Cuningham Group: Telling Stories Across the Globe

Cuningham Group Architecture Inc. (Cuningham Group) has evolved its practice and philosophy throughout the last 44 years. Within the world of resort and gaming design, they are recognized thought leaders who believe Every Building Tells A Story®. But more about that later…

Cuningham Group operates with a simple purpose—to create beautiful places for a balanced world. It’s no surprise that the firm adopted its mission statement of “Beautiful Places Balanced World” as a fitting expression of why they exist.

“It is what gets us up every day and is our reason for being,” said Tom Hoskens, AIA, NCARB, LEED® AP, and principal at Cuningham Group. “This simple and eloquent statement embodies our passion for design and its impact on our clients, communities and the world.”

Founded in 1968 by John Cuningham in Minneapolis, the firm is built on a working model of team architecture. The highly inclusive model reflects Cuningham Group’s team philosophy and strong collaborative identity that have been at the foundation of the firm’s growth in the industry.

Like many firms, Cuningham Group’s focus in its early years was on smaller, local projects. Over time, the entrepreneurial spirit of its leaders brought about a diversity of experiences and opportunities that would spur growth and lead to national recognition. Credit for the firm’s entry into the gaming industry goes to Grand Casinos Inc., who in 1991, asked Cuningham Group to design its Grand Casino Hinckley in Hinckley, Minn.

John Cuningham, Founder
John Cuningham, Founder
“It was memorable because it was a baptism-by-fire lesson in fast-track gaming design and construction,” Hoskens added.

Sailing into new territory, Cuningham Group went on to design one of the first-ever floating casino buildings. The floating 200,000 square-foot, three-story tall Grand Casino Gulfport in Mississippi was held in place by mooring cells that allowed the structure to move up and down as the tide changed. And until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the barge system was an effective solution for offshore gaming on the coast. In total, Cuningham Group would design seven major properties for Grand Casinos, including some of the largest gaming vessels in the world.

With gaming contributing a large part to the success and growth of leisure and entertainment design at Cuningham Group, the firm merged with Los Angeles-based architecture firm Solberg+Lowe in 1996, allowing the group to expand into the international market and open a Los Angeles office. Hoskens points to this merger and the firm’s strong PLAY market group (a group focused on resort, hospitality, restaurant, retail and entertainment design) that has flourished in the years following it when he says, “Our wealth of experience with major theme parks, entertainment attractions, restaurants and retail venues has become a competitive advantage in designing today’s complete gaming destination resorts.”

Tom Hoskens, AIA, NCARB, LEED® AP and Principal
Tom Hoskens, AIA, NCARB, LEED® AP and Principal
Five more office openings followed, including Las Vegas in 2003, Seoul in 2005, and a formal office in Biloxi, Miss., in 2007. In March 2012, the firm officially announced the opening of a Beijing office and its strategic partnership with a major design institute in the People’s Republic of China, the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University.

“We have the resources of a large firm, while our studio approach—focused on key market areas and client types—provides a dedicated, specialized team of professionals for each client and project,” Hoskens said. “From seven offices, our 217 employees are dedicated to delivering inspired and sustainable design solutions for our clients, our communities and our planet.”

While passion for design is its driving force, the complementary commitment to sustainability has been part of the firm since the beginning. For Cuningham Group, sustainability is about more than LEED checkpoints. What was once a trend is now a standard, and the firm holds sustainability close to its heart. Besides using as many locally sourced materials and environmentally friendly practices as possible for every project, the firm evaluates the overall success of its projects based on a “Triple Bottom Line” sustainability business model of “People, Profit and Planet.”

“We believe the success of every project must be evaluated at a local and global environmental level, with a clear understanding of cultural implications, and with an understanding that for any project to be sustainable, it must also be profitable to our client,” Hoskens explained.

What has emerged from the “People, Profit and Planet” model is the group’s “Beautiful Places Balanced World” approach to business and architecture. This sustainable consciousness has made Cuningham Group a leader in green design, inspiring people while making optimum use of resources.

