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Brantley Hightower

Shooting Stinson

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We recently received the final images from Dror Baldinger, the photographer we hired to shoot the design improvements we did for the Stinson Municipal Airport Air Traffic Control Tower. After all the time, blood, sweat, and tears, the act of photographing the project is the last step in the process before the project can officially be considered done.

And so, this project is officially done. You can see some more images of it here.

In Praise of Incompleteness

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The above photo is of the facade of San Petronio Basilica in Bologna. The finished stone cladding was begun in 1538 but it was never quite finished.

There are a number of large buildings currently under construction in San Antonio. It’s an odd artifact of construction, but often a building will look better than it ever will while it’s still under construction.

There is unlimited potential in the unfinished. Your mind is free to imagine what could be as opposed to simply acknowledging what is.

Obviously buildings need to be finished, but I do feel there is something to be said for appreciating the thing that is not yet complete, the niche that is not yet occupied by a statue, and the child who is still figuring out who they want to be.

The Problem with San Jacinto

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Last week I traveled with my family to Houston for a quick little trip before the start of the school year. My wife had a meeting downtown and while she was cooped up inside all day I took the girls on a sightseeing tour of the Houston metropolitan area.

Our first stop was San Jacinto.

It’s the site of the decisive battle where Texas won its independence from Mexico and so it is fitting that a towering, 570-foot-tall memorial be built to memorialize the event. In case you’re keeping score, that’s ten feet taller than the Washington Monument because everything is bigger in Texas. Given that the monument is located seventeen miles east of Houston, the height of the tower really stands out.

The monument was finished in 1939, a good three years after the centennial of the battle. The swampy landscape that surrounded the monument had changed little since 1836, but while the tower was under construction, nearby Buffalo Bayou was dredged to create the Houston Ship Channel. In the eighty years that followed, the area became a center of petrochemical production and so the view from the tower is one of a vast industrial landscape.

Speaking of anachronisms, the Battleship Texas is located nearby. I spent a fair amount of our time there explaining that the battleship had absolutely nothing to do with the battle that occurred at the site three quarters of a century earlier.

Because of its remote and less-than-picturesque location, the San Jacinto monument isn’t the most popular tourist destination in the Houston area. Half of the gallery located at the monument’s base has been given over to a paid exhibit and local energy companies who sponsor the monument have a heavy narrative presence throughout. The original inscriptions on the exterior of the monument also downplay the role of Tejanos in the battle as well as the larger struggle for Texas independence. The narrative that the struggle was primarily one of Americans fighting against Mexican oppressors is an oversimplification with racist overtones.

Still, it’s a great building. As with all the other monuments built as part of the the 1836 centennial, it deserves to be more well known.

Running South on Lake Shore Drive

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I was listening to the radio the other day and happened to hear the song “Lake Shore Drive” by the Chicago-based band, Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah. Released in 1971, the song may have described an acid trip (“Lake Shore Drive” can be abbreviated to “LSD”) or it may have simply been a love song to a truly remarkable stretch of roadway in Chicago. At any rate, it enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when it was featured on the soundtrack of 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

There aren’t that many songs that extol the beauty of the built environment but this is definitely one of them:

There's a road I'd like to tell you about, lives in my home town.
Lake Shore Drive the road is called and it'll take you up or down,
From rags on up to riches fifteen minutes you can fly.
Pretty blue lights along the way, help you right on by,
And the blue lights shining with a heavenly grace, help you right on by.

As the name of the road implies, Lake Shore Drive runs along the shore of Lake Michigan. As it does so it passes by the “riches” of the north side of the city as well as the historically more economically depressed south side. As it does this, it passes alongside Chicago’s iconic downtown.

And it starts up north from Hollywood, water on the driving side.
Concrete mountains rearing up, throwing shadows just about five.
Sometimes you can smell the green if your mind is feeling fine.
There ain't no finer place to be, than running Lake Shore Drive,
And there's no peace of mind, or place you see, than riding on Lake Shore Drive.

