We're making some updates

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Now that we have some new photographs of the (almost) finished Stinson Tower I thought it might be a good time to update the website. It’s nothing major but I realized it’s been some time since since I’ve added anything to it. Anyway, you’ll find a few new projects and some updated imagery. And I may have added another Easter Egg or two.

Enjoy.

The Professional

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I’d like to think of myself as a respectable photographer: I’m able to grab some pretty good shots of my kids and there was that book that was full of photos I had taken of courthouses. But there is an order of magnitude difference between what I can do and what a real “professional” architectural photographer can with the same building.

I first met Dror Baldinger when we both served on a committee for the Texas Society of Architects. Dror was trained and work for decades as an architect before switching gears and photographing buildings other people had done. His work is amazing and I feel a little guilty hiring him to photograph my modest projects.

He shot the Ranch Dining Pavilion a few years ago and I’m having him photograph the Stinson Tower project as well. I’m not saying he make projects look better than they do in real life, but he does a great job of putting the work that architects do in their best possible light.

You can look forward to seeing the results of my little adventure with Dror in the coming weeks.

And yes, we do houses, too

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You may have noticed that there aren’t all that many residential projects on our site. This isn’t because we don’t do that many houses - it’s just that there’s a greater need for privacy when we’re entrusted with designing a family’s home.

Still we’re incredibly proud of the houses we have designed and are thrilled to be able to share some images when we can. We’ve recently added one house in particular to the website. It’s a home we finished a few years ago for a family on an amazing hilltop just north of San Antonio. They wanted a house that took advantage of the panoramic views offered by the site and we worked with the owners to develop a design that did just that. Through the strategic placement of windows we crafted a home that offered expansive views of the outside world while at the same time providing a private refuge from it. By using a combination of natural wood and stone we created an addition to the hilltop that feels like a natural extension of it.

The Subtle Sexism of "Ultimate Beastmaster"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Changing Face of Community Theatre (update)

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The Construction Documents for the Fort Stockton Community Theatre are complete. As the overall building design was finalized the design of the marquee was updated yet again and even this may not be its final iteration. The budget for this project is very tight and depending on how the bids come back, it may change again.

Still, I like to think that every version improves upon the previous one. I like to think of design as a spiral and even though it may look like you’re going in circles you are in face zeroing in on the final, ultimate design solution.

Celebrating Six

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

This is not that photo.

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.

Figure-Ground

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Despite persistent, unsubstantiated rumors that The New York Times is failing, the paper continues to produce some of the best visualizations of data being produced these days. In today’s online edition (and Sunday’s print addition) they’ve created a map of every building in America. This massive figure-ground diagram of the nation we’ve built for ourselves is truly amazing. Better than a map or satellite imagery it clearly illustrates the patterns of development that define where we live.

Naturally my first instinct was to find where I live and work. From there I explored some more and was able to locate my kids’ schools and the other landmarks of my life (HEB, Target, etc.).

Of course by illustrating only built structures you also start to realize just how expansive the built world is. There’s lots of open space as well and so it looks like us architects will be busy for some time.

Space for Joy

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I had a hard time trying to decide what to post this week.

There was plenty on my mind. I thought about writing about the subtle sexism of the Netflix series, Ultimate Beastmaster. I started to write about the anger and the privilege of middle-aged white men. Having just turned 42 I could have written something about my own privileged anger at becoming a middle-aged white man.

I might eventually write about all those things but instead today I’m just going to talk about taking Darcy to the Texas State Aquarium. There’s a underwater observation area at the “Dolphin Bay” exhibit that’s essentially just a long, dark room with a single window. It’s a large window, though, and it looks out not at Corpus Christi Bay but into a 400,000 gallon saltwater pool. Inside the pool are Kai, Shadow, Liko, and Schooner, four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

On this particular visit we arrived just as the aquarium was opening and we had the space all to ourselves. Darcy spent a good fifteen minutes running alongside and dancing with the dolphins. It was a moment of pure joy for my daughter. Of course I can’t tell how the dolphins were feeling but it sure looked like they were smiling.

Darcy started kindergarten this year. As her world expands beyond what we created for her as a family I worry I’ll be less and less able to protect her from a world that seems increasingly angry and mean. I hope she is able to keep herself safe. I also hope she is able to continue to find space for joy.

Traveling with Robert Venturi

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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

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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. 

Vacation Space

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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. 

 

Career Change Alert

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I've written before about how useful I've found drones to be. Since becoming a commercially licensed drone operator I've done some work-for-hire but mostly it's been done as favors for colleagues. In other words, although it's helps with my architecture work, it's not something I intend to make money from by itself.

Then I got this flyer in the mail. Now I am very tempted to go sit at the feet of "THE DRONE BOSS" and learn how to become a "TRUE DRONE ENTREPRENEUR."

Or I could just keep on being an architect.

 

The Changing Face of Community Theatre

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So we've been working on a new theater for Fort Stockton for the better part of three years now. We just released a progress drawing set (see above) and if all goes according to plan we'll have everything ready to go for construction to begin this fall.

Although the basic organization of the building has remained consistent, if you've been paying attention you'll notice the face of the building has changed considerably over time. At first the taller mass of the theatre itself was clad in weathered metal while the marquee was a more traditional back-lit affair where physical letters could be attached to it:

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Later the color of the theatre was changed to green and the form of the marquee became more streamlined with its underside becoming a backlit plane of light. A LED sign provided information about coming attractions:

After the design was released to the public it was pointed out that green is the color of Fort Stockton's main football rivals and so its color was changed. Currently the marquee's form and material matches that of the buildings around it while a constellation of small LED lights illuminates the entry underneath it:

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In all probability the design will continue to evolve. It's all part of the process and with a project like this there is always a delicate balance between civic aspirations and budget realities. Of course the goal is to make a great new performance space for For Stockton. We're doing that but we also know it's important for the building that houses that space to be a landmark for the city.

Now this...

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I wanted to do a post this week about the beautiful section of the toilet.

I'm honestly not being flippant here. A toilet, regardless of its cost or manufacturer, is an elegant piece of engineered porcelain. It's designed so that gravity alone allows the bowl to be flushed clean with water. After it's flushed the water remaining in the bottom of a bowl (called the "s-trap") creates an air-tight seal that prevents unpleasant smells from traveling through the toilet up from the sewer pipe.

If we didn't poop into them on a regular basis we might all have a much greater respect for the humble toilet.

I was looking for a suitable image to illustrate all this when I came across patent number US4320756A. The idea was that people trapped in a burning high-rise building could breathe "clean" air trapped beyond the water in the S-trap I mentioned earlier. 

Like the toilet itself it's a remarkably simple and design solution.

But no.