Challenges of the Casino and Historic City of Macau: Preserving heritage amidst the creation of stage-set townscapes


PICTURE 1 – Ruins of Saint Paul part of the Historic Center of Macau (© Macao Heritage Board)

“Únde ta vai, quirida? Macau di nôsso coraçám” 

(Where are you going, dear? Macau of our heart - Ferreira, 1996: 223)

Part of a poem written in Língu Maquista, the endangered language of the Macanese


In the last 15 years, Macau has become widely known as a casino city with a bustling gaming industry. Since 1999, it became a Special Administrative Region of China, stretching over a territory of 30km2, which is composed of a peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane. Although gambling was legalized in the mid 19th century (Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, 2016), it was only after the handover to China that Macau opened its doors to foreign gaming investments, and it is now the only Chinese region where gambling is legal.  Beyond the dazzling lights of the casinos  (Exploring Macau with Julian Davison, 2015) are over 400 years of history of Portuguese and Chinese interchange, as well as other European presence, which has led to a unique social, religious, cultural and urban mixture. Twenty-two main buildings and public spaces representing the old trading port city became the anchor for the inscription of the Historic Centre of Macau as a World Heritage Site in 2005 (WHC, 2016).

The relation between the city’s gaming life and historic character is, however, quite complex. The role of entertainment and economic activity has also in recent years, shaped the urban landscape in very drastic ways. Development pressures and property speculation have challenged the preservation and safeguarding of historical buildings, shaping the historical character of the city. In a society that favours monetary gains, the result has been that many buildings have been demolished while building façades have been retained as empty shells of their previous forms. Whereas the choice to retain a glimpse of a past structure – its façade – has been a debated approach in conservation contexts, another situation has arisen in Macau – the purposeful construction of historic-looking façades in casinos, in the attempt to lure gamblers into a world of entertainment. How does this façadism creation influence the way heritage is perceived, especially when deliberations are made regarding its building preservation or demolition? How does the city connect with its own past?


“ These fragile-looking skins of brick or stone rose precariously out of the ruins as monuments to the traditions of the past, survivors of comprehensively planned mass destruction”

(Richards, 1994: 1)

The concept of façadism is a controversial debate within the field of urban planning and architectural conservation. The term encompasses several dimensions, which has become quite elusive (Richards, 1994: 3). The centre of the debate focuses on the question of having a new structure behind a façade (Dimitrokali, Hartungi, Rowe, 2013: 41) could be considered as an honest approach for preserving heritage buildings (Dimitrokali, 2010: 1). The implications of such choice have been debated by many professionals, ranging from architects, town planners and property owners to historians and conservationists, each with their own perspective of implications, both negative and positive. On the one hand, some arguments put forward criticism that façade retention negatively prevent the creation of new architectural styles and create stage-like townscapes, disassociating the exterior with the interior of the building. On the other hand, it is acclaimed for positively allowing the preservation of familiar streetscapes and the refurbishment of the interiors of historical houses (Richards, 1994: 2).

It is noticeable, however, that the debate is usually focused on what Richards (1994: 7) defines as façade retention, which applies to cases where old buildings’ façade were kept as an embellishment for new structures built behind it, whereas façadism of new buildings are made with elevations that are designed as a contextualizing component for the streetscape, and not necessarily in dialogue with the structure built behind.

In summary,

A. Façade retention = old façade with new building

B. Façadism = new façade imitating old building

The preservation of a building’s façade derives from a double-sided intention of re-using spaces in which decaying or (thought to be) redundant structures exist, while at the same time, keeping the aesthetics and historical atmosphere of the public space. The reasons for such modifications are diverse, whether complying with local heritage protection legislation, or due to personal interests, property speculation or streetscape aesthetics (Richards, 1994: 3). In theory, the approach opens the opportunity to reconfigure abandoned buildings and decaying spaces, giving them new viability, and in this way bringing development and heritage conservation together. Still, the choice, in many cases, is the compromised outcome of a long and arduous negotiation between several parties, where one is interested in maximum economic benefits usually favouring total demolition, and the other is concerned with the preservation of history and memory portrayed by the built structure. For the latter, the act of façade retention is, however, seen as a deliberate act of demolition (Dimitrokali, Hartungi, Rowe, 2013: 41, 46), that it most often results in a very different structure coexisting with the “treated ruin” of a pre-existing one. Overall, the result is alienated ‘ hybrids’ of generic architecture, that carry no historical meaning, beauty, nor neither do they add quality to the fabric, thus leading to a loss of significance (Richards, 1994: 1; Fernandez, 2012: 4). Yet, the retained façade is seen by many as not only representing the lost building, but also the past itself, thus becoming the chosen state through which the past is recollected and uniformity is kept.

