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The Profession

Stephen Miller is not an Architect

Not an architect…

Not an architect…

During this first month of 2019 I performed a little experiment. I set up a Google Alert to notify me whenever the phrase “architect of” was used. I did this because I was curious how often the term was used to describe an architect who designed a building as opposed to being used metaphorically to describe the designer of something else.

It turns out the term is rarely used to describe actual architects.

Below is a compiled list of all the other things “architect of” can be used to describe. You’ll notice some trends. The phrase is disproportionately used to describe NFL defensive coaches and Republican political strategists:

the architect of Train-18 retires from ICF retires from ICF

the architect of immigration policies

the architect of the foundation of Boise State's football success

the architect of it all

the architect of the strong culture of competent, compassionate caring

the architect of the ascension of the UW program

the architect of the Favre-era Packers

the architect of its progressive economic measures

the architect of a broad measure that House Democrats

the architect of much of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda

the architect of Senate Republicans' plan to give President Donald Trump his border wall

the architect of the North's governing "juche" ideology of self-reliance

the architect of many of the run schemes

the architect of the memo

the architect of a growing program

the architect of the Saints roster that earned home-field advantage

the architect of their stylish attack

the architect of the Moody Blues sound

the architect of Australia's downfall as he ended the innings with figures of 6/41

the architect of the most successful run in the last century of Cubs baseball

the architect of both goals in his side's hard-earned 2-1 win at ANZ Stadium

the architect of India's bright start

the architect of the bombing attack against the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole

the architect of ESSA, which passed in 2015

the architect of an FA Cup giant-killing four years later

the architect of the German unification

the architect of neoconservatism

the architect of what types of customized spaces and components should be introduced

the architect of one of the top companies in the space

the architect of Finland’s golden generation

the architect of the world’s largest biometric project

the architect of undying memories

the architect of two Ravens Super Bowl squads

the architect of the NFL's 27th-ranked offense

the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks

the architect of the Renault-Nissan alliance

the architect of the Boston Red Sox team that steamrolled the opposition in 2018

the architect of the network's burgeoning Star Trek universe

the architect of the scheme used to survey about a thousand nearby star systems

the architect of Bearcat football

the architect of the Constitution

the architect of Trump's Tuesday night speech

the architect of No. 2 Michigan's lockdown defense

the architect of the law that created Medicare Part D in 2003

the architect of two Super Bowl-winning teams

the architect of Wakanda

the architect of the financial system in the fledgling United States

the architect of the best defense of all time

the architect of mega-bank mergers

the architect of Bahrain's growth

the architect of the broad strokes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

the architect of the 1985 Bears defense

the architect of building Furniture Row Racing to a championship level

the architect of the rise to power of President Donald Trump

the architect of product innovation for the California-based Deutsche Telekom

the architect of the Renault-Nissan alliance

the architect of the disengagement

the architect of a legal theory of obstruction that was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court

the architect of the 1963 March on Washington

the architect of an unprovoked nuclear attack carried out by the United States

the architect of the Environmental Protection Agency

the architect of choice for developers and luxury brands

the architect of the country's economic reforms

the architect of the Cowboys early 1990s renaissance

the architect of L.O.L. Surprise!

the architect of much of Mr. Trump's immigration agenda

the architect of the Hotshots' title triumph in the season-ending Governors Cup

the architect of unified modern India

the architect of some of the White House stiffest immigration measures

the architect of Acts of Random Kindness

the architect of U.S. foreign policy to sustain their aura of power

the architect of the currency union

the architect of the King legacy

the architect of complicated legislative maneuvers

the architect of programmatic passivity

the architect of Thaksinomics

the architect of the TPP

the architect of Robb’s brief, turbulent tenure

the architect of the cross-party move

the architect of the SNP's rise to power

the architect of their defense

the architect of the Paris Agreement on climate change

the architect of Renault's increased Formula 1 commitment

the architect of the 2019 revision of the Book of Common Prayer

the architect of a U.S. military strike in Syria

the architect of your police leadership career

the architect of the Giants' success

the architect of disinformation

the architect of his misfortune

the architect of bad governance in Kenya

the architect of a nearly $2 million real estate investment scam

the architect of Warner Bros.' stable of DC Comics films

the architect of the New England Patriots' reign

the architect of the 1985 Chicago Bears' defense

the architect of the president’s campaign platforms in its early days

the architect of the Specials and the 2-Tone movement

the architect of the Blüthner piano

the architect of an eye-popping $50 billion acquisition spree

the Architect of the Slam Poetry Scene

Finding God


There are some really cool parts about being a small office. On the one hand I answer to no one. On the other hand I have the support of no one.