The “Soho” Super Suite at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel.
The “Soho” Super Suite at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel.
Hoping to implement a deeper approach to sustainability that resonates with specific building types and projects, the firm is working with entertainment leaders to provide strategies that work for the complex realm of entertainment design. In 2008, Cuningham Group founded the Themed Entertainment Sustainability SummitSM (TESS®). Participants include Cuningham Group clients such as Walt Disney Imagineering, Paramount Parks, Universal Studios and Herschend Entertainment, among others.

“The outcome of TESS has been an open dialogue about and practical application of sustainable efforts in the design of entertainment environments,” Hoskens said.

In the future, Cuningham Group hopes to include more gaming leaders in the effort and wants to bring the messages of TESS to Asia.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel
That future, bolstered significantly by the continued vitality of leisure and entertainment design, also involves growing its presence in new geographic regions. While the firm has experience working internationally—including in Asia, the Middle East and Europe—international expansion remains one of the most important initiatives for Cuningham Group. For example, the firm is looking to expand into South America in the future.

“We are not just another firm working in other countries, we’re truly becoming a global design firm,” Hoskens remarked. “We bring a cultural fluency to what we do and believe that makes for more unique and authentic designs.”

In the U.S., Cuningham Group is working to add more offices to better service national gaming clients, as well as tribal clients.

“We are proud of the work we’ve done in Native American country and the successes that have been spurred by our projects,” Hoskens said.

In the firm’s 20 years of gaming design, they’ve worked with approximately 25 different tribes. Hoskens says that Cuningham Group has learned a lot from the tribes and has also partnered with Native American firms across the country to create designs for casino resorts and entertainment venues.

One of its longest standing relationships is with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and its Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel in Cherokee, N.C. Beginning with the opening of their first casino in 1997, which Cuningham Group designed, Hoskens believes the tribe helped transform the perception of its culture, the well-being of employees and the strength of the surrounding community with gaming projects that have provided job opportunities in a bleak market and an improved local economy spurred by the growth of neighboring businesses. A flourishing and sustainable business, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ story of success is evident in the design of their new $633 million expansion.

Grand Casino Hinckley
Grand Casino Hinckley
“We are truly proud to have been a part of this success as their design team,” Hoskens added.

The cultural importance many clients place on storytelling helped inspire Cuningham Group’s Every Building Tells A Story® philosophy. The approach emphasizes the creation of unique design solutions for every client, with collaboration forming the core of the approach. Collaborating with clients to understand their vision and the story they want to tell enables Cuningham Group’s designers to extract metaphors from the story to find inspiration for all aspects of a project—from basic forms and shapes to materials and colors.

“Since no two clients or stories are the same, no two buildings are the same,” Hoskens explained. “This process benefits our gaming clients by providing unique designs that differentiate them from their competition.”

The results of the approach are environments that add value, build community and enhance the lives of those who use them. Hoskens says this design process creates the opportunity to invent new ways of shaping the world.

Cuningham Group hosts an annual creative exhibition in its Minneapolis office.
Cuningham Group hosts an annual creative exhibition in its Minneapolis office.
In its 44 years of practice, Cuningham Group has received more than 135 awards, and the group has been consistently ranked among the leading firms in architecture. While awards are notable accomplishments, Hoskens says the firm is proudest when the designs they deliver contribute to the success of clients, the enjoyment of guests and the livelihood of employees.

In 2011, a few moments in particular brought smiles to the faces of Cuningham Group. The opening of Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, Miss., represented the complete comeback of the resort after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of it in 2005. The groundbreaking of Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant, also in Biloxi, was an “energizing moment after a long, tough road to get the project off the ground” Hoskens says. The firm also worked on its first major gaming project in Atlantic City last year, collaborating with Landry’s Inc. to transform and rebrand the Trump Marina Hotel and Casino into the Golden Nugget Atlantic City—a luxurious resort destination in the upscale Marina District. And representing the growth Cuningham Group is experiencing internationally, Alpensia, a project the firm master planned in Korea, was chosen as home to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Cuningham Group even received a special compliment from one of gaming’s biggest names. Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corp., stayed at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel and told the firm that the suite he stayed in was one of the best he’s ever experienced.