Façade retention is linked to having a “modern” yet “cultural” city, a commodity to be sold mostly to tourists and not for the preservation of local people’s memories (Fernandez, 2012: 5). While a view of the streetscape may be preserved, the morphology, the building’s density, integrity and body are lost in the process. It is this thrust to preserve vistas that are contested by urban conservationists (Orbaşli, 2008: 204, 205; Milburn, 2008: chapter 2).  As D. Fernandez (2012: 4) argues, conserving just the façade shows the interest of maintaining a certain environment, and not the intention to preserve heritage. The issue is then no longer a question of a single building’s authenticity, but of the overall identity of the city.


In 2002, three gaming concessions were granted in Macau, leading to the construction of several new casinos and other related facilities. When Casino Sands opened in 2004, it became the first gaming investment project to be developed by an American company in Asia. The grand scale development attracted other investments, marking the beginning of new construction works for the city and a turning point for its urban layout. At the end of 2015, Macau had a total of 36 casinos, 23 in the peninsula of Macau, and 13 in the island of Taipa  and in the recently reclaimed area of the COTAI, a strip of land built for new casinos now joins the islands of Coloane and Taipa (Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, 2016). Several of these establishments follow a similar conceptual design as their counterparts in Las Vegas like Wynn or MGM where the architecture follows a pre-existing architectural theme, instead of being moulded according to the context of the local architecture. As such, casinos like the Venetian brought into Macau the landscape of the Square of St. Marcus in Venice, introduced gondola rides with opera singers, and painted renaissance-like images across the corridors, filling its premises with luxury brands, grand gambling halls and dinning spaces. In the periphery of the COTAI, the growing shape of a replica of the Eiffel Tower is also now visible, as the Parisian casino enters advanced stages of construction.

Macao Mariana Pereira

PICTURE 2 – Photos of the casino Venetian, with the replicated buildings of St. Marcus’s Square from Venice (Italy) (© Mariana Pereira, February 9, 2016)

The use of façades in these casinos is observed to be purposeful and planned, which maximizes thematic entertainment value and visual impact. Orbasli pointed out that such recreation of renowned cityscapes is another type of façadism. He used the terms  “Disney Glorification of Urban Heritage” and “stage-sets of townscapes” to describe the new urban sceneries created by the retention of urban façades (Orbasli in Dimitrokali, et al 2013: 42). When new façade or buildings are designed to imitate an older style, either local or from another region, a replica is created and in the case of Macau, these replicas serve a very different purpose from the original buildings it was based on.

This type of approach of using a foreign architectural character, albeit starting from a different position, has precedents in the development of Macau in the 1990s. Located at one of the most visited historic streets in the city, the Banco Nacional Ultramarino (BNU) building is a well-known local example of façade retention of historic buildings. Following several renovations to the building, the last expansion completed in 1997 resulted in the retention of the old bank´s façade and the design of a new, modern and very different building behind it. The memory of the building was kept, as was its function. While both structures “visually mingle and intrude on each other” (Román, 2002: 105), there was a sudden and drastic change of scale of the building in relation to the neighbourhood and the street level.

bnu_building Macau

PICTURE 3 – BNU historical building. Banco Nacional Ultramarino. Available at the BNU Website. Accessed 13 March 2016

The reasons that led to the decision of keeping the BNU’s old façade and combining it with a new building have not been fully documented by research, yet findings suggest that there was a desire to safeguard the historical streetscape while fulfilling the need to enlarge the bank’s floor area. However, this final result resembles the more recent casino developments, with the important difference of the BNU integrating the local historic character of the bank’s façade.  The question is whether those who are not familiar with the city’s history will be able to distinguish between the character of the Venetian casino and the historic BNU. The BNU serves as a landmark in Macau for the constant tension that takes place between the high-rise construction and the need to safeguard the historic urban fabric, particularly within and surrounding the Word Heritage Site.  

