Knocking Their Eyeballs Out

THERE ARE MORE THAN 100 NATIVE American casinos in the United States, and the best thing you can say for their design is that no one ever got lost in one trying to find the slot machines. But for their new casino, the Mohegan tribe of eastern Connecticut, which has suffered for more than a century under the onus of James Fenimore Cooper's premature obituary, didn't want just another soulless shed for emptying wallets. They wanted a place that said ""Native American'' with a little class, which is why they turned to New York architect David Rockwell. Sheaves of wheat, peeled logs, stretched animal hides--Rockwell used all of these things in trendy Manhattan restaurants before he even met a Mohegan. When the tribal elders got a look at Rockwell's plan for a great soaring circular space whose four entrances would be themed to the seasons, it was one of the greatest moments in American gambling since some guy looked at Liberace and said, Gee, I wonder if this guy can play Vegas?

We mention Liberace because he understood better than anyone else the fundamental artistic imperative, to knock the customers' eyeballs out. The 40-year-old Rockwell--who, as it happens, once considered a career as a classical pianist--is the nation's leading practitioner of what is sometimes called ""entertainment architecture,'' a discipline that breaks down the boundaries between ""design'' and narrative arts such as filmmaking. If you've been in a Planet Hollywood almost anywhere in the world, you've seen his work in all its scintillating, multiplex glory, a palimpsest of figures and graphics at different scales, flickering to the urgent rhythms of the movies. In Times Square, there's his Official All Star Cafe, the prototype for a chain of sports-themed tourist traps intended to create the experience of being locked in a den with a stranger who has spent $40,000 on video equipment so he can watch every hockey game in the country. Rockwell is designing a permanent home for Cirque du Soleil at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. His firm--swollen in the last year from 70 employees to 110--is creating a half-million-square-foot addition to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, built around ""a hillside village inhabited by wonderful exotic animals.'' He is designing a new themed restaurant in New York with the magician David Copperfield, in which tables will levitate and patrons will fly. If Liberace weren't already dead, Rockwell would probably be the guy he'd want for his mausoleum.

But it was Rockwell's genius to recognize that themed architecture shouldn't just be enjoyed by the package-tour habituEs of Vegas or Times Square. He sought to bring it also to the hip crowd at Nobu in downtown Manhattan that can drop $75 on chef Nobu Matsuhisa's nouvelle Japanese cuisine, food so trendily austere it is virtually translucent. For them, he designed walls of polished black river stones, mats of woven hemp, birch trunks bizarrely terminating in branches of polished lumber. The same people can also be found at Rockwell-designed restaurants in midtown like Le Bar Bat, Vong or Christer's, whose evocation of a Scandinavian hunting lodge has been described as ""L.L. Bean on acid.''

Rockwell's two great themes--nature and theatricality--came together in his design for the 200,000-square-foot Mohegan Sun casino, which is scheduled to open in Uncasville, Conn., next week--amazingly, only a little more than a year after his firm began work on it. Rockwell here faced the challenge of creating a design vocabulary that would cover the culture of the Mohegan Indians as well as all the different restaurants under the casino's roof, from Chinese to Italian. His solution, a generic New England outdoorsiness, is a radical and welcome departure for casinos, which traditionally make as few references as possible to an outside world where there are things to do besides lose money. Here are great towers of fiberglass timber, fake pony-hide banquettes and turtle-shell sconces. And specific Mohegan allusions, like the quadrapartite Mohegan symbol woven into the carpet, or the plaques representing the 13 moons of the Mohegan year, which also serve as locators for features such as the poker room or the high-stakes pit.

And here, of course, are 3,000 slot machines hungry for the quarters of New York and Boston. Tribal historian Melissa Fawcett explains that gambling was a traditional part of Mohegan culture, with the distinction that ""traditionally the winner was the one who loses everything. You derive honor from giving things away.'' This, obviously, is just the attitude you want to encourage if you're opening a casino expected to eventually produce profits of more than $60 million. There's only one question left, which is whether the architect has any qualms about using the religious and cultural symbols of an ancient, al- most vanished tribe to titillate busloads of gamblers. Rockwell looks puzzled by the question.

""Well,'' he says after a moment, ""how would that be different from making a movie about the Mohegans?''