I lived in Chicago for a couple of years after college and I have fond memories of driving this stretch of roadway. As it approaches downtown It heads directly towards the John Hancock Center (see above) before veering off at the last minute to run alongside the Magnificent Mile as you head into the Loop. It’s an incredibly dynamic way to be introduced to a city.

And there ain't no road just like it,
Anywhere I found,
Running south on Lake Shore drive heading into town.
Just slicking on by on LSD, Friday night trouble bound.

Driving by a city is no replacement for exploring it on foot, but Lake Shore Drive does provides a rich alternative way of experiencing Chicago. Cities are diverse urban assemblies, and there’s no reason the way we experience them can’t be just as varied.

The Boy Who Lost

image courtesy San Antonio Missions

image courtesy San Antonio Missions

In a previous episode, we talked about the race that occurs at every San Antonio Missions home game between a kid and Henry the Puffy Taco. The implication was that the kid always wins this race, but that isn’t entirely true. One time the Taco won.

In this episode of the San Antonio Storybook we tell the story of the time the taco won.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Remembering Barney Smith

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Barney Smith was a plumber by trade but he was best known as the creator of the Toilet Seat Art Museum. It wasn’t the legacy he set out to create, but it’s one he was proud to own.

Barney passed away last week at the age of 98.

As a tribute to Barney, the San Antonio Storybook is rebroadcasting the episode of The Works we produced back in 2016 when Barney was still giving personal tours of his museum.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

Flying Drones Near Airports

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Last week we had the Stinson Tower professionally photographed. Although I’d like to think of myself as being pretty handy with a camera, what I bring to the table pales in comparison to what my friend Dror can do.

That said, there’s one thing I can do that he can’t. I can fly a drone.

And so while Dror was busy at work on the ground, I took to the skies to try and communicate the relationship between the new tower and the historic terminal building on the other side of the runways. With special clearance from the tower (like drinking and driving, drones and airplanes don’t mix), I was able to fly up to get some nice views of the wings from a vantage point that would have been all but impossible ten years ago.

Rocky Mountain High Porch

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I was in Colorado recently and had the opportunity to visit a little project that we finished a while back. It was just a little renovation of a front porch and although the scale of the project was small, I’d like to think it’s had a big impact on the family who lives there.

This is the sort of thing that makes me happy to be an architect.

Interviewing Tacos

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I’m not a big sports guy, but there is a special place in my heart for baseball. Maybe it’s because I grew up going to my brother’s games. Maybe it’s because the the pacing of the games are so measured. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because of the mascots.

The Missions are San Antonio’s minor league baseball team. They have not one, but two mascots and both of them are food items. In this episode of the San Antonio Storybook we’re going to tell their story.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.

The summer of '97

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I graduated from the University of Texas in the spring of 2000. It doesn’t feel like 19 years has passed since then, but it has.

After walking across the stage and receiving my diploma, I gathered up all the art and drafting supplies I had acquired over the previous five years and packed them into a repurposed fishing table box. In its drawers and compartments I placed my Prismacolor pencils and Rapidiograph pens; all my French curves and adjustable triangles; all my watercolors and India ink. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but this tackle box would remain mostly unused for the next two decades as digital technologies quickly replaced the analog techniques we learned in school.

Even so, I dutifully kept the tackle box with me. It moved with me to Chicago and then to Dallas and then to San Antonio. It traveled with me up to New Jersey when I went to grad school and it came back to Texas with me when I returned to start a family. In time the tackle box was relegated the garage of my San Antonio home. It sat between Christmas decorations and boxes of outgrown children’s clothes.

Earlier this year my two daughters and I started a routine where we would all sit together at the dining table just before bedtime. With our teeth brushed and our pajamas on we would together draw scenes from books we were reading or movies we were watching. Even if my architectural work is mostly done on the computer these days, I still have the ability to draw enchanted castles and magical rainbows with some degree of skill.

At one point we decided we needed to up our game and add color to our artistic endeavors. I was sent out to the garage to retrieve my old college art supplies.

That’s where I found him.

