Viewing entries in
Work/Life Balance

Inside the Rink

RRepisode3.jpg

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.

See the CCC

Brownwood.jpg

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.

The best place to see art in San Antonio

McNayStair.jpg

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.

The Subtle Sexism of "Ultimate Beastmaster"

UBM.jpg

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?

Space for Joy

month106aquarium01.jpg

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.

Vacation Space

vacation space.jpg

We recently returned from our family vacation to Colorado. It was a great opportunity to spend some time with the family in the mountains where temperatures were significantly less than they would have been had we stayed in Texas. My girls came home with fond memories of the hikes we went on and the animals we saw. I came home with fond memories of the architecture we inhabited. 

Maybe I'm biassed because of my profession but I do believe we remember where things occurred just as much as we remember what it was that happened there. Even on vacations that are spent mostly outside, the spaces that accommodated those outdoor adventures provide a framework for those memories. I'll always remember the first time I went to Disneyland with my girls but I'll remember just as much the hotel room where we stayed and the eagerness I saw on their their faces when they woke up in their bed ready to conquer the Happiest Place on Earth.

The cabin where we stayed in Colorado was for the most part unremarkable. It had a couple of bedrooms, a very small bathroom and a single living space with a small kitchenette along one wall. Of course I'll remember the views through the windows out to the mountains but I'll also remember the views inward. I'll remember looking through the open door of my girls' bedroom and seeing Darcy wide awake in the bottom bunk, ready for her next adventure.

Chances are we'll never step foot in that cabin again. Even if we did it wouldn't be the same. My girls would be older. I would be older. But my memory of the week we spent there will live forever in my mind.

They will live in an unremarkable little cabin where the views looking in were just as good as those looking out. 

 

Making Space

When my youngest daughter doesn't get what she wants she likes to pout by rolling herself up into a little ball. As a parent I can be frustrated by this behavior but as an architect I cannot help but be impressed. When Darcy tucks her head into her knees and tightly hugs her legs she is making a space that blocks out the outside world.

In a very fundamental way she is creating architecture.

Seeking shelter is an innate human desire. At its core architecture is about creating that shelter: keeping the bad things out and the good things in. That shelter can be created with wood and steel or arms and legs. That shelter can protect you from the elements or from a bossy big sister.

Thanks Again, Mr. Rogers

MrRogers.jpg

A few months ago I mentioned a documentary about Mr. Rogers that aired on PBS earlier this year. Recently I had the opportunity to see a second documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor, and I highly recommend seeing it.

To be more precise, I highly recommend seeing it in a theater.

It's not that it has digital effects that are better experienced on the big screen. On the contrary, much of the film makes use of decidedly lo-fi TV clips from from fifty years ago. But what is rewarding about watching the documentary in a theater is sharing the experience with a group of people. That is to say the ideas of Mr. Rogers are best explored within the context of a neighborhood.

I'm not going to lie: my eyes were not dry when I left the theater and I've often teared up as I've thought about what I heard and saw. I wept not out of nostalgia for my childhood. I wept not because the mean-spirited world we live in today seems so antithetical to the one Mr. Rogers tried to cultivate. I wept because it was so beautiful to reminded that a person could exist who was so thoroughly good and kind. Even though we never met in person I felt I knew him. The world is a less kind place without him.

Over the movie's 94-minute runtime reference was made to a series of programs Mr. Rogers produced for parents as opposed to kids. Some of these specials are available online and I recently watched one of them, a 1982 program entitled Mr. Rogers Talks With Parents about Discipline. 

On the one hand, the program is a time capsule. The appearances of the assembled parents who talk about the challenges of disciplining their children are is a word, "distracting". But what these parents said back in the late 1980s sounded remarkably similar to ones I've had with fellow parents today. It was reassuring to hear that the challenges and self-doubt parents face in 2018 are the same as the ones parents faced 36 years ago. Children were no better behaved then than they are now. Parents were no less frazzled then than they are today.

Of course the most consistent presence in Mr. Rogers Talks With Parents About Discipline is Mr. Rogers himself. He made no grand pronouncements. He never judged the parents just as he never judged the children. He listened. In his soft voice he asked questions and offered thoughts about love and kindness.

Just as it was so reassuring to hear his voice talking to me as a child it was it was just as reassuring to hear his voice talking to me as a parent. "Children have very deep feelings," he said. "Just the way everybody does."

I firmly believe spending time watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood made me a happier, kinder child. I have always been thankful for that. Now I'm finding spending more time watching him will make me a happier, kinder parent.

