has had tens of millions of dollars of improvement for the public experience to arrive in this neighborhood. When you cross onto the property you rise gently up textured paving. It’s beautifully finished. It’s calming because of the texture and you arrive right at the ocean when you step out of the car. Then you go inside into a giant tilted glass frame, a frameless glass wall, and you rise up one hundred twenty feet in this escalator ellipse with five pairs of escalators crisscrossing. The first elevator takes you right to the casino floor. The second pair takes you to the meeting room floor. The third pair takes you to the hotel lobby. Here, it’s flooded in daylight and two giant mobiles of gold foil twist slowly from the HVAC and flicker sunlight.
The hotel lobby has more than two acres of landscaped garden one hundred fourteen feet above the ocean. As soon as you get off the escalator at the top level and you turn to look outside there’s a designed device of forced perspective that knits with the horizon and it’s stained concrete that matches the ocean surface. It draws the horizon right into view. When you go across the lot to the front desk and check in, you turn around from the hotel desk and there’s the second forced perspective, again bringing the ocean right into you view. You never forget that you’re at the shore and that is the unique proposition of Revel. You’re always of the place specific to the Jersey Shore. And much of the colors and everything were selected to be appropriate for that place.
Out in the Sky Garden, there are two acres and five unique areas where you can sit down. Every room has an ocean view, if you’re on the up beach side of the tower you look at Brigantine Island, but when you look down you see those two acres of garden and those two forced perspectives have embedded LED lights that flash in an artistic sequence.
HD: What do you think this resort is going to do for the area?
MP: The mantra was this is a destination resort that happens to have a casino. The average room stay in Atlantic City was one night. We’re looking to at a minimum double that.
HD: This must have been a great learning process.
MP: Well, I could give you a couple of anecdotes personally. It’s the largest project I’ve ever personally been involved with. We had sixty five staff members in my firm alone, probably five hundred people amongst the sixty seven design firms. There are four principals of the firm; I tapped all three of the others to do things to help me. So in terms of size and scale it was remarkable.
We had all the bells, whistles, and tools necessary to collaborate and measure everybody else’s performance and we were very rigorous and polite. We never missed an opportunity to learn, never hesitated to ask a question no matter how stupid it might have been. Right? And sometimes I got accustomed to the role of asking a question I already knew the answer to, but because I’d grown to know the client so well I could see by the look on their face that they weren’t understanding what was being pitched to them.
An interior designer or someone would come along and say, ‘Wasn’t this brilliant?’ There’d be a little silence and I would infer either they didn’t get it, they didn’t understand it, or they weren’t all that happy with it. I’d ask what was a patently obvious question to reframe what was being presented so that we would, in effect, have a productive dialog and no one walked out without a clear direction. I learned how to politely keep people on agenda.