INTENT: This thesis seeks to engage the question of architect as agent of social change by interrogating architecture’s ability to capture public attention in a present moment in order to facilitate new awareness and interactions. Given the changing relationship of human subjects to physical space in the 21st century, I hold that contemporary and future architecture must employ new strategies for establishing common ground and forging connections if it is to resonate with and to empower public citizens.
“We live inside a set of relations…”
The numerous dialectic relationships in and amongst which architecture has been placed over the past decades created a Western disciplinary dependency upon binary definitions. Now academia and practitioners perpetually claim that architecture must occupy a realm “in-between,” operating at the threshold or intersection of multiple disciplines at various scales, ideologically positioning design more as “ecology” than merely the practice of building. However, while compelling, this re-conceptualization often leaves the field in ambiguous territory, failing to characterize a clear role for architecture in society. We must clearly define the specific means by which architecture can operate relationally—that is, as a synthetic manifestation of the interactive forces, elements, and contingencies that constitute contemporary public life, thus creating an identifiable common ground, an environment of potentials, to which diverse people connect.
“…there are no demonstrations in Disneyland.”
Relations, subjectivity, and ownership in the context of constructing urban identities become difficult questions when faced with the increasingly ubiquitous, even disappearing, physical spaces resulting from spreading globalization and eclipsed by information technologies. Specifically, in order to understand contemporary relationships between people, objects, and environments, we must examine notions of “place” as well as “anti-relational” public space: that of escape. Our escapist culture of consumption, in which image dominates experience and architecture is often relegated to an “image-byte,” operates using precise tools and well-honed strategies of manipulation. Through analysis of these we can better understand contemporary conditions of disengagement, cohabitation without meaningful exchange, a runaway reality.
“There is the possibility to redefine the meaning of the city as a site of confrontation and thus of coexistence.”
Understanding the stakes for creating meaningful architecture is particularly vital in addressing current trends of “urbanization.” In cities across America looking to create a new “urban character,” architects must inform design so that, rather than reinforcing the anonymity offered by appropriated images of life, spaces will allow inhabitants to connect, to take collective ownership, and to engage in social critique. The most extreme example is Las Vegas, the embodiment of American escapist culture yet a city seeking a new urban center. The challenge is to design a dynamic, multivalent place that relates to the greater city and its various users—one that takes advantage of but escapes the singular pervasive image of “Las Vegas.”
PROJECT: Las Vegas is not lacking for image but lacking for a synthetic sense of connection across the city as a whole. The city is planning to develop an “urban center,” yet current proposals seem to offer little in terms of relating to more complex contingencies of the city. Beyond creating another escapist paradise, I propose to develop a strategy for designing a common civic space that appropriates a variety of tools to encourage awareness through connection to intrinsic and external conditions of place.
SITE: The project will be positioned to operate in the “in-between” zone of an unresolved but potentially urban condition. The threshold between visitor destination and residential city provides fertile ground for intensifying relationships, and as such the site may be located either (1) along the ambiguously industrial/infrastructural strip to the West of Las Vegas Blvd, or (2) the intersection of Las Vegas Blvd with “downtown.” Either location calls for an overall plan as well as an architecture that will synthesize contingencies of context, scale, and user.
PROGRAM: The research implies a possibility of the design of space that operates contingently, upon existing and possible relationships within and outside of itself, as well as of space that offers freedom through disconnectedness. Given these two different typologies of space—for now, the “relational” and the “runaway”—the qualities, function, and subjective effects of each kind of space can be used in the formation of a new typology—recasting the global presence of the greater Las Vegas communities into a localized urban center.
One such possibility is that of a “cultural laboratory,” reversing the typical format of public space (uniquely-identifiable program inserted within a larger, boundless, generally-identifiable program) by inserting pockets of commercial/play/escape space into larger library/museum/educational spaces.
QUESTIONS for moving forward:
- How are “collective” identities formed in Las Vegas? How are the various users defined, segregated, or intermixed? What are the moments of threshold between the various users and space-types?
- What constitutes a meaningful encounter between them? How can one best use design here to create and transition between poignant thresholds, drawing attention, creating awareness, conversation, interaction?
- What does this mean for making a common ground—enabling connection, ownership, empowerment?
 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” (1967), 23.
 Michael Sorkin, “Introduction,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), xv.
 Pier Vittorio Aureli. “Toward the Archipelago: Defining the Political and the Formal in Architecture,” Log 11 (Winter 2008), 119.