The 10th anniversary of the Historic Centre of Macau’s inclusion to the World Heritage List brought several exhibitions, events and debates on the importance of heritage in urban development. During the International Academic Seminar on Cultural Heritage Conservation, Michael Turner identified that one of the threats of the urban landscape of Macau’s World Heritage is from developments in infrastructure and buildings (Turner, 2015). This threat is connected to the improper management of change and how new developments are not fully integrated into the existing layers of the city (Huids et al, 2013). This is apparent with new casino construction and its disarray with the historical layout of the city. Understanding the situation needs to take into consideration several factors. On one hand there is the desire from the casino industry to attract tourists using recreated sceneries from Italy and France, and on the other hand, there is the need for the construction industry to house big amounts of foreign workers to construct these sites. These two factors are increasing housing demands in the city, which raise property values. Prioritising the economic values of new construction over preserving the historical character of the city can be attributed to the rampant demolition of Macau’s older townscape.


There are several considerations needed to provide better protection for the historical streetscape of Macau. As Rui Leão pointed out, the lack of proper rules based on the understanding of small scale and local fabric (Leão, 2015), as well as the absence of a concrete and consistent masterplanning scheme in Macau, leads to a case-by-case analysis, which exacerbates the loss of the overall character of the city. However, the recent creation of the Cultural Heritage Protection Law no. 11/2013, serves as a first step in counteracting this trend. It provides a legal mandate for the Cultural Affairs Bureau to deal with many urban changes pressuring the integrity of Macau’s built heritage. Holistically synthesizing the different heritage values that characterize what is left in Macau’s historical buildings and understanding change agents are important to help make informed decision processes (Huids et al, 2013).

What is interesting to note is that the general trend of façadism is not just happening in Macau, but it also occurs on other large-scale development projects in mainland China (Cima, 2015). These projects are characterized by their “monumentalization” and unique thematic concepts, which imitate existing urbanscapes in Europe (DiChristopher, 2015), while at the same time, destroying the historic, context-anchored urban fabric. For example, a development in the outskirts of Huizhou, in Guangdong province, has developed a precise replica of Hallstatt in Upper Austria  (Shepard, 2015). This example of a replicated city was deliberately chosen to create familiarity and attractiveness, yet foreign cityscape is similar to what Orbasli (in Dimitrokali, Hartungi, Rowe, 2013: 42) described as “stage-sets of townscapes”. These European-like developments have also become quite famous not only for their façade imitation, but mostly due to their emptiness. They have become known as “ghost cities” or “unborn cities” due to the lack of inhabitants and city life (DiChristopher, 2015; Manaugh, 2015). These alien urban landscapes built from scratch differ from traditional cities because they are not the result of an organic development and urban evolution. Caemmerer (in Manaugh, 2015) contemplates what these developments will signify as part of the trend of urbanisation of the future.

Understanding how urban areas can sustainably thrive amidst the need for development and heritage conservation is an important topic in Asia (Caballero & Pereira Roders, 2014). Such issues on how cities can manage rapid changes and conflicting priorities are part of an international discourse surrounding the UNESCO Recommendation for the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL Approach). Adopted in 2011, the recommendation highlights the need for urban management strategies to be broadened to a landscape level. As such, the HUL Approach is envisioned to become “an additional tool to integrate policies and practices of conservation into the wider goals of urban development, respecting the inherited values and traditions of different cultural contexts” (UNESCO, 2011). Amidst the rapid, short-term planning in many developments happening in China, which comprises of a collection of western-style architecture devoid of context and historical character, Van Oers & Pereira Roders (2013) point out the need to provide a systematic approach that integrates local traditional practices and Asian philosophies in applying the HUL Approach in China. To implement this in Macau, sensitive heritage conservation should be seen as encompassing, not just keeping the façades of old structures or creating new façades “that recollect” other existing structures and maintaining visual relationships. Urban development also needs to consider spatial patterns, different types of social and cultural practices, as well as intangible dimensions (Turner, 2014). For its historic centre, Macau’s urban development approach needs to advocate adaptive reuse and integrate different neighbourhood characters in other parts of the city.

