Flying Drones Near Airports

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Last week we had the Stinson Tower professionally photographed. Although I’d like to think of myself as being pretty handy with a camera, what I bring to the table pales in comparison to what my friend Dror can do.

That said, there’s one thing I can do that he can’t. I can fly a drone.

And so while Dror was busy at work on the ground, I took to the skies to try and communicate the relationship between the new tower and the historic terminal building on the other side of the runways. With special clearance from the tower (like drinking and driving, drones and airplanes don’t mix), I was able to fly up to get some nice views of the wings from a vantage point that would have been all but impossible ten years ago.

Rocky Mountain High Porch

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I was in Colorado recently and had the opportunity to visit a little project that we finished a while back. It was just a little renovation of a front porch and although the scale of the project was small, I’d like to think it’s had a big impact on the family who lives there.

This is the sort of thing that makes me happy to be an architect.

Interviewing Tacos

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I’m not a big sports guy, but there is a special place in my heart for baseball. Maybe it’s because I grew up going to my brother’s games. Maybe it’s because the the pacing of the games are so measured. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because of the mascots.

The Missions are San Antonio’s minor league baseball team. They have not one, but two mascots and both of them are food items. In this episode of the San Antonio Storybook we’re going to tell their story.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

The summer of '97

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I graduated from the University of Texas in the spring of 2000. It doesn’t feel like 19 years has passed since then, but it has.

After walking across the stage and receiving my diploma, I gathered up all the art and drafting supplies I had acquired over the previous five years and packed them into a repurposed fishing table box. In its drawers and compartments I placed my Prismacolor pencils and Rapidiograph pens; all my French curves and adjustable triangles; all my watercolors and India ink. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but this tackle box would remain mostly unused for the next two decades as digital technologies quickly replaced the analog techniques we learned in school.

Even so, I dutifully kept the tackle box with me. It moved with me to Chicago and then to Dallas and then to San Antonio. It traveled with me up to New Jersey when I went to grad school and it came back to Texas with me when I returned to start a family. In time the tackle box was relegated the garage of my San Antonio home. It sat between Christmas decorations and boxes of outgrown children’s clothes.

Earlier this year my two daughters and I started a routine where we would all sit together at the dining table just before bedtime. With our teeth brushed and our pajamas on we would together draw scenes from books we were reading or movies we were watching. Even if my architectural work is mostly done on the computer these days, I still have the ability to draw enchanted castles and magical rainbows with some degree of skill.

At one point we decided we needed to up our game and add color to our artistic endeavors. I was sent out to the garage to retrieve my old college art supplies.

That’s where I found him.

Brandon Shaw was underneath a pile of colored pencils. Or at least that’s where I found a small cut-out photo of him. He was an inch and a half tall - about 6’-0” at 1/4” scale. He looked exactly like I remembered him: wispy blonde hair, glasses, untucked shirt, baggy jeans, and Birkenstocks.

* * *

In the fall of 1995 close to 48,000 undergraduates attended the University of Texas at Austin. Of that number only about a hundred of us were freshman architecture students. The School of Architecture was a small island of intimacy within the sprawling mass of UT. By the end of our first semester, we all knew one another. We took most of our classes together as a group. We spent many of our nights and weekends together as well. We became friends. We became family.

Our freshman design studio met for three hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Brandon and I sat just a few drafting tables away from one another. In that first semester together we struggled to learn architecture’s basic concepts. We labored to produce consistent line weights with our 2H pencils. We struggled to keep ink from smearing underneath our 30-60-90 triangles.

By our second semester, we had the fundamentals figured out and could move on to larger issues of scale and site and context. One of our professors had us photograph one another and then cut out the printed photo after it had been mounted onto cardboard. We could then use these cut-outs as scale figures in the models we built for our projects.

When my sophomore year came to a close I decided to spend the summer in Austin. And so I moved out of the dorm and into an apartment. In June I began working at my first real job in an architecture office. It wasn’t the most fulfilling work but the paycheck covered the bills and I had a little cash left over at the end of the month.

That summer the Paramount Theatre featured the films of Alfred Hitchcock and I saw a number of his movies on the big screen. One of them, Rope, featured a character named Brandon Shaw. I remember smiling when I heard the name spoken and I wondered if the Brandon Shaw I knew was aware of this coincidence. I heard he, too, was in Austin for the summer and it seemed likely we would cross paths at some point.

By the end of June I had established a routine. As near as I can remember, Monday, June 30th was like any other workday that summer: I went to the office, I worked my eight hours, and at the end of the day, I drove back to my apartment.  

