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On The Other Hand...

PlazaAerial.jpg

Earlier this month a new "Interpretive Plan" for San Antonio's Alamo Plaza was released to the public. It represented a further development of a "Master Plan" that was completed last year. Last week the city held a series of public hearings to discuss the plans and I was able to attend the final one on Thursday.

On the one hand it was inspiring to see so many people interested in the built environment. On the other hand, things got pretty nasty pretty quickly. People showed up with signs and matching T-shirts. The formal presentation was interrupted by boos and yelled comments. The question and answer period was less about asking questions and listening to answers and more about expressing opinions and shouting accusations.

As an architect I've been on the receiving end of these public forums and it isn't fun. The challenge comes from the fact that the client of a particular project is not always the same as its user. In the case of Alamo Plaza the client is the City of San Antonio and the State of Texas while the users are all Texans and anyone who has ever been inspired by its story. That's a lot of people to try and make happy and in some cases it is impossible to make one group happy without angering another. In meetings such as the one I went to last week it is often the architect who gets stuck the the middle. 

Still, public feedback is a critical part of any public project and there are certainly parts of the current plan that ought to be revised. But it's impossible to make everyone happy, though, and some compromises will have to be made.  My fear is that the end of all this everyone will go home and the Alamo will remain as it.

Civic discourse should be civil. Otherwise we cannot have nice things.

The Tricentennial App That Wasn't

SAGO.jpg

At the end of 2016 the San Antonio Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture put together a task force to look into what we as an organization could do to contribute to San Antonio's Tricentennial Celebration. Several ambitious ideas were considered (A building! A book! A symposium!) but an early suggestion that gained a surprising amount of traction was to create a smartphone app.

The idea was that we could tell the story of San Antonio through its buildings. Using geolocation technology a user would receive a notification when they happened to walk or drive by a place that played a significant role in the history of San Antonio. It would be like Pokémon GO except with architecture as opposed to fictional creatures of vaguely Japanese origin.

By early 2017 we had reached out to developers and crafted a list of 100 buildings to tell San Antonio's story. When we learned that the "official" Tricentennial Commission was producing an app of their own we decided to parter with them. Whereas their app was only going to include a handful of historic locations, we would provide the descriptions, photos and even a short quiz for a hundred or more significant sites. A contract was written and I personally spent the better part of July researching and writing the information required by the developer to integrate into the new app. By the end of the summer our contribution was done and we happily handed the baton off to our partners.

Unfortunately that's when things began to fall apart.

The Tricentennial planning effort became embroiled in controversy. The CEO of the Tricentennial Commission resigned. Committee chairs were forced out. By year's end management of the app had been handed off to the City of San Antonio's Department of Arts & Culture and we lost control of its content.

The "Go See SA!" app was eventually released about a third of the way through the Tricentennial year. As far as apps go it's fine. I'm sure plenty of effort went into creating it. Of course I also know how much work was wasted and how much better the app could have been.

Attempts were made to do something with the unused content. There was talk of producing a short, two-minute bi-weekly podcast featuring all the buildings that were to have been included in the the original app. A proof-of-concept episode was produced but that's as far as it went:

If you really want to listen to a tricentennial podcast Brandon Seale is releasing a weekly series about the history of San Antonio (or at least the first half of it). In the meantime, though, hopefully we'll have our act together better when we celebrate San Antonio's 400th birthday in 2118.

 

Pershing Park(ing)

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

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

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

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

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

On Writing Books, Building Houses and Having Sons

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image courtesy Megan Chapa of San Houston State University

 

There is a quote out there that says, "Everyone should write a book, build a house and have a son." It's one of those fun, quotable lines that's been attributed to everyone from Plato to Castro and was probably said by none of them. A few variations of the quote exist - Hemingway, for example, supposedly added that every man should also fight a bull.

I didn't learn about the quote (or supposed-quote) until well after I had become an architect who designed houses and after The Courthouses of Central Texas was well on its way to publication. As the father of two daughters I didn't comply completely with the bit about having a son but my personal view is that two daughters are worth at least four sons. I naturally found the quote self-affirming in a way that quotes like these are supposed to be self-affirming.

