The Tricentennial App That Wasn't

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

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

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

Unfortunately that's when things began to fall apart.

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

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

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

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

 

Seven Years Ago

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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.

 

As Promised

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As you've probably seen in recent posts our portion of the Stinson Municipal Airport Tower project suddenly materialized last week. The "wings" we had designed along with Work5hop were manufactured in Arizona and last week they were shipped to San Antonio where all eight panels were then lifted into place.

Architecture takes a long time. In many ways this project was no different: we won the "design improvements" competition back in 2015, we completed our portion of the design documents in 2016 and construction on the tower itself didn't begin until 2017. That said our portion of the project really materialized over the course of only a few days. Normally the transformation from rendering to reality does not happen so quickly. There's still work to be done: the cables that secure the wings to the tower need to be tightened and the lighting inside the wings still needs to be calibrated and scheduled. But man, we're close. 

And the renderings that we produced years ago were pretty close, too:

 The original rendering for the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower

The original rendering for the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower

Returning to the Eames House

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Even if you don’t know who Charles and Ray Eames were you’ve probably sat on something they designed. Their iconic mid-century chairs have never really fallen out of style. They also made films and created exhibitions and in general lived a life that was about the observation of and the creation of beauty in the world.

They also built themselves a house. Also known as Case Study House #8, the Eames House a place for living and working but it was also a mechanism for living a particular type of modern life. Although homes built of steel and glass can often feel cold and uninviting, theirs somehow does not. It is animated with art and found objects that make it feel warm and intimate both inside and out.

I had first visited the Eames house in 2002 but at the time the interior wasn’t open to the public. They have since started offering interior tours and when I was in town I leapt at the opportunity to experience it for myself. It did not disappoint.

The house itself is quite simple: essentially it’s two steel-framed boxes. There are no structural gymnastics or exotic materials. But as with any good home, the architecture is merely a frame. And if it’s a good frame it accommodates living and people and things that make life worth living. Even though the design of the house may be straight-forward it is by no means simplistic. Great care is given to how the house is sited, how the steel frame is in-filled with solid panels or glass, and how space flows form one area to another.

My favorite part of the tour occurred at the end when the guide and I sat on the floor of the living room and talked about the life Charles and Ray lived.  Their life - like their work - remains as inspirational as ever: simple enclosures can hold greatness inside.

Reconsidering the Hyperbolic Paraboloid

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Back when I was taking my exams to become a licensed architect the study materials always included a question about thin-shell structures. This is a very specialized type of concrete construction that derives its strength not from the thickness of the material but from its shape. One particularly efficient shape was the hyperbolic parabolid. The strict definition of a hyperbolic paraboloid is, "An infinite surface in three dimensions with hyperbolic and parabolic cross-sections". More simply it's a shape that looks like a saddle.

I always thought it was a joke that the State of Texas thought it was important for architects practicing today to know about thin-shell concrete hyperbolic parabolids because even though they are cool, no one's building them anymore. Constructing the formwork for these complex shapes is incredibly labor intensive and the concrete’s strength can be compromised by small changes in temperature and humidity. Asking a question about them on the ARE exam would be like asking a question about Gothic groin vaults or Victorian mansard roofs.

Pretty much the only person to have had any success building these things was a Mexican engineer by the name of Félix Candela.  I had seen photos of his work in school and although I respected it I frankly never really thought all that much about it beyond that.

Then I got to experience what it was like to be inside a thin-shell concrete hyperbolic parabolid. That made me think about them a lot more.

I happened to attend a wedding at the Chapel Lomas de Cuernavaca, an open-air chapel located about 36 miles south of Mexico City. The wedding Mass was beautiful (even though I didn't understand a word of it as it was sonducted in Spanish)  but it was the chapel that really grabbed my attention. And even though I could appreciate the structural efficiency of the structure's thin-shell I was really blown away by its architectural expressiveness. Even though the structure was only inch-and-a-half thick, it felt like I was enveloped within a cave. But it was a cave that somehow allowed light to penetrate deep inside. It was a cave whose shape directed prevailing breezes through it.

It was a space that was difficult to capture with photographs and that may have been part of the appeal: the architectural experience proved to be difficult to describe. It was a space like no other.