Of course that’s oversimplifying things a bit: I answer to clients and I have the support of colleagues and consultants. But there are times during the life of a project where it would be really nice to have an extra set of hands. Or three.

I’m in the final week of the production of a construction document set. These are the drawings that the contractor will use to build the design. On the one hand it’s as close as I often get to the actual construction of a building. Although an architect doesn’t physically build buildings they do have to think about how someone will build them. They have to think about how hands will assemble materials together to keep the rain out while allowing the spirits of the inhabitants to soar.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said that “God is in the details”. That may be true but the devil is in there, too,

Traveling with Robert Venturi

image courtesy VSBA

image courtesy VSBA

Along with other members of my profession I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of Robert Venturi. Although I never met him in person, he has traveled with me throughout my career.

I was first introduced to Mr. Venturi via his wife and collaborator, Denise Scott Brown. I read the book they wrote together with Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, as a young undergraduate architecture student. The book provided analytical tools that helped me understand the sort of messy suburban landscapes that surrounded me in Texas. It also taught me that if I kept my mind and my eyes open I could learn from any built environment. This is how I came to be interested in courthouses and small town urbanism.

My relationship to Venturi’s earlier book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was, well, complex and contradictory. Even though it was one of the first works of architectural theory I read it was remarkably accessible. Unlike the writing of other architects, Venturi’s prose was both clear and persuasive and it served as an example I have always sought to match in my own writing.

Of course I was reading Complexity and Contradiction a good three decades after it was originally published. Ideas that were radical in 1967 were somewhat less so in 1997 after postmodernism (a term Venturi disliked) was rapidly falling out of favor. I remember arriving at the end of the book excited by the ideas it contained and then being underwhelmed by the built work Venturi cited as examples.

Complexity and Contradiction was an expansion of Venturi’s Master of Fine Arts Thesis he completed at Princeton in 1950. It loomed large over me when I attended Princeton myself as a graduate student and was tasked with creating a thesis of my own. Just like Mark Twain hated Benjamin Franklin for providing an example that was a bit too perfect for a young boy to follow, I came to resent Robert Venturi for writing a thesis that was a bit too perfect for an architecture student to emulate.

Venturi’s thesis perfectly reflected Princeton’s legacy of integrating history and theory while defining the direction of Venturi’s work for the rest of his career. It was, in short, the plutonic ideal of what an architectural thesis should be. That was a high bar for a student to clear and in trying to do the same I failed spectacularly.

Studying at Princeton put me in close proximity to many of the projects Venturi’s had built along with John Rauch and Denise Scott Brown. His 1980 Gordon Wu Hall on Princeton’s campus happened to be the closest dining hall to the College of Architecture. The building’s exterior made the same playful contextual references Venturi’s work was known for but it was the interior that fascinated me. It was warm and inviting. It felt good to eat there even if I was sitting by myself surrounded by young and care-free undergraduates. 

Venturi would later travel with me to Italy on my honeymoon. When my wife (who like Denise Scott Brown is also an architect) arrived in Rome we carried a long list of buildings we hoped to visit. Even so I distinctly remember wandering into a piazza not on the list and thinking, “I know this place.” I recognized it because Venturi had referenced it in one of his books.

Back in Texas Venturi’s footprint was relatively small. Built in 1992, the Children’s Museum of Houston features playful reinterpretations of the elements that define typical “serious” museums. A decade earlier Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown had designed an art museum for Austin that, had it been built, would have changed the cultural and architectural landscape of that city for the better.

I always appreciated the fact that Venturi had a sense of humor about his work. I also respected the fact that he could admit when he was wrong. In the original text of Complexity and Contradiction he disparaged the a church outside of Florence. Venturi later added a footnote where he admitted that after actually visiting the church in person it was in fact a beautiful and effective building. 

Venturi famously responded to Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” credo by saying “Less is a bore.” After all these years I can certainly say traveling with him has never been boring.

First Ink


As a licensed architect I'm required by law use a seal "to identify all construction documents prepared by the registrant or under the registrant's supervision and control for use in Texas". In other words, I have to stamp and sign my drawings.

