Still Learning From Las Vegas

Our best buildings are more than just fancy showpieces. Here’s why

Award-winning buildings, like concept-car prototypes, have a way of exciting our imaginations and leaving us a little depressed. So much is possible, yet on our award-free Hyundai-and-strip-mall plane of existence, so little seems probable.

But when the Nevada Chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced its annual design award winners earlier this month in Reno, the three Southern Nevada honorees (northern projects took the other three prizes) seemed vessels not only of wonder, but of realistic hope. JMA Architecture Studios’ Centennial Hills Library (6711 N. Buffalo Dr.), Tate Snyder Kimsey Architects’ Henderson North Community Police Station (225 E. Sunset Road) and even assemblageSTUDIO’s 8,500-square-foot Copper Haus residence in Summerlin signal the coming-of-age in Las Vegas of three architectural mantras that are as relevant to the corner eatery and suburban subdivision as they are to public institutions and private palaces.

No. 1: Open to the world. When Tate Snyder Kimsey took on the construction of the police station on the ramshackle far-eastern reaches of Sunset Road, it gambled on hope. The station, which opened in spring 2009, is bounded on its west side by storage sheds and on its east by the city’s transportation services barn. Just across Sunset to the south, there are crumbling homes, neglected yards and an aging Pioneer RV behind a chain-link fence. West of the station—raw desert. It seems for all the world a place to build not a glazed-glass gem but a gray brick fortress. And, hey, it’s a police station.

But the designers instead took the audacious step of creating a building that reaches outward to the community and opens itself up—at least its lobby—to the street. The lobby is a tower of glass—a mosaic of light green and gold and pink translucent rectangles—that brings light into the station by day and becomes a beacon in the low-slung neighborhood by night. The east side of the station opens up to a small park with chess tables and picnic benches under a shade whose design echoes the lobby rectangles.

One unseasonably warm morning this fall, a few locals were sitting at the tables talking. “I don’t know that they’re playing chess out there,” the front-desk officer told me, “but they’re starting to stop by from time to time.” On three sides of the building, meandering paths lead to sad and dreamy dead-ends.

“They don’t go anywhere yet,” says the officer. “But I think someday they will.”

No. 2: See the light. The police station takes what nature gives it: The daylight that shines through the lobby tower is diffused by a hanging sculpture garden of plywood baffles. The parking lot shelters are covered with photovoltaic panels. On the interior of the station, skylights are connected to sensors that turn off electric lighting when the sun is getting the job done.

The Centennial Hills Library also uses a mosaic of colored glass rectangles to create an entryway beacon, drawing light into the building by day and radiating light to the neighborhood in the evening. JMA designed the building to be filled with diffused indirect daylight, creating a first-rate reading environment and minimizing the need for artificial lighting. The extensive use of glass also opens the library up to the adjacent park, uniting nature, knowledge and different types of civic space.

No. 3: Store in a cool, dry place. Both the police station and the library are surrounded by xeriscaped grounds. Barrel cacti, mesquite, dry creeks and decorative stone create a visual experience something like stumbling upon an oasis on the moon. Desert landscaping is also showcased at assemblageSTUDIO’s Copper Haus. The house, which is adjacent to a golf course at the foot of the Spring Mountain Range, is massive, but it demonstrates atmospheric and environmental principles that can be applied on any scale.

In fact, the home’s integration of internal and external space with glass walls and doorways reminds one less of the McMansions of the boom years than the small “cocktail houses” of vintage 1960s Las Vegas neighborhoods such as Paradise Palms on Maryland Parkway and Desert Inn Road. Thanks to this blurring of boundaries, the home becomes a place to entertain neighbors and connect with the outside world—a shelter rather than a fortress. Nature shapes the place, both indoors and out.

One of the most notable elements of the Copper Haus is its use of an ancient building material—rammed earth. Earthen walls increase energy efficiency by absorbing heat in the day and releasing it at night. At the Copper Haus, rammed earth and copper panels play off one another to gorgeous effect; the home is at once sleek and organic, modern and timeless. But for the rest of us, for whom 8,500 square feet is about 6,500 too many, what matters is that the home, like Henderson’s police station and the library in Centennial Hills, is a laboratory for ideas that are at once age-old and inspiringly fresh, dreams of the possible that are looking more probable every day.

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