In all likelihood I will never design a thin-shell hyperbolic paraboloid structure. Of course, in all likelihood I’m not going to design a Victorian courthouse or a Gothic cathedral either. But just I am glad courthouses and cathedrals exist, so too am I glad that hyperbolic paraboloids exist.

HiWorks goes to Big Bend

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There was a time when my college roommate and I would make an annual pilgrimage out to west Texas to explore the natural beauty of Big Bend National Park. As we got older (and got married and had kids) these trips became less frequent. And so when the opportunity arose to work on a project in Big Bend (and get paid to go out to Big Bend) I jumped at the chance to go back. I was also thrilled to collaborate again with Work5hop – a firm that was founded by my college roommate with whom I would often travel to Big Bend.

On paper the project itself isn’t the most exciting – it’s the restoration of a historic motel on the banks of the Rio Grande – but it’s great to have an excuse to go out there again. It’s also an honor to be a part of effort to preserve Big Bend so that future generations of college roommates can make pilgrimages out there as well.

State and Wacker

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There are many things I remember fondly from my time on the banks of Lake Michigan. Sitting on a train for an hour every day was certainly – if somewhat surprisingly - one of them. I’ve often described how one of the best things about living in Chicago was the commute. It was about a half-hour train ride between my apartment and my office and that time gave me an opportunity to read for pleasure in away I never had before (and, sadly, never have since).

But it wasn’t all about the journey  - the destination was pretty great, too. When I’d arrive at the State and Lake Station on the "L" I’d descend the stairs and head north on State Street. Once I reached Wacker Street the buildings on either side of me would fall away and I’d be treated to a panoramic view of the broad canyon of buildings that lined the Chicago River. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and there for a while I was able to see it every day.

Apparently I’m not the only one to appreciate the beauty of this urban space. Hollywood producers find it particularly cinematic as well. That’s why it has appeared in (and been destroyed in) a number of movies in the past several decades. I recently came across a short video that illustrated this phenomenon quite well and thought it was worth sharing.

For what it’s worth I worked in the IBM Building and so had a great view of the Marina City. The office where I worked used to have a great view east down the river towards lake Michigan but a large building built by a notoriously shady developer has since been built that blocks that once  amazing view.

Meanwhile in Fort Stockton...

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As you may remember back at the end of 2015 we worked on a schematic design for the Fort Stockton Community Theatre. The group used the conceptual design we produced to start fundraising and two years later they were at a point where they were ready to release us to start producing the final documentation of the design.

And so at the beginning of this year we got back to work for the good people of Fort Stockton. The design has evolved but the concept is still the same as it was in 2015. Their existing building will be renovated into a flexible event space that can be used to host the pre-performance dinners they have become famous for hosting:

The theatre space itself with have seating for 125 people and provide updated lighting and sound systems for more sophisticated performances. It will also provide for a more comfortable experience for those attending the performances:

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And when there is a performance the marquee will bathe the sidewalk in light announcing to those passing by that there is something special happening in Fort Stockton:

It is an exciting time to be in Fort Stockton and we're of course excited to be a part of that.

$711

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As a small business owner I watched closely as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was pushed through Congress at the end of last year. Naturally I was curious about how the bill would impact HiWorks but it was hard to tell - in the final stretch the bill changed from day to day and even after it passed I wasn't sure. HiWorks does not have the luxury of employing a team of accountants to crunch numbers in real time but when it came time to do my taxes for 2017 (the new tax code applies to income earned in 2018) I asked my accountant to see what the difference would be if the new tax code was applied.

All totaled HiWorks will pay $711 less in taxes.

To be fair my tax burden was reduced by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 as promised. But $711 does feel more than a bit underwhelming - especially when I was told “There’s never been tax cuts like we’re talking about.” Given that this tax cut is projected to add one trillion dollars to the deficit next year alone it would seem some businesses are getting more than $711. It would seem the promised tax savings were not as equitably distributed to small businesses as promised

The fact is I can't hire a new employee with $711. I can't increase productivity by buying a new computer. I suppose could put that extra $711 into my daughters' college savings account but at the end of the day it really doesn't amount to much.

Some might say what I need to do is invest in a better accountant but what I'm starting to believe is that what I really need to do is invest in a better Congress.

