Atop a big studio table at the Historic Fifth Street School, Robert Dorgan’s students at the UNLV Downtown Design Center have mapped an urban dream in delicate castles of wood. It’s a virtual neighborhood, a habitat for the imagination, but it’s clearly inspired by the activity just outside the center, where the real downtown, bruised but unbroken, is proving oddly resilient in the face of recession.
The tabletop visions—from grand stadiums to humbly gorgeous apartment blocks—are part of a one-year program in which the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency has challenged the students to come up with ideas for the downtown core. The designs are diverse and individualized—here’s a model with Moorish grillwork; there’s one with modern-medieval stained glass—but the virtual neighborhood as a whole is steeped in Dorgan’s style of dreaming: nostalgic for sundered civic connections, but never trapped in the past; intoxicated with the possibilities of form, but never sneering at the humbler structures of the neighborhood.
Dorgan, who arrived in 2007 to direct the center, has worked on designs for everything from the Coca-Cola sign in Manhattan’s Times Square to a dazzlingly imaginative set of children’s blocks, and each of his projects demonstrate the designer’s rare gift for understanding the intersection of time, place, memory and form. The Coke sign, unveiled in 2004, doesn’t just shill for soda pop; it speaks to the whole history of Times Square as the crossroads of capitalist spectacle. Similarly, the model city at the Downtown Design Center, rather than springing from the never-never land of an architectural blank slate, is largely divided into segments scaled to match the 25-by-140-foot lots into which Las Vegas was divided at the land auction of 1905.
Perhaps Dorgan’s uncanny appreciation of space and time springs from a nomadic life in which he never lived anyplace for long, but drank in the details of all of them. He’s lived in Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., Washington, D.C., Blacksburg, Va., rural Iowa, London, Paris, the French countryside and Las Vegas. He hasn’t taken a single spot for granted. In Iowa, he was so enamored of the spatial rhythms of small-town life that he launched the Institute for Small Town Studies and began publishing a magazine, Fishwrap, a meditation on the aesthetic and social value of small-town connectedness.
The small-town spirit endures even in Dorgan’s big-city hopes for downtown Las Vegas. Each morning he either walks or takes the bus from UNLV to downtown. (He used a tank-and-a-half of gas in his entire first year here.) The spaces he and his students envision are built around the dream of walkability and connection.
But connection isn’t an end in itself: From connection comes creativity, and from creativity comes progress.
“Vegas has this ability to attract energy, and then that energy creates these strange and wonderful things,” Dorgan says. “If you’re interested in strange and wonderful things, this is a great place to be.”