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Extreme Makeover: Hanger Edition

Architecture School’s think tank overhauls military threat training facility.
Research  |  Apr 21, 2009  |  By Phil Hagen
Under the direction of architecture professor Robert Dorgan, the Downtown Design Center studios place students alongside public and private developers.

This is where the world's superpower studies its enemies?

The 15 students from the School of Architecture couldn't believe their eyes. At first they couldn't even find the front door of the vital Nellis Air Force Base structure known as the Threat Training Facility (TTF).

Inside the old repurposed hangars and out in the yard, they witnessed a disjointed array of captured weaponry that make up what the military calls "The Petting Zoo" -- a missile launcher here, a stash of assault rifles there, a tank over by the dumpster. And the prizes of the collection, a pair of Russian MIG fighters, looked very much out of their element, perched under the fluorescent lights of a drop ceiling that was so low that the old warbirds' tires had to be deflated.

"There was nothing that sort of gave you the gravitas for what the facility was supposed to be," says Angela Strahan, a senior architecture major. "It was very patched together."

Architecture professor Robert Dorgan, director of the school's new Downtown Design Center, puts it more bluntly: "Their mission is deadly serious, but instead of looking serious, it looked more like a dentist's office."

Yet the Air Force has been using the facility like that for 30 years. Run by the 547th Intelligence Squadron, whose motto is "Our Adversaries Have No Secrets," the TTF is where geopolitical troublemakers and their lethal tools are studied. When there's a threat to America, this is where enemy tactics get replicated and analyzed. This crucial, sometimes life-and-death, knowledge is passed along through hands-on training for airmen, conferences between military branches, and special demonstrations and tours. About 30,000 visitors -- from the FBI to the president -- pass through the TTF each year.

Lt. Col. Matteo Martemucci, the 547's director of operations, winced a little himself when he first stepped foot in the facility nearly two years ago. "The TTF has been very much a self-help project over the years," he says. "It reeks of a 1970s-era museum instead of a 21st-century interactive training facility."

But, fortunately for the cause, the lieutenant colonel is son of a Penn State architecture professor, and after growing up around lecture halls and design theories, he knew how much more effective his facility could be with "better organization" and a more "logical flow." From Dad, he also knew there was a potential budget-friendly route to the solutions: Call up the local university.

For a decade, Jeffrey Koep, dean of the College of Fine Arts, had been dreaming of this moment -- having a design center in the School of Architecture that was able to perform community outreach. He studied models around the country, trying to formulate the vision and tailor it to the needs of Southern Nevada and UNLV's students.

It developed out of this observation: "Las Vegas has been a city that's grown so rapidly that at times we've lacked plans to deal with the growth," Koep says. As planning can be expensive, he thought, a nonprofit design center would be an appealing way to fill that void. He describes it as "a think tank, a brain trust of students, grad students, faculty, and practitioners from a variety of areas -- not limited to just people in architecture -- to provide informed planning for everything from a building to how you lay out city blocks."

And downtown seemed the natural place to be. "We thought the School of Architecture should have some sort of footprint there," Koep says. "We should be down where things are moving and shaking ... and not just be confined to campus, looking out the window."

The fate of UNLV's Downtown Design Center was virtually sealed when the city decided to renovate the Fifth Street School, a 70-year-old facility in the heart of downtown. Several years ago, it had housed the first incarnation of Koep's idea, a design studio that offered theoretical architecture studies. Today's Downtown Design Center has expanded beyond a cool classroom setting into a unique urban lab; it's an objective, idea-generating player alongside public and private redevelopment efforts.

"It's exactly where we wanted to be," Koep says. "We really wanted to make it a vibrant center for all kinds of design, not just architecture, and Robert gets that."
Dorgan gets that because he was involved in a few of the design-center models that Koep studied, and the 45-year-old Midwesterner (he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from the University of Minnesota) was familiar with the needs here, having done two visiting professorships at UNLV (2000 and 2005) prior to accepting Koep's job offer. He also has a handy range of talents, such as software and commercial design (he helped design the Coca-Cola sign in Times Square). He has a love of urban planning (he invented a toy city that consists of wooden lots -- "Dorgan Blocks" -- and is now in development). And, as a teacher, he's an advocate of getting design students involved in actual processes as a counterbalance to their theoretical studies, as well as to help "create a more livable city."

"(Students) are squarely in the realm of fiction for the most part," Dorgan says, "and you want them to rub up against the real world as much as possible. "

The TTF was not only a real job, it was a renovation of an existing structure. Most real architecture work is -- as opposed to dreaming up Gehry-style edifices from scratch. The mission involved determining the clients' goals and internalizing them enough to understand how to best redesign the space. And as it turned out, these particular clients were more than "trained killing machines," as Dorgan puts it; they imparted some pretty good lessons in design themselves.

"They were well-versed in the relationship between the design of the space and its effect as an educational environment," Dorgan says. "They were aware of the areas in which they were falling short -- especially the lieutenant colonel, who was definitely fluent in architecture. You don't think of a guy from the Air Force talking about 'aesthetic shortcomings.'"