Back in the day architects used a physical rubber stamp but today it's far more common for drawings to be issued electronically and for a "digital" stamp to be used. That's why even though I've been an architect for over a decade I never actually had a reason to use the physical stamp I purchased after I earned my license. I kept it tucked away in a drawer, it's surface unsullied by the ink that impregnated the pad sitting next to it.

As it came time to release the drawings for the project we're doing in Big Bend we realized that the National Park Service requires (amongst many other things) that a set of "record" drawings be produced with a physical stamp and signature. And so after eleven years of waiting, my architect's stamp finally was given the chance to do that which it was made to do.

I have to admit that the act of signing and stamping a set of drawings is a remarkably satisfying experience. The physical act provides a fulfilling closure to what is often abstract, digital process of working for months on a computer. 

I'll still use the digital stamp for most of my projects but it's nice to know the physical stamp is there, ready and willing, should the need arise.

Three Cheers for Thursday


In an another month HiWorks will be celebrating the fifth anniversary. I could write a book about all the things I have learned along the way. I'm sure some of these lessons are similar to what every small business owner experiences whereas some are unique to those in a design profession. Some of the trends I've encountered are universal whereas some are probably just coincidental. 

For example it seems that whenever I start to wonder about what I'm going to be working on for the next few months I'll get a random phone call from someone wanting a house or a coffee shop or a community theatre. To a certain degree that is the nature of the architecture profession: you can market all you want but at the end of the day you have to wait for a client to hire you.

But the interesting thing is that those random phone calls always seem to come on a Thursday.

I have no idea why this is but it happened again yesterday (a Thursday) and I am grateful for it. I don't know what magic exists between Wednesday night and Friday morning but I am content to take full advantage of this phenomenon be it a legitimate pattern or a random fluke.

Either way I get to end the week with new opportunities on the horizon.

The Future Is Not Here yet

Remember a few years ago when 3-D printers were all the rage? I do and I'll admit I found myself caught up in all the hype. As an architect the appeal was obvious: every project I do is developed as a computer model and it would be great to hit "print" and have a physical model magically appear. This was a potential game-changer in terms of producing study models for our internal use and presentation models for our clients.

And so in 2014 after months of research I ordered a fifth generation MakerBot Replicator, the most expensive doorstop I have ever owned. From the beginning there were issues: the first time I started up the machine the build plate chewed up the ribbon cable that connected the extruder to the rest of the printer. I had to return the entire printer to the manufacturer. Weeks later after it was repaired a series of “smart” extruders were constantly clogging and each one also had to be returned to the manufacturer. I was not alone in my troubles: the issues were so large that MakerBot became embroiled in a class action lawsuit over the quality-control issues that plagued the rollout of their fifth generation printer.

Meanwhile I was trying to run a business. Although I knew there would be a learning curve involved in becoming proficient in the use of this new tool, there came a point where it became increasingly difficult to justify tinkering with the system that seemed incapable of producing a usable print. Although I produced a few study models that I was able to share with a client, it remained a novelty more than anything else.

In speaking with other firms that had made a similar investment it seems they typically have an intern or other employee dedicated to tinkering with the printer to nurse usable prints out of the system. As a small office those were resources I simply did not have available. Increasingly the printer sat unused and I finally decided to sell it on Craigslist before it lost all value. I was eventually able to sell it to a concrete counter fabricator out of Austin for a sixth of what I originally paid for it.

Being an early adopter of a technology always carries risks. Sometimes that risk pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. The drone I invested in, for example, proved to be an incredibly tool. The 3D printer was not. Someday the technology may deliver on its promise of revolutionizing the design and construction industries, but that day is not today. 

An Open Letter To John Cornyn

One of my two senators recently reached out to his constituents to solicit stories about their personal experiences with the Affordable Care Act. Even though I'm pretty sure he's already made up his mind on the issue I appreciated the gesture. I shared my story with him and I thought you might be interested as well:

May 18, 2017

Dear Senator Cornyn:

I appreciate you reaching out to your constituents regarding their personal experiences with Obamacare. I imagine you have received a range of responses but I wanted to take you up on your offer and share with you the part the 2010 law has played in my life these past few years.

For me the passage of Affordable Care Act will always be closely tied to my decision to start my own business. For years I had wanted to establish an architecture firm of my own but like countless other aspiring small business owners I had a family to consider and had to make the difficult calculus of determining whether or not making a such a professional move would endanger the welfare of that family.

