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.

The Future Is Not Here yet

Remember a few years ago when 3-D printers were all the rage? I do and I'll admit I found myself caught up in all the hype. As an architect the appeal was obvious: every project I do is developed as a computer model and it would be great to hit "print" and have a physical model magically appear. This was a potential game-changer in terms of producing study models for our internal use and presentation models for our clients.

And so in 2014 after months of research I ordered a fifth generation MakerBot Replicator, the most expensive doorstop I have ever owned. From the beginning there were issues: the first time I started up the machine the build plate chewed up the ribbon cable that connected the extruder to the rest of the printer. I had to return the entire printer to the manufacturer. Weeks later after it was repaired a series of “smart” extruders were constantly clogging and each one also had to be returned to the manufacturer. I was not alone in my troubles: the issues were so large that MakerBot became embroiled in a class action lawsuit over the quality-control issues that plagued the rollout of their fifth generation printer.

Meanwhile I was trying to run a business. Although I knew there would be a learning curve involved in becoming proficient in the use of this new tool, there came a point where it became increasingly difficult to justify tinkering with the system that seemed incapable of producing a usable print. Although I produced a few study models that I was able to share with a client, it remained a novelty more than anything else.

In speaking with other firms that had made a similar investment it seems they typically have an intern or other employee dedicated to tinkering with the printer to nurse usable prints out of the system. As a small office those were resources I simply did not have available. Increasingly the printer sat unused and I finally decided to sell it on Craigslist before it lost all value. I was eventually able to sell it to a concrete counter fabricator out of Austin for a sixth of what I originally paid for it.

Being an early adopter of a technology always carries risks. Sometimes that risk pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. The drone I invested in, for example, proved to be an incredibly tool. The 3D printer was not. Someday the technology may deliver on its promise of revolutionizing the design and construction industries, but that day is not today. 

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.

Plenum Space

I've talked before about my current office space. It's cool that it's in an old O'Neil Ford building but it's not-so-cool in that the public spaces of the building haven't been particularly well maintained. Mismatched lights, dated paint colors and stained carpet all create an aesthetic that doesn't say "creative professional" so much as it communicates "creepy".

This is something the owners of the building have recognized and are currently working to correct. In addition to updating the restrooms so that they are more accessible and smell less like pee they are also upgrading the finishes of the corridors. There's only so much they can do with these spaces due to their low ceiling heights: raising the ceilings isn't really an option due to all the services that - up until a few days ago - were run in the plenum space above the acoustical ceiling that has been temporarily removed.

The "plenum space" of a building refers to the cavity between a ceiling and the roof or floor structure above it. This void is used to run the HVAC ducts that feed conditioned air throughout the building. All the remaining space then acts as a big return air duct that recirculates air back to the air handlers. Of course all this extra hidden space above the ceiling also provides a place for wiring to be added. For an older building that has been modified to fulfill a new purpose like the one I am currently occupying there ends up being a lot of stuff stuffed up above the ceiling (see above). Between multiple telephone lines, various cabling by multiple internet providers and additional power feeds, the plenum space ends up being a solid mass of wires, ducts and perhaps a rodent or two.

But even in this extreme state the plenum space is demonstrating its value. By acting as a relief valve for new technology, the plenum space allows a building to adapt to new uses and technologies. What goes on above the ceiling might not be pretty, but it is very important.

We have a school

Earlier this week I traveled up to Argyle, Texas to help lead a "kickoff visioning meeting" at the Selwyn School. Selwyn is a private K-12 school in Denton County that was originally located on a campus with buildings designed by O'Neil Ford. They have since moved and part of our challenge designers is to develop a master plan for their new campus that acknowledges that history while allowing them to take advantage of new opportunities afforded by a clean slate.

We're especially excited to be working together with Malone, Maxwell Borson Architects as well as Peter Brown Architects. Peter and I worked together back in the early 2000s when we were both at Perkins & Will in Chicago. Michael Malone and I became friends while serving for various committees at the Texas Society of Architects and have been looking for an opportunity to work together.

At any rate, Monday's session was all about downloading as much information as possible about the culture and history of the school as well as the hopes and dreams of its students, faculty and parents. Next week will continue to work with the administration to develop a cohesive strategy for growth that takes into account curricular goals as well as architectural realities.

The rest of the summer is going to be busy, but it's going to be fun.

