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Architecture

Chapter 2

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A few weeks ago a large group of politicians descended on an empty lot in downtown San Antonio to break ground on a new federal courthouse. Of course, San Antonio already has a federal courthouse. It’s an odd little building but it has a fascinating story.

In this chapter of the San Antonio Storybook we’ll discover the story of this building and the important part it played in the history of San Antonio.

You can listen to it here or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Ribbon Cutting

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I know I’ve posted a lot about the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower project over the past several years so I’m not going do it again here other to say that the FAA has taken control control over its operation. The official ribbon cutting ceremony was this week and it was a fine ceremony that featured an all-female mariachi band and a cake that featured the image of the tower design.

It also featured some very large scissors.

There was this one woman who was apparently the keeper of the scissors. She was more than a little intimidating, but I understand the need for there to be a dedicated person to keep hold of such things. Oversized ceremonial scissors are expensive.

Who gets to break the ground

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This past Monday I was able to attend the groundbreaking of San Antonio’s new federal courthouse. It was a moment 10 years in the making. I was still at Lake|Flato back in 2009 when they won the commission and sat next to Joe Ben as he, David Lake and the rest of the design team developed scheme after scheme and endured delay after delay.

Very little of that was mentioned at the groundbreaking (Lake|Flato was only mentioned once). Instead it was a day for the politicians to make grand (and at times unintentionally ironic) statements about the role of the judiciary and the rule of law. Even so, it’s great to see the project get underway and hopefully the architects will get a little more credit at the ribbon cutting ceremony in 2022.

See the CCC

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This past week was spring break and because I don’t have a real job I was able to take my girls up to visit my family in north Texas. We decided not to take I-35 and instead took the backroads so that we could pass by Lake Brownwood State Park.

As state parks go the landscape there wasn’t the most spectacular but the buildings are. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, Lake Brownwood has an impressive Group Recreation Hall and a grand staircase that early visitors would use when they arrived at the park by boat.

The cabins were also nice; especially cabin #9 where we stayed. I’m sure many families have made many happy memories there and I’m glad we went a little out of our way to see the CCC.

It's Official...

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…the ground has been broken on Fort Stockton’s new community theatre. It’s been almost four years since I first started working with the good people of Fort Stockton and it was moving to see so many people show up too see the start of the next phase - the actual building of the thing.

It’s been a fun adventure so far and I can only imagine that adventure will continue in the coming year. The board and everyone else I’ve worked with out in west Texas have been incredibly kind and generous - the type of client that make you put up with all the clients that aren’t so great.

A World Without Handrails

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I was able to attend given by Juan Miró, a former professor of mine from UT. It was fun to see him again and all the amazing work his firm has been doing over the last several years. His office tends to “push the envelope” of what seems to be possible.. He also showed some of the work they’ve been doing in Mexico and I was reminded of how different things can be if you tweak the rules just a little bit.

When I was in Mexico City last year I kept noticing how “clean” all the stairs looked. It wasn’t the lack of trash I was noticing - it was the lack of handrails.

Don’t get me wrong, handrails are a good thing - especially if you happened to have mobility issues. That’s one of the reasons accessibility standards were established (that and it became federal law).

Again, I’m not proposing that all handrails be abolished. I’m just pointing out that it’s fascinating to see how the built environment changes when you tweak just one little requirement.

IKEA in SA

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I had the opportunity to tour the new IKEA furnishings store that’s going to be opening in San Antonio next month. As with all other IKEA locations I’ve been to (7 so far) this one was big, blue, and a little overwhelming. I was able to see some of the massive preparation that goes into the opening of a 289,000-square-foot retail store. I was also fascinated to learn how the design of IKEA stores have evolved.

Each IKEA location is a little different. For one they purposefully tweak the design (as well as their product offerings) to make each store a better fit for where they happen to be located. They also modify things to try and sell more stuff.

For example, in all the other IKEAs I’ve been to the little food area that sells frozen meatballs, Swedish chocolates and $1 dairy-free soft-serve ice cream is located just outside of he checkout lanes. For the store in San Antonio they moved this area to inside the checkout lanes so you only have to pull out your wallet once.

Obviously IKEA will track the results of this change and if it improves sales, the design tweak will be incorporated into future stores. It’s one of the advantages of having over 300 buildings - each one can be a little experiment to improve to overall fleet. That’s a luxury most buildings - which tend to be one-off affairs - don’t get to have.

The Professional

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I’d like to think of myself as a respectable photographer: I’m able to grab some pretty good shots of my kids and there was that book that was full of photos I had taken of courthouses. But there is an order of magnitude difference between what I can do and what a real “professional” architectural photographer can with the same building.

I first met Dror Baldinger when we both served on a committee for the Texas Society of Architects. Dror was trained and work for decades as an architect before switching gears and photographing buildings other people had done. His work is amazing and I feel a little guilty hiring him to photograph my modest projects.

He shot the Ranch Dining Pavilion a few years ago and I’m having him photograph the Stinson Tower project as well. I’m not saying he make projects look better than they do in real life, but he does a great job of putting the work that architects do in their best possible light.

You can look forward to seeing the results of my little adventure with Dror in the coming weeks.

And yes, we do houses, too

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You may have noticed that there aren’t all that many residential projects on our site. This isn’t because we don’t do that many houses - it’s just that there’s a greater need for privacy when we’re entrusted with designing a family’s home.