The largest single concern for us at the time was the high cost of health insurance. 

As you will recall before the implementation of the Affordable Care Act the cost private insurance was egregiously large. Even the health insurance I had been receiving through my employer had experienced double-digit premium increases for many years before.

Because the Affordable Care Act promised reasonable rates for self-employed individuals such as myself I had the confidence to launch HiWorks. Although there were many things that kept me up at night those first few years, health insurance was never one of them. When it came time to make use of the Health Insurance Marketplace we found the website reasonably easy to navigate and we were able to find a plan that matched our previous one. Even though we received no subsidies our premiums actually cost a little less and we were able to keep our doctors.

Our experience was a good one. I know that doesn't match the story that is often told but I can honestly say our experience was positive - or at least as positive as one can expect dealing with health insurance.

It should be mentioned that I come to this topic from a relative position of privilege. Our family could afford health insurance before Obamacare and we could after it was implemented as well. For me the real benefit of the law was that it ultimately allowed many more Americans to have health insurance. Even if I had ultimately paid more for my premiums I would consider it a bargain if those less fortunate than me might gain coverage for their families.

I understand that the Affordable Care Act has its flaws and issues that need to be corrected. I see it as the responsibility of my elected officials to fix those flaws and address those issues. I wish that could have been done over the last seven years.

I am happy to report that my business is doing well and that my family is healthy. But I would be lying if I said I was not concerned about the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act. I realize the bill in its current state is merely a starting point but I do feel it heads in a problematic direction. Specifically I take issue with the proposed removal of the safeguards that prevent insurers from raising insurance rates for preexisting conditions.

You see, I am asthmatic and I have been all my life. I also have a father with heart disease. I have a friend with multiple sclerosis and a business partner with brain cancer. At the moment all of these conditions are manageable with the high quality of health care we enjoy. However each of these represents a preexisting condition that insurers could exploit under the House proposal. The fact my wife gave birth to our two children may also qualify as a preexisting condition that could cause our rates to increase as well.

I realize we are now talking about hypotheticals and there is considerable uncertainty moving forward. I do not envy your position as I know your constituents are evenly divided on this issue. As the senior Senator you are in a unique position to provide leadership and work to repair the existing law or develop a new one that offers the same protections that all Americans deserve.

I hope the perspective I have described here has been helpful. I thank you for your service-

-J. Brantley Hightower

An Open Letter To My Contractor Friends

Dear Contractor Friend-

I hope you are doing well and that your 2017 is off to a good start. I know we don't always get along but I wanted to reassure you that I really do like you. You take our drawings on paper and coordinate the construction of that design so that it exists as a real thing in the world. That's really cool. I know how hard it is to do that and I have a great deal of respect for what you do. Your job is not an easy one.

Of course, our job isn't a cake walk either. We have to balance and give form to our clients' needs, wants and desires and create a design that adheres to local laws (zoning, codes, etc.) as well as universal laws (beauty, gravity, etc.). We have to anticipate everything and document it in such a way that you can build it.

We of course do make mistakes from time to time. I admit it, and I'm sure you'd admit the same thing. But at the end of the day we're all on the same team: we both share the common goal of building something good for our client.

So here's why I'm writing you: if you see something in the drawings that doesn't seem quite right, could you pick up the phone give me a call? You're a smart person: if something seems wrong, it probably is. So if, for example, your reading of the drawings implies that a set of steps going into a pool starts above the top edge of the pool and stops before it reaches the bottom, maybe next time you could give me a call and we could figure it out before the concrete hardens. I would appreciate it.

Sincerely Yours-

Brantley Hightower

Early Bonus Hours

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago about the advantages of waking up early. Naturally I found the story to be accurate and profound because it reaffirmed something I already believed.

A quote from the second paragraph pretty much summarizes it:

Russ Perry, the 33-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona, resident and founder of graphic design firm Design Pickle, says that 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. is “the most planned, most organized and most scheduled part of my day. It’s a crapshoot from there.”


There are some days I feel I do more between four and six in the morning than I do during the rest of the day. In those pre-dawn hours I'm not battered by the phone calls or the emails or any of the other distractions of adulthood that somehow seem to eat up so much of my time.