Of course, basing your future on a quote that was probably fabricated is a dubious proposition at best. Having kids is no trifling enterprise. It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money (and my kids aren't even anywhere near college-age yet). And being an architect, while prestigious, isn't the most lucrative profession in the world. 

And so what about writing a book?

Let's take a look at the last few weeks if the "Courthouses of Central Texas 2016 World Tour". As you may know, I installed an exhibit of drawings at the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, I spoke in Boerne to the Genealogical Society of Kendall County, I spoke at a book signing at Brazos Bookstore in Houston and then this past weekend I took down the exhibit in Boerne. In the process I drove nearly 700 miles and spend nearly 20 hours driving, preparing or speaking. That's a lot of time. Doing the math, I would have needed to sell 60 books just to pay for my hotel in Houston. Although sales at both events were really good, I only sold around 30 books total. And so from a purely financial standpoint, this whole book writing effort has been a fiduciary disaster.

It took me six years to write and publish The Courthouses of Central Texas. If you add that to all the lectures, book signing and interviews I'm doing now that it exists as a thing in the world, that's a lot of time and effort. When all is said and done I'll maybe have earned a couple of thousand dollars in royalties from UT Press.

Maybe.

But here's the thing - even though I continue to hemorrhage money because of those infernal courthouses, I still love them. I still love talking to people about them. I still love meeting people who share that interest and hearing their stories about why they love them. I've met plenty of architects, attorneys and county officials along the way but every once in a while I meet someone totally unexpected.

In Houston last week I met a group of students from Sam Houston State University. I was naturally flattered that they made the trip all the way down from Huntsville but I was also fascinated by their program that prepares students for careers in law, law enforcement, politics or some combination thereof. I have no idea what small part my lecture on courthouses might play in their future but I'd like to think that they'll move forward with a greater appreciation of the role of architecture in public life. As these students are a good 20 years younger than I am, hopefully that lesson will live on even after I've shuffled off this mortal coil.

And that, I think, is the essence behind the Plato/Castro/Hemingway quote. Writing a book, building a house and having kids is all about creating a legacy - planting a seed in a garden for someone else to enjoy. A book will hopefully still be read after you're gone. A house will hopefully be lived in by someone. And your kids - be they your biological children or the ones you happen to cross paths with as a teacher of some sort - will hopefully still remember an idea or two you shared with them when your paths just happened to cross at a bookstore in Houston.

And that, to me, is a whole lot cooler than bullfighting.

 

Brantley in Boerne

boerne-tcoct

As part of the "2015-2016 Courthouses of Central Texas World Tour", I'll be speaking in Boerne, Texas at the Patrick Heath Public Library this coming Saturday at 10:30am. Boerne is the county seat of Kendall County that has one of the oldest and most unique courthouses in the state. Although most counties tear down their an older courthouse to build a new one, in Kendall County the kept adding on to their 1870 structure (at least until they built a large annex across the street in 1998). This is in no small part due to the fact that the original structure was so solidly built by Latin-speaking German immigrant masons who represented a significant part of Boerne's early population.

At any rate, the Saturday talk will be followed by a book signing where I will be allowed to openly deface books within a public library. There is also an exhibit of some of the drawings that appear in the book on display in the library's gallery through the end of the month. The library building itself is pretty cool. Finished in 2011 by OCO Architects (now LPA), the library overlooks and features an outdoor screened-in reading room that's one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a library.

Meanwhile in Rockdale...

residing in a place of honor in Rockdale

When The Courthouses of Central Texas was published earlier this year I experienced the curious transition that all writers go through of going from someone who creates knowledge in the world to someone who goes out into the world to sell a product. Being a writer is cool. Being a salesmen is less so.

