POINT OF VIEW: AIA Convention 2019

What is real?


Architects from across the country descended on Las Vegas last week for the annual AIA convention. Vegas is a city that has been studied over the years most famously by Brown and Venturi who boiled the city down to signs (information) and symbols (eyecatchers), and how those signs and symbols are applied to ducks (truth in form) and decorated sheds (boxes with symbols). As you wander through Vegas, you constantly asked yourself: is that a duck or is it a shed? In other words, what is real?


There are a lot of decorated sheds in Vegas. The mega hotels on the strip do their best to hide the massiveness of the casino floors. Their facades are Italian villas, pirate ships, or pyramids. Knock on a marble column and you realize that it’s hollow. Swim in a pool and you realize you’re suspended three stories above a mall. Even the things you know aren’t real are even less real than you think. I learned that the Eiffel Tower on the strip is designed to appear taller than it really is through forced perspective techniques we learned from the Greeks. Trickery is everywhere, but somehow, even for a lot of us purist architects, we don’t seem to mind. Vegas isn’t lying to us with its fakery. It tells us right from the start, this isn’t real. The city is surrounded by endless nothing. It shouldn’t be there, but it is, and it’s growing faster than ever thanks to a new medical school, investments by Amazon, the soon to be relocated Raiders, and our ill-advised hits on 17. In the midst of all this activity, the AIA arrived to see what could be learned about architecture here, and also what could be taught.


At the convention, the question of the real was still on everyone’s mind. This year instead of one or two booths showcasing virtual reality imaging, there was an entire Software and Technology Pavillion. Headsets are getting smaller, and in one case, disappearing entirely (though replaced by a 12’ diameter dome and a dozen projectors). The way we present our designs will change a lot over the next few years as interactivity and customization become easier to deliver to our clients. At the convention we’re seeing both what architects are using today, and what we all might use in five years.


There were a lot of real things to see as well. On display were timber trusses made from raw tree limbs, a return to traditional wood joinery, and both the latest and the oldest in building materials, from injection-molded geo-synthetic modular globes to simple steel downspouts with a clever twist. Downtown, I toured a converted post office which now houses the Mob Museum, preserving the historic federal courtroom used by the Kefauver Committee to hold hearings on organized crime in America. A few blocks away, I visited the Downtown Container Park, an innovative 3 story outdoor open-air mall built almost entirely from used shipping containers. The Park has been a big success revitalizing a once neglected part of town at the east end of Fremont Street. The retail spaces, the elevator tower, and even the playground in the center of the park are all built from reclaimed shipping containers.


After a while in Vegas, you stop questioning what is real and accept that this is a city like none other. I had a great time connecting with other architects, discussing the state of our practice and the direction we are headed. Next year the convention comes home to L.A. so I probably won’t be such the tourist. I think I more than made up for it with this trip.


Billy Guisto, AIA