Brandon Shaw was underneath a pile of colored pencils. Or at least that’s where I found a small cut-out photo of him. He was an inch and a half tall - about 6’-0” at 1/4” scale. He looked exactly like I remembered him: wispy blonde hair, glasses, untucked shirt, baggy jeans, and Birkenstocks.

* * *

In the fall of 1995 close to 48,000 undergraduates attended the University of Texas at Austin. Of that number only about a hundred of us were freshman architecture students. The School of Architecture was a small island of intimacy within the sprawling mass of UT. By the end of our first semester, we all knew one another. We took most of our classes together as a group. We spent many of our nights and weekends together as well. We became friends. We became family.

Our freshman design studio met for three hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Brandon and I sat just a few drafting tables away from one another. In that first semester together we struggled to learn architecture’s basic concepts. We labored to produce consistent line weights with our 2H pencils. We struggled to keep ink from smearing underneath our 30-60-90 triangles.

By our second semester, we had the fundamentals figured out and could move on to larger issues of scale and site and context. One of our professors had us photograph one another and then cut out the printed photo after it had been mounted onto cardboard. We could then use these cut-outs as scale figures in the models we built for our projects.

When my sophomore year came to a close I decided to spend the summer in Austin. And so I moved out of the dorm and into an apartment. In June I began working at my first real job in an architecture office. It wasn’t the most fulfilling work but the paycheck covered the bills and I had a little cash left over at the end of the month.

That summer the Paramount Theatre featured the films of Alfred Hitchcock and I saw a number of his movies on the big screen. One of them, Rope, featured a character named Brandon Shaw. I remember smiling when I heard the name spoken and I wondered if the Brandon Shaw I knew was aware of this coincidence. I heard he, too, was in Austin for the summer and it seemed likely we would cross paths at some point.

By the end of June I had established a routine. As near as I can remember, Monday, June 30th was like any other workday that summer: I went to the office, I worked my eight hours, and at the end of the day, I drove back to my apartment.  

* * *

Even though Brandon was from Houston, Austin seemed like his home. It wasn’t just that he was a musician who always wore Birkenstock sandals, it was that he had an easygoing manner that was a perfect fit for Austin in the late nineties.

Brandon would bring his guitar to studio when you were up late ahead of a deadline. He would jab you with his pen to keep you awake during lectures the following day. He would drag you out of studio to see concerts at Antone's. He would hang out with you for hours at his apartment.

But Brandon wasn’t just some music-loving slacker. He took his schoolwork seriously. He was in a demanding dual-degree program that combined architecture and engineering. Beyond that he was a multilayered, complex individual. He could be equal parts earnest and flippant; mellow and outgoing; sarcastic and sensitive. He could confidently walk up and joke with a stranger one moment and reveal an underlying insecurity the next. 

In the spring semester of our sophomore year, Brandon and I were for the first time assigned to different studio professors. We shared the same studio space, however, and I was able to watch as Brandon began to settle in with a new group of friends. He seemed to find a balance between his classes and his outside interests. He had joined an intramural soccer league and had started taking lessons from the guitarist of a local band. He seemed to be figuring out who he was.

* * *

Back when the internet was still in its infancy news traveled much slower than it does now. There was no Facebook, then. There were no group texts. Many of us didn’t even have cell phones yet. We may have had email accounts, but few of us had access to those accounts other than at a campus computer lab or via a dial-up modem. That left the newspaper as the only real source of information.

Of course, the thing with newspapers is that by the time you read it, the information is already outdated.

Before heading back to work on the morning of Tuesday, July 1st I read about a series of carjackings that had occurred in Austin. By Wednesday morning the paper reported that one of the carjacking victims, a 25-year-old City of Austin employee, was missing. Twenty-two years later I can’t remember how I heard it, but at some point I began to hear rumors that Brandon was also missing.

On Thursday the newspaper reported that the body of the City of Austin employee had been discovered in the trunk of a car that had been pushed into Town Lake. It also reported that a second body had been recovered. The victim was described as, “A University of Texas student from Houston.”

That evening I called the City of Austin Police Department in search of more information. I spoke to a detective working the case. I identified myself as a student who was worried that a classmate of mine was the other victim. The detective asked me the name of my friend. I told him it was Brandon Shaw. There was a pause before the detective repeated that the names of the victims hadn’t been released yet.

