Learning in Las Vegas

Monday 19 Mar 2012

David Schwarz brings culture to Las Vegas in an Art Deco form, but will it survive?

There’s a new act in town. Not a performer but a performing arts center, one that is expected to turn the tides in Las Vegas and bring real culture to its ranks. Premiering this month in the city is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a $245m concert hall, designed by Washington, D.C. based David M. Schwarz Architects (DMSA). Standing resolutely on a 61-acre site where it will anchor a new neighborhood called Symphony Park and next to Frank Gehry’s Ruvo Center, the Smith Center is a lone wolf in a town where kitsch rules; a real departure both architecturally and functionally, being the only Art Deco-inspired building of recent ilk in Las Vegas and the only arts center in a culturally bereft landscape that feels more like Disneyland than a real place.

And that is precisely the Smith’s Center mission, to turn the tables so to speak on Las Vegas and bring real culture to a city hankering for a change where the casino business alone has not proven to be enough to sustain the local economy. It seems a big gamble, especially being the first and given that the current economy has left the city’s skyline dotted with inactive construction cranes, but David Schwarz is optimistic that the building will be a game changer for Las Vegas. And his enthusiasm is contagious.

The team behind the building, namely DMSA, Akustiks, and Fisher Dachs, has certainly done its part to make the project a success. While some will not go crazy for the building’s wrapper, a throwback to the 1930s that conjures up visions of Rockefeller Center and nearby Hoover Dam, once inside a serious performance hall reveals itself; one with three performance spaces organized around well-appointed public spaces. But the big ah-ha moment is the main hall itself, Reynolds Hall, a flexible space that seats 2,050 and can easily transform to accommodate a range of performances from the spoken word to opera, thanks to some impressive machinery behind the stage that allows such changes to happen effortlessly and quickly. The hall was pitch perfect and ready to go for opening night or for that matter for the rest of the year’s events which are mostly sold out, which bodes well for a good beginning for the hall.

But to be successful over the long run, more needs to happen in the area to create a sense of place; to make the Smith Center not just a destination but also the centerpiece of a vibrant community. A children’s museum is planned for the area, as is a large parking garage. Stylistically, the buildings that comprise the neighborhood thus far seem strangely at odds with one another, with Ruvo being modern and sculptural, The Smith Center being an Art Deco contrivance, and the future children’s museum looking much like a Louis Sullivan bank. But the district’s incoherence is more due to the lack of architectural controls for the overall development than to any single work itself.

Elsewhere in Las Vegas, David Schwarz has taken his penchant for bringing urbanism to Las Vegas to the doorstep of Caesar’s Palace, where he is creating the LINQ project, a $550m mixed use district situated around a pedestrian-friendly circulation spine that is dotted with shops, entertainment and plazas: Las Vegas’s answer to the Champs Elysee. Schwarz says ‘Las Vegas is missing a large scale multipurpose avenue’ and the idea behind LINQ is to create a ‘resort street or boulevard that will provide a great deal of diversity’. Anchoring the project is a 550ft observation wheel, designed by the team behind the London Eye, which required FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) permission to build. Schwarz has carefully studied such attractions in other cities, paying close attention to the length of the ride and the speed of the wheel’s rotation in the interest of getting it right. “The wheel needs to be a half hour ride and its needs to spin at a walk on pace”, said Schwarz. Some ideas Schwarz has for programming the wheel include catered cabins, dining cabins, gambling cabins (which he concedes is probably not possible) and cabins where marriages will take place.

For now, Schwarz seems to be single-handedly leading the effort to bring culture and urbanism to Las Vegas, and in this respect he is a trailblazer. He knows the risks and thinks Las Vegas’s problem is that ‘it is over hoteled, over-casioned, but not over amenitized’ a conclusion he has come to after years of teaching design studios on Las Vegas at his alma mater, Yale University. “Las Vegas has a lot to learn from the world”, said Schwarz. “We’re trying to live up to that dream”.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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Civic Buildings
United States

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