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Desert Companion

A Stand Against Bland

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Architecture of the future
Illustration by Delphine Lee

Editor’s note: In this rotating column, a writer explores a topic of relevance to Southern Nevada in six installments. Our first Writer in Residence is T.R. Witcher. This is the third of six columns about housing. Read his other essays at desertcompanion.vegas.

 

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2012, the crown jewel in a mixed-use development, Symphony Park, that was going to shape Downtown Las Vegas for a new generation. Many plans have been floated on the 61-acre site — hotels, casinos, sports arenas, offices — but housing has always been at the center. The concert hall is cool, but we’re still waiting for the rest.

So it was quite a surprise when, earlier this summer, Nashville-based Southern Land Company broke ground on the Auric, a luxury apartment block across the park that fronts The Smith Center. Auric, from the few renderings that have been released, appears to be an utterly competent, utterly generic offering, a giant slab of apartments whose intricate façade tries (and fails) to convince you you’re not looking at a giant slab of apartments.

It looks like a bit of South Beach. Or Denver. Or Washington, D.C. Or anywhere. But after more than a decade of the possibility of Symphony Park, it’s something. It’s better than nothing, I guess. And that about sums up the new housing projects we’re seeing in our slowly densifying city.

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“The history of Las Vegas has been California designers coming here and repeating what they’ve done, and housing developments springing up in this Mediterranean style,” says designer Jaclyn Roth with Downtown’s assemblageSTUDIO.

What we’re moving toward now is a lot of bland but pricey contemporary “luxury residences” on high-profile pieces of real estate — Fremont9 (1 bedroom, 1 bath: $1,852 a month); or Constellation near Downtown Summerlin (1 bedroom, 1 bath: $1,775). Expect Auric to be the same. Or more. Nice life if you can afford it.

I stopped by the office of assemblageSTUDIO to chat with principal Eric Strain and his band of colleagues, and former UNLV architecture students (Strain also teaches at the university) to get their thoughts on the possibility of creating a richer language of Las Vegas residential design without sacrificing affordability.

 “It will take a developer with vision, patience, and a lot of heart,” Roth says. “It is completely viable. But right now the property market is so hot they’re building what they can sell for the most amount of money. This is going to be a long-term investment in the city.”

Some cool ideas have come along. Developer Chris Gonya renovated old bungalows off Fremont Street to create The Pioneer. Nearby, Tony Hsieh created a village of tiny houses and Airstream trailers at Airstream Park. But it’s time for Las Vegas architects to get more involved. Strain’s students are trying to imagine new ways to build housing in the valley. It’s a chance for them to think about design more holistically — they’re conceiving not just housing, but communities, while learning to forge relationships with developers, community members, and city planners.

One studio worked on affordable housing concepts near Downtown at Sahara and Maryland, a stretch of the city likely to be impacted by RTC’s plans to bring Bus Rapid Transit to Maryland Parkway. As a student, Roth explored designing a community center at the heart of her proposal for 40 units of affordable, two-bedroom housing. This was not “community center” as a simple amenities room (pool and TVs and yoga and weights and grills); this was “community center as a way of bringing in the surrounding neighborhoods.” Her design featured a large and inviting courtyard, a gathering place not only for residents but the larger community. Earlier this year, another studio worked on integrating housing around a redeveloped park on the historic Westside. “Access to green space increases the value of the property,” Strain says. “It decreases medical costs, it increases the vitality of the neighborhood, the desire to want to be part of it.”

Although these were conceptual exercises, both parties benefited. Students got to engage with city planners and see how their notions play in the real world — and city planners got a trove of fresh ideas. Maybe some will influence a project that actually gets built.

“As a design industry, we’ve been too separated from contractors and homebuilders and developers,” Strain says. “We need to form more alliances with them so that we’re part of the team from the get-go.”

Bringing designers and developers together might allow them to tackle the cost of housing. The typical tract home costs about $150 a square foot to build. What if innovative design work could produce a house of equal quality for $100 a square foot? Suddenly, beautiful and sustainable homes could be in reach of many more Las Vegans. Strain’s larger project is to engage students — builders of tomorrow’s Las Vegas — with residential design. After all, modern architecture started with houses. That’s where the ideas come from.

In Las Vegas, you can see a more modern design language start to trickle down from high-end custom homes. The design sensibility of one-off, high architectural-pedigree homes in The Ridges — responding more creatively to the unforgiving conditions of Mojave Desert — begets the slightly more affordable contemporary projects of Blue Heron, which begets the more affordable-still “modern” homes that Pardee and a bunch of other homebuilders are starting to churn out. The latter may be mostly a façade — flattening half of a roof doesn’t really change the bones inside — but you gotta start somewhere. Blue Heron — with its brilliant marketing and ubiquitous open houses and occasional parties (let’s face it, their deluxe show homes seem designed mostly as sites for fundraisers) — has given people an idea that there’s more out there than the standard suburban home in Vegas.

So local designers have to show us how much more. They have to show us what’s possible. Live/work. Repurposed industrial spaces. Tiny homes. Prefab homes. Adaptable homes that families can add on to as their kids grow or their parents age. Communal living arrangements where residents share a kitchen and parking is kept to a minimum. Affordable and sustainable and beautiful.

Spend any time with Strain, and his appreciation for the rich architectural legacy of Phoenix — which largely appears to be the very emblem of soul-destroying, environmentally wasteful development — is clear. Phoenix may sprawl in ways that would make Las Vegas blush, but its urban architecture outclasses ours by a wide margin. Strain notes that prominent schools of design that emerged in both Phoenix and Los Angeles were centered on either understanding their respective city’s climate (the Sonoran Desert) or its culture (the automobile).

Las Vegas is, crudely, a pint-size amalgam of L.A. and Phoenix. If an informal school of design is going to emerge here, it’s going to be built on the backs of young firms that believe this is the singular best place to be an architect in the country, young firms getting together to talk, debate, share ideas, push each other and the city forward.

“We do need to work on developing a vernacular that works for this city, for this climate, that reflects what and who we are,” Roth says. “We have so much to pull from here, we have so much deep history.” Can designers work with our history — neon and signs, leisure, Red Rock, various strains of 20th-century California modernism, Mt. Charleston, the Colorado River, spectacle — to fashion new ways of living?

The city has a role to play, as well. In Chicago, the city’s Housing Policy Task Force recently named a winner in its competition to design a contemporary version of that city’s venerable two-flat residences. The winning proposal will be built on two vacant lots in the next few years. Las Vegas can do much the same — host a design competition for sustainable and affordable workforce housing. Invite the public to participate. Bring the martinis and showgirls. Pick a winner. Pick a few winners. Then build it. Really, would you rather live at Fremont9 or that dope solar-decathlon demo house at Springs Preserve?

If we can train young architects to experiment with new models of housing and encourage city leaders and developers to support it, we might find the roots of a true Las Vegas design vernacular. Not one rooted in this or that ephemeral style, but one rooted in appreciation for the limited resources of the desert, the promise of homes being part of communities, and a certainty that the men and women best suited to give these ideas form are already here.

“We build walls too much,” Strain says, speaking of the Westside studio but, perhaps, more broadly about the city itself. “The idea was how can we start to break those walls down?”

Next month: How do we house the homeless?

 

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