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It Never Feels Good To Say, "I Told You So"

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

I was in Fort Worth over the weekend to attend a lecture from my friend and mentor Max Levy. He was speaking at the Kimbell Art Museum and the visit also afforded me the opportunity to visit the museum as well as its neighboring extension, the so-called "Piano Pavilion" that was completed in 2013. As far as art museums go the addition is respectable enough. It clearly cost a fortune but I couldn't help but feel saddened by its existence. This sentiment was not unexpected. 

Back in 2011 I wrote an essay for called "Requiem For A Lawn". in which I talked about the addition before it was built and what I feared would be lost once it was finished. Alas, my predictions proved prescient.

Below is the text of that essay that appeared in the July/August issue of Texas Architect:

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up a short drive from the Kimbell Art Museum. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Louis Kahn’s vaulted masterpiece was the reason I decided to become an architect, it certainly did provide a compelling example of what great architecture could be.

As I learned more about the Kimbell in architecture school, I began parking not in the sunken eastern lot but on the street between Kahn’s building and the Amon Carter Museum. This western approach was the one originally envisioned as the main entry and I felt like it was a little secret between Kahn, the building, and me. A key part of this sequence was crossing the broad, tree-lined meadow that served as the Kimbell’s front lawn for almost 40 years.

I have come to appreciate this lawn as an important foil to the massive and dignified Kimbell Art Museum. While the tree lined lawn was originally planted as a mall centered on the landmark tower of the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center, the integration of the greenspace into the overall design of the Kimbell effectively wove the new building harmoniously into its existing urban context.

Perhaps more important, Kahn’s plan preserved an open field of activity for the city of Fort Worth. In my years of crossing it as I made my way to the museum I have seen kids flying kites and dogs catching Frisbees. I have seen families engaged in picnics and fly-fishermen practicing their cast. I have seen the Kimbell’s front lawn play host to several games of touch football and at least one impromptu cricket match.

*          *          *

In 2007, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was announced as the architect for a significant addition to the Kimbell. This would be the second attempt to expand the museum: a 1989 proposal by Romaldo Giurgola was ultimately abandoned after fierce public outcry that its approach would severely alter the integrity of Kahn’s original structure. While certainly flawed, Giurgola’s scheme notably left the western lawn untouched.

As vociferous as the opposition was 31 years ago, it is surprising how little reaction Piano’s more recent effort has generated. Perhaps this is due to the fact that unlike the 1989 proposal, the Kimbell itself will remain intact. This new scheme seeks to complement the original structure from a distance rather than mimic it at close range. Kahn’s near-perfect interplay of light and space, structure and material, served and servant will remain the same. Of course, the amount of gallery space will be doubled and the expanded museum will in all likelihood reap the benefits of increased attendance. That is all fitting and proper, but something irreplaceable will vanish in the bargain since Piano’s design places the new building in the middle of the Kimbell’s western lawn.

I am not suggesting that plans for the addition be scrapped (as construction has already begun it is a bit late to make that argument) but I believe it should be recognized that some of the magic that is the Kimbell will be lost.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I for one will miss what once was. I will miss the intimate and easily understood scale of the original Kimbell. I will miss the western lawn and the display of civic life that it nurtured. Piano’s rational is that the new building and its associated underground parking will re-orient entry into Kahn’s building, allowing most visitors to enter from the west as originally planned. Only now, rather than crossing a broad and open lawn, visitors will be merely traverse a court between two buildings. While visitors will be entering from the direction Kahn intended, the experience will be a totally different one.

At the end of last year when groundbreaking seemed imminent, I made a special trip to the Kimbell to see it one final time in its original state. It was a beautiful autumn morning and the lawn’s perimeter trees sent long shadows across the expanse of green. As it was early on a Saturday, I had the space to myself and the solitude only heightened the experience. That morning felt almost like a final parting at the end of a long relationship. Though neither of us would ever be the same afterward, we could still enjoy one another’s company one last time.

Now Award Winning

I know what you're thinking.

The holidays were great but you didn't get that one gift you were wanting: you didn't get a copy of The Courthouses of Central Texas. But that's OK. Now's a great time to treat yourself by ordering a copy here or here.

Still looking for an excuse? Now you can justify your investment in the non-fiction book market with the knowledge that The Courthouses of Central Texas is an AWARD WINNING publication as the San Antonio Conservation Society has chosen it to receive a 2017 citation.

Obviously I'm flattered but I'm also looking forward to the spike in sales that will no doubt result, the book's resulting rise to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List and the ultimate adaptation of it into a hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

San Antonio REX

Earlier this week Joshua Prince-Ramus gave a lecture here in San Antonio. In the last decade he's been a part of some truly innovative projects including the Wyly Theatre in Dallas (pictured above). The Rivard Report asked me to write a short article about the lecture that you can read here.