* * *

Even though Brandon was from Houston, Austin seemed like his home. It wasn’t just that he was a musician who always wore Birkenstock sandals, it was that he had an easygoing manner that was a perfect fit for Austin in the late nineties.

Brandon would bring his guitar to studio when you were up late ahead of a deadline. He would jab you with his pen to keep you awake during lectures the following day. He would drag you out of studio to see concerts at Antone's. He would hang out with you for hours at his apartment.

But Brandon wasn’t just some music-loving slacker. He took his schoolwork seriously. He was in a demanding dual-degree program that combined architecture and engineering. Beyond that he was a multilayered, complex individual. He could be equal parts earnest and flippant; mellow and outgoing; sarcastic and sensitive. He could confidently walk up and joke with a stranger one moment and reveal an underlying insecurity the next. 

In the spring semester of our sophomore year, Brandon and I were for the first time assigned to different studio professors. We shared the same studio space, however, and I was able to watch as Brandon began to settle in with a new group of friends. He seemed to find a balance between his classes and his outside interests. He had joined an intramural soccer league and had started taking lessons from the guitarist of a local band. He seemed to be figuring out who he was.

* * *

Back when the internet was still in its infancy news traveled much slower than it does now. There was no Facebook, then. There were no group texts. Many of us didn’t even have cell phones yet. We may have had email accounts, but few of us had access to those accounts other than at a campus computer lab or via a dial-up modem. That left the newspaper as the only real source of information.

Of course, the thing with newspapers is that by the time you read it, the information is already outdated.

Before heading back to work on the morning of Tuesday, July 1st I read about a series of carjackings that had occurred in Austin. By Wednesday morning the paper reported that one of the carjacking victims, a 25-year-old City of Austin employee, was missing. Twenty-two years later I can’t remember how I heard it, but at some point I began to hear rumors that Brandon was also missing.

On Thursday the newspaper reported that the body of the City of Austin employee had been discovered in the trunk of a car that had been pushed into Town Lake. It also reported that a second body had been recovered. The victim was described as, “A University of Texas student from Houston.”

That evening I called the City of Austin Police Department in search of more information. I spoke to a detective working the case. I identified myself as a student who was worried that a classmate of mine was the other victim. The detective asked me the name of my friend. I told him it was Brandon Shaw. There was a pause before the detective repeated that the names of the victims hadn’t been released yet.

Later that evening a group of us were still searching for answers. Someone was able to track down the phone number of one of our former studio professors who we figured he might know something. 

He did.

He told us Brandon Shaw was dead.    

* * *

I had been to memorial services before and I have been to many since. But the one held in Brandon’s honor the following Monday was something very different. I will always remember the feeling of sitting in a sanctuary full of people who were all trying to make sense of the same senseless act.

Several of us made the three-hour drive from Austin to Clear Lake City. Those of us who knew Brandon from UT made up only a small portion of those who filled the Episcopal Church. It became clear that even though Brandon had been a big part of our lives for the previous two years, he had been a bigger part of other people’s lives for much longer. 

We met Brandon’s high school friends at the memorial service. We met his family. We learned how Brandon looked up to his big brother. We learned how close he was to his sister. We learned he could talk his dad out of a bad mood and that he would dance with his mother in the kitchen. As tragic as it was to lose a classmate, his family lost far more. They lost a brother. They lost a son. They lost a part of their lives that had been there for twenty years.

The Shaw family wasn’t the only one to experience loss that summer. A few days earlier another family held their own memorial service in Austin. Juan Javier Cotera was the city of Austin employee who died with Brandon in Town Lake. Like Brandon, his life was full of promise. Like Brandon, he was denied the chance to finish his story.

* * *

In 1997 two years of college seemed to last an eternity. Now twenty-four months come and go with little to show for it except for another box of outgrown children's clothes. 

There is plenty I remember about the time I knew Brandon. Some of the details may be blurry, but back then we were blurry ourselves. As much as we struggled to figure out how to design buildings, we struggled just as much to figure out what kind of people we were going to be.

Most of us had time to figure that out. Brandon did not.

For those of us who lived past the summer of 1997 our time at UT was but one chapter of a narrative that kept getting longer as we grew older. Our stories didn’t end that summer. They continued. We went back to UT in the fall. We pulled more all-nighters. We worked more jobs. We traveled. We fell in and out of love. We graduated. We kept in touch with some friends. We lost contact with others.

As we followed our individual paths into adulthood - and, more recently, into middle-age - our memories of Brandon have stayed with us. I know Brandon’s life and death has informed my life. Now I’m closer to the age of Brandon’s parents in 1997 than to the age I was back then. I can’t help but see the events of that summer through their eyes.