Thanks again, Mr. Rogers.

 

 

Seven Years Ago

sts134.jpg

Seven years ago I took advantage of a free flight I had on Southwest Airlines and took an evening flight to Orlando, Florida. I checked into a cheap hotel on the outskirts of town, slept for a few hours and then got up at 3am to drive to Titusville. Once there I walked about midway across a bridge where I then sat and waited for five hours.

I did this because ever since I was a boy I had wanted to experience the launch of a Space Shuttle. At 8:46 on May 16 of 2011 I was finally able to do that.

It takes about eight and a half minutes for a Space Shuttle to get into space. Unfortunately due to a low cloud bank I was only able to see about the first six seconds of that. To be sure a lot of time, effort and money went into those six seconds, but It was worth totally worth it.

I will never forget the intense brightness of the exhaust plume. I will never forget the overwhelming sense of excitement and patriotism. I will never forget how I, along with the several hundred other people on the bridge couldn't help but cheer as this amazing piece of human engineering made its way towards the heavens.

I will never forget that I am, and always will be, a complete and total nerd.

 

HiWorks at Five

HiWorks5.jpg

Data from the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that about half of new businesses don't survive past their fifth year. HiWorks is now officially five years old so, well, I guess that means we're awesome.

Of course one interesting (and telling) thing about this particular anniversary is that I totally forgot about it. Legal documents say HiWorks was established on November 1st of 2012. November 1st, for the record falls right smack in between Halloween and one of my daughter's birthdays. This year it was particularly busy in that we were preparing for a birthday party and had a dance performance to attend. All that is to say the anniversary came and went and I didn't even realize it until a week later.

I suppose it's a good thing that the survival of my business enterprise is no longer a noteworthy event. HiWorks today is a lot different than I would have expected five years ago. It'll be interesting to see where we are five years from now.

Leaving Home

ryder.jpg

I found a box of old photos recently.

Now these were real photos - 4x6 prints from back when photographs were physical things that you held in your hand. I found this one picture of a rather goofy looking boy standing in front of a yellow rental truck. Although it was not timestamped I knew the photograph was taken in early July of 2000. If the picture had been taken five years later it would have been captured digitally and would have been saved on a hard drive but never printed. It would never have become a physical artifact that you could find in a box.

It is early in the morning and what you can't see is that the boy has loaded all of his worldly possessions into the rental truck behind him. In a minute he will leave his childhood home and spend two days driving a thousand miles to the north. He will get a job in a city where he knows next to no one. He will make friends. He will build a career. He will eventually move back to Texas, but he will never move back home.

He will eventually marry and have kids of his own and they will grow up in a different home in a different city. On occasion the boy will visit his old home - the one he grew up in - but he will always be a guest there.

Even when his kids are young the boy will squint and be able to imagine a time when they, too, will pack up all of their worldly possessions into a truck. Like their father before them they will leave home to create a life and a family and a home of their own. But before they do that - before they leave their home one last time - he will take their photo. He'll print out a copy of that photo and he'll send it to wherever it is his kids are going. 

His kids might not think much about the photo at first. They might think it strange to receive a photo of what they were leaving behind. They might put that photo in a box and forget about it for many years.

But one day they'll find the box. They'll look at the photo and remember the day they left home.

The Screened Porch

At the beginning of this year we finished work on a screened porch for our house. It is something we had been thinking about for as long as we've owned the house (which for the record has been about a decade). The house had an existing back porch but after we demolished it we made the counterintuitive decision to make the new porch smaller in order to make it more functional. By pulling one side away from the house, prevailing breezes could more effectively flow through and cool the space. The addition of a built-in concrete bench and a hammock ensured that the space could be used throughout the year. The lines of the original house were maintained so that the addition felt like an integral part of the original structure.

We've been using the screened porch quite a bit for outdoor meals, birthday parties and simple relaxation. We've also used it in ways we could have never imagined.

Bear Buildings

On the advice of a colleague and friend Dan Wigodsky my family and I traveled to the YMCA of the Rockies located on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park just outside of Estes Park, Colorado. It was a great little vacation for us to go on as a family: there are tons of things to do there and the girls had never experienced mountains outside of those in west Texas. As beautiful as those may be, they have nothing on the Rockies.

One of the more memorable moments occurred when we took an aerial tramway from Estes Park up to Prospect Mountain. At the top of the mountain you can buy bags of peanuts to feed the chipmunks who have grown quite chubby on the daily handouts they receive. I suppose one could take issue with encouraging tourists actively interacting with wild animals, but man those little guys are cute and the girls had a blast watching them fill their little cheeks with nuts.

