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Design

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.

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.

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.

Fort Stockton rising

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It’s been almost four years since we first started working with the good people of Fort Stockton on their new community theatre. In the time since then the design has evolved and funds have been raised. For so long it remained a hypothetical exercise - something that existed only on paper - and so it’s incredibly exciting now that dirt is moving and concrete is being poured.

The new theatre will actually be an addition to their existing facility. Their old building will become an event space and next to it will be their new stage and 125-seat house. On the corner there will be a support wing with storage and dressing rooms for the actors and restrooms for the audience.

Construction is expected to take a year and so by 2020 - the five year anniversary of the beginning of the project - The Fort Stockton Community Theatre will finally be able to move into their new home.

Know Your Audience (And Their Cargo)

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The people who are interested in purchasing Chevy Bolts are different than the people who are interested in purchasing Chevy pickups. Chevrolet knows this and markets its vehicles appropriately.

I was amused by the different items they illustrate their vehicles are capable of hauling. In the image galleries for these respective vehicles they show the bed of the pickup full of lumber and the back of the Bolt loaded with an Eames DCW chair because of course driers of electric vehicles are fans of midcentury furniture design.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.