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Last month, second-year students at the UNLV School of Architecture gathered to present a beguiling exhibit of their work for the semester. Demonstrative Architecture: Apotheosis of the Unfamiliar is not an exhibit of buildings with a program, but something far more ethereal. Students explored a variety of forms and ideas in wood, cardboard, and glycerine. They then tried to translate these forms into structures that suggested not a building program but an emotional state. 

The result is a series of structural models of pavilions, amphitheaters, tunnels, courtyards, and follies; arrayed collectively on a table they suggest a world’s fair where the built environment is one of pure possibility. Where landscapes fold into structures and structures curve around landscapes. And where abundant stairs and pathways allow human beings (depicted as tiny figurines) to weave among and through both.

Some models look like works out of Logan’s Run. Others more like Mad Max. The forms are unfamiliar, even disorienting. But beautiful. Horizontal and vertical planes dance with each other. They draw you in and make you wonder how they might look in the real world. All look like places you’d love to explore, to inhabit, to get lost in. Or maybe get found in. These are structures that explore movement and repose, places that shelter our bodies as well as our dreams.

Second-year student Rachel Ugarte’s work explored ideas around defense, ultimately enclosing trees in a cylinder with small holes you could look through. “I created the peephole so you could still see the natural environment on the inside,” she says — a way of appreciating an ecosystem without disturbing it, and a way of suggesting defense in a peaceful way.

Steffen Lehmann, the dynamic new director of the architecture school, gave a few remarks to the students gathered last month, encouraging risk-taking, reminding them that the profession, to say nothing of life, is not always about a straight shot to success. “Failure is very good for us,” he said. 

Pragmatically, the purpose of school is to equip you for adulthood, citizenship, and to enter the workforce. Architecture, with its byzantine training and licensing requirements, is the Platonic ideal of that mindset. But these works reveal the other, better, purpose of school: to imagine the unimaginable — because sometimes in life it’s the only real chance you get. “We are interested in the next practice,” Lehmann told the students. “How practice will evolve. The future of practice.”

The exhibit runs through January at the School of Architecture library, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway.

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