'The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soil erosion produced by high gambling - a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.' So run the opening lines of Casino Royale; the beginning of James Bond.
The image of a London casino has hardly changed since that 1953 introduction. We played up to it through the 60s, with that posh 'Mayfair' style, the equivalent of fur coat and no knickers - those tailcoated doormen implied all sorts of goings on. But as a sign of the times, Ladbrokes has finally splashed out with a friendly, chic new venture to flag up gaming as good clean fun.
The last time I met a casino designer he was very loud and brutish and sporting a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt. That was Las Vegas. I thought there must be some mistake here as I was swept past a cool modern reception desk with its friendly cool modern receptionists and wafted down the glass staircase wrapped within a bright fold of glass blocks, to meet the relaxed figure of designer Kiran Curtis - a Clerkenwell charmer with one of those young practices who will pirouette on an aircraft undercarriage to deliver the smooth and the cool - in his delightfully subdued re-appraisal of the casino off the hurly burly of London's Piccadilly.
No, this was no green felt jungle, and Curtis, it turned out, had little interest in casinos as a (stereo)type. Ladbrokes wanted something new. Life is already tough enough for casino owners in the uk under present uk law, where just finding your casino is difficult (casinos can't advertise freely) and walking through the door unnecessarily frustrating (you have to become a member of any casino 24 hours before you can play - even though this membership is totally free). Hence customers tend not to walk in off the street, except hopeful, and at once disappointed, tourists. The successful casino in London, the manager explained, works by word of mouth. At 7pm on a Thursday, this new place was humming, so all was well.
Ladbrokes closed down Charlie Chester's on seedy Archer Street, swapping location and image to start again in the basement many will fondly remember as Xenon's night-club. Curtis ripped out the whole lot, re-arranging the space via 35 or so party-wall awards, and created a whole new structure. Together they gave it light, they gave it groovy form, and almost by accident said something rather appropriate about casinos.
In Las Vegas the old saying goes that you just need to get the ceilings and the carpeting right to make those huge sandwiches of casino space work. Here in cramped, claustrophobic London, Curtis has somehow managed to enjoy the space by wrapping that same ceiling and floor into one. Both meld into each other as a wave of ochre brown. The effect is dramatic, like standing in a large pocket.
Hence Curtis's scheme seems remarkably contextual, responding to those gloomy basements the builders of London had consigned to dark and mysterious pleasures with two folded planes (one vertical in glass block as you go in, and the other the wave over your head once you're there) that would, in Vegas, have simple been laid out, flat, to dry.
He's glamorised that difficult entrance procedure, making it a pleasure to move from the street to this calm oasis. Once downstairs you can get yourself a drink from the conveniently placed bar and perch on the railing to view the action. Nobody's going to force you to gamble, the manager is delighted at folk coming down just to enjoy the atmosphere, perhaps dining in the restaurant that looks over the gaming floor. Watching a casino, whether Las Vegas or London, is a fascinating experience. Confronted with this one, with it's comparably high lighting levels and the swathes of muted tones, architects will even feel comfortable with the style.
I joined straight away. Now thankfully, when Las Vegas friends come to London, I shall not be stuck when they demand the obvious. Mind you, our visit to The Ladbroke Piccadilly will not be an all night session, for Ladbrokes have remembered something from the early days of James Bond, closing at precisely 3am. Not that you will ever scent a whiff of smoke, or sweat, in such a cool place, because the air conditioning is awesome.