New Program Studies the Architecture of the Night

UNLV's Nightlab explores the science and poetry of design after dark


If you happen to see a cluster of earnest people armed with cameras, iPads and notepads on the Stratosphere’s observation deck later this spring, they may not be your typical Strip tour group. Ditto for the campers out in the desert, peering at Ursa Major and Orion in the middle of the night.

These focused folks may be part of NightLab, an innovative new learning program presented by the UNLV School of Architecture’s Downtown Design Center, which spotlights everything from the history of neon and LED effects to desert night skies and low-light photography. While NightLab is aimed squarely at design students and professionals, it’s open to anyone who can pay $3,000 for the intensive 3-week program, which runs May 19 to June 6.

“Architecture schools are exploring phenomenology and how we experience design—sound, touch, light,” says Brian Ambroziak, who co-founded the NightLab program and will be teaching a good portion of the course. “You would think that in talking about the senses, night—and light, or the lack thereof—would be a more prevalent factor in architecture and design. But most buildings are created for 2 p.m., not for night use. That’s why we’re trying to create a larger conversation with NightLab.”


The impetus for NightLab came from conversations Ambroziak had several years ago with Ken McCown, director of UNLV’s Downtown Design Center, when both were at the University of Tennessee. McCown then served as the chairman of the university’s landscape architecture program, while Ambroziak is an associate professor at Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design. When McCown moved to Las Vegas in 2012, he realized his new city would be the perfect place for a program about light versus dark.

“There’s a panoply of night-light experiences here,” McCown says, “and outside the city, we have some of the clearest night skies in the world. Students can see a range of night-lighting experiences.”

NightLab, presented in collaboration with the American Institute of Architects’ Las Vegas chapter, will be based out of the Downtown Design Center’s Historic Fifth Street School location, where workshops, films and lectures will take place. Also on the still-evolving agenda are walking tours of Downtown and the Strip; visits to the Pinball Hall of Fame, the Neon Boneyard and light artist James Turrell’s Akhob exhibit at the Crystals mall; a skyline photography session at the Stratosphere; and a desert camping trek. Along with Ambroziak and McCown, instructors include UNLV media studies professor Julian Kilker, an expert in low-light photography; and architectural-lighting authority Javid Butler, director of technical operations for Traxon Technologies North America.


The program will include written and oral presentations, photo sessions and maybe even some filmmaking. Participants will receive a certificate of completion, which Ambroziak says most students will be able to parlay into college credits. If they get their targeted eight to 16 participants, Ambroziak and McCown hope NightLab will become an annual program.

“Students will leave with a comprehensive fundamental understanding of ideas about night lighting, techniques about night lighting, the physiology of seeing and how to think about creating experiences at night through light,” McCown says.

“We want them to think, to ask questions when they design in the future,” Ambroziak says. “Like the James Turrell installation, we hope they will be able to balance science and poetry.”

The application deadline for NightLab is April 30. For more information, visit