Architects of Music

 image courtesy weirdal.com

image courtesy weirdal.com

Last week "Weird Al" Yankovic dropped a new single: a polk medley featuring several selections from the musical, Hamilton. It turns out that the creator of HamiltonLin-Manuel Miranda, is a fan of Mr. Yankovic and in an interview from a few years ago he told the story of the first time he met the singer/songwriter/satirist. He also revealed a fact about Mr. Yankovic I did not known before:

Alfred Matthew Yankovic graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo with a bachelor's degree in architecture. 

It turns out  Mr. Yankovick is not the only artist to have first studied architecture before pursuing a career in popular music. In fact the list is remarkably long:

Art Garfunkel studied architecture at Columbia University where he ultimately graduated with a degree in art history. By then he had already met his musical collaborator, Paul Simon, years earlier in elementary school.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (a.k.a. John Denver) studied Architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He joined a folk-music band while there and ultimately pursued that career path.

Jerry Harrison of The Talking Heads dropped out of Harvard's Graduate School of Design to join his fellow band mates who had met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Three of the founding members of Pink Floyd (Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright) all met while studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster).

Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel (a.k.a. Seal) also studied architecture in London and earned a two year diploma in architecture before becoming a singer/songwriter and marrying Heidi Klum.

The rapper O'Shea Jackson Sr. (a.k.a. Ice Cube) was interested in architecture as well as rap and earned a diploma in draughtsmanship from the Phoenix Institute of Technology the same year Straight Outta Compton was released.

It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who famously said "architecture is frozen music" and the two mediums are more similar than they might at first appear. Both architecture and music play with rhythm and structure. Both architecture and music communicate emotion and meaning. Both architecture and music can transcend their rigid rules and history to create art of endearing beauty.

Perhaps the creative problem solving taught in an architectural education provides a useful approach to those who go on to create music. Perhaps this is all just a coincidence. Perhaps I'm just too white and nerdy.

The Architecture of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

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Last week was the 50th anniversary the first national broadcast of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I grew up watching the show and hearing the soft, comforting intonations of Mr. Rogers' voice in a recently rebroadcast interview transported me back to my early childhood. I may have been just as much of a Sesame Street kid, but Mr. Rogers always had a special place in my heart.

This may be because his neighborhood was so familiar.

Whereas Sesame Street took place in an urban setting Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was unambiguously suburban. You can see this in the program's iconic opening sequence where the camera explores a scale model of the titular neighborhood. It wasn't exactly like the suburb where I grew up but it looked a lot like the postwar neighborhood where my grandparents lived.  Even though my grandfather and Mr. Rogers were quite different there was a comforting calmness they both shared.

It may be an overstatement to claim the scale model at the beginning of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was the inspiration for me to build models and design neighborhoods as an architect but it's most assuredly not an overstatement to claim that the testimony Mr. Rogers gave in front of Congress in 1969 remains an inspiration for speaking truth to power. The seven minute clip is worth watching: seeing a gruff Senator straight from Central Casting melt under the overpowering kindness of Mr. Rogers is incredibly cinematic and I'm sure a version of it will appear in the upcoming biopic starring Tom Hanks.

In the meantime, though, PBS will be airing its own documentary about Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood. The program airs on March 6 at 7PM on KLRN here in San Antonio.

 

 

 

This Poster Is Not For Sale

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My Facebook feed contains a pretty diverse collection of posts. From friends who seem to constantly be on vacation to Russian trolls there are lots of things vying for my attention. One ad that caught my eye the other day was for a company that sells posters featuring the control towers of various airports from around the world. Of course I checked to see if they had one for Stinson Municipal Airport. They did not but since we have something to do with that particular project I thought I'd suggest an additional print be offered for sale. Please see above.

I realize there have been a number of Stinson blog posts in the last few weeks and I promise to return to my usual collection of random posts here in the coming weeks.

Stinson Hat

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the progress of the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. As the main portion of the tower was going up the "cab" - the uppermost part with all the windows where the air traffic controllers actually do all their work - was simultaneously being built on the ground. Last week a large crane lifted it to its final resting place on top of the tower.

This is not how buildings are normally built. Then again an air traffic control tower is not a normal type of building. When you think about it, this approach makes sense. Since the cab contains the majority of the detail work associated with the project you want to build it in the most efficient way possible. Forcing every sub-contractors to climb ten flights of stairs to do all their work a hundred feet in the air isn't very efficient. Hoisting a massive pre-built component may seem like an extreme approach but it turns out to be the best one. AJT, the engineering firm responsible for the main portion of the tower, has perfected this approach having built several multiple versions of the same tower over the years.

