Performing Arts

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, Nevada

by Janet Ho, David M. Schwarz Architects

From Architectural West May/Jun ’12

In March of 2012, the lights of Las Vegas sparkled and the red carpet was rolled out for luminaries dressed in their finest.  This celebration did not take place at one of the many glittering casinos on The Strip, for which the city is famous, but rather at the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas.  This grand-opening gala taking place in the new cultural heart of Las Vegas was the culmination of over a decade of planning, involving visionary leaders from the city as well as some of the top design and acoustical firms in the country. 

         The story began more than 15 years ago when a group of Las Vegas entrepreneurs, executives, and activists met at Las Vegas’ famed Golden Nugget Casino.  Their concern was that Las Vegas was America’s largest city without its own performing arts center.  Understanding the importance of developing strong civic and cultural institutions in the city, the group vowed to remedy the situation.  With a growing roster of local supporters, including an unprecedented $50 million donation from the Reynolds Foundation, the newly formed Smith Center board hired David M. Schwarz Architects of Washington, D.C., to lead the design team.  With a luminous portfolio of acclaimed cultural and civic cornerstones, DMSAS envisioned a project that would supplement the famous entertainment destination with a cultural institution common to livable and vibrant communities.  “Much of Las Vegas is conceived and designed as an escape from somewhere else,” said Gregory Hoss, a managing principal at DMSAS, “The Smith Center is conceived to express the aspirations of the Las Vegas community, the place where people live and work.”  

         Sited at the heart of 61 acres of environmentally remediated and reclaimed rail yards, The Smith Center accommodates multiple venues for a broad range of performance genres and events.  The 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall with its dramatic stage, stunning balconies, and full orchestra pit will host orchestra, opera, dance, Broadway shows, and first-run touring attractions from around the world.  The Boman Pavilion is home to more intimate musical and drama settings, including Cabaret Jazz and the Troesh Studio Theater, plus classrooms, offices, and ground level retail.  The Pavilion overlooks Symphony Park, a 1.7-acre outdoor venue, which will host performances and events, and other entertainment gatherings.  

         As for the eclectic style that is rooted in the Art Deco tradition, but reinterpreted for a modern era, Hoss says, “In exploring the design, it was important to find the appropriate context in Las Vegas.  The Hoover Dam was a cultural and aesthetic starting point and source of detail.”  Indeed, several physical details of the nearby Hoover Dam, a cultural landmark from the Depression era, provided inspiration for the design of the 358,000 square-foot Smith Center.  These details include the building’s elegant but solid massing and the articulation of its water intake towers.  Additional references to the enduring construction of the dam are reflected in the care taken with concrete and terrazzo work, as well as with the exterior stone, an Indiana limestone reminiscent of the color and texture of the concrete in the Hoover Dam.  Other influences include the incorporation of art, iconography and ornamentation on both the exterior and interior, and the aspiration to create a timeless structure that lasts for many generations beyond its creators.  

         The design team also drew inspiration from the Smith Center’s natural surroundings.  Interior paint colors were chosen to reflect the warm and muted earth hues of the desert.  Referring to Nevada’s nickname of “The Silver State,” the team incorporated as many silver-colored metals into the design as possible.  Since actual silver leaf was too costly and fragile to maintain, the team used stainless steel to clad the top of the Carillon tower as well as the handrails and railings.  Decorative aluminum accent panels were applied to many surfaces of the building and the light fixtures were polished nickel-silver.  The metal surfaces reflect the constantly changing color of light, from red and orange sunlight to the deep blue of the sky, and contribute to the building’s shimmering and varied appearance throughout the day.  

         Another key design element of the Smith Center is the 170’-tall Carillon tower, with 47 bronze bells, giving the building a vertical presence and a sense of place evocative of European and early American town squares.  The Carillon tower promotes a vibrant urban environment and makes a public display of the music core to the center’s mission.  Inside, the Smith Center is among the more acoustically advanced performance spaces in the world.  Working with consultant teams from Fischer Dachs and Akustiks, renowned theater and acoustical designers respectively, the DMSAS team developed a radical approach to acoustics in the main hall, with the box anterooms used as acoustic dampers:  doors on the boxes open automatically when sound absorption and volume control is desired. 

         The Smith Center will be the first major multi-purpose performance center in the U.S. to earn Silver LEED certification.  In addition to remediating and treating the soil on the project’s original brownfield site, the DMSAS team addressed issues of sustainability by providing access to daylight and fresh air for all of the Smith Center’s offices and dressing rooms, as well as in public front-of-house areas using numerous skylights and windows, reducing the total amount of electrical energy consumed to light the building.  The remaining electric lights in the building are fluorescent lights to supplement any necessary lighting needs during daylight hours, but are mixed with incandescent lighting to be used in the evenings during events.  Whenever possible, the team chose to use recycled materials in the building’s steel and concrete structures and in the aluminum ornaments.  The wood used on the project comes from certified sustainable forests. 

         Far from being just a building, the $470-million world-class performing arts center embodies a cultural and community core for the nearly two million people who live in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada, fulfilling a longstanding dream of engaging and uniting the entire community, enabling other organizations to grow artistically and institutionally, and serving as an incubator for new artistic endeavor and excellence.  Educational programming for children, specialty groups, and the adults of Las Vegas is a special priority, giving these groups new and unparalleled access to the arts.  

         In the words of Don Snyder, chairman of the Smith Center board and one of the original participants of that fateful first meeting at the Golden Nugget, “Other than the Hoover Dam, I don’t know of any project that has touched the community as broadly and deeply as the Smith Center.  It is the most important project [in Nevada] built in our lifetime.” 

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