Still we’re incredibly proud of the houses we have designed and are thrilled to be able to share some images when we can. We’ve recently added one house in particular to the website. It’s a home we finished a few years ago for a family on an amazing hilltop just north of San Antonio. They wanted a house that took advantage of the panoramic views offered by the site and we worked with the owners to develop a design that did just that. Through the strategic placement of windows we crafted a home that offered expansive views of the outside world while at the same time providing a private refuge from it. By using a combination of natural wood and stone we created an addition to the hilltop that feels like a natural extension of it.

The Changing Face of Community Theatre (update)

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The Construction Documents for the Fort Stockton Community Theatre are complete. As the overall building design was finalized the design of the marquee was updated yet again and even this may not be its final iteration. The budget for this project is very tight and depending on how the bids come back, it may change again.

Still, I like to think that every version improves upon the previous one. I like to think of design as a spiral and even though it may look like you’re going in circles you are in face zeroing in on the final, ultimate design solution.

Finding God

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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,

Toys Were Us

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Sears declared bankruptcy this week. I couldn’t tell you the last I actually stepped inside of a Sears store and so this news will not impact me much at all.

Of course, I have fond memories of the arrival of the Sears “Wish Book”. When I was a kid it would arrive just before my birthday and in the days before the internet it contained all manner of material desires that a child could want. But if flipping through the toy section of the catalog was a virtual experience few things could compete with the actual experience of going to physical a toy store.

Although the demise of Sears may be a larger milestone given its place in American culture (and its not-insignificant role in skirting around the injustices of the Jim Crow era), it is was the closing of the last Toys “R” Us stores this summer that had more of an emotional impact on me. I remember fondly going to the one in the Arlington of my youth. I remember the excitement of finding a new LEGO set or Star Wars figure. The anticipation I felt walking through those doors was something I have seldom experienced since.

Of course I took the girls to Toys “R” Us a few times here in San Antonio but somehow it was less of an adventure for them. The overabundance of choice offered at all times by the internet somehow lessened the singular experience of visiting a toy store. Apparently it lessened the profitability of a toy store as well.

The role of the physical world is changing. It can still be (and should be) a source of excitement and wonder but the ends it serves will be different than it once was. I haven’t figured out what that difference will be yet, but I’m working on it.

Figure-Ground

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Despite persistent, unsubstantiated rumors that The New York Times is failing, the paper continues to produce some of the best visualizations of data being produced these days. In today’s online edition (and Sunday’s print addition) they’ve created a map of every building in America. This massive figure-ground diagram of the nation we’ve built for ourselves is truly amazing. Better than a map or satellite imagery it clearly illustrates the patterns of development that define where we live.

Naturally my first instinct was to find where I live and work. From there I explored some more and was able to locate my kids’ schools and the other landmarks of my life (HEB, Target, etc.).

Of course by illustrating only built structures you also start to realize just how expansive the built world is. There’s lots of open space as well and so it looks like us architects will be busy for some time.

Space for Joy

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I had a hard time trying to decide what to post this week.

There was plenty on my mind. I thought about writing about the subtle sexism of the Netflix series, Ultimate Beastmaster. I started to write about the anger and the privilege of middle-aged white men. Having just turned 42 I could have written something about my own privileged anger at becoming a middle-aged white man.

I might eventually write about all those things but instead today I’m just going to talk about taking Darcy to the Texas State Aquarium. There’s a underwater observation area at the “Dolphin Bay” exhibit that’s essentially just a long, dark room with a single window. It’s a large window, though, and it looks out not at Corpus Christi Bay but into a 400,000 gallon saltwater pool. Inside the pool are Kai, Shadow, Liko, and Schooner, four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

On this particular visit we arrived just as the aquarium was opening and we had the space all to ourselves. Darcy spent a good fifteen minutes running alongside and dancing with the dolphins. It was a moment of pure joy for my daughter. Of course I can’t tell how the dolphins were feeling but it sure looked like they were smiling.

Darcy started kindergarten this year. As her world expands beyond what we created for her as a family I worry I’ll be less and less able to protect her from a world that seems increasingly angry and mean. I hope she is able to keep herself safe. I also hope she is able to continue to find space for joy.

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.

Game Of Cones

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As the debate over what to do with Alamo Plaza rages on I thought it might make sense to step back and tell the story of a battle rages every day at the gates of the Alamo. I’m talking, of course, about the fight over what is the best snow cone flavor.

In this episode of The Works I tell the story of those who sell snow cones in Alamo Plaza. Their story is not what you might expect: it is a song of ice and fire and government-sponsored lotteries:

As always, feel free to listen to other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

Spreading Wings

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As the new control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport nears completion the grounds around the historic airport will be receiving some new signage. The design of this signage isn't ours but it reflects by our design for the illuminated wings for the tower.

Our wings were inspired by the forms and construction techniques of World War I-era aircraft - the same kind of aircraft that were flown in and out of Stinson in its early years. What we like about the new signage is that it ties together the facilities on the north side of the airport with the new control tower on the south side.

It's cool to have the opportunity to do good work. It's even better to know that your work is helping other people to do good work, too.

Meanwhile on Olmos

before...and after

before...and after

This little office renovation we did on Olmos Drive (across from one of our early projects) wrapped up last year but it's taken until now for the landscape to mature. The idea was create a more pleasant environment for the workers inside by replacing the street parking with a landscaped garden and by protecting the street-facing glazing with a perforated metal screen.

Happy Labor Day.

We do "Tower Enhancements"

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Back in 2015 our proposal for how to "improve" the existing control tower design was selected as the winner of a design competition. Three years later the project is nearing completion and we were recently shown a sample of what the bronze plaque will look like next to the tower's main entrance. HiWorks along with Wrok5hop are listed as being responsible for the "Tower Enhancement Design". 

Of course this being a secure FAA facility no one is ever really going to see the plaque, but we'll know it's there.