I am not an objective journalist. What I write is always influenced by the subjective experiences I have had. It just so happens my most recent subjective experience (as described in last week's blog post) was Disneyland and so I naturally organized the essay around a comparison to the Happiest Place on Earth.

Traveling Overland To China

image courtesy www.chinatour.com

image courtesy www.chinatour.com

So the second season of our podcast The Works is currently underway.

For our the eleventh episode we're revisiting James Andrews, someone we met all the way back in the podcast's first episode. James is from the UK, but his office has done a large amount of work in China. The degree to which that experience has changed how he works in San Antonio (and the degree to which San Antonio has changed China) may surprise you.

So do have a listen and as always if you like what you hear, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a review - two things that help other people find the show.

On Writing Books, Building Houses and Having Sons

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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.

 

Brantley in Boerne

boerne-tcoct

As part of the "2015-2016 Courthouses of Central Texas World Tour", I'll be speaking in Boerne, Texas at the Patrick Heath Public Library this coming Saturday at 10:30am. Boerne is the county seat of Kendall County that has one of the oldest and most unique courthouses in the state. Although most counties tear down their an older courthouse to build a new one, in Kendall County the kept adding on to their 1870 structure (at least until they built a large annex across the street in 1998). This is in no small part due to the fact that the original structure was so solidly built by Latin-speaking German immigrant masons who represented a significant part of Boerne's early population.

At any rate, the Saturday talk will be followed by a book signing where I will be allowed to openly deface books within a public library. There is also an exhibit of some of the drawings that appear in the book on display in the library's gallery through the end of the month. The library building itself is pretty cool. Finished in 2011 by OCO Architects (now LPA), the library overlooks and features an outdoor screened-in reading room that's one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a library.

Meanwhile in Rockdale...

residing in a place of honor in Rockdale

When The Courthouses of Central Texas was published earlier this year I experienced the curious transition that all writers go through of going from someone who creates knowledge in the world to someone who goes out into the world to sell a product. Being a writer is cool. Being a salesmen is less so.

Still, the 1,500 copies that UT Press printed won't sell themselves and so I've started to organize a series of lectures, exhibitions and book signings to introduce the book to world. In terms of book sales, the ROI for these efforts is limited (I earn a couple of bucks in royalties for every book I sell), but they can be really fun things to do and it gives me the opportunity to interact with some great people. For example I was in Rockdale this week to speak at the Lucy Hill Patterson Memorial Library and had a wonderful discussion with about 25-or-so residents of Milam County about how their courthouse figures in the story of courthouses in the state. I also was given a tour of Rockdale which is a lovely community an hour east of Austin with a beautifully restored train depot and a fun post-war movie theater. Hopefully the people who attended the talk learned a thing or two as a result of me visiting Rockdale. I know I did.

I also sold seven books, which means I raked in $14.

I am Brantley. Hear me tweet.

Believe it or not, I was an early adopter of Facebook. It turns out I was in grad school at Princeton when Zuckerberg was at Harvard and initially you had to have an Ivy League .edu email address to join. I played around with it for a week or two before dismissing it on account that it was a waste of time. I thought, "Why would people want to spend all day posting irrelevant things about their life?"

Apparently around 1.4 billion people wanted to do this.

Anyway, I eventually was overwhelmed by the social tsunami that is Facebook and started actively maintaining my account. And so it is only natural that I also join this other new social media startup called "The Twitter". And so my official "handle" is @BrantleyWorks and you can follow, retweet or whatever it is one is you do on Twitter there.

Although I will no doubt be sharing some HiWorks-related news, it won't be an official HiWorks thing. There will also probably be a fair amount of book and podcast promotion going on so I decided to go with a handle that can relate to all the "work" that I am doing (I am oh so clever). Besides, some tool in Austin already claimed the "BHightower" handle and so that wasn't really an option. 

 

There is no such thing as bad publicity

This image may or may not have been altered

It's been three months since The Courthouses of Central Texas was released. Publishing a book is not like releasing a movie where you instantly know weather or not the endeavor has been a success. The process of selling books is much, much slower. My editor once told me that if the original run of 1,200 copies are sold out within three years, they will consider it a success. 

So that means I have a lot of selling to do. It also means I have to pace myself.

In addition to the various book signings and lectures I have planned, I also rely on reviews to help get the word out. A nice one was published a few days ago and Texas Architect ran one in their most recent issue. The Architect's Newspaper ran one last month which wasn't really a review of my book so much as it was an airing of the critic's own insecurities.

The next logical step of course is to seek out celebrity endorsements.

 

So I was in Belton yesterday...