I don't wake up early because I am some super-disciplined machine: on the contrary it's because I don't have the discipline to turn off my phone and not check my email that I can't be as productive during the rest of the day. Waking up early is also easy when you're naturally an early riser. I never set an alarm but almost always wake up between 4:45 and 5:15 alert and ready to start the day. This is in contrast to my wife who tends to rise at a more typical human hour (although when she does wake up she is really, really angry). 

The net result of the two early bonus hours I have every morning is that I get a total of fourteen hours - nearly half an entire "extra" day - of productive, distraction-free time every week. This is a good thing. But of course those two hours are not always completely without distraction.

A couple of months ago my youngest daughter, Darcy, decided she was done with sleeping. At least relative to her older sister Darcy was historically our "good" sleeper but towards the beginning of the summer she took to getting out of bed at all hours of the night to roam the halls and/or crawl into bed with her parents (i.e. elbow Mommy in the face and knee Daddy in the groin). Although we eventually developed some strategies for getting her to go to sleep in the evening, she was still (and is still) waking up far too early in the morning.

And this leaves me torn. Although I still cherish my early bonus hours of unbridled productivity, I also cherish having one-on-one time with my daughter. One of the great things about working when your family is asleep is that you don't feel guilty about not spending time with them. The fact remains that I still have lots to do at 5:00am when I look up and see Darcy in her pajamas, clutching her stuffed animals in one hand while she waves at me with the other.

Like so many aspects of parenting, I know there will come a day when I sorely miss these "interruptions". I long to see the three-year-old version of my baby waving at me from the doorway. But that doesn't change the fact that my baby still needs clothes and haircuts and health insurance and contributions to her college fund. It's not that I don't want to hang out with her nor is it that I don't want to work. The issue is that I want to do both of those things. Unfortunately there are only a set number of hours in a day, a set number of days in a year, and a set number of years in a childhood.

In that sense I'm lucky to be given a few early bonus hours to experience Darcy's childhood. And for that I am grateful.


Golden Arches

So I'm a firm believer in modernism.

This isn't a particularly noteworthy declaration as modernism has been around for the better part of a century. It's not that I think traditional architecture is bad (heck, I wrote a book about traditional buildings), it's just that I feel we a should be free to use all the technologies and spatial concepts that are available to us to challenge assumptions and make our world a better and more meaningful place. 

Note that there is nothing in that definition of modernism that precludes the use of more traditional forms and materials.

In other words, we see modernism as an inclusive thing. This is good as we have often been asked to design additions to buildings that are in fact more traditional in their design. For example, we recently finished a pavilion for a family in Medina County. The existing house had a series of limestone arches and in order to relate the new pavilion to what was already there it made sense to "borrow" the proportions and detailing of those arches. 

The argument could be made that the roof structure is "modern" in that it pushes the limits of its materials and is engineered to be a thin, floating plane. The base, however, is "traditional" in that it uses heavy masonry arches not that unlike those used by the ancient Romans. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive and in this little building we like to think they create something more rich than if we had limited ourselves to just being traditional or just being modern.

More importantly, these two approaches together create a shady place for a family to gather at their home to eat, to talk and to enjoy one another's company - activities that are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

Occasionally We Do Buildings, Too


Last month when I was doing a book signing in Houston I had the opportunity to be interviewed by a writer for Connection, the journal of the AIA Young Architects Forum. This particular issue focuses on how the built environment is consumed by architects and the public and the article I was interviewed for talks about my experience producing The Works podcast, writing The Courthouses of Central Texas and writing this blog (how meta). 

One thing we talked about during the interview that didn't make it into the article was the fact that all this "extracurricular" stuff takes time - the most precious and most scarce resource a small office has. As much as I enjoy the writing and the podcasting and everything else, the return on the investment isn't always clear. Ay, there's the rub.

Anyway, you can read the article online here.

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.


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.


Regarding Competitions

this is not a winning entry because it was never actually entered

As a practicing architect, I am deeply ambivalent about design competitions.

On the one hand they are clearly exploitative. Hundreds of architects and their teams spend weeks if not months developing designs where there is only a small chance of receiving any type of compensation for their efforts. 

On the other hand, competitions do allow smaller firms the opportunity to work on projects of greater scale and importance. They allow architects to stretch their design muscles by exploring ideas that their "real" projects rarely allow. For younger designers working in firms where they aren't doing much design work, it provides them with a chance to gain design experience and expand their portfolios. And every once in a while, they actually win something.

