/ 5 January 2001

Gauteng’s newest citadel of sin

In Depression-era gangster films, amid clouds of smoke from tommy guns, the Feds occasionally managed to bust up great lorryloads of illicit liquor, sending whisky brewed and exported by the libertine Canadians pouring in torrents into the streets of Chicago.

Eighty years on, and a continent down and to the right, the penchant of law enforcement for licensed destruction is as robust as ever. Of late, TV news has regularly shown us illegal gambling machines heaped in scrapyard mounds before being pulverised by wrecking balls and trite conclusions.
Why have the authorities been doing this?

The answer, dubbed Montecasino, rises in splendour from the pristine hills of Tuscany just north of Johannesburg, and opened a few weeks ago. Over the past few years the nation has embraced legal gambling with the same fervour that it has poured into cellphones, offshore investment and kwaito. And the government has demonstrated unusual despatch in giving the industry its head.

The destruction of illegal gambling machines assures the new venture and its kin their business, as neatly as apartheid-era laws assured Sol Kerzner his. This monumental new casino/hotel/shopping mall complex has been painstakingly designed to look like a Tuscan village, coated with enough ochre to renew the walls of a thousand Parkhursts.

The choice of a Tuscan aesthetic follows the same logic of spectacle that has seen pyramids rise in Las Vegas. Tsogo Sun’s international partner in the Montecasino venture is United States gaming giant MGM Grand, and the concept architects for Fourways’s new hill-top hamlet were US-based Creative Kingdom.

Tempting though it is, criticising Montecasino on grounds of taste would be absurd and taste itself might resist being drawn into the argument.
There is, though, one respect in which huge insensitivity has been demonstrated the name chosen for this citadel of sin.

Monte Cassino was a 15-century-old Benedictine monastery, a great centre of European learning, before it was tragically destroyed by Allied bombing in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Many thousands of German, Polish and American soldiers died in its assault and defence. Parodying its name for the purposes of running a gambling joint is rather like naming a dental practice after Dachau or a pyrotechnics business after Dresden.

Montecasino’s construction must have been a traumatic experience for the architects of record, Bentel Abramson & Partners, who appear to have been restrained from lovingly producing another horror along the lines of their earlier masterpiece, Sandton Square Renaissance architecture with its eyes put out.

Entering the casino complex is rather like visiting a European necropolis during the height of the tourist season. Washing hangs from lines between the buildings, paralysed cocks leer from the roofs, ducks are poised in the middle of a stream, the old bicycle, motorcycle and battered Fiat are all there. But you know they will never again be used. The village appears lifelike, but the proper inhabitants are not there. They have fled before the invading army of tourists.

The village streets are lined with incredibly authentic metal and plastic bushes and trees, which also serve as convenient concealment for surveillance equipment. Namibian diamond enclaves are reputedly equipped for scanning the anuses of departing visitors and the removal of gem-trafficking pigeons from the skies with anti-aircraft fire. Similar paranoia over security has led to the streets and alleys of Montecasino being completely roofed over.

Then, in an effort to renew the illusion of an Italian village, the ceilings have been painted to resemble sky by day, by dusk and by night. But these painted firmaments induce a peculiar claustrophobia. One imagines it to be somewhat akin to the real condition called virtual reality sickness — nausea produced by a mismatch of sensory and motor feedback after being immersed in a computer-generated world. Here too, the normal focus of the eye is frustrated by imaginary distance.

Emerge from the confines of the labyrinth, and as the real sky opens up above, the terror of infinite space proves warmly reassuring by contrast. The designers do deserve tribute for their parking garage. It should serve as a lesson in low-budget ingenuity to all designers of industrial-scale office space, those who routinely inflict fluorescent lighting upon their victims. Over the parking bays, the light fittings have been painted yellow. The resulting illumination is far more comfortable than conventional fluorescent light.

Elsewhere, the same obsessive attention to detail has been paid to carving “stonework” from concrete walls and to creating “cobbled” paving just uneven enough to fool the feet into thinking they’re tripping alongside authentic Italian peasantry. The outside of the complex, painstakingly painted to resemble battered plaster, almost appears to have suffered half a thousand years of weathering.

Yet in some of the interior domes, there seems to have been a rush to completion. Mouldings have been disdained in favour of crude trompe l’oeil. Plans to put star-like lights in the night-sky roof were abandoned when it became clear such lighting would not be strong enough for the security cameras to work properly.

Still, in places the eye rolls comfortably down from a glowing, painted sunset, over stuccoed walls to convincing autumn leaves, before being disconcerted by the one-armed bandits crowding the village square.

Montecasino is true to Italian reality in another respect it is easy to lose one’s bearings in the maze of streets, a problem no doubt welcomed by the retailers who line them. It makes one yearn for the familiar geometries of Sandton City or Hyde Park, not to mention the spiritual comforts of a simple shopping mall.

Ultimately, this mammoth construction demonstrates that, for the moment at least, South Africans seem to be far more adept at separating fellow citizens from their money than at helping each other become more prosperous.

We have now a national lottery that takes money from those too poor to be squeezed in a casino, while the revenue service has become far more efficient than those arms of government charged with spending for the popular good. Equally, the lottery has yet to achieve the same success in disbursing its revenues that it has demonstrated in accumulating them.

Meanwhile, the crowds present at Montecasino even on a Sunday evening suggest it will be wildly successful. The complex is heir to the gaming rooms and enthusiasts who have for the past couple of years been resident at the Sundome, and it seems set to be even more popular.

In Gauteng, financial expectations for the gambling industry are already being exceeded, even before all the region’s planned casino developments have matured. The enthusiasm of the public for surrendering its earnings to the taxman via submission to the most ruthless odds seems unbounded.

Perhaps the government should embrace the logic of its skewed abilities: build a multitude of Montecasines and abolish the revenue service. That at least would spread the satisfaction created by the industry to the many who choose not to gamble.