“We believe good design enhances one’s interaction with a space,” Hoskens said. “We have enhanced the experiences of countless people in the places they live, learn, worship, work, heal, plan, and of course, play. When it comes to play projects, we get to research fun in order to bring those experiences to life. That’s one of the things I love most about what we do.”

Cuningham Group employees volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.
Cuningham Group employees volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.
In all, the work they do covers 17 different markets, and that diversity is the most important reason the firm has succeeded through the down times. When the banking industry started to tighten its lending policies and gaming projects couldn’t get financed, Cuningham Group was able to work with its existing clients, and in niche markets, to continue the flow of projects into the firm.

“We are fortunate to have long-standing relationships with some very successful clients who maintained a strong financial backing even during the toughest times,” Hoskens said. “We have a very diverse client base. When gaming slowed, other markets picked up enough to keep us moving forward.”

While the influx of projects into the firm might vary, the work environment at Cuningham Group is consistent. The offices are energetic, eclectic and fun-filled. “We have fun, and we are fun to work with,” Hoskens said. Employees are encouraged to participate in projects, complementary organizations, or passions to advance their lives and the practice. This includes involvement in their local communities.

“Cuningham Group believes in the importance of supporting a variety of organizations and activities that share its values of sustainability for communities and the planet,” Hoskens said. To that end, the firm’s board of directors formed the nonprofit Cuningham Group Foundation to dedicate resources to causes important to the firm.

Memorable giving events at Cuningham Group include the commemoration of the firm’s 40th anniversary in 2008 with a day of giving to Habitat for Humanities’ A Brush with Kindness program. In addition, the group has worked in Los Angeles with ShareFest, a community-based service group, for the past five years. The firm also hosts an annual creative exhibition in its Minneapolis office, showcasing paintings, photography, sculpture and other works of art created by employees, as well as family and friends. The items are sold through silent auction, and the proceeds are donated to Minneapolis-area nonprofits. Since 2003, Cuningham Group has donated more than $80,000 to worthy causes as a result of this event.

Cuningham Group is excited about a busy 2012 and eager for the years that follow. This year, the firm will be able to show off the completion of the rotunda at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel. The grand entrance to the property will feature 75-foot trees, a 140-foot LED video screen with state-of-the-art audio and video capabilities, and twin 68-foot waterfalls.

“It is the crowning jewel, the culmination of the project, the crescendo to a complete Great Smoky Mountains modern lodge experience,” Hoskens said.

Oyster Bay
Oyster Bay
The group’s Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant in Biloxi also opens this year, in May, bringing a hometown favorite to the Gulf Coast, while Margaritaville Resort Casino in Bossier City, La., recently broke ground. Another current design project is Oyster Bay in D’Iberville, Miss. A destination with the amenities of a modern resort and charm and character inspired by New Orleans and the French Quarter, the project is set to open in 2013. And, the firm is designing a new 20-story hotel tower for the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, which is the largest tribal casino nationwide that lacks a hotel. The project will open in spring 2014.

With a practice built around the entrepreneurial spirit of its people, and projects sprinkled across the globe, Cuningham Group will continue to create beautiful places in our world for decades to come. As Hoskens reflects on the current successes of the firm and its optimistic future, he believes Cuningham Group’s storyline will read, “International storytellers reshape the world, one project at a time.”

Cuningham at a Glance
Number of Employees: 217
Year Founded: 1968
Mission Statement: Beautiful Places Balanced World
Office Locations:
Los Angeles
Las Vegas
Bakersfield, Calif.
Biloxi, Miss.
Seoul, Republic of Korea
Beijing, People’s Republic of China
Key Executives:
John Cuningham, FAIA Margaret S. Parsons, AIA
John Quiter, AIA John G. Pfluger, AIA
Thomas L. Hoskens, AIA James S. Scheidel, AIA
Douglas A. Lowe, FAIA David M. Solner, AIA
Lee Brennan, AIA Michael P. Strand, AIA
John W. Culligan, AIA Brian Tempas, AIA
Timothy Dufault, AIA Kathryn M. Wallace, AIA
Jack Highwart, AIA Jonathan V. Watts, AIA
Roger W. Kipp, AIA
Number of Designers:
60 Architectural Designers
13 Interior Designers
72 Registered Architects and Landscape Architects