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Through the looking glass

AIA’s Unbuilt exhibit reveals the city Las Vegas could become

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Scott Grady’s Coffee Stay’n.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the economic times: Last year the Unbuilt Las Vegas exhibit put on by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects featured a mere 18 entries. This year’s competition, running through the end of the month at the Fifth Street School Downtown, showcases 60.

We don’t think much about architecture in the Valley, because, frankly, outside of the Strip, there’s not much to talk about. The latest master-planned community, no matter how nice, is, as a design issue, a rote matter, as are the shopping plazas that fill in the gaps of the city’s fabric. They all look like they could have been designed by a machine.

Many of the AIA projects on display will never be built; others were planned but waylaid by the bad economy—those might see the light of day in the future. But the exhibit is important for two reasons. One, it gives us a glimpse of good architects engaged in serious efforts at city building. And two, while it’s common to talk about improving the quality of life in Southern Nevada, here we can actually see and imagine what a better city could look like.

UNLV Gateway, assemblageSTUDIO

JMA's Nellis Air Force Base fitness center.

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AIA Las Vegas Chapter

Among other projects local designers have tackled: new stations for the city’s Bus Rapid Transit system; a Downtown transportation terminal with a series of undulating roofs; prototypes for new elementary and middle schools; a Downtown library; mixed-use projects in the arts district; a contemporary senior housing project; a pair of medical towers meant to contextualize the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute; and even a temporary “tent” for the homeless, shaped like the petals of a lotus flower.

Not every design is a bell-ringer, but there are a number of intriguing entries. For critics of the classicism of the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, there’s Marko Blagojevic’s glassy alternative, capped by a swirling metal screen that resembles a staff of music caught in the wind. A design for a proposed JW Marriott, by Klai Juba, just west of the Las Vegas Convention Center, is a series of interlocking glass blocks, but the glass façade’s bubble-like texture makes it look like water is trapped inside. Eric Strain’s assemblageSTUDIO designed a sleek, garden-studded gateway plaza for UNLV at Harmon and Maryland that gives the university a symbolic front door.

One of the best designs is, surprisingly, the work of UNLV architecture student Scott Grady. His design for a live-work-lounge called Coffee Stay’n features a huge overhanging roof, which shelters top-story apartments, and a cavernous, dynamic bookstore/coffee shop on the lower floors that, with its multiple levels and giant book stacks, looks like it would be the best place in town to hole up with a book, a drink and some friends. Grady wanted to “emphasize the interaction between people. I think that’s the one thing that’s missing in this city,” he says.

Aptus Architecture's reimagined Huntridge Theatre.

Another arresting proposal is JMA’s bold design for a fitness center at Nellis; the building’s sloping roofs successfully reference the no-nonsense, angular aerodynamics of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet.

Also noteworthy—and the standout for the judges—is Aptus Architecture’s proposed reimagining of the Huntridge Theatre as a retail and office space. While inserting a second story within the existing theater space and building two new Moderne-style retail pads near Charleston, the project makes the important point that Vegas should be trying to preserve its handful of landmarks. In a batten-down-the-hatches economy, it’s a particularly apt lesson.

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