Castles for the Middle Kingdom

An architect takes some Las Vegas audacity to China, where it’s still welcome

It’s not easy being a Las Vegas architect. Just ask Windom Kimsey, president of the venerable Las Vegas firm Tate Snyder Kimsey. For starters, there hasn’t exactly been a ton of work for local architects in the last couple of years. Across the Valley, projects were canceled and renderings were consigned to desk drawers and hard-drive archives. TSK, the firm behind some of the most important structures in the Valley, had to cut its staff by 40 percent. In such circumstances, an architect such as Kimsey faces a stark decision: Batten down the hatches and try to hang on, or—as he puts it—“get crazy.”

Kimsey decided to get crazy. That meant looking for work in China.

“Who the hell knew what was there or what the possibility was?” he says. “We just had it stuck in our heads that we should try something different.”

The move has paid off. TSK is wrapping up design work on a handsome pair of skyscrapers in Shenzhen, the former fishing village in the Pearl River Delta region that has morphed, in a generation, into a city of more than 10 million and the center of the world’s largest industrial base. “We have to keep pinching ourselves,” he says. “They’re in a real strong growth mode.”

Las Vegas likes to think of itself as a spectacular city, but it’s tough to compare a valley of two million with a city that, to hear Kimsey tell it, feels like several Los Angeleses rolled into one. And in the realm of splashy architecture, China is taking building graphics to a whole new level. In Las Vegas, we build LED screens. In China, they build LED curtain walls that race up and down the sides of buildings. “The scale is really hard to understand unless you go see it,” he says.

Kimsey first heard about the Shenzhen project in January 2011 when he was in China trying to establish contacts; the project didn’t go out to competition until the fall. TSK won the competition in November and is wrapping up design work now. Construction on the 3.3 million-square-foot project should start by the end of the year.

Tate Snyder Kimsey is known in Las Vegas for such works as McCarran International Airport’s D Gates, UNLV’s Student Union and downtown’s Regional Justice Center. These were all major civic projects. But the firm had never designed anything as massive as the Shenzhen structure. In China, it’s go big or go home. The building is part of a four-block super-project in a green-technology park, an “instant city” for 20,000 people that will comprise a staggering 22 million square feet of real estate. (That’s roughly three Pentagons.) TSK is designing a two-tower collection of offices and apartments. The towers are each taller than 60 stories. One of them will also house a five-star hotel.

The firm likens the two towers to a pair of dancers. The angles and creases of the façade give the towers a subtle and winning sense of motion. Wedged between them is a rectangular podium, which features a green roof and opens into a larger public courtyard, easily accessed from the street. While the official name of the roughly $300 million project is the rather monochromatic-sounding Shenzhen b-Tec, one can’t help but smile at the Chinese translation of the unofficial designation: “Green steps dancing to the future.”

The project has had its challenges—it turns out that at that scale it’s hard to convince developers to go green. In this case, they ruled out embedding photovoltaics in all the glass and constructing an energy-efficient double curtain wall as too expensive. “I’m still puzzled at how we’re going to get energy-efficiency in a glass building of this height,” Kimsey says. The project does feature exterior sunshades, natural ventilation and a gray-water reclamation system. The firm’s commitment to sustainability helped win the project, Kimsey says. “I think we had some good insights on what they were looking for. Thinking about sustainability is more than doing green roofs.” Also, it didn’t hurt that the competition was an open jury. “They knew who we were and what our reputation was.”

The quick pace of design also took some getting used to. Kimsey describes the full-tilt speed of urban planning in Shenzhen as “managing the planning rather than planning the planning.” Kimsey and his firm like to put long thought into subtle questions such as how the corners of their buildings meet. “When you go so fast, that’s really impossible.”

At the same, though, planners in Shenzhen are using sophisticated software to at least try to imagine what new buildings will look like on the city’s growing skyline, something you won’t typically find in municipal planning agencies in America.

Now, having gotten a taste of design work in a heady international environment—cities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are stuffed with the works of international architects—Kimsey hopes to bring his firm back for more. TSK is submitting a proposal for a design project at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.

Kimsey’s firm is not alone. According to the Las Vegas chapter of the American Institute of Architects, several firms are doing work in China and Taiwan, including HMC, YWS and Steelman. After all, while the AIA reports that hiring is increasing a bit, the mood around Las Vegas is still very cautious—and you don’t see too many cranes in the sky.

“We all work a bit differently,” Kimsey says of firms these days. “It’s fostered more talking among each other.” The communication can be rewarding, but that doesn’t make up for the work that’s gone away. “I’d much rather have the go-go days,” Kimsey says.

For now, the go-go days are across the Pacific. And the shift, Kimsey says, suggests that one day China will view the United States the way Americans view Europe—as the place where you go to see the old and historic buildings. This way of thinking positions Las Vegas perfectly between the old and the new, and has produced one unexpected benefit for Vegas architects.

“I’ve always felt Las Vegas is a handicap in promoting yourself as a big-level designer in the U.S.,” Kimsey says. In other words, Americans architects tend to look down their nose at Sin City. Kimsey’s Chinese colleagues and counterparts, though, are fans of the city. “The whole spectacle is something they appreciate. Las Vegas is well thought of. Being an architect, I’m so used to having people look at you a little different. It’s good to have a little respect.”

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