When I was fresh out of school I entered a number of competitions. I never won any of them, but I came in second several times. What I came to realize was the value of these efforts came not from the potential recognition or prize money that might result, but from the actual experience gained by producing the deign. Every time you design something, you get a little better at doing it and you learn how to better communicate your ideas.

Whatever skill I may have as a designer today is a result of the six-and-a-half years I spent in architecture school, the ten years I spent working at various architecture firms, and yes, the sum total of all the time I spent working on competitions I did not win. It's a hard habit to break and I still myself drawn agains my better judgement to enter competitions today. Only now I've learned I don't actually have to enter them.

Earlier this summer I learned of a competition sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation that was for a new center focused on architecture, design and education. I was intrigued by the challenge and paid my $100 registration fee. I spent the next month-and-a-half developing a design that would not be housed in a tower in Chicago's loop as the competition brief suggested but rather in a long, horizontal structure that ran alongside the Chicago River. The exhibition galleries and presentation theater would actually float on a barge and so have the capability to travel to other cities, expanding the cultural reach of the institution. Formally the design related to both the curve of the river and the broad-shouldered structure of the bridges that span over it.

I was really excited with where the design was heading, but I was running out of time. Unlike when I was younger, I couldn't stay up for three days straight to get it done. I couldn't sequester myself in front of my iMac to knock out the final renderings, print out the requisite presentation boards, box them up and FedEx them to Chicago to be there by today. As much as I may have wanted to do that, I had birthday parties to take the kids to and real jobs with real clients who needed attention. As the Labor Day weekend approached I made the difficult decision to abandon the project and not spend all weekend rushing to finish it but rather go outside and play catch with the girls.

Part of me is disappointed that I didn't see this effort all the way through. Part of me wonders about the possibility - however small - of what would have happened if I completed the submission.

But at the end of the day someone will win. There are no doubt scores of architects willing to enter this and countless other competitions. Many of them are capable of winning, but I alone am capable of being the father of my daughters. I am only given one Labor Day to spend with Sammy when she is 5 and Darcy when she is 2 and so I decided to spend it with them.

Maybe that's hurting my career in the short-term but I'd like to think it's making me a better person, which in the long run makes me a better architect.

The architecture of caverns

With all the rain we've been having it has been a challenge to keep my daughters entertained. In an act of desperation, last week I locked one of them in a cave.

To be more precise, I took Sammy to Natural Bridge Caverns located about a half hour north of San Antonio.

The limestone of central Texas lends itself to the formation of caverns, several of which are open to the public. I've always been partial to Longhorn Caverns (I had wanted to get married there but was informed by my fiancé that I would not be marrying her in a cave), but Natural Bridge Caverns is closer so we went there instead.

As an architect, I've always been fascinated by the cave surveys that are produced to map out the interior of these subterranean spaces. On the one hand, they are crude representations of the wonderously complex underground voids and demonstrate the limitations of representing complex three-dimensional spaces on a two-dimensional sheet of paper.

image courtesy Texas Speleological Survey

That said, these are still beautiful drawings. And the spaces they describe, however abstractly, are beautiful as well. It is truly an architecture without architects; a unique type of space that was created by a natural process with no overriding design intent. Although the mechanisms of how dripstones, flowstone and the like are well understood, the fact that it creates something that we humans find aesthetically pleasing (and will pay good money to see) is fascinating.

There is a trend in architecture today to attempt to remove the designer from the process of design. The idea is that a diagram or process can be created so that a constructed algorithm becomes responsible for the building's form. I personally find this approach highly suspect - the hand of the architect inevitably guides the work and to claim otherwise is misleading. But it makes for an interesting thought experiment and in caverns we see the promise of undesigned spaces realized by simple natural phenomenon. For an architect, it is fascinating to experience spaces with no historical precedent that were designed by no human intellect.

On the other hand my daughter, who is not an architect, was much more fascinated by the puddles she was able to splash around in throughout the cavern's interior and the doodlebugs she was able to play with outside of its exit.

Happy accidents

As an architect, you spend a lot of time trying to imagine what a finished building will be like. You constantly work to anticipate how it will function and the kind of experiences people will have inside of it. You can't anticipate everything, however, and sometimes "happy accidents" occur. Many times these unintended results are ephemeral - the setting sun will reflect off a pool of water and animate an otherwise blank facade. Or in the case of the Connexa Energy project, a window will align perfectly with the construction site's port-a-poty.