R. Leão (2015) believes that the changes of use and the fate of the building in and around the World Heritage Site have to be open to debate to what the buildings uses were in the past and what they might be in the future. As the Historic Centre of Macau is an architectural ensemble denoting the confluence between Europe and China, this could be the core upon which new developments could get inspiration from as part of the overall morphology of the city. Questions on what spatial massing will be acceptable, the appropriate styles, and the meanings behind the design of the structures have to be taken into account in future developments. Instead of demolishing, the reuse of old buildings should be advocated backed by proper studies and analysis of structural risks. Temporary uses can also be implemented for underutilized old buildings to serve as an inspiration for different functions, especially for the creative industry sector. Adaptive reuse, which allows for the rehabilitation of unused historical buildings, should also be advocated (Woo, 2015: 4).  All these require the awareness and support from the government as a catalyst for change.


PICTURE 4 – Macau skyline with its heritage and casinos. (© Rob and Jody Elliot, August 2014)

In an argument of P. Fowler in “The Past in Contemporary Society,” he believes that “history as such clearly does not matter; it merely provides a convenient packaging to imagine a leisure product” (Fowler, 1992: 133). The urban development of Macau seems to be trapped in Fowler’s dilemma, on how people approach the city’s past and how they see the city’s future. If casinos can so easily imitate façades and are admired for doing so, then why should historic buildings be preserved in situ if they can just be imitated elsewhere, leaving space for new high rises in the city centre? This points out to an issue of holistic management of change: both casinos and the historic districts have certain values that are attached to them which are important, but have not been thought of as integrated by local people. It seems however, that the casinos importance is attached to the economic development of the city, while the value of the historic fabric lies in its connection with the past as a unique and organic intermarriage of several centuries of east and west urban development. Only by mapping the different underlying meanings and values of these developments, and using guiding tools such as the HUL Approach, it may be possible for the present-day Macau to be understood and better managed. A well thought of urban masterplan, which harmoniously considers the conservation of historic centre, which slowly transitions to the casino and shopping district, is much needed.

It is critical in Macau to raise awareness regarding its unique urban fabric, and the loss of this special character will happen when demolitions of the distinctive structures occur. Beyond just retaining the façade, knowing how the city evolved and the reasons for its urban layout should serve as the basis of rehabilitation and proper protection.  The task of the Cultural Affairs Bureau in the implementing the Cultural Heritage Protection Law will be challenging but hopefully, it will start the much needed discussions on balancing the demands of the ever growing casino industry and the needs of protecting heritage buildings. Sustainable urban development solutions are needed and the applications of the HUL Approach are welcome in Macau.


About the Authors 

Mariana Pereira, an archaeologist from Macau, has been exploring heritage studies through the completion of two Master programs, one in Archaeology and another in World Heritage Studies. She has focused on how the past is interpreted through contextual approaches and on the safeguarding and management of archaeological heritage within urban contexts. As an independent researcher, she has been involved in historical research, interpretation and protection both of the tangible and intangible elements of Macau’s heritage.  You can contact her through her email at

Gabriel Caballero is a landscape architect from the Philippines, who has worked for leading landscape design practices in Asia for the last decade. Gabriel came back to Asia in 2015, following two years of graduate studies in Germany focused on providing strategies for diverse issues of World Heritage Sites. He has worked on a variety of projects, including a design competition for the revitalization of the National Orchid Garden atthe Singapore Botanic Gardens; an architectural and landscape conservation strategy of the historic settlement of Hellerau in Germany and a masterplanning for a sustainable leisure destination in Hamilo Coast in the Philippines.

Gabriel Caballero



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