JCJ Architecture draws best hand in casino market.

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By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff

HARTFORD, Conn. - As most poker players will tell you, success at the game grows from a combination of skill, luck and dedicated passion.

Appropriately, JCJ Architecture's success as the country's leading designer of Indian casinos started with a stroke of luck and continues to blossom with the company's well-honed skills and bountiful passion for its work.

A Hartford-based firm with offices in New York, San Diego and Phoenix, JCJ won the 2007 Best Architectural Design for a Tribal Casino/Resort for the Seneca Nation's Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel from the G2E Institute, an international gaming trade show and conference (www.globalgamingexpo.com). The award came some 70 years after JCJ was founded, and 16 years after the completion of its first Indian casino - the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation's Foxwoods Resort Casino, one of the largest and most successful casino in the country, if not the world.

JCJ got the Foxwoods job by happenstance, JCJ President Peter N. Stevens told Indian Country Today.

''We were not the first firm on the Foxwoods site,'' he said. ''We had a relationship with the builder at the time and had just finished a senior housing project, and they were thrilled with the way we approached the project in a total partnership with the builder and the owners, and my understanding was the first phase of Foxwoods didn't quite have that partnership involved with those three legs of the stool, as we call it.''

The first phase included a small casino that was so successful, the tribe wanted to move the development forward and needed a designer. JCJ was approached and asked to consider coming in on the next phase.

''They said we would work together in bringing together a certain level of expertise that had experience in gaming and entertainment, and combine it with our approach to management and project delivery and teamwork and make a go at it. With that foundation and promise, we all agreed, and it was a very long and magnificent story from that point forward,'' Stevens said.

Since then, JCJ has been responsible for the design and varying combinations of project management, planning, government and regulatory consulting, as well as documentation for more than 150 Indian and commercial gaming, hospitality and entertainment projects in every kind of geography and topography across the country and internationally.

Casinos are wild and dramatic places, unlike traditional types of buildings such as schools, houses, offices or civic structures. They lend themselves to the most imaginative reaches of the creative architectural mind in their uses of color, light, space and form. But, as with all architecture, the fundamental principle of form following function is at work, according to Brian L. Davis, a member of the American Institute of Architects and a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Profession, and principal and director of JCJ's hospitality practice.

''If you go back to what our patrons are looking for, whether they know it or not, subconsciously people are looking to escape the day to day,'' he said. ''And what we're so lucky to be able to do is provide that new kind of environment that is unpredictable, the kind of thing you can't anticipate when you go to an office building or a restaurant down the street, so that encourages us to think beyond what our predictable anticipations might be and it really allows us just great free reign. We do get great jobs.''

Indian casinos are particularly satisfying projects for a variety of reasons.

''One of the most gratifying things is that there aren't that many design environments in which you really get to blend natural elements, cultural elements, functional elements in order to make the creations that we do,'' he said.

And there is something irresistibly satisfying about watching patrons respond to the new creation.

''In every one of our projects, we like to create and orchestrate what we call the 'Oz moment' when they come out of the woods and see Emerald City for the first time and have your breath taken away. We've seen people walk into the lobby of one of our hotels or casinos and their breath gets taken away,'' Davis said.

The company had developed an approach to designing Indian casinos that delves deeply into an individual tribe's culture, history and region.

''That's really the foundation on which we build their project. We study their history, their culture, their artwork. We go to their museum. We study everything from shards of pottery to photographs. We build themes around their story.''

The company has concentrated - and committed itself, Davis said - to learning every aspect of the Indian gaming market and consequently has stayed away from the Las Vegas and Atlantic City markets.

The strategy has paid off. Last year, about 75 percent of the firm's revenues were generated from tribal casino projects.

While all of the firm's clients are concerned with creating functional and beautiful facilities within budgets, the tenor of conversation and the experience is different when building a tribal casino.

''There's so much passion wrapped up in it. In many instances, the casino is going to become the anchor for other kinds of economic development. You have people who look beyond the casino and they can see schools and housing and medical clinics and employment. They can see their children and their grandchildren, which is not the same kind of thing you get working in other kinds of environments; so to be able to understand that and appreciate that and help translate it into the built form is different and it's also extremely gratifying,'' Davis said.

JCJ has also taken a proactive role in sustainable and environmental design, being one of the first firms to bring ''green'' building to the hospitality industry.

''It's becoming a larger and larger criterion for us,'' he said.

For more information, visit www.jcj.com.