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On Writing Books, Building Houses and Having Sons

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	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}     image courtesy Megan Chapa of San Houston State University      

image courtesy Megan Chapa of San Houston State University

 

There is a quote out there that says, "Everyone should write a book, build a house and have a son." It's one of those fun, quotable lines that's been attributed to everyone from Plato to Castro and was probably said by none of them. A few variations of the quote exist - Hemingway, for example, supposedly added that every man should also fight a bull.

I didn't learn about the quote (or supposed-quote) until well after I had become an architect who designed houses and after The Courthouses of Central Texas was well on its way to publication. As the father of two daughters I didn't comply completely with the bit about having a son but my personal view is that two daughters are worth at least four sons. I naturally found the quote self-affirming in a way that quotes like these are supposed to be self-affirming.

Of course, basing your future on a quote that was probably fabricated is a dubious proposition at best. Having kids is no trifling enterprise. It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money (and my kids aren't even anywhere near college-age yet). And being an architect, while prestigious, isn't the most lucrative profession in the world. 

And so what about writing a book?

Let's take a look at the last few weeks if the "Courthouses of Central Texas 2016 World Tour". As you may know, I installed an exhibit of drawings at the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, I spoke in Boerne to the Genealogical Society of Kendall County, I spoke at a book signing at Brazos Bookstore in Houston and then this past weekend I took down the exhibit in Boerne. In the process I drove nearly 700 miles and spend nearly 20 hours driving, preparing or speaking. That's a lot of time. Doing the math, I would have needed to sell 60 books just to pay for my hotel in Houston. Although sales at both events were really good, I only sold around 30 books total. And so from a purely financial standpoint, this whole book writing effort has been a fiduciary disaster.

It took me six years to write and publish The Courthouses of Central Texas. If you add that to all the lectures, book signing and interviews I'm doing now that it exists as a thing in the world, that's a lot of time and effort. When all is said and done I'll maybe have earned a couple of thousand dollars in royalties from UT Press.

Maybe.

But here's the thing - even though I continue to hemorrhage money because of those infernal courthouses, I still love them. I still love talking to people about them. I still love meeting people who share that interest and hearing their stories about why they love them. I've met plenty of architects, attorneys and county officials along the way but every once in a while I meet someone totally unexpected.

In Houston last week I met a group of students from Sam Houston State University. I was naturally flattered that they made the trip all the way down from Huntsville but I was also fascinated by their program that prepares students for careers in law, law enforcement, politics or some combination thereof. I have no idea what small part my lecture on courthouses might play in their future but I'd like to think that they'll move forward with a greater appreciation of the role of architecture in public life. As these students are a good 20 years younger than I am, hopefully that lesson will live on even after I've shuffled off this mortal coil.

And that, I think, is the essence behind the Plato/Castro/Hemingway quote. Writing a book, building a house and having kids is all about creating a legacy - planting a seed in a garden for someone else to enjoy. A book will hopefully still be read after you're gone. A house will hopefully be lived in by someone. And your kids - be they your biological children or the ones you happen to cross paths with as a teacher of some sort - will hopefully still remember an idea or two you shared with them when your paths just happened to cross at a bookstore in Houston.

And that, to me, is a whole lot cooler than bullfighting.

 

Betsy In Boulder

these images are not to scale

Betsy and I have been working together for the better part of two years now. Our collaboration is not particularly newsworthy at this point but what might not be so obvious is that although I am in San Antonio, Texas, Betsy is in Boulder, Colorado. This type of remote working relationship would have been impossible ten or even five years ago, but thanks to the cloud, screen sharing and nationwide long distance phone plans, today it isn't that big of a deal.

Although there are times when it would be nice to be sitting next to each other to doodle on the same drawing or to weigh in on weather or not deodorant needs to be reapplied, having presences in different places does provide some interesting opportunities. For one it means HiWorks now has the ability to execute projects in both states. If you've been holding off on building that new ski lodge in Aspen, now's your chance.

Betsy is an extremely talented architect and has a unique ability to manage the complexities of translating a design idea into a real building. She's also fun to work with and be around - virtually or otherwise. These last few weeks have been particularly busy for Betsy who in addition to becoming a licensed architect in the State of Colorado (she was already licensed in Texas) she's also now teaching a design studio in Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado. Go betsy, go.

Oh, and for the record, it's worth reiterating the fact that I'm working with this Betsy Johnson as opposed to this one.

The Architecture of Kindergarten

I pulled this image off the internet and so I have no idea who these children are

I'm going through an interesting transition as a parent in that my eldest daughter, Sammy, is now of an age that I myself remember being. For some reason, I find this mind-blowing.

Like most other humans, I have no memories of when I was an infant, which is probably for the best. I harbor only a trace or two of things that happened when I was 3 or 4 but I do remember in some detail things I experienced when I started Kindergarten when I was 5. I distinctly recall my first day of school at Dunn Elementary, I remember Mrs. Adams, my kindergarten teacher. I remember some kid falling off what I later understood to be a geodesic dome climbing structure and bleeding from the face.

I also remember that every once in a while in PE class the teachers would bring the parachute out of the storage room and onto the gym floor.

I'm sure we did other activities with the nylon fabric, but what I remember most was sitting in a circle around the perimeter of the parachute. We would hold its edge in our little hands and when told to do so we would raise the fabric up over our heads and then immediately pull it down behind our backs. The air trapped underneath the fabric would cause the parachute to act like a parachute and billow upwards creating a glorious (if momentary) translucent multicolored dome. We'd look across the circle our classmates and even though we had seen one another just seconds before, somehow everything was different when we were under the parachute dome. Collectively we had created a space where one had not existed before. Collectively we had created architecture.