Getting familiar with the 547th Intelligence Squadron's world wasn't easy, though. The Design Center's undergraduate and graduate students made several trips to the base to do research, study the collections, conduct interviews, take measurements, and snap photos. Then, back in the classroom, they discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the facility, trying to figure out how the TTF could better express and perform its mission.

"The consensus we came up with was to give it an industrial feel, that we should turn it back into a military facility," Dorgan says. This approach would better speak to the building's function while making it more functional, because, for example, "Odds are that you'll never come across an Iraqi tank under fluorescent lights."

The students also sought to turn the facility's static environment into an interactive one -- kind of like a children's museum, but for deadly weapons -- as public tours are part of the TTF's mission. The big target, though, was improving the facility's ability to educate airmen and those from other branches of the military. The challenges ranged from auditorium tedium (bright lights, hard metal chairs) to reorganizing the TTF's collections in a logical but also effective manner.

Whenever a student had an idea during the summer-long design process, he or she stopped by the studio to work it out and then pin an image of their vision on the wall. This kept the dialogue going beyond class time, and eventually two walls were covered with hundreds of inspired solutions great and small.

"They came to us needing a couple of ideas, and we ended up taking over the whole facility," Dorgan says. "They didn't need another Band-Aid; they needed surgery."

As the airmen stopped by the studio to review the progress, they'd see renderings and sketches that included new ways to display their MIGs (turning the hangar back into a hangar and adding a skylight), training rooms that were reorganized and energized (such as the "Cold War Room," with its NATO-style table and Soviet propaganda posters), and a few dramatic new options for the TTF entrance.

"One proposal we gave them was to get a control tower from another base and reinstall it as an entryway," Dorgan recalls. "And they were like, 'OK, whatever.' Then we said they could use it to climb up and watch planes take off. They said, 'We see them take off all the time.' Then we said, 'But you could look down and observe how all your equipment looks from above.' And they said, 'We need a tower.'"

Strahan's favorite idea is the Geopolitical Room, a centralized, atrium-like space dramatically designed in the spirit of global conflict -- enemy flags hanging from a mezzanine, a world map covering the floor, and a giant George Washington quote about war preparedness etched on a wall. This new "heart and soul of the facility" offers much-needed orientation in two ways. "When you walk into the Geopolitical Room, you understand what's going on [at the TTF]," Strahan says. "And everything branches off it, so it helps you navigate the rest of the facility."

The ideas were narrowed down and smartly packaged into a portfolio, which, thanks in part to overtime graphic-design efforts by Strahan, was delivered to Martemucci in November. He also was given the display boards, which became part of every TTF tour and special event -- to be seen by "people who can potentially influence funding decisions."

It worked. After key members of the Base Facilities Board saw the proposal, the TTF vaulted from No. 145 on Nellis' projects list to No. 37. Since the top 90 projects receive funding, the UNLV plan will be put out to bid by the base's civil engineers. Which elements will be incorporated hasn't been decided, but Martemucci says they will comprise a "significant" portion of the portfolio.
"I was looking for someone to give us some thoughts and ideas," he says of the center's work, "but to have 15 separate minds working on this and researching it to the level that they did ..."
In addition, the project's given Nellis some bragging rights. This spring, it was one of two bases competing in the finals for the USAF Chief of Staff's Installation Excellence Award. "The winner has the honor of being known as the best base in the entire Air Force from an installation and facilities perspective," Martemucci says. "The TTF was featured prominently in the presentation, and ... its redesign initiative will have played a big role in swaying the judges' decision."

This first project may not have had Downtown Design Center students solving downtown's problems and rubbing elbows with urban planners, but it turned out to be a great building block for the program. "Sometimes projects come through the door in an unexpected way," Dorgan says. "I'm happy that we were nimble enough and flexible enough to handle the Air Force's needs."
Coincidently, the project's museum-style interior design experience might come in handy again soon: Back on campus, the Marjorie Barrick Museum is in line for a major makeover, and Dorgan was recently named to its board.

Meantime, Koep plans to establish an advisory board "to put down guidelines to what projects we will accept," and once the Downtown Design Center gets a foothold in the redevelopment process and the economy begins to recover, many of those projects are bound to be downtown. One thing is for sure, the program will keep the classroom and real world in a healthy balance. Some university design centers have become almost profit-driven. UNLV's version will strive to be a "self-sustaining" (possibly charging fees to cover expenses) but not-for-profit community resource that uses education as its guiding light.

"We don't want to be so tied economically to having to have projects that we can't do what a university does," Koep says. "We should be able to take some chances to think out of the box. On the other hand, we want to have realistic projects -- projects such as Nellis -- to be part of what our students are working on."

This new balance already has made a difference for at least one student.

"I had no idea I'd be doing something like this," Strahan says. "Through the course of working on Nellis and the semester working downtown, it's resonated with me that architecture is what I want to do with my life. I feel like we had a real impact."