I Stand Corrected

Last year I penned a fictional "Open letter to my contractor friends". The point of the blog post was to speak of unity and the importance of collaboration between our two fields. The conclusion / punchline of the post was a particular set of nonsensical pool stairs I had came across at a pool at Lockhart State Park. I told contractors that if, "Your reading of the drawings implies that a set of steps going into a pool starts above the top edge of the pool and stops before it reaches the bottom, maybe next time you could give me a call and we could figure it out before the concrete hardens." My assumption, of course, was that the stair was built in error.

The error, however, was mine.

The pool stairs I had come across were in fact a set of "pool transfer steps" designed and built to allow individuals in wheelchairs to safely enter and exit a pool. The stair in Lockhart closely adheres to the design guidelines stipulated in Section 1009.5 of the Texas Accessibility Standards.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was a sweeping set of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990. As it pertains to architecture, this federal law required public and commercial spaces and the amenities they contain to be accessible to those with mobility and other impairments. If the ADA states generally what has to be done by law it is left up to local governments to determine exactly how it is to be done. In Texas, this is spelled out in a special set of codes called the Texas Accessibility Standards (TAS). The 215-page document that describes these standards includes Chapter 10 which addresses recreational facilities. Section 9.5 of that chapter describes the dimensional requirements for pool transfer steps in addition to other, more common means of achieving pool accessibility like ramps and pool lift arms. I happened to be looking up something for a project when I came across the section on pool transfer steps. I often have to look things up because, as demonstrated by the existence of pool transfer steps, accessibility requirements are sometimes nonintuitive.

To be perfectly honest, making a facility comply with accessibility standards can be a pain. It requires bathrooms to be larger, elevators to be added and in general it makes buildings more expensive to build. It could be argued that these increased costs are not worth it given that only a small portion of the population enjoy the benefits of an accessible building.

On the other hand, as a nation we are based on the idea of equality ("All men are created equal...", "We the people..." etc.) and so even though we may individually start life with different circumstances, abilities and disabilities, we do our best when we make our institutions - be it buildings, education or healthcare - truly accessible to everyone.

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.

MC Brantley

As part of my ongoing effort to sell copies of my book I try to do one courthouse-related event per month. For June I gave a quick talk at the San Antonio Masonry Contractors Association Golden Trowel Awards Banquet. The "Golden Trowel" (in case you didn't already know) is an award that identifies projects that make exemplary use of brick, block or stone. I particularly like how this award is given because it recognizes everyone involved in the success of a particular project; architects, contractors, masons and material suppliers. 

At any rate, in addition to brief lecture on the role of masonry in Texas courthouse design I was also asked to "emcee" the event. This was my first time to do something like this and although I won't be quitting my day job anytime soon, it was a fun way to spend an evening. After reviewing photos from the even I see I need to smile more (see above). I also clearly need to invest in some Hammer Pants.

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.

Kicking Asphalt

The street in front of our home was resurfaced yesterday and watching the process over the last few days has acted as a fascinating reminder of how cool (or rather, how hot) the process really is. 

In the case of our street the old asphalt surface was first scraped and hauled away to a facility that will process it so that it can be used again (in the United States, almost 99% of the asphalt removed from road surfaces is reused). After that a thin layer of gravel was laid out to act as a fresh substrate. Finally, the new asphalt surface itself was spread out over the roadway by an asphaltic concrete laying machine: basically it's a mobile furnace that attaches to a dump truck so that a constant supply of asphalt and gravel mix can be heated and then laid out to create a new road surface.

For the record, this machine is so cool a version of it was featured in the first Cars movie and you can buy a die-cast toy of it so your kids can conduct infrastructure improvements of their own. 

All that is to say our street now has been completely resurfaced with a gloriously smooth asphalt finish. 

On Flying Drones and Carrying Handguns

As I mentioned last week I've been in the process of acquiring an "Airman Certificate" from the FAA that would allow me to operate a small unmanned aerial system for commercial purposes. I'm happy to report that I passed the exam and have been issued temporary paperwork: my official license will arrive in the mail sometime next week.

I spent a little over a week studying for the exam and now know quite a bit about how the United States manages its airspace. I also understand better how the FAA regulates the use of drones and how to operate one safely so as to minimize the danger to people and property. The process seemed reasonable given the relatively small threat to public safety posed by the kind of small drone I am now permitted to fly (for the record, we're talking about this kind of drone as opposed to this kind).

At any rate, how I felt about this process was in stark contrast to how I felt after earning my Concealed Handgun License last year.

