With decades of experience to draw on, Steffen Lehmann, the new director of the School of Architecture, believes the school's professors and students can influence the complex issues of urbanization and social challenges facing Southern Nevada.
I was educated at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and the Technical University of Berlin. I've authored 20 books and numerous publications on sustainable architecture and future cities. In 2008, I was appointed a UNESCO chair for sustainable urban development in the Asia-Pacific region. Before establishing my own practice in Berlin, I worked for three years with James Stirling in London and Arata Isozaki in Tokyo. I am the founder of Steffen Lehmann Architekten Berlin and have been teaching since 1991 advanced design studios at leading universities in six countries.
What you thought you would do when you grew up
It’s strange, but as a kid I always knew that I wanted to become an architect. I never wanted to be anything else. Our neighbor was an architect and his son was my best friend, so when I was a young boy, I spent much time in his father’s architectural practice, looking at models and making complex drawings through imaginative buildings.
Why Las Vegas?
When living in the United Kingdom, I became interested in the comparison of UK cities with U.S. cities, their compactness and urban systems. I asked myself: What is it like to live in the driest desert city of North America, Las Vegas? The unforgiving climate, lack of water, abundance of solar power, and strong car-dependency create an extreme situation that must inform any architectural design decision. Las Vegas is such an intense hub of human activity, tourism, and a product of the automobile era that is on the cusp of change. So, the question becomes: How can we best reverse the impact of urban sprawl in Las Vegas?
A denser and more compact city increases efficiencies in urban infrastructure and services. This encourages shorter trip lengths, since most amenities and public transport are more closely located. But densification strategies should be coupled with high-quality urban design strategies, scenario testing, and real community participation to avoid such unwanted effects as increased traffic congestion, over-shading, and loss of daylight or privacy.
The future of Las Vegas will depend on the acceptance of a more strict growth boundary and on intelligent urban infill. It will be fascinating to work with local government to identify the most appropriate urban solutions and explore the implications for the UNLV School of Architecture from this.
Urbanization and urban resilience
Urbanization is an unstoppable phenomenon. Cities have taken center stage as key players in the future of human populations. City management, governance, urban mobility, livability, housing, and density have all become key themes of focus for decision-makers. But conditions of rapid urbanization — especially in boom times — controlled sustainable development, and carefully considered urban regeneration has not always been achieved.
I believe architects and urban designers are in a unique position to address and influence the complex issues of urbanization, the impact of climate change, and social challenges.
At the School of Architecture, we try to build urban resilience into our projects, which refers to the adaptive capacity of cities and their systems to deal with unforeseen challenges. Through big-picture thinking, the school will tackle some of the difficult questions around socially inclusive public space, low-carbon mobility, affordable housing, mobility, and the implications from digitization.
Meaning of Mobility
We can now see fundamental changes in mobility in cities. Like many other nations, the U.S. has recently reached a maximum level for the number of private vehicles on the road — 'peak car.' More and more young people no longer obtain a driving license, regularly drive a car, or aspire to own a car. This trend will help to reduce the prevailing car-dominated culture of Las Vegas and other U.S. cities.
The most “Vegas” thing you have done since you arrived
Driving to the Valley of Fire and enjoying the big endless sky above a dramatic desert landscape.
School of Architecture Goals
I am thrilled by the new challenge of being entrusted to lead the only school of architecture in Nevada. The main goal over the next three years for the School of Architecture will be to continue its clear focus on the student experience and teaching excellence to enrich the learning experience. At the same time, we also want to collaborate with industry and advance research through the development of a strong and supportive research culture. Along with that, we want to grow the school’s internationalization — to become recognized internationally as a leader in relevant design education in a desert context. I believe we can capitalize on our unique geographical location.
Biggest Current Personal Project
I just completed a comprehensive consultancy for the city of Helsinki, and my new book on 'Urban Regeneration' will finally be published this year. It is my 20th book, and took two years’ work to get it ready.
A large interdisciplinary research project I have developed and received significant funding from the National Science Foundation and other funding bodies, in total $2 million, deals with the food-water-energy nexus. It brings together 19 partners from six countries, including the U.S.
Hoping to Achieve
In a few years’ time I hope to look around and for the achievements to be self-evident to me, to my colleagues, and to our external stakeholders — that the school’s teaching and research culture and reputation have further been enhanced. I want the school to build on its already strong base and realize the major potential that exists, to maximize impact and the flow of ideas, opportunities, and positive outcomes, and to have engaged academic colleagues, students, and industry partners in a long-term strategy focused on innovation, impact, and excellence. We will bring people together to use public dialogue and debate to discuss visionary but grounded ideas for the urban future of Las Vegas.