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Brantley Hightower

Morning Boom

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The first chapter of the San Antonio Storybook is now live.

My town can be pretty quiet before it wakes up and before its streets fill with traffic. That’s what makes it so jarring when the silence of the morning is broken by the sound of a distant boom. In the opening chapter of the San Antonio Storybook we discover the story behind that boom as well as the people who are responsible for it.

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

All things must come to an end...

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…including my first podcast, The Works. We had a good run for the last four years but it’s time to move on to other things.

One of those things is the San Antonio Storybook.

Each chapter of the Storybook will tell a different story about the sights, the sounds, and the people of the Alamo City. They will be stories you haven’t heard before. They will about the people behind the headlines. They will be about the things that make San Antonio such an amazing place to live and work.

Produced in conjunction with the Rivard Report., the first episode of the San Antonio Storybook drops next week but you can subscribe now (here or here) and even listen to a trailer that gives you an idea of what to expect.

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.

Another note from a contested border

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As part of my job I travel out to west Texas fairly often. If I take US 90 to get there I hug the border for about 150 miles of the drive. I've been doing this for years now and have never had any issue. I have never seen a caravan or a cartel. They may exist somewhere, but not here. 

What I do see are dozens of Border Patrol vehicles. What I do see is a government agency doing their job to keep the border secure. 

What I don't see is a national emergency.

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.

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

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 best place to see art in San Antonio

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Last week my daughter’s third grade class visited the McNay Art Museum this week and I volunteered to be a chaperone so that I could assist in bellowing at eight- and nine-year-olds to not touch the art. The McNay has an impressive collection of (mostly) modern works but what I’ve always enjoyed the most about the museum is the building in which it is located.

To be more precise, I’ve always enjoyed the house in which it is located.

Marion Koogler McNay was an artist who was lucky enough to inherit a large oil fortune from her father. With that money she built a beautiful Spanish Colonial mansion (props to Ayres and Ayres) that she bequeathed to the City of San Antonio when she died.

In addition to house/museum being full of amazing spaces and details, the McNay is also a great place to view art. The domestic-scaled spaces provide a unexpectedly intimate setting to take in works ranging from Picasso to Hopper.

Newer additions to the museum fall squarely into the “big-empty-box-with-a-glass-roof” category that dominates so many museums these days, but the original McNay itself remains the best place to see art in San Antonio.

Just remember, the art is for looking. Not touching.

A holiday message from 50 years ago

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As I mentioned in the previous post the crew of Apollo 8 experienced a number of “firsts” on their December 1968 flight to the moon. First and foremost they were the first men to leave Earth’s orbit. As they made their way towards the moon they were for the first time able to see all of the earth at once. They photographed this but the far more well-known image from their flight was taken once they were in orbit around the moon.

I wrote a post about this back in 2013 and in it I referenced a video (which is still worth watching) where NASA created an animation that combines the existing voice recording of the astronauts overlaid with the images they took to recreate the somewhat frantic moments that proceeded the creation of this famous "Earthrise" image. Frank Borman was in the process of executing a roll of the spacecraft when Bill Anders, who was surveying the Lunar surface for potential landing sites, happened to see the Earth beginning to rise out of his window. He snaps a shot of it with the camera he has, but realizing its loaded with black and white film, he calls out to the third member of the crew, Jim Lovell, to grab a canister containing color film. As the spacecraft continues to roll, the view disappears out of the small window Anders is using before Lovell can retrieve the color film. All three of them think they've missed the shot when the Earth comes into view out of another window. It is through the round window of the spacecraft's hatch that the iconic image is ultimately taken.

The fact that the photo exists at all is incredible: the spacecraft just happened to be pointing at the exact right place at the exact right time. It’s also incredible that this amazing technical achievement occurred over a half-century ago. We as a nation (and as a people) have enormous potential to do great things when we work together. It’s something worth remembering.

And so just as I did five years ago I will end this post with a quote from the final line from Apollo 8's Christmas Eve broadcast that was made that same day as Apollo 8’s iconic photo:

...and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas - and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Merry Christmas.

When we built Spaceships

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Fifty years ago, at 7:51 in the morning Apollo 8 launched into space from the eastern Florida coast. After orbiting the earth twice it restarted its third stage engine which set it on a course for the moon.

Everyone knows about Apollo 11’s historic landing on the moon that occurred some seven months later but in many ways Apollo 8 was just as remarkable of a flight. It was the first manned test of the Saturn V rocket, the largest and arguably most complex vehicle ever built. It was the first time men would leave the orbit of the earth and travel to another heavenly body. It was the first time man had first looked upon the far side of the moon with their own eyes. It was the first time man would look back and see the Earth in its entirety.

We’ll touch on all of that in the coming days but in the meantime it is worth remembering that there was a time in our nation’s history that we were willing to build spaceships to go other worlds rather than walls to keep out our neighbors.

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 Subtle Sexism of "Ultimate Beastmaster"

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In this golden age of TV abundance I am sometimes baffled by what my kids choose to watch. Although I try to steer them in the direction of shows of some education value, that doesn’t always work. A case in point is my daughter Sammy’s odd attraction to Ultimate Beastmaster on Netflix.

The show is in some ways an updated version of American Gladiators. In this iteration contestants compete against one another on an obstacle course known as “The Beast”. The contestants and hosts all hail from countries with large TV markets (i.e. the United States, China and India) so the show can be easily repackaged for international audiences.

The show has its quirks. Sylvester Stallone makes random appearances and some of the lighter outfits worn by the contestants become noticeably transparent when stretched. What I find to be the most troubling, however, is the subtle sexism that’s built into the program.

Don’t get me wrong, Ultimate Beastmaster is a product of a much more enlightened time than American Gladiators. But although the new show treats the female competitors with respect those same competitors face an inherent disadvantage by the fact that they are competing directly against the men. Many parts of the obstacle course require reaching or jumping large distances and so a 6’-4” male is going to have a distinct advantage over a 5’-2” female regardless of their respective athletic abilities.

Of course the argument could be made that having separate categories for men and women is itself sexist. But the most noticeable artifact of the current system is that the female contestants are always eliminated early. In the three seasons of the show no woman has ever made it to the finals (read here for a more data-driven analysis). This has resulted in some cringe-worthy lines from the hosts like, “This is the furthest we’ve seen a female go!”

Although accurate and meant to be encouraging I can’t help but wonder how my nine-year-old daughter is processing it all.

Ultimately I see this as a design problem. Plenty of sports by design favor a particular body type / physical ability / gender. Basketball, for example, favors tall men who can jump and have a high degree of physical coordination. This is why I am an architect and not a professional basketball player. That said, if you’re designing a “sport” from scratch and you’re going to have men and women competing against one another, why not design it for both? Why not design elements of the obstacle course that are more challenging to men and some that are more challenging to women? Why not design it so that a nine-year old girl sitting at home sees that while everyone has different abilities, she still has a chance to win?

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.

Celebrating Six

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Today is the six-year anniversary of the founding of HiWorks. A lot of cool things come in packages of six - like my abs for example. And so to celebrate this milestone in the history of the office I took my off my shirt and photographed my own six pack.

This is not that photo.

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.