It’s easy to take architecture for granted. It’s all around us, as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and for the most part, it doesn’t call attention to itself. As we traverse the thresholds of houses, offices, shops, restaurants and bars, most of us likely give little thought to the people, processes and ideas that inform and create those very spaces we occupy, day in and day out.
“People might go into a building and feel good, but not know why,” says Greg McAloney of W.H. Steele Co., a California-based building products distributor.
The rain screens that McAloney’s company provides for the construction industry are among the materials and products on display through February 28 as part of Reflecting + Projecting: 20 Years of Design Excellence, an exhibition at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum. It showcases the winning projects in the American Institute of Architects Nevada Design Awards from 1994 to 2014, presenting them chronologically in the form of sketches, computer renderings and scale models.
“We’ve seen them year by year, but we’ve never pulled them all together,” says David Baird, curator of the exhibition and director of the UNLV School of Architecture. “That’s what makes this exhibit so special.”
The projects featured in Reflecting + Projecting include some Vegas landmarks: PGAL’s design for McCarran International Airport’s third terminal, inspired by Nevada’s natural geometric rock formations; magician Penn Jillette’s funky, modern residence, designed by Carpenter Sellers Del Gatto Architects to include a theater, gym and lap pool; and Gensler’s execution of light artist James Turrell’s groundbreaking Akhob installation at CityCenter, which explores the Ganzfeld “total field” perceptual deprivation effect.
“Every architect is different,” Baird says. “People think of architecture like hiring a plumber. But each firm is really unique. They use different tools. Every project has a different location and site. They adapt to the environment and adapt to clients’ needs.”
A number of designs on display earned honors despite never making it off the drawing board. Among those are the original design by assemblageSTUDIO for the Mesquite Heritage Museum and Art Center, and the proposed 73-story Summit luxury condominium tower designed by JMA Architecture Studios.
“To me, it’s a testimony to the strength of the work,” Baird says of the unbuilt award winners. “You don’t win an award like this without substantial ideas that inform your work.”
Reflecting + Projecting not only shows the award-winning projects and the materials used to produce them, but also three office vignettes offering a behind-the-scenes look into a designer’s tools, techniques and processes, and how they’ve changed over the course of the exhibit’s timeline. The “1990s” example, created by assemblageSTUDIO, is a simple, metal file desk, covered almost entirely with manual drafting implements: notebooks, sketches, pencils, X-acto knives, plywood. The present-day space, created by Gensler, is less cluttered, featuring two laminate desks upon which paper and pen yield mainly to dual arrays of computer monitors, keyboards and pressure-sensitive drawing tablets.
The third workspace, created by UNLV School of Architecture faculty members Jonathan Anderson and Josh Vermillion, is designed to represent the potential future of the field. Atop an austere steel desk is a collection of tools and constructs that look like they belong in a robotics lab, including an Arduino board, which can be programmed to talk to actuators and motors, which is used to create responsive environments.
“There are a number of ways in which we’re trying to think of the built environment being smarter,” Vermillion says. “The car you drive probably has about 200 or 300 different sensors in it. But when you look at a building, it’s really dumb by comparison. We’re not doing a very good job right now of thinking about how these technologies can be embedded in the built environment in a performance sense, in an aesthetic sense, in a fun sense—all of those things are possible.”
Much like other forms of creative expression, architecture has been moving into the digital age. Just as contemporary musicians record on digital audio workstations and illustrators “paint” with styluses, architects are now using 3-D printing, laser cutting and even device programming. One of the examples on the “future” workspace consists of a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor connected to a computer to map a basic digital skeleton from a user. Vermillion says it represents the idea of data input without the need for a device such as a keyboard, but rather using gestures in space—kind of like the tech seen in movies such as Minority Report and Iron Man.
“In a way, thinking back to what we were trying to do 20, 30, 50, 100 years ago, I don’t think we’ve lost that,” says Vermillion, who teaches a foundation course in digital design tools. “I think we can get closer to engaging with materials, how things are made, testing them out, outputting them, and really completing that feedback loop. All these tools are just here to enhance the fundamentals of design, in a very 21st-century way.”
Also at the “future” workstation is a construct created by Anderson that’s about 6 feet tall and looks like an overgrown, minimalist Tinker Toy. It resembles a piece of abstract sculptural art, and indeed, Vermillion says that Anderson’s “had several of these in museums,” but the skeletal construct also serves a practical purpose—or at least represents one.
“That’s what these technologies open up for us,” Vermillion says. “We can begin to tinker and experiment at full scale at our garage, office or living room. The idea that you can just be tinkering, 3-D printing things, start to assemble it, and learn some lessons the hard way so you don’t have to learn the $40 million hard way.”
Pointing out a 3-D printed cube composed of twisting, melded ribbons sitting on Vermillion and Anderson’s futuristic workstation, Baird suggests that digital tools are inspiring creativity. “These tools allow us to do things that we couldn’t even conceive of doing by hand,” Baird says, citing the Frank Gehry-designed Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health as an example. “How do you do that without a computer?”
Even Vermillion, whose academic focus is on the integration of technologies such as robotics and automation into building design, recognizes that architectural design’s future lies in the convergence of the organic and the digital.
“It’s important to draw and sketch and be able to think with your hands and record things,” he says. “That’ll never change. I’ll be at a restaurant with a cocktail napkin and a pen. But it doesn’t stop there. Being able to leverage computation in some sort of smart way is going to become the norm. Design is one of those things where more and more people are beginning to see the value in it.”
Reflecting + Projecting
UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum, 4505 S. Maryland Pkwy., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Fri, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu, noon-5 p.m. Sat, through Feb. 28, 702-895-3381, UNLV.edu/BarrickMuseum.