Design is about the finished product to be sure, but it is also about how you get there. Strategizing how the "wings" - our contribution to the design - are prebuilt and attached to the tower represented a significant portion of our design as well.

In Praise of Good Humor

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SpaceX launched its first Falcon Heavy launch vehicle this week. I was able to watch it live on my computer at my office and it was a truly spectacular event. As a test flight with a relatively low chance of success the rocket carried no "real" payload. Normally these sorts of tests carry ballast or some other sort of dead weight, but the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, thought that would be boring. 

And indeed it would have been. And so instead they sent aloft a cherry red Tesla Roadster. Tesla, of course, is also helmed by Musk and while all this could be dismissed as a publicity stunt, I appreciated the gesture.

I am in no way comparing myself to Musk - obviously he and I function in very different planes of influence and importance - but I certainly recognize his desire to humanize (or at least humorize) the tasks he undertakes. It's the same reason Michael Jackson and David Hasselhoff inhabit the renderings I produce. It's the same reason this website is littered with hidden Easter egg links.

It's good to take seriously the important thing you do in life. But it's also OK to wink at the people you encounter along the way.

 

A Note About Our Residential Work

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At HiWorks we do a lot of different types of projects. Yes we do theaters and control towers but we also do private homes. Out of respect for the privacy of our Clients many of these projects aren't publicized on our website. Even so we are incredibly proud of this work and always feel honored to be a part of the journey that leads to a new home.

One of these homes was recently photographed and the Client graciously gave us permission to make the images public. The house was designed to offer 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.

In the coming weeks we'll be adding this and other projects to the "What We Do" section of our website. So by all means, do stay tuned.

HiWorks in the News in West Texas

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So I was in Fort Stockton last week for a series of meetings with the Community Theatre and my Theatre Consultant. It was a good meeting and as a part of it I was also interviewed by KWES Channel 9. I spoke at length about the project and a few seconds of that detailed, nuanced description made it onto the air. So for better or worse my fame now extends to the West Texas / Southeast New Mexico regional broadcast area.

At any rate, in case you missed it, you can watch the story here.

 

Enjoy.

Stinson Rising

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Construction of the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower is currently underway. So far the effort has focused on the concrete tower (the part not designed HiWorks in conjunction with Work5hop) but in a few months our portion of the design will be attached to that central core. These prefabricated "wings" are currently being assembled in Phoenix and the full-scale mockup looks great.

So stay tuned - things are about to get interesting.

The Graflex Lightsaber

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One of the gifts my daughters received for Christmas were light-up toy lightsabers. Sammy received "Rey's" lightsaber and if you've seen the most recent installments of the franchise you know this is also "Luke's" lightsaber from the original trilogy and "Anakin's" lightsaber from the prequels. The story of how that came to be is rather convoluted but I think the more interesting story is how this particular lightsaber prop came to be designed.

Here's a hint: it has something to do with a accessory for an obsolete medium-format camera.

In 1976 the production design team was hard at work creating the cinematic universe for Star Wars. It's important to remember that the original movie had a relatively low budget and many of the props were and sets were cobbled together from things that already existed in the real world. The story goes that a set decorator went into a photography store to buy a couple of lenses to make a pair of futuristic binoculars. While he was there he asked if the store had any "interesting" gear that no one was buying anymore. He was pointed in the direction of a box included the flashgun for a Graflex Speed Graphic camera. This particular camera was popular with photojournalists in the 1940s and 1950s but by the 1970s it was out of production and rarely used. The flashgun consisted of a cylindrical metal tube containing batteries that connected to a bowl-shaped flash mechanism.

He took one look at the metal tube and he saw Luke's lightsaber.

Some additional detail was added including plastic strips for the grip and parts from a Texas Instruments calculator (there's always a Texas connection), but the basic form of Luke's iconic lightsaber was sitting there all along in a box of unused camera parts. The movie's other lightsabers were made in similar ways: Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber notably made use of both a residential sink knob as well as a part form an aircraft machine gun.

 Luke Skywalker's lightsaber can be seen at the far right while Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber is second from the left

Luke Skywalker's lightsaber can be seen at the far right while Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber is second from the left

For me the moral to this story is that good design can come from anywhere. You just have to remember to keep your eyes (and your mind) open so that you can see it.