Eric Strain’s assemblageSTUDIO, a mainstay of Las Vegas design

Eric Strain founded his Las Vegas architecture firm, assemblageSTUDIO, on April Fool’s Day in 1997. It was the perfect time, he says: “No one thought it would last. A maverick architect leaving the comfort of a top-notch local firm to champion modern architecture suited to the desert? In a city where sophisticated design was the volcano of the Mirage and red-tiled Mediterranean counterfeits grew like weeds in the valley? Famous interior designer Roger Thomas urged him to start a business in Los Angeles if he wanted respect and work in Vegas.

Strain wanted to prove him wrong.

A glimpse of the house the architects dubbed J2 (assemblySTUDIO)

And it did: over the past quarter century, assemblageSTUDIO has become a mainstay in the city’s increasingly vibrant design community and has received more than 60 design awards. See for yourself: through May 21, the Sahara West Library’s studio gallery is hosting a 25th anniversary retrospective of the work of assemblageSTUDIO, as well as that of UNLV architecture students who we hope , will advance the scene even further.

According to Darren Johnson, director of gallery services for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, the exhibit will not only highlight the company’s designs and creative process, including models, sketches and computer renderings, but will also show how the designs were influenced by the region’s fine art community. This is only the second architecture exhibition to be held at the gallery.

When Strain started the company, he mainly worked with plaster as a building material. It was easy to use and adorned with bright colors. But those colors might fade under the harsh Mojave sun. In 2000, the company was hired to design a visitor center for Fort Mormon. Strain introduced his clients – and himself – to the rich palette of materials he saw in the architecture of Tucson and Phoenix: concrete, concrete masonry units, steel. “It opened our eyes to the potential of how you could start looking at these materials in the desert, how they held up to the harshness of the desert.”

Terra, a house designed by assemblageSTUDIO, integrates interior and exterior.  (STUDIO assembly)
Terra, a house designed by assemblageSTUDIO, integrates interior and exterior. (STUDIO assembly)

Without abandoning color, Strain’s search for cooler materials became a search for what desert architecture should look like: how the textures, layerings, colors and shadows of Mojave can inspire designers to create a sense of belonging. For 25 years, Strain and his firm – always small, often made up of promising graduates from the architecture program at UNLV, where Strain is a professor – have explored these ideas.

His designs range from an arts center in Mesquite to a block of colorful seniors’ apartments in Henderson and have included stunning explorations of form and material in high-end homes in The Ridges neighborhood of Summerlin – whether the elegant but spacious volumes of his house of Light and Water; Tresarca’s multiform and semi-opaque mesh screens, which transform light itself into material; or the soaring, shaded canopy that frames the house he calls J2.

“Everyone said you couldn’t make black steel,” he says. “You can if you do it right, corten steel [famous because it achieves a colorful, rustlike patina over time] it’s great, CMU, rammed earth. They all have their own ability to create things. They just give you a different feel, a different sense of permanence.

The soothing lines of the J2 residence.  (STUDIO assembly)
The soothing lines of the J2 residence. (STUDIO assembly)

These materials have helped open the eyes of Las Vegas residents and designers to the possibilities of a design language that is sustainable, sustainable, and uniquely Las Vegas. A vernacular, if you will. “Eric, when he opened his business, he decided he would stay true to the type of architecture he believed in, which was modern architecture,” says architect CJ Hoogland, director of Hoogland Architecture, who has worked on assembly in the 2000s. “He’s done a really superb job of sticking to that and also helping others see the value of modern design. He’s definitely left his lasting mark on the community of Vegas.

Strain admits that his determination to work on his terms has earned him a reputation as a pain in the ass. But as an educator and practitioner, there may no longer be a passionate advocate for the quality of Las Vegas’ built environment — and the quality of the conversation about it. Strain has been a mainstay of the city’s arts community, overseeing countless forums and symposia that have brought some of the world’s top designers and urban planners to Las Vegas, and engaging students on critical issues like affordable housing.

Robert Dorgan ran the Downtown Design Center in Las Vegas. “What I remember, more than any art or architecture, is what Eric did – tirelessly, I might add – to help build a culture of design. Organizing events, supporting young talent, making volunteering on campus and in the city. I felt that he was always confident in his own creations, so much so that he had no qualms about promoting the work of others around him. rare quality in a largely selfish profession.

The Mormon Fort is one of the firm's institutional projects.  (STUDIO assembly)
The Mormon Fort is one of the firm’s institutional projects. (STUDIO assembly)

Las Vegas is still mostly schlocky casinos, banal shopping malls and those cursed red tile roofs. But companies like Strain’s are no longer novelties but the norm. Many alumni of his mentorship have established their own innovative businesses in Las Vegas, including Hoogland, Daniel Joseph Chenin, Ltd., PUNCH Architecture, and Block9 Architecture. “It’s fun to watch them, to see them on their own, doing things. It’s better for them than I thought.

Strain says his ideal project would be a museum, but in the meantime, assemblageSTUDIO is hard at work designing an ESL-centric global high school in Clark County that promises a rich exploration of landscaping and architecture. inside-outside learning. And the company, which has been downtown for years, will build a new live office on East and Sahara Avenues. Appropriately, the inauguration is April 1st.

“We have some really fun projects right now. Things are still evolving. We’re still having fun. I still get up every morning and can’t wait to go to work, 25 years later.

Abdul J. Gaspar