For the record, I don't carry a concealed handgun nor do I personally feel I have a compelling reason to do so. I don't have a particular problem with someone else "carrying" provided they do so in a responsible manner and that the process of acquiring a CHL is reasonably rigorous. 

I was curious how difficult it would be for me - someone who had only fired a handgun a couple of times in his life - to show up completely unprepared for a CHL class and walk away with a license. That's more or less what I did last year when after a few hours of classroom instruction and about 15 minutes on a gun range I had all the paperwork I needed to file for a license to carry a handgun in the state of Texas.

It seems odd to me that it is easier to acquire a Concealed Handgun License than to acquire a Remote Pilot Certificate. The civilian drones I'm now allowed to fly aren't designed to kill people. Handguns are designed to kill people.

Yes, drones they can hurt people (i.e. Enrique Iglesias) but only if they are operated or interacted with irresponsibly. The same is true of motor vehicles which is why we have a thorough process to make sure those who choose to operate them are able to do so safely.

Of course our right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution - a document that says very little about our right to keep and operate drones. Then again the first few words of the Second Amendment include the term "well regulated" but that's a different discussion for a different day.

In Praise Of The Sectional Chart

Last year the FAA established new standards for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones, etc.) in US airspace. What that meant for me was that I could no longer use my drone for what I had originally purchased it for without obtaining a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airman Certificate. I am in the process of doing that now and have spent the last week or so studying for my Aeronautical Knowledge Test.

I've spent about a week studying the material and like most exams (the ARE, the bar, etc.) some of the material covered is of dubious importance. For example, I've learned all about runway markers even though my quadcopter doesn't need a runway to takeoff. Still, I now know what the colored markers mean that are pictured on the left side of our rendering of our design improvements for the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. The yellow "B" on the black background indicates that is Taxiway B and that the white "32-14" numbers on a red background indicate that taxiway is about to cross runway 14/32.

One thing that has been worthwhile to learn is how to read a VFR Aeronautical Charts (see above). Produced by the FAA and updated every six months, these so-called "Sectional Charts" are designed to give pilots the information they need to navigate under visual flight rules. As such they illustrate and label landmarks that would be visible from the air (cities, roads, lakes, etc.). But overlaid on top of that are several layers of information that is completely invisible.

For example you also see the multi-colored concentric circles you see describe the various classes controlled airspace that surround various airports. The solid magenta circles you see around San Antonio and Austin are for the "Class C" airspace that surround San Antonio International and Austin–Bergstrom International Airports. This type of airspace exists as "inverted layer cake": the inner circle represents a layer that goes from the ground all the way up to 4,800 feet whereas the outer circle represents a layer that starts at 2,000 feet and goes up to 4,800 feet.

Plenty of other information can be found here as well: control tower radio frequencies, the location and height of large obstructions and areas where the military conducts low-altitude operations. Almost everything a pilot needs to know can be found on the charts. Even current weather conditions can be found by listening to the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcast whose radio frequency is provided on the Section Chart. 

The density of information is part of what makes these charts so compelling. Seeing your world rendered in a way you don't normally see it is equally fascinating. It's like looking at an aerial photo of where you live in Google Earth: the landscape it renders is both familiar and foreign at the same time. It is also abstracted in a way that I would argue is beautiful.

For an even greater level of abstraction, check out IFR Aeronautical Charts (see below). These documents are for pilots using only their instruments and so provide no visual reference to what's happening on the ground. Instead all that is rendered are the invisible airways and waypoints that crisscross the sky above us.

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.

 

Meanwhile in Boulder...

I was in Colorado this last week for reviews at the University of Colorado at Boulder. While there I was able to see some cool sites, visit with some good friends and even experience some snow. Being as how highs were in the 90s in Texas when I left, the later item was quite remarkable.

I went on a hike with my fellow HiWorks associate, Betsy Johnson, because apparently that's what people do for fun in Boulder. We walked up the foothills of the Flatirons and as we did we talked of many things. We talked about our work, our families and our ambition. We talked about Bjarke Ingels and weather or not we should/could be as successful/famous as he is at his age.

It was during this conversation that we realized that we didn't exactly know weather Mr. Ingels was from The Netherlands, Denmark or Holland. We tried to figure this out without looking it up but we were unable to do so. We eventually resorted to Wikipedia and there was good reason for us to be confused.