I know there will come a day where my kids, like Brandon, will decide to not come home for the summer. I know there will come a time when I cannot protect them form the arbitrary evils of the world. In the meantime, though, I can hold my kids tight. I can tell them to be nicer to one another. I can tell them that I love them.

I can give them colored pencils and together we can imagine a world full of enchanted castles and magical rainbows.

Just in case you're in the market

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You may have noticed there’s a new project on our website. It’s a house project located in Castroville, about a half-hour east of San Antonio. The town was Castroville was founded in the 1840s by immigrants from Alsace, a part of France that shares historical and cultural ties to neighboring Germany and Switzerland. The town that was built retains a unique architectural character, one we sought to preserve in this preservation and restoration of a house originally built in 1851. In accordance with the City of Castroville’s historic standards, much of the work consisted of delicately removing applied layers of modern additions. A rear kitchen addition preserved the front’s original appearance while opening up the interior and connecting to a new carport.

If you happen to be in the market for such a house, this one is still on the market.

Sprouting Wings

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I was out at Stinson Municipal Airport recently and saw that they’re installing new signage. As I mentioned earlier, we had nothing to do with these signs but their design do reference the wings for the new control tower that we did design.

As I mentioned back in September, It's cool to have the opportunity to do good work. It's even better to know that your work is helping other people to do good work, too.

Nostalgia for the park

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Earlier this year a local children's amusement park announced it would be relocating to the San Antonio Zoo. The Kiddie Park has been the site of countless happy birthday parties and childhood memories. Many stories could be told about the Kiddie Park and we’re going to tell one of them in this chapter of the San Antonio Storybook.

As always, you can listen to it here or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Reflections on reflections

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Koalas have invaded San Antonio.

Or to be more accurate, two male Phascolarctos cinereus have been loaned from the San Diego Zoo to the San Antonio Zoo for the duration of the Summer. As a father of two small girls who adore cute animals, this is big news. We made a point of seeing the koalas the first weekend they were out on display.

There was only one small issue: it was quite difficult to actually see the koalas.

The issue isn’t that the furry little marsupials like to hide or that they are particularly well camouflaged. The issue is the glass - it was far too reflective to see through it to the koalas inside.

Glass has many characteristics that can be individually specified. Different coatings and chemical formulations can give glass different levels of light transmittance and reflectance. Although we think of glass as being a transparent material, it also reflects a certain amount of the visible light that comes into contact with its surface.

It would seem that if you are designing an enclosure for koalas you’d want to keep the glass as transparent as possible so small children could behold the overt cuteness of the arboreal herbivores contained inside. There may be other factors at play that require the mirrored glass, but as experienced at the zoo the chosen glass appears to be a mistake. There are many situations where reflective glass would be a good idea, but unless I’m missing something, this does not appear to be one of them.

R.I.P.I.M.Pei

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Growing up near Dallas, I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson were really the only two “starchitects” whose works I was able to experience directly. Whereas Johnson’s buildings may have been more fun, their quality was a bit mixed. Pei’s projects, however, had an elegance I could appreciate even before I was formally taught what good architecture was. From his Dallas City Hall to his Meyerson Symphony Center, his buildings were uniformly stunning. He also appeared to be a genuinely nice person, something that cannot be said of most architects of his caliber.

Later on I would visit his East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Its graceful design remains a touchstone for how to design a modern civic space. I know his modernization of the Louvre gets more attention, but when it goes to Pei triangles, I prefer the one in Washington.

Of course I was saddened to hear of his passing last week, but the man was 102 years old. He lived a long and full life. Over the course of a very long and fruitful career he was able to create beauty that will live on.

That is certainly something worth celebrating.

Location, Location, Location

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Apple recently announced its closing some of its stores in north Texas. It’s not doing this because the stores are unprofitable, or they need more space. They’re closing the stores, the story goes, because they happen to sit in the Eastern District of Texas.

Why should it matter what federal district an electronics store happens to be located in?

It turns out the Eastern District of Texas has historically been very favorable to patent litigants. More specifically, patent trolls flocked to Marshall, Texas to file suites against large tech companies like Apple. Federal law historically allowed litigants to file lawsuits in any district where the defendant “Has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business”. Since Apple had stores in the district, Patent Trolls could file suite there.

Recent court decisions have made it more difficult for litigants to choose courts (a fact that has the town of Marshall worried) but to better insulate itself from these lawsuits, Apple has decided to move their stores over imaginary lines so won’t get sued as much.