We were so engaged with the chipmunks that we didn’t notice a black bear had wandered into the area. While the humans retreated to the safety of an elevated walkway, the bear nonchalantly ambled from one trash can to another and stand on its hind legs to knock it over so it could rummage around inside for food.

We always think about architecture as a thing that is all about people: we design primarily for their needs and their comfort. But the built environment invariably exists within the natural environment and so it makes sense that animals other than people will interact with it. These interactions can be good (I’m thinking of the bat habitat that was accidentally created under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin) or they can be bad (I’m thinking of how skyscrapers that are brightly illuminated at night can confuse and ultimately kill migrating birds).

There are black bears in the San Antonio Zoo that I’ve seen with my children on countless occasions. But watching that same kind of bear inhabit an environment created for humans was a thought-provoking experience. I haven’t reached any conclusions about what this means or what as an architect I’m supposed to do but it did make me think about things in a way I hadn’t done before.

And that is pretty much the best thing a vacation can do.

Location, Location, Location

So the Cardinal family that we watched raise a family a few months ago has returned: they built a new nest, and they laid a clutch of new eggs. Sammy found the nest - a little lower to the ground this time - and we all were looking forward to watching another set of baby chick hatching. Unfortunately tragedy struck when something - probably our neighbor's cat - decided to have some eggs for breakfast early one morning.

I have often noted that being an adult is hard. It is, but being a cardinal in the wild is apparently much, much harder.

The Architecture of the Rink

To be perfectly honest, roller skating is something that I have thought very little about in the past several decades. The only reason I mention it now is that my daughter recently read a graphic novel about roller derby that piqued her interest and she wanted to give roller skating a try. It turns out "The Rollercade" is just a little over two miles from our house and so last Saturday I took her there so we could tie rental skates to our feet and have a go of it.

I honestly can't remember the last time I had done this but my best guess is that it was around 1989 and that it was at the "Skate Connection" in Arlington. My general impression of "The Rollercade" in the late 2010s is that it is basically identical to the "The Skate Connection" in the late 1980s. The dim lighting, the disco balls and the polished parquet floor (with a rough patch in the corner where a roof leak had warped the wood) was all eerily familiar. Some of the music was new of course - songs from Taylor Swift's 1989 were not available in 1989 - but "The Hokey Pokey" and "Thriller" seemed to be played directly from the playlist of my youth.

Although modern four-wheeled roller skates and the rinks where they were deployed date back to the mid-1800s they became a staple of the American suburb in the 1950s. The wellspring of post-war American suburbs, Levittown, naturally had its own mid-century skating rink. Roller skating underwent a renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s when polyurethane wheels improved the skating experience and disco music gave skaters something to do

Although the inline skating boom of the 1990s saw a renewed interest in skating as a sport, part of their appeal was that this type of skating could occur on any paved surface and so did not require a trip to the local rink. As a result the skating rink itself remained in a state of arrested development: the lights may be updated to LED and Tab may no longer be offered at the soda fountain but otherwise the roller skating rink of the 2010s is basically the same as the one of the 1980s. 

A roller skating rink is a singular architectural experience. Like a bowling alley or a baseball stadium it is a place whose sights, sounds and smells are instantly familiar even if you haven't been inside one for a quarter of a century. I hope the memories my daughter made last weekend survive as long as mine have.

I hope "The Rollercade" survives that long as well.

The Armadillo

If you lived in a world where armadillos did not exist and suddenly had one thrust upon you, it would be natural to assume this bizarre thing was some sort of alien creature from another world. Indeed, it is an animal like no other.

Of course growing up in Texas the armadillo is merely a part of the normal landscape like bluebonnets and an overabundance of firearms. They are the butt of jokes (re: the Texas speed bump), an important part of the music scene (re: Armadillo World Headquarters) and can even be used as a musical instrument themselves (re: the incredibly disturbing charango).

At any rate, a fez of armadillos recently started hanging out in in the front yard of my in-laws home and like honey badgers, armadillos don't care. When I arrive to pick up my girls in the afternoon they are out and about rummaging around in the dirt for bugs to eat (the armadillos are the ones eating bugs - not my daughters). Unlike other animals, they don't seem to mind that that we are watching and taking pictures of them while squealing with joy (my daughters are the ones that are squealing - not the armadillos). They go about their business, protected as they are by their thick skin. And if they get into trouble, they merely roll up into a ball until the problem goes away.

We could learn a lot form the armadillo, regardless of what planet they come from.