Still, the 1,500 copies that UT Press printed won't sell themselves and so I've started to organize a series of lectures, exhibitions and book signings to introduce the book to world. In terms of book sales, the ROI for these efforts is limited (I earn a couple of bucks in royalties for every book I sell), but they can be really fun things to do and it gives me the opportunity to interact with some great people. For example I was in Rockdale this week to speak at the Lucy Hill Patterson Memorial Library and had a wonderful discussion with about 25-or-so residents of Milam County about how their courthouse figures in the story of courthouses in the state. I also was given a tour of Rockdale which is a lovely community an hour east of Austin with a beautifully restored train depot and a fun post-war movie theater. Hopefully the people who attended the talk learned a thing or two as a result of me visiting Rockdale. I know I did.

I also sold seven books, which means I raked in $14.

Hightower vs. Goodall

image courtesy National Geographic

Last week my daughter Sammy brought home a children's book about Jane Goodall. We were very enthusiastic about her interest in the British primatologist as we've been trying to encourage her interest in individuals such as Goodall, Eileen Collins and others ever since an unfortunate event in which she removed a Duplo Cinderella from her command of a Lego ship because "girls can't be captains".

Anyway, it happens that Goodall is going to be speaking in San Antonio this week and so this instigated a scramble to see if we could locate tickets to the event. We did, whereupon we realized that Ms. Goodall is speaking at Trinity at the same time I'm going to be speaking at the San Antonio AIA. Not only did this revelation throw a wrench in our plans to empower our daughter, but it also put me in the awkward position of having to compete with Jane Goodall.

I tried to compile a list of reasons why people should go to my lecture as opposed to Jane Goodall's but I came up with nothing. The best I can do is be a consolation and so if you weren't able to get tickets to the Goodall lecture, feel free to come by the Center for Architecture at 6:00 on Thursday evening. I won't have anything to say about the social patterns of chimpanzees or about my tireless work as a conservationist, but I will share some pretty cool pictures of courthouses.

PechKucha San Antonio Volume 18

image courtesy of Vicki Yuan who took this photo with my phone whilst I was speaking

Back in May I had the opportunity (i.e. someone cancelled at the last minute) to speak at a PechaKucha event in San Antonio. I've done things like this before - basically you have twenty slides that automatically advance every twenty seconds. String eight speakers together and you have a pleasant evening of people talking briefly about the interesting things they are doing in their lives.

As a speaker, these are some of the most challenging talks to give. On the one hand, you want to keep things conversational. On the other, every 20 seconds the slide changes regardless of if you are ready or not. It's very hard to choreograph informality.

Anyway, the video of the presentation is here. Enjoy.

So I was in Belton yesterday...

...which just happened to be where the Bell County Courthouse is located, which just happens to be the building featured on the cover of my new book, which I just happened to have an copy of in my car. Hilarity ensued.

In addition to using the opportunity to stage a cute photograph, I was also in town to meet with the Bell County Museum. We are planning on organizing an exhibition / lecture / book signing for the end of this year.

Being loud in the library

Photo by Katie Slusher. Courtesy School of Architecture Visual Resources Collection, The University of Texas at Austin

It's been a busy few weeks and I'm still catching up on things that happened last month.

At any rate, back on February 16th I had the opportunity to speak at the University of Texas at Austin. The Alexander Architectural Archive started this really cool program where they display some of the drawings in their collection for students (or whoever) to see. At any rate, this moth they displayed some of the original drawings of O'Neil Ford's Little Chapel in the Woods and they asked me to give a short talk about the building and its significance. 

Attendance was really good and although I'd like to think that had something to do with the content of the talk, the fact that there was free pizza was probably the real reason.

Players

Players is no more.

I learned that this venerable Austin establishment was set to close  when I was in town for a lecture back in October. I was on campus again this week for final reviews at the School of Architecture and saw that the building had already been demolished to make way for new campus construction.

Players (and more specifically their milkshakes) hold a special significance for me and my family. In the summer of 1997 my then girlfriend (who is currently my roommate) were drinking Players milkshakes when I first told her that I "liked her". Some eight years later we were again drinking Players milkshakes when I asked this same person (who is currently the mother of my children) to marry me. This woman (who is currently my wife) initially asked, "Are you serious?" but eventually said, "Yes."