It all seems very strange, but it all goes to show that location matters.

Inside the Rink

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A couple of years ago I took my daughter to a roller skating rink. It was the first time I had strapped wheels to my feet in over twenty years and it was a memorable experience. I even wrote a blog post about it.

Well, two years later, it gets the official podcast treatment.

The Rollercade is a local institution and generations of San Antonians have skated across its smooth wood floor. In this chapter of the San Antonio Storybook, we tell the story of how the Rollercade came to be built and the family responsible for keeping the Alamo City rolling.

As always, you can listen to it here or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Building Magical Worlds

So my daughter recently finished reading all 4,000 pages of the Harry Potter series. In doing so I'm pretty sure she developed a lifetime love of reading.

Back in the early 2000s I read the first book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and although I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel the need to keep reading the new volumes as they were released. I watched the movies, so I had a general idea of what was going on as my little reader became completely engrossed in reading the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh volumes.

I’m not quite sure what secret ingredient J. K. Rowling put into her stories, but it’s definitely there. Maybe it’s the characters, maybe it’s the story, but I think a lot has to do with the rich and complicated world she was able to build. Details matter - that’s what makes Hogwarts and Hogsmeade seem just as real as London.

I try and insert a little bit of magic whenever I design a building. Of course you have a little more freedom in fiction than you do with concrete and steel and wood. Still, I think it’s a good thing to aspire to do.

Fort Stockton rising

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It’s been almost four years since we first started working with the good people of Fort Stockton on their new community theatre. In the time since then the design has evolved and funds have been raised. For so long it remained a hypothetical exercise - something that existed only on paper - and so it’s incredibly exciting now that dirt is moving and concrete is being poured.

The new theatre will actually be an addition to their existing facility. Their old building will become an event space and next to it will be their new stage and 125-seat house. On the corner there will be a support wing with storage and dressing rooms for the actors and restrooms for the audience.

Construction is expected to take a year and so by 2020 - the five year anniversary of the beginning of the project - The Fort Stockton Community Theatre will finally be able to move into their new home.

Know Your Audience (And Their Cargo)

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The people who are interested in purchasing Chevy Bolts are different than the people who are interested in purchasing Chevy pickups. Chevrolet knows this and markets its vehicles appropriately.

I was amused by the different items they illustrate their vehicles are capable of hauling. In the image galleries for these respective vehicles they show the bed of the pickup full of lumber and the back of the Bolt loaded with an Eames DCW chair because of course driers of electric vehicles are fans of midcentury furniture design.

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Chapter 2

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A few weeks ago a large group of politicians descended on an empty lot in downtown San Antonio to break ground on a new federal courthouse. Of course, San Antonio already has a federal courthouse. It’s an odd little building but it has a fascinating story.

In this chapter of the San Antonio Storybook we’ll discover the story of this building and the important part it played in the history of San Antonio.

You can listen to it here or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Ribbon Cutting

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I know I’ve posted a lot about the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower project over the past several years so I’m not going do it again here other to say that the FAA has taken control control over its operation. The official ribbon cutting ceremony was this week and it was a fine ceremony that featured an all-female mariachi band and a cake that featured the image of the tower design.

It also featured some very large scissors.

There was this one woman who was apparently the keeper of the scissors. She was more than a little intimidating, but I understand the need for there to be a dedicated person to keep hold of such things. Oversized ceremonial scissors are expensive.

Who gets to break the ground

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This past Monday I was able to attend the groundbreaking of San Antonio’s new federal courthouse. It was a moment 10 years in the making. I was still at Lake|Flato back in 2009 when they won the commission and sat next to Joe Ben as he, David Lake and the rest of the design team developed scheme after scheme and endured delay after delay.

Very little of that was mentioned at the groundbreaking (Lake|Flato was only mentioned once). Instead it was a day for the politicians to make grand (and at times unintentionally ironic) statements about the role of the judiciary and the rule of law. Even so, it’s great to see the project get underway and hopefully the architects will get a little more credit at the ribbon cutting ceremony in 2022.

See the CCC

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This past week was spring break and because I don’t have a real job I was able to take my girls up to visit my family in north Texas. We decided not to take I-35 and instead took the backroads so that we could pass by Lake Brownwood State Park.

As state parks go the landscape there wasn’t the most spectacular but the buildings are. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, Lake Brownwood has an impressive Group Recreation Hall and a grand staircase that early visitors would use when they arrived at the park by boat.

The cabins were also nice; especially cabin #9 where we stayed. I’m sure many families have made many happy memories there and I’m glad we went a little out of our way to see the CCC.