I totally meant to do that.

Who are these people?

photo by Mark Menjivar

Ever wonder who the slightly blurry people are in architectural photographs? Well, when we had Mark Menjivar shoot our recently completed Network Operations Center project, we asked the entire project team to act as models. On the one hand, it was a great way to reunite the team to see the result of all our efforts. On the other hand, I don't think this is going to launch our modeling careers.

Perhaps we'd best stick to designing buildings.

Free publicity

image courtesy Kin Man Hui of the San Antonio Express-News

The San Antonio Express-News recently ran a story on seven architects to watch in the San Antonio area. The story was pitched as a story about five young architects to watch, but there ended up being more of us and none of us were all that young. Either way I was flattered to be included in the story. It was also really cool that I had knew or worked directly with nearly every other architect profiled. Tenna and I worked together at Lake|Flato and our daughters are friends. Tobin and I worked together at Lake|Flato as well and I helped him out on some of his early solo efforts. Patrick helped give me some advice about 3D printing and Jonathan and I are working together on the High Cotton project in Lubbock.

I thought the article was well written and the writer, Steve Bennett, did a great job of making me sound reasonable articulate. That said, the experience did teach me that standing at the edge of the frame of a photograph taken using a wide-angle lens adds at least 10 pounds.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

To become an architect one must complete several tasks.

One must survive five years of architecture school followed by as many years "interning" in an architecture office. One must pay vast sums of money to a quasi-governmental organization to maintain records (that one must pay additional monies to access). And then, when all that is done, one must past a series of constantly changing physical and emotional tests that have little or nothing to do with the actual practice of architecture.

If one happens to live in San Antonio, one most likely will take these tests at a testing center near the intersection of 281 and Thousand Oaks. The center itself is located deep within the bowls of a building and one must walk down a long, dark corridor before having one's person searched for contraband. Only then can one enter the sacred exam room to sit for the dreaded 6, 7 or 9 exams. 

All of this, of course, is completely absurd.

I was walking by the testing center the other day and happened to look down the corridor that I walked down so many times so many years ago. I couldn't help but smile. Then I spat upon the ground and walked away.


Vestigial tails of obsolete technology

I took advantage of the break between Christmas and New Year's to clean out my closet and take some things I wasn't wearing anymore to Goodwill. One garment I donated was a light jacket that had become more than a little threadbare around the cuffs.

As I was considering this particular jacket, I realized it was almost 13 years old. I bought it in my final months of living in Chicago - it was technically spring but the weather was still cold enough to require an additional layer that was less heavy than my bulky fare I had been wearing to survive the winter. And so I made the short walk from where I worked to the Gap on Michigan Avenue. Gap clothing was generic enough for my taste at the time (apparently I was part of the earliest normcore fashion vanguard) and so I was able to find an affordable, nondescript jacket that did the job. After I moved back to Texas, it turned out that a light spring jacket in Chicago also served as a good winter coat in San Antonio.

Having been manufactured in 2002, the jacket contained a small inside pocket that was designed to fit a mobile phone. At the time I thought this was a really cool feature as it perfectly accommodated my Nokia 6185.  In the years that followed, I updated my phone several times but kept the same jacket. As the form factor of phones changed from "candy bar" to "clam shell" to "slate", the pocket became increasingly useless as it no longer could accommodate the very thing it was intended to carry. It instead became a reminder of how infrequently I update my wardrobe.

Fashion is intended to be short-lived and typically does not try to incorporate technology. Buildings are different - they are built to last decades (if not centuries) and by definition have technology embedded throughout. As a result, architecture is littered with vestigial tails of obsolete technology. Did the house you grew up in have an intercom system that was never actually used? Ever try to stick a grounded plug into a two-prong receptacle? I can't tell you how many built-in media cabinets I designed over the years to accommodate the tubes of large-screen TVs that are now way to deep for the flat-screen LCD displays they now contain.

Often as architects we are tasked with developing a precise solution to specific needs. We are really good at this. The trick is those needs - especially as they relate to the accommodation of technology - often evolve after it is constructed. At the end of the day, flexibility is important as we cannot change our buildings as often as we change our clothing - even if you happen to be someone who wears the same clothing for 13 years.