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Space upgraders

Now is a good time to ask: What do we want our city to become? COLAB urban design gallery has some answers

Look out, uninspired tract subdivisions and big-box strip malls: COLAB Gallery — the valley’s first exhibition space dedicated to local architecture, design and planning — could become a spark for reshaping Southern Nevada’s urban landscape. The 600 square foot space is housed in a nondescript stucco storefront at 817 South Main Street, next to office interiors supplier Faciliteq. There isn’t even a sign on the door. Yet, the modest nonprofit gallery aims to become an interactive force for intellectual discourse about the past, present and future development of Southern Nevada.

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“It’s meant to create a dialogue about our built environment,” says 34-year-old gallery founder Amy Finchem. “What do we want for our city, and what should it look like? We want to give the public a voice in those decisions, and ultimately, a sense of ownership in the community we create.”

COLAB ( made its public debut April 5, with an exhibit of unbuilt projects from the Las Vegas chapter of the American Institute of Architects that have been either shelved, curtailed or canceled due to the recession. Displays consisted of poster-sized, three-dimensional computer renderings of eight diverse developments, from a Wyndham Resort at Taichi Lake, China, to a port of entry in Southern California, to the Safety Training and Rescue Skills complex, or STARS, in North Las Vegas, which still hopes to raise enough money to break ground. STARS is a proposed child safety and training complex that mixes entertainment with education for a sort of Disneyland-meets-the Learning Channel attraction. The development, designed by assemblage STUDI,  calls for interactive learning displays and buildings, plus a safety village and amphitheater, among other things. 

“People are starting to understand how architecture affects them,” says assemblage STUDIO principal Eric Strain, who is a gallery supporter and next-door neighbor. “COLAB can engage people outside of the profession to become involved in how buildings, parks and facilities are designed and built.”

The gallery’s inaugural show was smash hit, attracting more than 200 people, including Zappos chief Tony Hsieh. And turning heads has already resulted in landing gigs, too: The city has hired COLAB to design the bridges and landscape islands that will be created during Project Neon, the grand rehab of I-15 just south of the Spaghetti Bowl.

Few attendees at the show were design professionals, however. And that is exactly the idea.

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“We want to advance public understanding and appreciation of architecture,” says Finchem, who works a daytime job as a residential design consultant. “We hope to educate people about what our industry does.”

Architecture gives shape and form to the buildings that form a society. A well-conceived school, home, park or office can give people a sense of belonging, uniting them under a common umbrella of civic pride. Buildings can embody a city’s cultural values and ambitions, while also fashioning an identity. (After all, what would Las Vegas be without the Strip?)

To that end, COLAB plans to stage about six shows a year with accompanying workshops and panel discussions; topics will range from affordable housing and sustainable neighborhoods to downtown redevelopment and long-term master plans. The brick-and-wood gallery serves as a sort of experimental think tank for addressing the valley’s myriad problems through a free exchange of ideas that draws upon different disciplines and regional examples.

“I like the concept. There are issues that need a platform for discussion,” says Thomas Schoeman, the recently retired president of JMA Architecture Studios whose contribution helped kick-start the gallery. “In one way, it’s going to challenge the community by offering alternatives to what is currently happening.”

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COLAB’s current show, “Las Vegas Young Guns,” is a blind-juried exhibit of the valley’s best up-and-coming young designers and firms. Unlike traditional galleries, there is no art for sale. Viewings are currently by appointment only. Meanwhile, at the newly opened Art Square creative offices at 1025 First Street, COLAB has opened an annex space with another exhibit, “The Young Guns Neon Gateway Project,” which showcases their design work on the central portion of the I-15 revamp.

“Commingling art and architecture can generate new interest and spark discussion that brings greater exposure to building and civic planning issues,” says Faciliteq owner Quentin Abramo, who is donating the COLAB start-up space. “I’m a fan of anyone who wants to improve our city.”

The gallery is largely the product of Finchem’s determination, persuasiveness and moxie. Opened on a shoestring budget, COLAB is seeking grants and financial aid as well as volunteers and pro bono assistance to sustain its momentum. It’s housed in a cozy industrial space formerly used by Faciliteq for storage that has since been transformed through grit and hard work. Finchem is making the most of the opportunity.

“People care about what gets built. This is their home,” says Finchem, who also sits on the citizens’ advisory committee for the city of Las Vegas redevelopment agency. “Before the economy tanked, we built things as fast as possible with no consideration to design. Things have slowed down, and we now need to ask: What do we want our city to become?”