May 1, 2012
Beyond Sin City
The Smith Center offers a new civic life, and an indigenous architectural style, for Las Vegas.
David M. Schwarz Architects
The Smith Center
361 Symphony Park Ave.
“The Hoover Dam made Vegas what it is today,” says the architect David Schwarz, who’s standing inside his firm’s new, $475 million concert hall, the Art Deco–inflected Smith Center. Schwarz is referring to the thousands of construction workers who built the dam in the 1930s. On their days off, pockets full of wages, they came searching for the kind of fun that gave Las Vegas its Sin City moniker, and sparked the area’s decades-long growth spurt.
When the Washington, D.C.–based architect took on this project, he was determined to stay away from the pastiche of the Strip, where Roman columns bump up against pagodas, and instead sought an “indigenous” design style. Schwarz, whose firm has built six concert halls in the United States, excels at giving patrons what they want, while retaining a design’s integrity. “We’ve always believed that the best client is the best student,” he says. “We didn’t decide on this style, we found it with our clients.” That the style came from the Hoover Dam is a fitting turn for the Smith Center. Just as the dam was one of America’s largest civic projects, the 61-acre brownfield site that’s anchored by Schwarz’s 358,000-square-foot building and Symphony Park is part of former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman’s grand vision to remake the city.
Though Goodman’s plan is ostensibly about creating a strong civic center for locals, attracting some of the area’s 39 million annual visitors (and their money) into the city of Las Vegas—which doesn’t draw any taxes from the casinos on the adjacent Strip—is also top of mind. For Schwarz, making the project pedestrian-friendly is the key to luring both residents and tourists, but at the moment, there’s not much for them to walk to. The hotel, residential development, and casino slated for the site have been stalled by the economy.
For now, the city is rallying around the Smith Center, which opened its doors last March and represents a homegrown arts scene that stands apart from imports like Cirque du Soleil. “Concert halls reflect the social structure of the city,” Schwarz says. But the acoustically superior, 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall may be less interesting than Cabaret Jazz, a smaller venue in the adjacent Bowman Pavilion. Channeling a swinging supper-club feel, it is a provocative addition to the center, and may be just the place for a new, local Las Vegas to take root.