Restaurants come and go as do (some) relationships, but there is something substantively upsetting when a building is demolished. Aside from the sentimental associations Clara and I had with Players, I will admit the building had no real architectural significance and I tend to be of the mind that not every old building need be preserved. In the interest of progress and building a better world sometimes older buildings - even ones we love - must come down to make room for the new. But that doesn't lessen the disturbing quality of seeing something that has been permanent fixture of the built landscape suddenly disappear in an act of mechanical violence.

Perhaps this emotion comes from the fact that as we get older and travel further from the events that defined the formative years of our lives, we increasingly need the places where those events occurred to remind us of the journey we were once on. Perhaps seeing those places erased reminds us of how our own memories are erased by the passage of time. 

Or perhaps it acts as a reminder that we ourselves are growing older and inching closer to the day we too will be demolished to make room for new construction.

 

TEDx Talk Online

As I've mentioned before, back in October I had the opportunity to speak at the 2013 TEDxSanAntonio event.  That video is now online and can be watched here.

Although there has been some recent backlash in the media about TED talks - the main complaint being that popularizing research belittles its importance and reduces the value of the research to its entertainment value - I think that criticism misses the point.  Speaking from my own personal experience, yes, I simplified some of my courthouse analysis for the audience, but in doing so I reached a much larger audience than I would have otherwise.  This phenomenon is not unique to TED - to effectively share any idea you invariably modify its delivery to most effectively communicate with your given audience.  And while condensing 5 years of research into 7 minutes obviously results in the loss of detail, for me it actually clarified some themes that had been lost when I was buried in the details.  

That is in itself an idea worth sharing.

On Courthouses and Spaceflight

image courtesy TEDxSanAntonio

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to speak at this year’s San Antonio TEDx conference at Rackspace Global Headquarters here in San Antonio.  To be sure it was an honor to be selected to speak but even more so it was an amazing event to experience.  Being able to work with and interact as much as I did with my fellow speakers made the event all the more profound.  In addition to coming away from the experience with more than a few “ideas worth sharing”, but I also made a group of friends with whom I’m sure I will stay in contact for some time.  The act of crafting and delivering a talk also gave me the opportunity to make connections that had not been made before. 

I spoke specifically about my work on county courthouses and how they helped transform Texas from a mostly poor and rural condition into the modern state it is today.  I had always thought that this interest was wholly separate from spaceflight - another subject I have spoken about in the past.  But a UTSA graduate student I met at the event made me realize that courthouses and spaceflight serve the same purpose even if they did so at different times. 

The power of both comes from their ability to harness our dreams to move society forward.  Courthouses inspired Texans to build a modern state that was civil and just and so was critical to the advancement of Texas in the 19th century.  Likewise, the space program inspired America to become the leader in technology and innovation that it was throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Courthouses and the space program both had an immeasurable ability to inspire that made them so critical to the advancement of society. 

At any rate, I’ll post my individual talk as soon as it’s available but in the meantime, a video of the entire eight hour day can be found here.

 

TEDxSanAntonio

logo courtesy TEDxSanAntonio

On October 12 I will be speaking at the 4th annual TEDx conference here in San Antonio, Texas.  I’m incredibly honored to have been selected to be a speaker and am looking forward to taking the stage at Rackspace to share some ideas about architecture.

I’ll be speaking about Texas courthouses and what they teach us about the importance of design.  This is a topic I’ve lectured on before but a TED talk is a very different kind of presentation.  The goal is not to convey as much information as possible but instead to convey to a diverse audience “an idea worth sharing”.  The act of condensing five years of research into 6 minutes has been a bit of a challenge, but in doing so I’ve been able to distill what is at the core of my fascination with these buildings. 

The script is mostly done and my plan is to spend these last few weeks refining it and my delivery.  Hopefully all will go well on stage.  Although tickets are no longer available, the event will be simulcast at several locations in San Antonio and an online webcast will be available here