Las Vegas Sun

February 25, 2024


“You can’t travel across the country in style without a piano.”


Steve Marcus

Robert Dorgan looks out over a wooden model of downtown Las Vegas at the Downtown Design Center, a collaboration between the city and UNLV’s School of Architecture.

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Dorgan shows his design for a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penny, with "I have a dream" instead of "e pluribus unum" and the crowd for his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

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Dorgan is working with a toymaker to produce and market his Dorgan Blocks, a series of small-scale wood models that represent residential, urban and rural areas in communities.

Name: Robert Dorgan, designer, educator

Age: “I don’t know. I’m 6 feet tall.” He’s 45.

Education: Bachelor of arts (University of Minnesota), master’s in architecture (University of Minnesota), master of design, certificate in design (Architectural Association School of Architecture, London)

Job: Director of Downtown Design Center

The Design Center: A partnership between UNLV’s College of Architecture and Las Vegas, the Downtown Design Center was created to be an aggressive interdisciplinary program that fosters innovation via design education, studio projects and the center’s relationships with professionals. Its first project is redesigning a Threat Training Facility at Nellis Air Force Base.

The center is in the Fifth Street School. Dorgan considers the space to be “like walking around in our portfolio” and downtown Las Vegas to be the center’s library. Dorgan and the students made most of the furniture, including a parquet table top in the conference room that mimics satellite photos of downtown Las Vegas. Pine is Interstate 15. Cedar represents golf courses. The Strip is redwood. Vacant lots are particle board. Projects are on display. A three-dimensional model of downtown is broken up by city blocks so buildings can be plucked and moved around.

On Vegas: Sees the creative energy, transition, redevelopment and over-the-top environments, interiors and lighting designs as the makings of a great place for a design center.

Ways in which design in Las Vegas can be improved: “Increase the dialogue among designers so there aren’t schisms between those pursuing high-end, aesthetic design, the urban outdoorsmen who live outside our building (homeless) and the rest of us — so it’s not one end or the other, it’s everybody in between.”

Personal projects and proposals: Rather nomadic, Dorgan has spent the past seven summers in Fairfield, Iowa, working on an old passenger railroad car that he plans to use as his home. The 80-foot car serves as an apartment and studio that will house his 6,000 pounds of books. It has a piano and fireplace. “You can’t travel across the country in style without a piano.” He plans to have his car pulled to Las Vegas. While in Fairfield, he created the Institute for Small Town Studies, which includes programs and assistance in design, preservation, education and legislative representation. Group members are designers, scholars and architects throughout the country. Dorgan is editor of its quarterly journal, “fishwrap.”

• Created a series of small-scale wood models of 1/4 acre lots that represent residential, urban and rural areas in communities and is working with a toy manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich., to produce and market the so-called Dorgan Blocks.

• Redesigned the penny to feature Martin Luther King Jr. The proposal was sent to Congress, the 2000 presidential candidates, Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson and others. It was suggested that the coin be part of a commemorative edition — an idea Dorgan says doesn’t accurately honor the man. Those coins, he says, would wind up in some numismatist’s closet and never see the light of day. The coin features King’s profile instead of Lincoln’s and replaces “e pluribus unum” with “I have a dream.” The Lincoln Memorial on the back of the coin shows the crowd attending King’s speech.

• Helped design the Coca Cola sign in New York’s Times Square.

Why Vegas? Born in Cleveland, Dorgan lived in Chicago; Milwaukee, Wis.; Minneapolis, Minn.; St. Paul, Minn.; Los Angeles, London, Paris, rural France and Washington D.C., among other places, before moving to Las Vegas. He’s taught at the University of Maryland, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and worked for various architectural firms. He was a visiting professor at UNLV in 2000 and 2004, but moved here last year for the opportunity to set up the Downtown Design Center.

Hobbies: Restoring luxury railroad cars, playing guitar

Sticking around? “Yeah. We’ve got a 10-year lease with the city.”

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