Later that evening a group of us were still searching for answers. Someone was able to track down the phone number of one of our former studio professors who we figured he might know something. 

He did.

He told us Brandon Shaw was dead.    

* * *

I had been to memorial services before and I have been to many since. But the one held in Brandon’s honor the following Monday was something very different. I will always remember the feeling of sitting in a sanctuary full of people who were all trying to make sense of the same senseless act.

Several of us made the three-hour drive from Austin to Clear Lake City. Those of us who knew Brandon from UT made up only a small portion of those who filled the Episcopal Church. It became clear that even though Brandon had been a big part of our lives for the previous two years, he had been a bigger part of other people’s lives for much longer. 

We met Brandon’s high school friends at the memorial service. We met his family. We learned how Brandon looked up to his big brother. We learned how close he was to his sister. We learned he could talk his dad out of a bad mood and that he would dance with his mother in the kitchen. As tragic as it was to lose a classmate, his family lost far more. They lost a brother. They lost a son. They lost a part of their lives that had been there for twenty years.

The Shaw family wasn’t the only one to experience loss that summer. A few days earlier another family held their own memorial service in Austin. Juan Javier Cotera was the city of Austin employee who died with Brandon in Town Lake. Like Brandon, his life was full of promise. Like Brandon, he was denied the chance to finish his story.

* * *

In 1997 two years of college seemed to last an eternity. Now twenty-four months come and go with little to show for it except for another box of outgrown children's clothes. 

There is plenty I remember about the time I knew Brandon. Some of the details may be blurry, but back then we were blurry ourselves. As much as we struggled to figure out how to design buildings, we struggled just as much to figure out what kind of people we were going to be.

Most of us had time to figure that out. Brandon did not.

For those of us who lived past the summer of 1997 our time at UT was but one chapter of a narrative that kept getting longer as we grew older. Our stories didn’t end that summer. They continued. We went back to UT in the fall. We pulled more all-nighters. We worked more jobs. We traveled. We fell in and out of love. We graduated. We kept in touch with some friends. We lost contact with others.

As we followed our individual paths into adulthood - and, more recently, into middle-age - our memories of Brandon have stayed with us. I know Brandon’s life and death has informed my life. Now I’m closer to the age of Brandon’s parents in 1997 than to the age I was back then. I can’t help but see the events of that summer through their eyes.

I know there will come a day where my kids, like Brandon, will decide to not come home for the summer. I know there will come a time when I cannot protect them form the arbitrary evils of the world. In the meantime, though, I can hold my kids tight. I can tell them to be nicer to one another. I can tell them that I love them.

I can give them colored pencils and together we can imagine a world full of enchanted castles and magical rainbows.

Just in case you're in the market

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You may have noticed there’s a new project on our website. It’s a house project located in Castroville, about a half-hour east of San Antonio. The town was Castroville was founded in the 1840s by immigrants from Alsace, a part of France that shares historical and cultural ties to neighboring Germany and Switzerland. The town that was built retains a unique architectural character, one we sought to preserve in this preservation and restoration of a house originally built in 1851. In accordance with the City of Castroville’s historic standards, much of the work consisted of delicately removing applied layers of modern additions. A rear kitchen addition preserved the front’s original appearance while opening up the interior and connecting to a new carport.

If you happen to be in the market for such a house, this one is still on the market.

Sprouting Wings

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I was out at Stinson Municipal Airport recently and saw that they’re installing new signage. As I mentioned earlier, we had nothing to do with these signs but their design do reference the wings for the new control tower that we did design.

As I mentioned back in September, 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.

Nostalgia for the park

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Earlier this year a local children's amusement park announced it would be relocating to the San Antonio Zoo. The Kiddie Park has been the site of countless happy birthday parties and childhood memories. Many stories could be told about the Kiddie Park and we’re going to tell one of them in this chapter of the San Antonio Storybook.

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

Reflections on reflections

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Koalas have invaded San Antonio.