...which just happened to be where the Bell County Courthouse is located, which just happens to be the building featured on the cover of my new book, which I just happened to have an copy of in my car. Hilarity ensued.

In addition to using the opportunity to stage a cute photograph, I was also in town to meet with the Bell County Museum. We are planning on organizing an exhibition / lecture / book signing for the end of this year.

If only I still looked so young...

courtesy San Antonio Express-News

The San Antonio Express-News ran a nice article about the new book over the weekend. The free press is of course greatly appreciated, although for some reason than ran a photo of me from about ten years ago. I didn't think the book and/or fatherhood had aged me so much but apparently it has.

Either way, maybe the novelty of a book seemingly being written by a 17-year-old help will drive sales...

It is here

Over six years in the making, The Courthouses of Central Texas is officially released today. Published by the University of Texas Press, it is of course available from Amazon but is a little cheaper when ordered directly from the publisher itself.

So put that tax return to work, order yourself a copy (or five - the make great gifts), read it, look at the pictures and give positive feedback on it's Amazon page so maybe we can get all 1,200 copies printed.

I thank you.

The Architecture of Fracking (The Sequel)

One of the things that I've noticed whenever I've written for a newspaper or magazine is that there is always a larger story that could be told. You can say a lot in 1,000 words, but there are invariably details, tangents and stray observations that have to be cut to create a tighter narrative. That's one of the reasons why I started The Works podcast so that some of these subjects could receive more attention in a slightly different medium. 

A case in point is the article I wrote for the newest addition of the Architect's Newspaper. It's a follow-up to a piece I wrote last year about the impact of the oil boom on the built environment of south Texas. That's a pretty narrow focus and as I was researching the topic I discovered plenty of other really interesting things about one particular town located in the heart of the Eagle Ford Play. The "bonus material" that didn't fit into the article became the basis  for the second episode of The Works, "A Tale of Two Cotullas."

There won't always be both a print and audio version of a particular story, but I'm finding it fascinating to learn what plays well in one medium versus another.

Journalistic non-ojectivity

early sketch of Trinity University tower and chapel courtesy Ford, Powell & Carson

So when I was asked to write an article for the Rivard Report about an upcoming exhibition at Trinity University, I initially expressed some hesitation. I certainly felt the story needed to be told - the unearthing of a collection of design drawings by O'Neil Ford of some of his most important projects certainly seemed newsworthy.  However, I was worried I couldn't really approach the story from a place of objective neutrality.

First of all, I have taught at Trinity.  The student who discovered the drawings, Jason Azar, was in fact a student of mine.  The office where the drawings were discovered, Ford, Powell & Carson, is an office with whom I have collaborated and I am friends with several of its partners.  Kathryn O'Rourke, the professor who helped organize the exhibition, gave a guest lecture for the class I taught and I have asked her to speak again at next year's Design Conference sponsored by the Texas Society of Architects.

In other words, I have a some degree of relationship with all of the key players in the article.  Luckily there really isn't anything particularly controversial about the story so perhaps it is no big deal that I displayed questionable journalistic standards.

I did not design this building

But it is a cool adaptive reuse project and I did write an article about it for Urban Home Magazine. It was designed by my friend and former office-mate, Jonathan Card of Urbanist Design. A version of the article is finally online and can be read here.  A PDF of the print article can be downloaded here and a slideshow of some of the images (some of which were taken by yours truly) can be found here.

Enjoy.

Also getting real

image reproduced with permission from the University of Texas Press

The process by which a building becomes real may be long and confounding, but the way a book comes to be published can be just as mysterious.  After five years of work, my part is mostly done and now it is the publisher's turn to do the heavy lifting.  This week I received a mostly complete layout of my Courthouse book so that I might perform one final round of proofreading.  I have to admit, seeing things in "book-form" for the first time is pretty cool.  If all goes according to plan, I might just achieve my goal of having a book for sale on a shelf before bookstores collectively cease to exist.

Bad architecture

It's been a busy few weeks of writing.  In addition to the essay about fracking , I was also recently asked to write a piece for the Rivard Report about the poor quality of some of the newer buildings in downtown San Antonio.  Although I agree with the premise, this proved to be some of the more challenging 1,200 words to write.

Designing a good building is hard.  Building a good building is even harder as there are so many factors beyond the control of the architect.  No one sets off to design a bad building and besides that I am always hesitant to criticize the work of a colleague.  I tried the dance around this issue by praising the good work that is being done, but at the end of the day, San Antonio should demand better buildings than they are currently getting.  

Hopefully that was the idea I communicated.

