Las Vegas may be an illuminated oasis in the American Southwest, drawings its electricity from the Hoover Dam and solar plants, but water conservation is the most pressing concern for the city and the region. About 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of The Strip is Red Rock Canyon, Nevada's first National Conservation Area. It offers hiking trails, rock climbing, mountain biking, and other recreations, but as the Visitor Center designed by Line and Space shows, it is also a place to learn about the desert landscape and its conservation. The architects answered some questions about the project.
The Visitor Center’s palate of natural materials and its low profile helps the building merge with the existing landscape. ( Photo ©: Robert Reck )
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
Line and Space responded to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for miscellaneous projects in the state of Nevada. One of these projects was the Red Rock Canyon Visitor Center Complex (RRCVC), which involved conversion of the existing visitor center into administrative offices and construction of a new visitor center. Also included in the commission were exhibits, plazas, site development, a fee/contact station and parking, and utility upgrades.
The entry is sheltered by a “big hat” (a roof with deep overhangs and skyholes) which creates an intermediate thermal transition zone and forms the collection plane for rainwater harvesting. ( Photo ©: Les Wallack, FAIA )
Can you describe your design process for the building?
The project started with Line and Space facilitating intense 7-day programming workshops where clients, stakeholders and the public were invited to participate in sessions focused on defining the needs, goals and design parameters for the new RRCVC. In response to common goals of environmental education, conservation and stewardship, the project design emphasizes the specific attributes of Red Rock Canyon itself, in lieu of traditional dioramas and pseudo-natural imitations often seen in Las Vegas.
The Center provides a primarily outdoor experience that is designed to instill in individuals a sense of personal responsibility for the land's well-being. The architecture expresses environmental conservation, is responsive to climate and environment, and demonstrates appropriate desert design. The goal is that visitors will go away with a new understanding of conservation, buildings that respond appropriately to their environment, and energy conserving practices, products, and ideas that they can use in their personal lives.
This 80-foot long mullionless, anti-reflective window provides a dramatic connection to the outdoors. ( Photo ©: Robert Reck )
How does the completed building compare to the project as designed? Were there any dramatic changes between the two and/or lessons learned during construction?
The completed project is very close to the original design. This was facilitated by Line and Space’s time on site performing construction administration to swiftly answer and address any questions or issues the contractor had during construction. The extended periods of time on site also helped developed a collaborative environment where architect and contractors worked together to ensure design intent was fulfilled.
Integral to the architecture, interpretive exhibits are designed as abstractions of the surrounding Red Rock Canyon geology. Natural and durable materials such as concrete masonry and steel reduce maintenance needs and extend the service life of the facility. ( Photo ©: Johnny Birkinbine, AIA )
How does the building compare to other projects in your office, be it the same or other building types?
Line and Space has been pioneering experiments in the creation of outdoor tempered microclimates and bio-adaptable transition zones since the 1980’s with our first public building the Boyce Thompson Arboretum Visitor Center. The Arboretum was one of only six nationwide to receive the American Institute of Architects (AIA)/American Schools of Collegiate Architecture (ASCA), Environmental Award – predecessor to the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award for its innovative environmental design. The RRCVC utilizes many of the ideas first developed at the Arboretum such as the creation of comfortable transition spaces between indoors and outdoors, tempered microclimates, and water harvesting.
Harvesting energy from the sun, the 55 kW photovoltaic array provides power to the new Visitor Center, and an interpretive opportunity for visitors. ( Photo ©: Robert Reck )
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
Starting with our first project, an earth integrated home, we have developed new and creative environmental strategies that today are becoming commonplace in green design. Throughout our 35 years of practice, we have created and implemented new approaches to resource conservation in the areas of daylighting, recycling, rainwater harvesting, grey water reuse, and environmental conditioning.
The LEED Gold RRCVC continues our commitment to designing inspiring, resource conserving spaces for our clients. The project integrates several sustainable features such as proper orientation and daylighting, multiple water harvesting and reuse systems, solar power, solar hot water, and a transpired solar wall.
The new Visitor Center submerges patrons in the environment. Exhibits and interpretation are focused upon adjacent natural features to educate visitors and encourage them to explore the Conservation Area themselves. ( Photo ©: Robert Reck )
How would you describe the architecture of Nevada and how does the building relate to it?
The state of Nevada is one of the most rapidly growing areas in the United States. Thousands of people move there each year, many have diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge, but few understand what it is to live in the desert.
The design of the new facility provides an outdoor experience which instills in individuals a sense of personal responsibility for their land’s well-being. Key to the visitor’s understanding of Red Rock Canyon is the need to experience, and be a part of the inspirational desert landscape. The design of the new Visitor Center fulfills this, where 1,000,000 visitors per year are introduced to the geology, science, art and culture of Red Rock Canyon, and encouraged to visit the nearby real thing.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.