Denmark (where Bjarke Ingels is from) and The Netherlands (where fellow architect Rem Koolhaas is from) are both countries that border Germany; Denmark to the north and The Netherlands to the west. "Holland" actually refers to a region of The Netherlands but is often informally (if imprecisely) used to refer to all of The Netherlands just like people sometimes say "England" when they are actually talking about The United Kingdom

People from Denmark are Danes. People from The Netherlands are Dutch. This makes no sense whatsoever but is explained in this helpful and entertaining video.

This public service message has been brought to you today by HiWorks.

Still Under The Bridge

Fiesta is underway in San Antonio.

For a transplant like myself the seventeen-day-lang series of events initially baffled me. Although it was originally a celebration that commemorated the defeat of Mexico by the Texan Armies, it has ballooned into something much larger and more complex. For the record, the Texas Revolution wasn't just a battle between Texas vs, Mexicans: it too was something larger and more complex than (just ask this guy).

At any rate, the celebration as it exists today consists of many seemingly unrelated events. There's an oyster bake, a carnival and lots of concerts. Fiesta has its own acronyms. NIOSA (Night in Old San Antonio) is a block party in historic La Villita. And of course it has its own parades. 

Lots of parades.

In addition to river parades and dog parades, Fiesta has some major street parades. The Battle of Flowers and Flambeau Parades are arguably the crowning events of the Fiesta Celebration. Even though they occur in late April, it can be pretty hot in San Antonio by then (this this year it's already humid and in the 90s). The parade route travels under the U.S. Highway 281 / Interstate 35 interchange and the shade provided by these elevated roadways have become popular places to watch the parades. They are so popular, in fact, that people started camping out days ahead of the actual parades in order to secure a good spot for themselves and their families. 

It's basically a temporary city that forms under the bridge with its own, rules, culture and yes, it's own architecture. This was supposed to be the last year that families were allowed to camp there but the city seems to have backed away from their decision to prohibit it moving forward.

I couple of years ago I produced an episode of The Works that talked about this unique San Antonio phenomenon. It's still one of my favorite podcast episodes and it's worth a listen if you haven't heard it in a while.

So have a listen, have a good laugh and have a happy Fiesta.

Tequila Sunrise

TequilaSunrise

As I've mentioned before I'm not a sports guy. I don't watch sports and with the exception of a few unremarkable seasons growing up, I don't play them either. And yet I live in a culture where sports are culturally important and so I absorb some of that excitement simply due to proximity. When I lived in Chicago, for example, I would pass by Wrigley Field on my commute. As such I would claim to be a Chicago Cubs "fan" even if I only went to a couple of games and couldn't name a single player. I wore my Cubs hat for over fifteen years before it became cool to do so.

But my Cubs hat was not my first baseball cap. No, the first hat I ever owned was for the Houston Astros.

It should be noted that I grew up about 250 miles from Houston and have still never attended an Astros game. Growing up in Arlington I should have been a Texas Rangers fan. I attended several games at Arlington Stadium as well as the often renamed Ballpark in Arlington / Ameriquest Field in Arlington / Rangers Ballpark in Arlington / Globe Life Park in Arlington. What is more I can still name at least three former players (Buddy Bell, Iván "Pudge" Rodríguez and of course Nolan Ryan).

But being something of a contrarian I couldn't have a Rangers cap like everyone else and so I chose to wear a Houston Astros cap. Although I didn't know it at the time I was wearing part of a uniform that was "arguably the most radical uniform redesign in major league history". The orange hat with it's blue star and white "H" was the least outlandish part of an ensemble that featured a pull-over jersey with bold stripes of red, orange and yellow stripes encircling the player's abdomen. A navy star offset to the left of the player's chest was counterbalanced by the player's number which was displayed on the player's right thigh. There was a lot going on with this uniform, nicknamed the "tequila sunrise" for the drink it resembled.

For a sport as heavily based in tradition as baseball, it was insane.

But the uniform was also iconic and memorable: two characteristics that one might argue every uniform should have (the team's current uniforms are mostly forgettable). Even though many considered the "tequila sunrise" ugly, the uniforms were a bold choice for the team and in many ways a perfect match for the city of Houston.

As architects we sometimes design buildings that are considered to be ugly. Any creative act runs the risk of being disliked. The difference is architecture can't be ignored as easily as an ugly painting, a bad song or a nonsensical movie. But it is important that those bold choices get made. It's how we as a culture moves forward and it's how the places we live are defined. Don't forget, the Eiffel Tower was initially considered to be just as ugly as the uniforms the Houston Astros wore between 1975 and 1986.

