Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2017

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Structure to our Lives: Architects find Las Vegas a unique and compelling study

Melissa Hull, a tourist from Dayton, Ohio, slowed her pace last week as she entered the FashionShow mall on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Along with others coming in from the Strip, Hull was drawn to an exhibit highlighting the architecture that helped shape Las Vegas.

"It's pretty cool," she said to her friends, who were already hurrying off. "They should have a little flier that's all folded up with this stuff on it so we can take it with us."

Others weren't so hasty to leave. Not only were tourists stopping, they were reading, discussing, contemplating, walking from one synopsis of "The Vegas Century" to another.

Never mind the sales, the decadence of the mall or the Wynn sign across the street flashing digitized masterpieces. Here they were, learning about the architects who build Las Vegas, about our government center, our libraries, the casinos that once were, our planned communities and the rapacious progression that created everything that drew them to our city.

Maybe it's only in Las Vegas, one of the most distinctive cities in the world, where such a display could magnetically pull tourists from their sensory-overload frame of mind to ponder the city's architectural influence.

As more than 20,000 members of the American Institute of Architects arrive for the AIA national convention, which begins today, our city will be under even closer examination.

There will be behind-the-scenes tours of Paris Las Vegas, the fountains of Bellagio, production stages and trips to Hoover Dam, along with exhibits highlighting our evolution, entertainment architecture and the unprecedented number of schools being built - 200 in 20 years.

To most of the world, Las Vegas is an oddity or a marvel. We're written about, criticized and studied by universities and colleges. The Strip and the outlying planned communities are examined with equal intensity.

"This is a lab being explored and studied by planners, architects and contractors all over the world to see how their communities can create similar ambiences," said Robert Fielden, president of AIA Las Vegas and a partner of RAFI Planning, Architecture, Urban Design.

"We are a fascinating city. We are a hot, sexy item right now. They want see how the infrastructure of the community evolved at a rapid rate to accommodate all of this."

And according to Bradley D. Schulz, AIA, what we see today is merely a launching pad.

"We're just beginning to see a boom in Las Vegas that will be bigger than we had in the last 20 years," said Schulz, principal of KGA Architecture and chair of the steering committee for AIA convention.

"This is a unique city. There's an entrepreneurial spirit here that few places have. We're going to see a new skyline in Las Vegas in 15 years, different than the one people see today."

Regarding valleywide changes that have occurred in the last 15 years, Schulz said, "Instead of looking at us and snickering and not being taken seriously, we're now being taken seriously."

Building entertainment

Las Vegas stands alone. It is a city that evolved from a water stop to railroad town to Entertainment Capital of the World, bringing thousands of new residents monthly and millions of tourists annually. The resulting growth has led to a breakneck pace of building and one-upsmanship among casino owners.

On top of that, schools in the Clark County School District are being built at an unprecedented rate.

"We're doing more designing and building of schools than any other parts of the country," said Dale Scheideman, AIA, director of the New School and Facility Planning Department for the Clark County School District. "We're averaging a little more than one a month."

Because of this, AIA Las Vegas has established the Design for Learning Foundation, which examines how design affects student achievement and performance.

"There is not a lot of hard information of how architecture impacts student learning," Scheideman said. "For example, we know that natural daylight is good, but now we know that natural daylight and views together is important."

But whether Las Vegas indeed is being taken seriously architecturally is something that Alan Hess, architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury News and author of "Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture" (Chronicle Books, 1993), doubts.

"Everyone has always been curious about Las Vegas," Hess said. "But whether our profession takes it seriously today, it doesn't."

However, Hess said, "It isn't Las Vegas' fault, it's the world's fault for not taking Las Vegas seriously long, long ago. In the 1950s (and) 1960s Las Vegas paved the way for other cities. Entertainment is really what drives a city. Las Vegas was focused and giving a lot of money to entertainment venues."

And today, with the city's growth, the rest of the world is finally paying attention to what local architects refer to as an "urban laboratory."

"There's a lot to see and learn from in Las Vegas," Christopher Gribbs, senior director of the AIA convention, said. "There's so much construction, design and attention to growth. A big part of the convention is learning from a city, the urban planning and growth as well as the buildings.

"There are more architects coming to this convention than any other convention we've had before."

Site seeing

To Gribbs' surprise, this year's convention attendance is topping last year's numbers in Chicago, a city known for its incredible architecture.

Professional tours are shuttling architects to the Nevada Test Site, Yucca Mountain, Michael Heizer's landscape art "Double Negative," downtown Las Vegas, hotels, the Neon Museum's Boneyard, the Liberace Museum, Hoover Dam and Clark County School District schools.

Mostly, Schulz said, "They're interested in back-of-house (hotel) tours to see how they operate. Most architects around the country don't have the opportunity to work on or create these type of attractions."