Goodwho?

image courtesy Pamela Peters

On the western façade of The University of Texas at Austin Goldsmith Hall are inscribed the names of four architects. The first three are obvious enough. Ictinus designed the Parthenon. Vitruvius gave us the concepts of "firmness, commodity, and delight" in his ten books on architecture. Palladio may have only written four books on architecture, but the buildings he produced defined the direction of western architecture for the next 300 years.

The fourth name on that wall was always a bit of a mystery. The inscription read "Goodhue," but that name was not a familiar one. It was not mentioned in our history courses, and none of our design professors ever instructed us to look up the work of someone by that name. The library contained no monograph of his work, and so in the days before Wikipedia, we were all left asking the question, "Goodwho?"

When I graduated from UT in 2000, I moved to Chicago to begin my professional career. While there I volunteered as a tour guide at Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House which, as it turns out, sits about 400 feet from University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel. This colossal gothic pile was designed by a New York architect by the name of Bertram Goodhue. A few years later on a road trip through Nebraska, I found myself in Lincoln, where I explored the state's towering Capitol Building that this same Goodhue fellow had designed. Once I had returned to Texas and was working at Lake|Flato, I designed a middle school at Cranbrook in the shadow of Goodhue's Christ Church of Bloomfield Hills.

It turns out that Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was a rather prolific American architect working at the turn of the twentieth century. Although he was just a few years older than Wright, his architecture took a much more traditional path. As a virtuoso of revival styles, he produced designs in Gothic, Spanish, Romanesque, and many other modes. If modernism had never happened, Goodhue would today, no doubt, be considered a luminary on par with the likes of Ictinus, Vitruvius, and Palladio. But modernism did happen, and his name has become a footnote.

But I have found that the footnotes of history can teach just as much as the pillars that traditionally define it.

In my years as a student at UT, I may not have learned exactly who the man was behind the fourth name on the wall at Goldsmith, but I did learn to embrace the inherent incompleteness of my education and become an eternal student of architecture. No student ever graduates knowing everything—I certainly did not—but at UT I was taught to appreciate the unknown and enjoy the process of exploring.

Thirteen years after graduating from UT, it is easy to become bogged down in the grind of practice. But there is nothing more inspiring than discovering an architect whose work may be very different from mine, but whose ideas still have relevance today. I may never design a gothic church in Manhattan, but I can appreciate the ingenuity of how Goodhue modified historic precedent to address the specifics of the site. I may never design a library in a hybridized Egyptian and Mediterranean style, but I can appreciate Goodhue's attempt to assign appropriate stylistic approaches to new cities and programs. I may not always recognize the names of dead architects chiseled onto the sides of buildings, but I can certainly enjoy the process of discovering the work that earned them a place there.

 

*A version of they essay first appeared in the December 12, 2013 edition of the University of Texas School of Architecture's eNews bulletin.

On The Internet, Nothing Ever Dies

image courtesy LRS

So back in 2003 after returning to Texas from my first post-college job in Chicago, I wrote an essay about my time there.  That experience was not particularly unique - I graduated as a naive young architect with idyllic notions regarding what my chosen profession would really be like and naturally it took some time for me to accept that the practice of architecture was in many ways quite different from the study of it.  But for whatever reason, the essay received a bit of attention.  It won a competition and was ultimately published in a collection of essays about architecture and design.  As a result I felt good about my writing prowess, used the recognition it garnered to pad my resume and then for the most part I completely forgot about it.

And then, about a decade later, it came back.  Or more accurately, one line of that essay came back.

One of the points I try and make in the original essay is that architecture students - like most other college students - enter the profession with a great deal of passion for and dedication to their chosen field.  To describe this enthusiasm I wrote:

“Architecture is not simply a job. It is a lifestyle. It is a way of looking at the world.  It is a verb.  It is a constant exploration where one looks for and finds inspiration in the world around them, and then applies that inspiration to create something completely new. And that thing we create is beautiful and makes a difference in the world.”

OK, it's a little overblown, perhaps, but it gets the point across and sounds pretty cool - especially the part about architecture being a verb.  I'm sure I stole that from somewhere, but it works.  Back in 2003 I remember that pull quote being used as an introduction for the 2,000 word essay.  But toward the end of 2013 the quote suddenly started reappearing in corporate newsletters and online collections of quotes about architecture.  Again, I was flattered but also a little bewildered.  It's fun to have your words written along with those of Frank Lloyd Wright and Samuel Mockbee even if it is written toward the bottom of that list with the other unknown writers.

Earlier this year things came full circle when a friend of mine from my time in Chicago sent me a email announcement he had received from a firm in Portland.  The email was announcing the promotion of four architects at LRS and there, above it all, was the quote (as seen in the image opening this post).

At the end of the day, I'm grateful that so far this is the only thing from my online past that has come back to haunt me.  I can only hope that those compromising photos of Ann Coulter and I remain hidden.