It Never Feels Good To Say, "I Told You So"

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

I was in Fort Worth over the weekend to attend a lecture from my friend and mentor Max Levy. He was speaking at the Kimbell Art Museum and the visit also afforded me the opportunity to visit the museum as well as its neighboring extension, the so-called "Piano Pavilion" that was completed in 2013. As far as art museums go the addition is respectable enough. It clearly cost a fortune but I couldn't help but feel saddened by its existence. This sentiment was not unexpected. 

Back in 2011 I wrote an essay for called "Requiem For A Lawn". in which I talked about the addition before it was built and what I feared would be lost once it was finished. Alas, my predictions proved prescient.

Below is the text of that essay that appeared in the July/August issue of Texas Architect:

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up a short drive from the Kimbell Art Museum. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Louis Kahn’s vaulted masterpiece was the reason I decided to become an architect, it certainly did provide a compelling example of what great architecture could be.

As I learned more about the Kimbell in architecture school, I began parking not in the sunken eastern lot but on the street between Kahn’s building and the Amon Carter Museum. This western approach was the one originally envisioned as the main entry and I felt like it was a little secret between Kahn, the building, and me. A key part of this sequence was crossing the broad, tree-lined meadow that served as the Kimbell’s front lawn for almost 40 years.

I have come to appreciate this lawn as an important foil to the massive and dignified Kimbell Art Museum. While the tree lined lawn was originally planted as a mall centered on the landmark tower of the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center, the integration of the greenspace into the overall design of the Kimbell effectively wove the new building harmoniously into its existing urban context.

Perhaps more important, Kahn’s plan preserved an open field of activity for the city of Fort Worth. In my years of crossing it as I made my way to the museum I have seen kids flying kites and dogs catching Frisbees. I have seen families engaged in picnics and fly-fishermen practicing their cast. I have seen the Kimbell’s front lawn play host to several games of touch football and at least one impromptu cricket match.

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In 2007, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was announced as the architect for a significant addition to the Kimbell. This would be the second attempt to expand the museum: a 1989 proposal by Romaldo Giurgola was ultimately abandoned after fierce public outcry that its approach would severely alter the integrity of Kahn’s original structure. While certainly flawed, Giurgola’s scheme notably left the western lawn untouched.

As vociferous as the opposition was 31 years ago, it is surprising how little reaction Piano’s more recent effort has generated. Perhaps this is due to the fact that unlike the 1989 proposal, the Kimbell itself will remain intact. This new scheme seeks to complement the original structure from a distance rather than mimic it at close range. Kahn’s near-perfect interplay of light and space, structure and material, served and servant will remain the same. Of course, the amount of gallery space will be doubled and the expanded museum will in all likelihood reap the benefits of increased attendance. That is all fitting and proper, but something irreplaceable will vanish in the bargain since Piano’s design places the new building in the middle of the Kimbell’s western lawn.

I am not suggesting that plans for the addition be scrapped (as construction has already begun it is a bit late to make that argument) but I believe it should be recognized that some of the magic that is the Kimbell will be lost.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I for one will miss what once was. I will miss the intimate and easily understood scale of the original Kimbell. I will miss the western lawn and the display of civic life that it nurtured. Piano’s rational is that the new building and its associated underground parking will re-orient entry into Kahn’s building, allowing most visitors to enter from the west as originally planned. Only now, rather than crossing a broad and open lawn, visitors will be merely traverse a court between two buildings. While visitors will be entering from the direction Kahn intended, the experience will be a totally different one.

At the end of last year when groundbreaking seemed imminent, I made a special trip to the Kimbell to see it one final time in its original state. It was a beautiful autumn morning and the lawn’s perimeter trees sent long shadows across the expanse of green. As it was early on a Saturday, I had the space to myself and the solitude only heightened the experience. That morning felt almost like a final parting at the end of a long relationship. Though neither of us would ever be the same afterward, we could still enjoy one another’s company one last time.

Breaking Ground

Last week we attended the official groundbreaking of the new air traffic control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport. As you may recall, back in 2015 HiWorks and Work5hop collaborated to enter a design competition for "improvements" to an already-designed air traffic control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport. We won and over the last year we have been working with AJT Engineering to finalize the design. That design was put out for bid, a contractor was selected and last Wednesday a groundbreaking ceremony was held.

In front of the airport's existing tower a ceremonial pile of dirt was prepared with an appropriate number of ceremonial shovels (see above). A cake was baked and Fiesta medals were distributed. When the ceremony was over the contractor removed the pile of dirt and began work at the actual site of the tower, some 2,100 feet to the southwest.