From its signage-as-architecture heyday in the post–World War II era to the gargantuan theme resort casinos of today, the built environment of Las Vegas has operated by one guiding principal: If it's outmoded, implode it, and build something bigger and better. Because of this model of development—and the fact that what has been built represents a pastiche of the most far-flung styles imaginable, from medieval castles to modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers—there is no one discernible architectural style that could be said to be essentially Las Vegas.
But that demolish-and-rebuild trend is changing. In recent years, many of the major casinos have begun to renovate their interiors when they become outdated, hinting that the Strip and the city that serves it may be settling down into a state of semipermanence. More pertinent, though, is the fact that the City of Las Vegas has kicked off an initiative to transform a disused railway yard near the downtown core into a pedestrian-friendly and culturally vibrant urban environment designed not for tourists, but for local residents.
The first part of the downtown master plan to be completed is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a $475 million, 358,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, multiuse facility that opened in March. It features three performance spaces including: the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall and an education center known as the Boman Pavilion, which includes a 250-seat cabaret theater and a rehearsal space. The project's developer—a public–private consortium of the city, the Reynolds Foundation, and other private donations—charged Washington, D.C.–based architecture firm David M. Schwarz Architects (DMSAS) with a daunting challenge for the venue: to design a timeless building that would undeniably evoke the spirit of Las Vegas itself.
"There is no indigenous Las Vegas style," explains DMSAS founder and principal David Schwarz. "So the first struggle was to come up with a common vocabulary. Our reference point was the Hoover Dam."
Lying a mere 35 miles outside of central Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam played an essential role in making Sin City what it is today. It provides a source of water and hydroelectric power in the midst of the desert. And during the Depression, when it was being built as part of the Works Progress Administration program, the dam provided Sin City's gambling halls and houses of ill repute with a steady stream of workers who had money to spend—a rarity in those meager times.
To light these resplendent spaces meant selecting the right luminaire style: decorative fixtures. "In a project like this, we think of the lighting like pieces of jewelry," says Susan Brady, principal of New York–based lighting design firm SBLD Studio. "We started by doing extensive research into the Art Deco period and what that meant stylistically so that we could reference a manageable collection of period fixtures as our inspiration launching point. It was key to determine the correct scale for all the fixtures and balance the proper amount of illumination with the appropriate look and design. Once we agreed on the primary forms and shapes, we began to build a collection of custom fixtures that are unique to the Smith Center, incorporating elements of the building iconography, such as the chevrons and rays, developed by DMSAS."
SBLD refined their designs into four families of fixtures—cylindrical pendants, wedding-cake chandeliers, umbrella chandeliers, and fan-shaped sconces. SBLD developed detail drawings for all of the custom fixtures, and they were all fabricated locally, in Las Vegas, using nickel-plated brass and white-flashed opal glass—a clear glass treated with a thin layer of white ceramic that diffuses light, avoiding the hot spots that you get with frosted glass. Some fixtures incorporate colored art glass details that coordinate with the various finishes. Most of the major spaces also feature decorative fluorescent linear coves with scalloped frosted-glass diffusers to help fill the large rooms with ambient light.
"While the fixtures are Art Deco in appearance, they are very modern in performance," explains Gregory Hoss, DMSAS's principal-in-charge of the project. "We incorporated many of the building's mechanical systems into the fixtures, including sprinkler systems and ventilation."
The lighting designers outfitted many of the large chandeliers, pendants, and coves in the lobbies and other public spaces with dual control for two separate types of lamps: 25W to 60W incandescents and 2-foot-long, 40W compact fluorescents. Preset dimming scenes allow the building operators the option of turning on only one type of lamp or blending them both to adjust the level of warm or cold light for the occasion. The intention was to use the incandescent lamps for special events and performances to take advantage of their warmth and soft light, and to use the fluorescents during non-performance times to reduce overall energy consumption and relamping needs.
The interior of the performance hall is almost completely lit with line-voltage incandescent lamps; no ballasts or transformers are allowed because of the hall's acoustical requirements. The exception is the 8.9W surface-mounted LED luminaires placed at regular intervals along the balcony fronts as well as edge-lit LED spires at the tops of the room's Art Deco pilasters. The custom LED dentils create visual interest and texture and help to break up the mass of the balconies and highlight the sweeping curves of the architecture.
The Smith Center will be the first major multipurpose performance venue in the U.S. to earn LEED Silver certification, a surprising distinction considering the conventional wisdom that there is no such thing as a sustainable building in Las Vegas. "The dual-system control approach helps with energy and maintenance issues, but we still had to add up all the wattage in the project," Brady says. "Both incandescent and fluorescent sources are included in the overall watts-per-square-foot calculations, even though they won't all necessarily be on at the same time. Even then, we were still able to meet the LEED guidelines by diligently distributing the lighting loads throughout the project."
As with any revivalist architecture, the success of the Smith Center lies in the execution of its details. And the most impressive of the lighting details is certainly the fixtures, which exhibit a pride in craftsmanship that hopefully points to a more stable future for the city. The elegance and beauty that these fixtures so gracefully possess, however, will only be validated by what they illuminate. In the words of David Schwarz, "Las Vegas is a place to experience other people. Lighting in Las Vegas is about making people look good."
Project: The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Las Vegas
Client: The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Las Vegas
Client Representative: The Projects Group, Fort Worth,
Texas Architect: David M. Schwarz Architects, Washington, D.C.
Architect of Record: HKS, Dallas
Lighting Designer: SBLD Studio, New York
Theater Consultant: Fisher Dachs Associates, New York
Acoustician: Akustiks, South Norwalk, Conn.
Structural Engineer: Walter P. Moore, Dallas
M/E/P Engineer: MSA Engineer, Las Vegas
Project Cost: $475 million
Project Size: 358,000 square feet Manufacturer: Creative Light Source, Las Vegas (manufacturer of all custom luminaires)