When my wife and I visited my daughter's classroom last week much if it looked very familiar from when I was a student over thirty years ago. Of course my daughter's classroom has a computer and a LCD projector and that's all fitting and proper, but I really, really hope that in the storage room next to the gym they have a multicolored parachute or two. 

Being loud in the library

Photo by Katie Slusher. Courtesy School of Architecture Visual Resources Collection, The University of Texas at Austin

It's been a busy few weeks and I'm still catching up on things that happened last month.

At any rate, back on February 16th I had the opportunity to speak at the University of Texas at Austin. The Alexander Architectural Archive started this really cool program where they display some of the drawings in their collection for students (or whoever) to see. At any rate, this moth they displayed some of the original drawings of O'Neil Ford's Little Chapel in the Woods and they asked me to give a short talk about the building and its significance. 

Attendance was really good and although I'd like to think that had something to do with the content of the talk, the fact that there was free pizza was probably the real reason.

Players

Players is no more.

I learned that this venerable Austin establishment was set to close  when I was in town for a lecture back in October. I was on campus again this week for final reviews at the School of Architecture and saw that the building had already been demolished to make way for new campus construction.

Players (and more specifically their milkshakes) hold a special significance for me and my family. In the summer of 1997 my then girlfriend (who is currently my roommate) were drinking Players milkshakes when I first told her that I "liked her". Some eight years later we were again drinking Players milkshakes when I asked this same person (who is currently the mother of my children) to marry me. This woman (who is currently my wife) initially asked, "Are you serious?" but eventually said, "Yes."

Restaurants come and go as do (some) relationships, but there is something substantively upsetting when a building is demolished. Aside from the sentimental associations Clara and I had with Players, I will admit the building had no real architectural significance and I tend to be of the mind that not every old building need be preserved. In the interest of progress and building a better world sometimes older buildings - even ones we love - must come down to make room for the new. But that doesn't lessen the disturbing quality of seeing something that has been permanent fixture of the built landscape suddenly disappear in an act of mechanical violence.

Perhaps this emotion comes from the fact that as we get older and travel further from the events that defined the formative years of our lives, we increasingly need the places where those events occurred to remind us of the journey we were once on. Perhaps seeing those places erased reminds us of how our own memories are erased by the passage of time. 

Or perhaps it acts as a reminder that we ourselves are growing older and inching closer to the day we too will be demolished to make room for new construction.

 

HiWorks founder taken down a notch by eight-year-old

image courtesy LEGO (and for the record, I think I actually had this set when I was a kid)

So I was recently hanging out with Alex.  He is the eight-year-old son of my first cousin which I believe makes him my "first cousin once removed" (although even with the help of some informative Wikipedia diagrams, I'm still not entirely sure that this designation is correct).

At any rate, he was busy playing Minecraft on an iPhone and although that particular game remains a complete and total mystery to me, on some level it seems to be about the creation of space within a world that you then inhabit and explore.  As such, what he was doing in the form of a game seemed to be similar to what an architect does in the form of a profession.  I thought I might use this observation to attempt to create a teaching moment.  

The conversation that ensued has been recreated below:

 

BRANTLEY

So basically in Minecraft you're building a world, right?

 

ALEX

(without looking up from iPhone)

Yeah.

 

BRANTLEY

And then you get to walk around and explore that world?

 

ALEX

Yeah.

 

BRANTLEY

So by designing and building things you're essentially doing what an architect does.

 

ALEX

(looking up from iPhone)

I thought an architect just made the instructions. I thought someone else did the building.

 

BRANTLEY

Uh, yeah... I guess that's true. We create drawings that other people use to build things.

 

ALEX

(returning to the iPhone)

So it's like you draw the instructions for a Lego set.

 

BRANTLEY

(diminished)

Uh, yeah.  I guess that is what we do.

 

For those of you keeping track, the score is Alex 1, Brantley 0.

Why teach

Trinity students presenting in the HiWorks office

Ever since I came back to Texas from grad school I wanted to teach.  Indeed, one of the reasons I went back to school in the first place was to earn the piece of paper that said I was smart enough to teach.  Lake|Flato was very generous in allowing me the freedom to pursue this goal when I worked for them and it is something I've continued to do after creating HiWorks.

As an means of supplementing my income, teaching is not an effective strategy.  As an adjunct, I don't get paid much and so from purely economic standpoint the transaction make no sense whatsoever.  But some pursuits have value beyond what is printed on a pay stub and I would make the argument that teaching is one of those endeavors.

I have found one of the chief advantages of teaching is having the opportunity to operate in the world of ideas.  After a long day of dealing with budgets, codes and other realities of practice, it's helpful to take an hour and a half to talk about bigger ideas and concepts.  Standing up in front of a group of students is also helps clarify my own beliefs and theories about the built environment while at the same time giving me practice is communicating those ideas effectively.

This semester I'm teaching at Trinity University with Margaret Sledge, a friend and former colleague from my days at Lake|Flato.  It's great to be able to work with her again, but we've found that teaching at Trinity represents a unique opportunity.  Trinity does not have a dedicated architecture program and so our students are not architecture students per se.  They instead come from a variety of different academic backgrounds and bring that diversity to the studio.  Although their graphic abilities might not be as developed as students who have been studying architecture for years, Margaret and I have found that their ideas are incredibly  sophisticated.

At the end of the day, our goal is not to turn these students in to architects.  Although a few might go on to study architecture or urban design at the graduate level, we see our charge as bigger than that.  As these students go on to become doctors, lawyers and CEOs, they will take with them a better understanding of the role that architecture plays in our daily lives.  Our hope is that we have instilled in them an appreciation of the importance of the built environment and in doing so they have become better consumers of it.  Although good architects play a critical role in making the world a better place, so too do good clients.