The Construction of Creativity

An architecture conference has a few good lessons for the rest of us

Photo by Eric Roberts Capturing the city: The Downtown sketching class was a highlight of the conference.

Photo by Eric Roberts | Capturing the city: The Downtown sketching class was a highlight of the conference.

Not long after the architect Bill Snyder moved to Las Vegas in 1978, he ran into some unpleasantness with the contractors on a library he was building. There were threats, veiled and unveiled, and it was unclear how, exactly, a young designer on unfamiliar ground in the still-rough-hewn Southern Nevada of the cowboys-and-mobsters era was going to make the threats go away. His boss—the revered George Tate, who had been working in Las Vegas since the late ’50s—was out of town. Who do you turn to for help when everyone else in the business is a competitor? In Bill Snyder’s case, you turn to a competitor. He called Bob Fielden, another of the pioneers of modern Las Vegas architecture, and the two of them worked together until those threats faded away.

Snyder told this story at the Nevada Designs Conference, an all-day mix of creativity training, shop talk and history hosted on September 20 by the Nevada Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His adventure captured the three dominant themes of the proceedings at Downtown’s Historic Fifth Street School: engagement, risk and fellowship. Each of those themes, in turn, inform that elusive and often misunderstood concept called creativity. So the day’s lessons were relevant not only to the architects in the audience that day, but to the builder in all of us:

Engagement: The most seemingly irrelevant detail in Snyder’s narrative—that he happened to be building a library—may be the most telling of all. Snyder went on to spend a significant part of his career designing schools, libraries and other public projects. He is responsible for the kids’ paintings on tiles at McCarran International Airport’s D Gates and for the School of Mines at Gordon McCaw Elementary School. He has a school named after him, and still spends time there regularly (“The kids ask if I own it,” he says). He built schools in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. The joy of creating community buildings, Snyder says, was in watching the way the public used them. As it happens, this was also the best way to learn and come up with more elegant solutions the next time around. For years, the Clark County School District told architects what not to do: Don’t include windows, because windows break; don’t build two stories; elevators break, too … “We said, ‘Don’t tell us what not to do,’” Snyder recalls. “Tell us the problems, and we’ll figure out a way to fix them.”

Risk: In the 1970s, it wasn’t easy to recruit architects to Las Vegas. The city might make an acceptable short-term bivouac en route to California, but it was hard for young architects to see it as a place to make a career. But that’s where a bit of “creative courage” (the apt title of artist Alex Raffi’s workshop at the conference) came in: Snyder had come to Las Vegas to watch an acquaintance by the name of Larry Holmes fight Ken Norton for the heavyweight title. He looked around, saw that the desert would be fertile ground for a young man wanting to make a difference, and decided to stay. “There were opportunities here,” says Tom Schoeman, a prominent Las Vegas architect who arrived here in 1978. “You don’t get those opportunities in other cities. In New York, it’s 20 years before they let you do door details.” Perhaps no one at the conference was in better position to address risk and opportunity than Chris Lujan, who in 2008 graduated from UNLV’s architecture program into the worst time in the worst place to be an architect, well, ever. But he wound up with Tate Snyder Kimsey, which, after taking a severe body blow from the recession, began exploring the Chinese market. Five years later, Lujan finds himself flying to the formerly sleepy fishing village of Shenzhen to help shepherd high-rise projects for the transmogrified megalopolis of 15 million.

Fellowship: Snyder’s story neatly captures the way professional friendship aids creative problem solving. Of course, corporate-tribal boundaries goose creativity through competition. But knowledge needs to be shared; elders and juniors need one another’s paradigm-shifting perspectives; and the creative mind craves communication to enlighten, leaven and humanize its hours.
And sometimes simply to save the day.


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