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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.

Fiber Huts

When news broke last week that the City of San Antonio was pausing construction on several of the "network huts" required for the implementation of Google's fiberoptic broadband internet service I was both excited and concerned. On the one hand I was thrilled to hear that physical construction had begun on San Antonio's Google Fiber network. On the other hand I was worried to hear that there had been some localized pushback.

One hut that had been the source of criticism was the one built in Haskin Park. My family actually lives less than a mile from there (the girls and I have ridden our bikes there in the past) and so I decided to take a look and see just how offensive these little buildings were.

There's not a whole lot to a fiber hut: the one in Haskin Park was about thirty feet long by about ten feet wide. The windowless prefabricated building is surrounded by a larger service yard enclosed by a cedar fence. It's pushed to the southern edge of the park and although it seems like pushing it to the rear (eastern end) of the park would have made it less conspicuous it didn't seem like its placement interfered much with how the park is used.

the current fiber hut at Haskin Park

the current fiber hut at Haskin Park

In the grand scheme of things, the hut seemed pretty innocuous and certainly less offensive than the artifacts created by the recent "fracking" boom that are now scattered throughout north and south Texas. It would be easy to dismiss this sort of thing as a typical NIMBY response but there is a legitimate philosophical concern about eroding public park space with structures that support commercial interests. San Antonio certainly is not alone in its struggle with this sort of thing.

Still, I was left with a sense that how fiber huts have been built so far represented a missed opportunity both for Google and the City of San Antonio. Rather than see these structures as pieces of telecommunication infrastructure to be hidden, why not celebrate them as opportunities to improve the places where they are located? Rather than look at these huts as a necessary evil, why not embrace them as a way for a corporate entity to reach out to the customers in the city it serves.

In other words, this struck me as a design problem; one that could be addressed by architecture.

We wondering what this sort of thing might look like and so we did what architects do: we started doodling. The current arrangement is simply a hut surrounded by a wood security fence and starting there we began to imagine how that fence could do a better job of screening while evolving into and amenity for the park itself.

Concern has been expressed about the noise that is periodically produced by the cooling units and back-up generators associated with the huts. To address this an earthen berm could be built to acoustically isolate the hut from the rest of the park. A more robust screening element could then be built to act as a canvas for graphics to imbue the structure with a an identity related to its particular neighborhood. This berm and screen could act as a framework for other activities: it could become a play structure itself or even a stage for public performances.

Keep in mind we know nothing about the actual requirements for these network huts, the agreement Google has with the City of San Antonio or the budgets that are in place. This quick design exercise was made in a vacuum merely to illustrate what an alternative approach might look like. It is but one solution to the problem. It would be easy to imagine many others. 

In fact, we were reminded of the Park Pavilion Program that has seen nearly forty new park structures built throughout the city of Dallas. Designed by multiple architects these pavilions have become an excellent example of how good design can imbue places with identity and utility. It's not difficult to imagine a similar program in San Antonio where a series of pavilions sponsored by Google screen the huts that support their network while also giving back the the community they serve.




The Season Finale Of "The Works"

the host of the host of "The Works" in his recording studio

Back in February I started an experiment.

After years of listening to podcasts I decided to try my hand at producing one myself. I invested in some recording equipment, set up a recording booth in my closet and went to work. In the ten months that followed I sought to tell some of the stories behind the buildings that define our lives. Each episode was a little different and I'd like to think each was a little better than the last. Episode 10 has just been released and I think it's one of the best yet.

It tells the story of how a century ago Dallas city leaders sought to build a plaza to memorialize their history. They did this, but then something happened that forever changed how that plaza was understood. So if you're on your way to or from work and have 18 minutes to spare, have a listen. I think you'll come away from the experience looking at something you though you knew in a completely different way.

And don't gorget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. Season Two will be here before you know it...

San Antonio needs a new flag

this is NOT the official city flag of San Antonio

So I was listening to 99% Invisible last week which, if you don't know, is one of the most compelling podcasts about design you can imagine. This particular episode focused on flags of cities - specifically the history of the one for Portland. This got me thinking about San Antonio's flag which I must admit, is more than a bit uninspired. 

Our fair city's current flag features an oversized white star siting on a bifurcated field of red and blue. This design references to the Texas flag in a fairly obvious way - so obvious in fact that several other Texas cities such as Dallas and Houston use the same basic approach. Whereas those cities place their city seal in the center of the star, in San Antonio they place a little picture of the Alamo. Of course, it's hard to render architecture on a flag and so the illustration of the Alamo is crude at best.

All that said, the basic design elements (the field of red, the field of blue, the lone white star and the illustration of the Alamo) all seem appropriate enough. And since the utility of a city flag is marginal at best, maybe we shouldn't worry about it too much. Then again, I am a designer and can't leave well enough alone. And so here is yet another modest, unsolicited proposal from HiWorks.

Essentially, the design rearranges the same elements of the current flag to provide a more modern, dynamic composition. The fields of red and blue are no longer equally divided and the white star becomes smaller and is moved to the outside corner. The illustration of the Alamo is abstracted and instead of attempting to render the entire building, only it's iconic (and ironically non-historic) pediment is rendered.

the existing flag of San Antonio (left) and the proposed update (right)

Individual taste will determine whether or not you like, by I personally think it is an improvement. As with our proposal for the Houston Astrodome and the Johnson Space Center, nothing will probably ever come of the design, but it was a fun exercise all the same.

Satellite office

So now that Betsy is up and running it made sense to order business cards.  Of course, the fact that I am in San Antonio and she is in Dallas raised the question of which address should we put on her card.  Dare we claim that HiWorks has both a San Antonio and a Dallas office?


I think we should...