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Acts of God and Acts of Men


When Hurricane Harvey made landfall late last week San Antonio was forecasted to receive a foot and a half of rain. Due to the mechanics of hurricanes and the geography of the Texas coast (hurricanes here rotate counterclockwise and so the storms tend to be much more damaging in their "northeastern quadrant") the vast majority of rain associated with the storm fell to the east and the Alamo City received less than three inches of rain. A little under three inches of rain fell at my home. Parts of Houston received almost 52" inches. It has been hard to watch all the images of the devastation.

Hurricanes are nothing new to the Texas coast but the scale of this one was unprecedented. Was climate change responsible for Harvey? No, but heightened ocean temperatures probably made it more intense. Did Houston's expansive urbanization make flooding worse? Perhaps, but over four feet of rain is going to cause problems anywhere it falls.

Acts of God can be made worse by acts of men. But men (and women, of course) can rebuild. They can plan. They can design for a world that has 100-year storms every few years. And perhaps most importantly they can have the sympathy and compassion to lend a hand to their fellow man when he is need.



Tequila Sunrise


As I've mentioned before I'm not a sports guy. I don't watch sports and with the exception of a few unremarkable seasons growing up, I don't play them either. And yet I live in a culture where sports are culturally important and so I absorb some of that excitement simply due to proximity. When I lived in Chicago, for example, I would pass by Wrigley Field on my commute. As such I would claim to be a Chicago Cubs "fan" even if I only went to a couple of games and couldn't name a single player. I wore my Cubs hat for over fifteen years before it became cool to do so.

But my Cubs hat was not my first baseball cap. No, the first hat I ever owned was for the Houston Astros.

It should be noted that I grew up about 250 miles from Houston and have still never attended an Astros game. Growing up in Arlington I should have been a Texas Rangers fan. I attended several games at Arlington Stadium as well as the often renamed Ballpark in Arlington / Ameriquest Field in Arlington / Rangers Ballpark in Arlington / Globe Life Park in Arlington. What is more I can still name at least three former players (Buddy Bell, Iván "Pudge" Rodríguez and of course Nolan Ryan).

But being something of a contrarian I couldn't have a Rangers cap like everyone else and so I chose to wear a Houston Astros cap. Although I didn't know it at the time I was wearing part of a uniform that was "arguably the most radical uniform redesign in major league history". The orange hat with it's blue star and white "H" was the least outlandish part of an ensemble that featured a pull-over jersey with bold stripes of red, orange and yellow stripes encircling the player's abdomen. A navy star offset to the left of the player's chest was counterbalanced by the player's number which was displayed on the player's right thigh. There was a lot going on with this uniform, nicknamed the "tequila sunrise" for the drink it resembled.

For a sport as heavily based in tradition as baseball, it was insane.

But the uniform was also iconic and memorable: two characteristics that one might argue every uniform should have (the team's current uniforms are mostly forgettable). Even though many considered the "tequila sunrise" ugly, the uniforms were a bold choice for the team and in many ways a perfect match for the city of Houston.

As architects we sometimes design buildings that are considered to be ugly. Any creative act runs the risk of being disliked. The difference is architecture can't be ignored as easily as an ugly painting, a bad song or a nonsensical movie. But it is important that those bold choices get made. It's how we as a culture moves forward and it's how the places we live are defined. Don't forget, the Eiffel Tower was initially considered to be just as ugly as the uniforms the Houston Astros wore between 1975 and 1986.

Why Does Rice Play Texas?

image courtesy Bob Gomel of Life Magazine

There is relatively little overlap between people who watch football and those who read this blog. And so it may come as news to you that UT beat Rice last night 42 to 28. To be perfectly honest, I don't care.

That said, it is interesting to note that the game occurred exactly 53 years after John F. Kennedy gave his "We Choose To Go To The Moon Speech" in Houston. On September 12, 1962 the President took to the podium at Rice Stadium to convince the American people that they should dedicate themselves to do something that seemed nearly impossible at the time - land a man on the moon in a little over eight years:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?  

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...

The above text is the version that is reprinted in most articles about the speech and what is heard in most documentaries. You hear the audience cheer when Kennedy declares, "We Choose to go to the moon." That narrative makes sense. The President speaks an inspirational line and those listening applaud in support. Unfortunately that's not what they're cheering about. In the reprinting of the speech, a line has been removed.

Here is what Kennedy actually said:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...

The inside joke about Rice playing the University of Texas was one that was appreciated by the audience that day that included many Rice students. They understood that in these contests, Rice usually doesn't win. Their applause in response to that throw-away line about the difficulty of traveling to the moon is what is misinterpreted as applause about choosing to go to the moon. Later in the speech you hear the audience cheer again as Kennedy make a joke about how hot it is in Texas in September. You can watch an excerpt of the speech here that includes the audience reaction to the line about Rice playing Texas and the heat.

It's understandable why the line is so often removed. It doesn't make much sense outside of Texas and I suppose it diminishes somewhat the rhetorical power of the line that immediately follows. Still, it's another good example of the intertwined histories of Texas and American spaceflight.

And speaking of the history of American spaceflight, less than six years later the impossible was achieved when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July of 1969. But by then the impossible had already been achieved. In October of 1965 Rice beat Texas 20 to 17.

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.


image courtesy Ian Allen / Architectural Lighting

I just returned from attending the Texas Society of Architects Convention and Design Expo in Houston. The event represents an great opportunity to visit with colleagues, catch up with friends, lean some new things about the profession and receive useless swag from vendors whose products I may never actually use. It also represents an opportunity to explore the host city and while in Houston I made a concerted effort to explore the relatively new James Turrell Skyspace on the Rice University Campus.

Turrell is an American artist whose body of work spanning four decades has focused almost exclusively on light. Many of his larger, more recent projects have been "skyspaces", outdoor rooms with a single, framed opening to the sky. Turrell uses this aperture to frame the sky, allowing the visitor to perceive its color, intensity and depth in a way not normally possible. This is intensified by the artificial illumination of the ceiling plane which varies, causing the visitor's perception of the sky to change in unexpected ways.

As little pieces of architecture, these sky spaces are beautiful, but the experience of visiting one is transcendental. “Twilight Epiphany” - the official title of the project at Rice - was completed in 2012 and is one of Turrell's larger installations with two viewing levels. I had visited it before during the day but I wanted to make sure I was able to see it at dawn and dusk when it truly becomes alive. And so on Thursday evening I went there with friends and it was an enjoyable communal experience. But the following morning I returned and had the space and the experience to myself.

At first the oculus of the Skyspace is a black void surrounded by an intense frame of slowly, almost imperceptibly chaining colors. When the sky is first kissed by the light of dawn, there is a period of time where the sky acts as a blank canvas whose perceived hue appears to vary wildly depending on how the ceiling plane is illuminated. This is where the magic occurs.

This was also when I noticed what appeared to be a pulsating star cross diagonally across the oculus. It was too intense to be a star, but its speed and apparent altitude seemed to imply it wasn't a airplane either. As I sat wan continued to focus on the sky, it occurred to me that it might have been the International Space Station that will occasional pass overhead as it orbits the Earth 260 miles above its surface.

It was a beautiful connection between art and science, nature and man, the finite and the infinite, the heavens and the earth. It was also a good reminder of the importance of taking time to sit and look at observe the overwhelming beauty of the world.