But Hess speculates that architects will look at libraries designed by architects Michael Graves and Antoine Predock and say, "Oh, there's real architecture."

"They'll ignore what Joel Bergman, Veldon Simpson, Martin Stern and other architects have done to build the Strip," Hess said. "Las Vegas has an architectural history. You see many of the same architects and architectural firms decade after decade, carrying on and enriching ideas, and that too has been ignored by the architectural mainstream."

Hess still sees Las Vegas as a city of surprises with breakthrough ideas that can take Las Vegas in any direction.

No limits

The upcoming arrival of vertical condos and Project CityCenter, a residential high-rise complex on the Strip that will include a casino, a hotel, retail shops and boutique hotels, is already sending the landscape of Las Vegas in a different direction.

Schulz, who considers Las Vegas the best place in the world to practice architecture, sees Las Vegas as a city of creative freedom and opportunities.

"The idea of building a furniture market with 7.5 million square feet," Schulz said, referring to the World Market Center. "It's the biggest in the world. You can do that in Las Vegas because the infrastructure is there.

"They're asking, 'What's next? What can I do? I can do anything here.' "

Among buildings AIA Las Vegas is touting are the George Federal Building (designed by HCA/Cannon Dworsky) and the Clark County Regional Justice Center (Tate Snyder Kimsey).

Fielden has his gripes about the valley's gated communities, buildings that are out of context with their locations, a lack of overall support for well-designed public buildings and, most of all, too little attention paid to tourists.

But he praises such structures as the schools, buildings at CCSN campuses and well-designed libraries, a trend set by Charles Hunsberger, former director of the Clark Country Library District, who eventually was criticized for his efforts.

Overall, Fielden said, "We need more public gathering places. Those are the things that build our social capital in our community, that bring people together."

But, Fielden adds, "The majority of the United States have not been impacted by the development at the rate Las Vegas has."

Nor have other cities in the United States erased their past quite like Las Vegas has.

"Buildings are looked at like tools, creating an environment in Las Vegas that is subject to change, (such as) the Dunes and Sands," Schulz said. "What the Strip is, is very unique to what we are, what Las Vegas is.

"We survive on new things. In order to make room for that, other things have to go. It's not economically feasible to keep them. You're not going to see historical preservation (in Las Vegas) that you'd see in other cities."


Brian Alvarez, a docent who will lead a tour through the Neon Boneyard for the convention, notes that Las Vegas has its architecturally gaudy elements, but it does have its "jewels," such as La Concha, which was created by Paul Williams, the first black architect to work in Las Vegas. La Concha's lobby is being preserved. (Williams also designed Guardian Angel Catholic Church.)

And adaptive reuse is in some cases taken seriously, or at least being considered. The Holsum Lofts on Charleston Boulevard, which opened last month, replaced the Holsum Bread Factory.

"That is a crowning example of an opportunity of redevelopment," Alvarez, a native Las Vegan, said.

In February, UNLV's School of Architecture hosted "Loving Las Vegas," a public forum on downtown redevelopment. The forum brought in Los Angeles architect Wade Killefer, whose firm has been a leader in adaptive reuse efforts in downtown Los Angeles, and billionaire developer Edward Roski, co-owner of the Los Angeles Kings and Lakers and part owner of the Staples Center.

With downtown redevelopment efforts and upcoming projects (including a performing arts center, a new City Hall and a Frank Gehry-designed Alzheimer's disease research center), Alvarez sees downtown Las Vegas as a hot place in 10 or 15 years.

"What the city has with a virgin downtown, 60 acres unbuilt, what a curiosity," Alvarez said. "I'd go downtown just to see the dirt before it happens."

But to Hess, even news about Frank Gehry can't dim the light on the Strip.

"It will do nothing to increase what is significant and valid in the great architecture that's already there," Hess said. "Rem Koolhaas -- there's no greater known name, but it did not add anything greater than what is already there.

"I would like to see Las Vegas, as a city, its leaders, its architects, really appreciate what's unique to Las Vegas' development. It is really more fantastic than Frank Gehry could ever do there."

Historically speaking, Hess, who will serve on a convention panel about the history of architecture in Las Vegas, is familiar with the city's buildings. Two years ago he conducted a tour for the Society of Architectural Historians.

"The most positive (thing) about Las Vegas, all the way through from the 1930s on, is that it has allowed builders and architects freedom," Hess said. "For a while it was laissez-faire, you can do anything. That results in some awful architecture, but some great, great architecture as well."

It also resulted in an intriguing spectacle that cannot be surpassed.

"Ten thousand years from now, archeologists digging up Las Vegas are going to think Las Vegas is the capitol of the world," Alvarez said.

"Las Vegas is America's trophy case. You can take that any way you want."

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