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Why architecture matters — even if you don’t care about it

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“We could have had it all.”

These six words, from Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” course through my head whenever I take in contemporary Las Vegas. Historically speaking, architecture is far more than just shelter. Architecture is developing space in such a way as to inspire and stimulate inhabitants. Like all artforms, architecture documents the prevailing ideas and beliefs of human beings — it’s a self-portrait. It seems to me, as I look out over the greater Las Vegas valley, inundated with tract homes, and strip malls on every corner set back behind parking lots, that our self-portrait should be offering more respect for the community.

John Ruskin, the 19th-century British art critic, described the soul of great nations as follows: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.” From the perspective of art, the collective architectural achievement of Las Vegas has, as its soul, the look/smell/texture of Mammon.

Within Las Vegas, you can find trained architects who possess talent, skill, experience and, for me the most requisite of all traits, vision. If Las Vegas’ architects had been turned loose to design our city, our self-portrait would have looked very different. Unfortunately, the building profession has developed a powerful firewall between the vision of the designer and the bottom-line demands of the developer. Our self-portrait reveals today’s developer as unwilling and unworthy to celebrate his once noble enterprise.

When criticized for their retreat into actuarial formulas, developers trot out their frayed arguments bemoaning intrusive regulations, limited choices, threat of litigation, high cost of labor and materials, and so on. Bullshit! The logic and spirit that is modernist design is matched against computed probabilities of investment and return on that investment. Of late, this relationship between design and investment return has been a mismatch in favor of the developer. And the result is a self-portrait of an often soulless Las Vegas.

The power inherent in quality architecture doesn’t come exclusively from theory. You can’t think your way through a building. Architects understand that you don’t separate out problems from your designs. Designers tackle the needs of the community; they embrace the quality of life in the community, and they understand how complex it is to relate the individual to the city as a whole. Today’s developers seem so willing to split life into separate problems, some of which very quickly get disregarded in the rush to profit.

As Adele so hauntingly sings, we “played it to the beat” of greed. I can’t help but believe we could have had it all if we only had more faith in our architect artists.

Robert Tracy is a professor in UNLV’s art department.