C: None Of The Above

Life often presents us with what appear to be opposite, binary choices. Something is good or bad, black or white, left or right. As I grow older I am constantly reminded of how things are in reality located on a spectrum. Something can be both good and bad. Almost everything exists as a shade of grey.

Being a father reminds of this fact every day.

Take my youngest daughter, Darcy, for example. At four-years-old she can be an absolute terror. And she can be an absolute joy. She wakes up ungodly early in the morning and yet I can't wait to see her and give her little body a big hug. She is stubborn and illogical and yet she can be incredibly sweet and see things in a way I never could as an adult. She doesn't see the world in terms of "A" or "B" but instead she sees all the possibilities that exist in between. Rather than choose to run up the ramp or take the stairs she chooses to climb the wall that separates the two.

This is but one of the many reasons why I love her and her big sister.

An Open Letter To John Cornyn

One of my two senators recently reached out to his constituents to solicit stories about their personal experiences with the Affordable Care Act. Even though I'm pretty sure he's already made up his mind on the issue I appreciated the gesture. I shared my story with him and I thought you might be interested as well:

May 18, 2017

Dear Senator Cornyn:

I appreciate you reaching out to your constituents regarding their personal experiences with Obamacare. I imagine you have received a range of responses but I wanted to take you up on your offer and share with you the part the 2010 law has played in my life these past few years.

For me the passage of Affordable Care Act will always be closely tied to my decision to start my own business. For years I had wanted to establish an architecture firm of my own but like countless other aspiring small business owners I had a family to consider and had to make the difficult calculus of determining whether or not making a such a professional move would endanger the welfare of that family.

The largest single concern for us at the time was the high cost of health insurance. 

As you will recall before the implementation of the Affordable Care Act the cost private insurance was egregiously large. Even the health insurance I had been receiving through my employer had experienced double-digit premium increases for many years before.

Because the Affordable Care Act promised reasonable rates for self-employed individuals such as myself I had the confidence to launch HiWorks. Although there were many things that kept me up at night those first few years, health insurance was never one of them. When it came time to make use of the Health Insurance Marketplace we found the website reasonably easy to navigate and we were able to find a plan that matched our previous one. Even though we received no subsidies our premiums actually cost a little less and we were able to keep our doctors.

Our experience was a good one. I know that doesn't match the story that is often told but I can honestly say our experience was positive - or at least as positive as one can expect dealing with health insurance.

It should be mentioned that I come to this topic from a relative position of privilege. Our family could afford health insurance before Obamacare and we could after it was implemented as well. For me the real benefit of the law was that it ultimately allowed many more Americans to have health insurance. Even if I had ultimately paid more for my premiums I would consider it a bargain if those less fortunate than me might gain coverage for their families.

I understand that the Affordable Care Act has its flaws and issues that need to be corrected. I see it as the responsibility of my elected officials to fix those flaws and address those issues. I wish that could have been done over the last seven years.

I am happy to report that my business is doing well and that my family is healthy. But I would be lying if I said I was not concerned about the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act. I realize the bill in its current state is merely a starting point but I do feel it heads in a problematic direction. Specifically I take issue with the proposed removal of the safeguards that prevent insurers from raising insurance rates for preexisting conditions.

You see, I am asthmatic and I have been all my life. I also have a father with heart disease. I have a friend with multiple sclerosis and a business partner with brain cancer. At the moment all of these conditions are manageable with the high quality of health care we enjoy. However each of these represents a preexisting condition that insurers could exploit under the House proposal. The fact my wife gave birth to our two children may also qualify as a preexisting condition that could cause our rates to increase as well.

I realize we are now talking about hypotheticals and there is considerable uncertainty moving forward. I do not envy your position as I know your constituents are evenly divided on this issue. As the senior Senator you are in a unique position to provide leadership and work to repair the existing law or develop a new one that offers the same protections that all Americans deserve.

I hope the perspective I have described here has been helpful. I thank you for your service-

-J. Brantley Hightower

Happy Mother's Day Ms. Cardinal

It's spring in Texas and outside our family room window a group of cardinals have built a nest. I've personally enjoyed paying special attention to the family dynamics. Male (bright red) and female (dull brown) cardinals mate for life and during courtship males have been known to try and impress the target of their affections by feeding them. Both male and female share responsibility for feeding and raising their young although it should be noted the female takes the lead in nest building as females are better architects.

Our family has enjoyed watching their family in the week leading up to Mother's Day. It has reminded us of the important role mothers (and fathers) play in tending to insatiable and demanding fledglings.