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Memorializing Plutonium

Last week I received an email from a graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis. She was interested in learning more about a competition I had entered that was sponsored by the the publication, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The group was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked to develop the first atomic weapons. They are the group responsible for the "Doomsday Clock", a hypothetical timepiece that measures how close we are to a nuclear apocalypse (midnight). 

At any rate, in 2001 the group sponsored a hypothetical competition to design a permanent storage facility for 200 metric tons of plutonium piles that were then awaiting disposal. The entry produced by the 25-year-old version of me came in second (a position I still find myself in when imagining post-apocalyptic futures) and our submission was published in the May/June 2002 issue of the magazine. There was also an awards reception where I got to hobnob with nuclear scientists and ultimately I was able to add this project to my portfolio and resume.

And that was about it.

I honestly hadn't thought much about it in the subsequent fifteen years until I received that email last week. What I learned is that in 2005 a professor at Iowa State had written a scholarly essay about post-nuclear monuments, museums and gardens that had referenced my competition entry. That's how the Washington University student had found out about the project this year.

So just to review the timeline; in 2017 a student found a 2005 essay that referenced a project that had been published in 2002 that I had completed in 2001. It is true that nothing on the internet ever really dies - or it at least that things on the internet have a half-life similar to that of plutonium.

Pershing Park(ing)

A recent competition sponsored by the Pearl, Centro San Antonio, The Rivard Report and Overland Partners sought ideas about how to improve Broadway, one of the main arterial corridors that heads north out of downtown. We just found out that we are a finalist in that competition.

As a street, Broadway has been a central part of my daily routine for as long as I've lived in San Antonio. I used it to drive to Lake|Flato when I worked there and each of the three office spaces HiWorks has leased has been only a few blocks off Broadway. I've told stories about things that happen along its length - see the "Under The Bridge" and "The Kiddie Park" episodes of The Works Podcast. It's the road I take to drive my girls to school in the morning and it's the road I take to drive home at the end of the day.

Broadway is a very diverse street. Along its 8.5 miles it has both cultural museums and seedy motels. Brackenridge Park runs along the west side of it and several historic neighborhoods are located along its edge. One of these is Mahncke Park. That's where Dave Evans, a good friend of mine lives. Like me, he loves to take his kids to the DoSeum and the Kiddie Park and like me he is often frustrated by the parking situation associated with these two immensely popular family destinations. He had the great idea to insert a centralized parking structure over an existing drainage channel - known as Pershing Channel - that runs between Broadway and Brackenridge Park.

While simply covering a ditch with a parking lot would trade one eyesore for another, we together proposed a second landscape deck on top of this parking structure to create a linear park experience. Bridge elements cross both Broadway and Mulberry so that it becomes possible to walk with your kids from the parking structure to either the DoSeum or the Kiddie Park. This avoids dangerous pedestrian surface crossings. 

The winner and runner up and each of the three categories will be announced at an event on Wednesday night. In the meantime, here's a article that highlights the other finalists.

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.