Or to be more accurate, two male Phascolarctos cinereus have been loaned from the San Diego Zoo to the San Antonio Zoo for the duration of the Summer. As a father of two small girls who adore cute animals, this is big news. We made a point of seeing the koalas the first weekend they were out on display.

There was only one small issue: it was quite difficult to actually see the koalas.

The issue isn’t that the furry little marsupials like to hide or that they are particularly well camouflaged. The issue is the glass - it was far too reflective to see through it to the koalas inside.

Glass has many characteristics that can be individually specified. Different coatings and chemical formulations can give glass different levels of light transmittance and reflectance. Although we think of glass as being a transparent material, it also reflects a certain amount of the visible light that comes into contact with its surface.

It would seem that if you are designing an enclosure for koalas you’d want to keep the glass as transparent as possible so small children could behold the overt cuteness of the arboreal herbivores contained inside. There may be other factors at play that require the mirrored glass, but as experienced at the zoo the chosen glass appears to be a mistake. There are many situations where reflective glass would be a good idea, but unless I’m missing something, this does not appear to be one of them.

R.I.P.I.M.Pei

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Growing up near Dallas, I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson were really the only two “starchitects” whose works I was able to experience directly. Whereas Johnson’s buildings may have been more fun, their quality was a bit mixed. Pei’s projects, however, had an elegance I could appreciate even before I was formally taught what good architecture was. From his Dallas City Hall to his Meyerson Symphony Center, his buildings were uniformly stunning. He also appeared to be a genuinely nice person, something that cannot be said of most architects of his caliber.

Later on I would visit his East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Its graceful design remains a touchstone for how to design a modern civic space. I know his modernization of the Louvre gets more attention, but when it goes to Pei triangles, I prefer the one in Washington.

Of course I was saddened to hear of his passing last week, but the man was 102 years old. He lived a long and full life. Over the course of a very long and fruitful career he was able to create beauty that will live on.

That is certainly something worth celebrating.

Location, Location, Location

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Apple recently announced its closing some of its stores in north Texas. It’s not doing this because the stores are unprofitable, or they need more space. They’re closing the stores, the story goes, because they happen to sit in the Eastern District of Texas.

Why should it matter what federal district an electronics store happens to be located in?

It turns out the Eastern District of Texas has historically been very favorable to patent litigants. More specifically, patent trolls flocked to Marshall, Texas to file suites against large tech companies like Apple. Federal law historically allowed litigants to file lawsuits in any district where the defendant “Has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business”. Since Apple had stores in the district, Patent Trolls could file suite there.

Recent court decisions have made it more difficult for litigants to choose courts (a fact that has the town of Marshall worried) but to better insulate itself from these lawsuits, Apple has decided to move their stores over imaginary lines so won’t get sued as much.

It all seems very strange, but it all goes to show that location matters.

Inside the Rink

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A couple of years ago I took my daughter to a roller skating rink. It was the first time I had strapped wheels to my feet in over twenty years and it was a memorable experience. I even wrote a blog post about it.

Well, two years later, it gets the official podcast treatment.

The Rollercade is a local institution and generations of San Antonians have skated across its smooth wood floor. In this chapter of the San Antonio Storybook, we tell the story of how the Rollercade came to be built and the family responsible for keeping the Alamo City rolling.

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

Building Magical Worlds

So my daughter recently finished reading all 4,000 pages of the Harry Potter series. In doing so I'm pretty sure she developed a lifetime love of reading.

Back in the early 2000s I read the first book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and although I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel the need to keep reading the new volumes as they were released. I watched the movies, so I had a general idea of what was going on as my little reader became completely engrossed in reading the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh volumes.

I’m not quite sure what secret ingredient J. K. Rowling put into her stories, but it’s definitely there. Maybe it’s the characters, maybe it’s the story, but I think a lot has to do with the rich and complicated world she was able to build. Details matter - that’s what makes Hogwarts and Hogsmeade seem just as real as London.

I try and insert a little bit of magic whenever I design a building. Of course you have a little more freedom in fiction than you do with concrete and steel and wood. Still, I think it’s a good thing to aspire to do.