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

 before...and after

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.

Come And Borrow It

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A couple of years ago I first visited the Gonzales Memorial Museum. I wrote a blog post about it, the cannon and flag that was used in that battle the museum commemorates. The story is something I've thought a lot about since then and so I decided to explore it further in the most recent episode of The Works.

So if you have eleven minutes and want something interesting to listen to, I don't think you'll be disappointed:

As always, feel listen to other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

Making Space

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

In a very fundamental way she is creating architecture.

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

Futuristic Ruins

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I recently checked out the new additions to the San Antonio Botanical Garden. The Welcome Center, Discovery Center, Culinary Garden and Family Adventure Garden are all great enhancements to the San Antonio institution but as I explored the gardens I was reminded of how great the Lucile Halsell Conservatory truly is.

Designed in the 1980s it was one of the first major projects by Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz. The project consists of a series of subterranean greenhouses that feature plants from different biomes from around the world. Each of these gardens is illuminated by geometric skylights and the overall composition somehow feels like a futuristic spaceship and a ancient ruin.

San Antonio has it's fair share of good buildings, but I've always felt this was one of its most underappreciated gems.

 

 

The Western Edge

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The fierce ongoing debate about the redesign of Alamo Plaza speaks to how critically important the project is for our city.

It also happens to be a fascinating design problem.

Back in 2013 Margaret Sledge and I decided the challenge of Alamo Plaza was worth studying in the context of a hypothetical design studio at Trinity University. Our students came up with a variety of different design proposals but the one produced by Nate Adams, Jason Azar and Keegan Droxler was particularly memorable. They called for converting the existing historic commercial buildings on the west side of the plaza into a museum / visitor center for the Alamo.

At the time this struck me as a particularly good idea and I was pleased when, five years later, the authors of the “Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan” had the same idea for the location for the visitor’s center. I was less pleased when I saw they were considering demolishing the historic structures located there in order to build a new museum from the ground up.

As I sat through one of last week’s public discussions / yelling matches I started thinking about how the limitations of the three historic buildings that form the western edge of Alamo Plaza could be turned into assets in order to create a world class visitor center. In my spare time this past week I took the seed of what Nate, Jason, and Keegan had started in class five years ago and developed it into something I think is worth sharing.

Of course stealing the ideas of former students is only one of many transgressions I committed. Second guessing a design team who is still very much in the process of designing is also something you’re not supposed to do. Then again, there has been a lot of commenting / second guessing going on since the Comprehensive Interpretive Plan was released. Rather than just react to the what I saw with words I could actually do some design work. And so for better or worse that is what I have done.

Before I describe the proposal in detail I did want to provide three quick disclaimers:

1. I am not an expert on the Alamo - I’d like to think I’m reasonably knowledgable of Texas History and as an architect I do spend most of my waking hours thinking about the built environment. I also spent the better part of a decade living and working within a few blocks of the Alamo so I first hand knowledge of the challenges and possibilities of Alamo Plaza.

2. My particular ancestry does not privilege my opinion - Although I can claim to be a 6th generation Texan whose ancestors played a part in the Texas Revolution, that does not bestow on me any particular claim on the Alamo, it’s past or its future. I do, however, believe that whether you’re a descendent of William Travis or a singer / songwriter from east London, the Alamo and its story belongs to all of us.

3. I have no connection to the Alamo Master Plan Design Team - The group of professionals assembled by the Alamo Master Plan Management Committee is credentialed, talented and I have no doubt they have the ability to produce good work. But a design team’s potential is circumscribed by the demands placed upon them by the client. Those constraints do not apply to me and so I am free to propose things the real designers cannot.

So again, just to be clear, this is an unsolicited, unsanctioned, purely hypothetical design proposal for a visitor center that could be built but - but probably won’t.

 The 1882 Crockett Block

The 1882 Crockett Block

As identified by the Comprehensive Interpretive Plan (and my undergraduate students), the Crockett Block, the Plaza Building and the Woolworth Building that form the western edge of the plaza are an ideal location for an interpretive museum / visitor’s center for the Alamo. Adaptively reusing these structures - which are themselves historic - to create such a facility makes plenty of sense: the buildings already exist and the location is ideal. To be sure there are issues associated with reusing these structures but I think it’s possible to view these challenges as opportunities to create a design solution that is uniquely suited to the Alamo.

 The reconstructed western perimeter wall as seen from inside the street level gallery

The reconstructed western perimeter wall as seen from inside the street level gallery

It is true that the Crockett Block, the Plaza Building and the Woolworth Building all sit on a portion of the Alamo’s former perimeter wall. The Hotel Gibbs and Federal Building do so as well but in the case of the commercial buildings in question the non-historic portion of their interiors could be gutted to open up the street level so that a portion of the Alamo’s original perimeter wall could be rebuilt in place as an interpretive exhibit. Visitors to the museum could walk through full-size dioramas that recreate the days before, during and after the 1836 siege. These reconstructions would also be visible through the buildings’ first story windows, creating a visual connection between the existing “real” Alamo Plaza outside and the historic simulation inside.

 A large gallery addition sits over the existing historic buildings

A large gallery addition sits over the existing historic buildings

One of the reasons given for tearing down the Crockett Block and its neighbors is that the current buildings are not large enough to accommodate a suitable visitor center. If additional space is indeed required, gallery space could be built above the original structures. In order to preserve the oldest (and arguably most important) of the three buildings on the block, this addition could be built to cantilever over the 1882 Crockett Block.

 The outdoor viewing terrace between the existing Crockett Block and the upper gallery addition

The outdoor viewing terrace between the existing Crockett Block and the upper gallery addition

A side effect of these structural gymnastics is that this cantilevered addition would cast shade onto an outdoor viewing terrace located on top of the Crockett Block. As well as serving as an ideal place to experience Alamo Plaza from an entirety new perspective, this terrace could also become a premiere location for special events that could be held independent of the public plaza below.

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If the view from the Crockett Block's new viewing terrace is impressive the view form the Floating Gallery above it would be stunning. Floor-to-ceiling glazing would bathe the galleries in light while allowing Alamo artifacts to be seen within view of the historic Alamo itself. A series of partitions could create darker galleries for the display of more light-sensitive items.


Of course the Visitor’s Center is but one of many aspects of the Comprehensive Interpretive Plan. There are plenty of compelling ideas in that plan and of course there are also some that are less so. It is my sincere hope that this modest proposal adds something to the ongoing discussion of what to do with Alamo Plaza. Just as I used my student's project as a starting point I hope the "real" design team can use this effort as a starting point to create something worthy of the Alamo.

On The Other Hand...

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

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

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

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

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

First Ink

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As a licensed architect I'm required by law use a seal "to identify all construction documents prepared by the registrant or under the registrant's supervision and control for use in Texas". In other words, I have to stamp and sign my drawings.

Back in the day architects used a physical rubber stamp but today it's far more common for drawings to be issued electronically and for a "digital" stamp to be used. That's why even though I've been an architect for over a decade I never actually had a reason to use the physical stamp I purchased after I earned my license. I kept it tucked away in a drawer, it's surface unsullied by the ink that impregnated the pad sitting next to it.

As it came time to release the drawings for the project we're doing in Big Bend we realized that the National Park Service requires (amongst many other things) that a set of "record" drawings be produced with a physical stamp and signature. And so after eleven years of waiting, my architect's stamp finally was given the chance to do that which it was made to do.

I have to admit that the act of signing and stamping a set of drawings is a remarkably satisfying experience. The physical act provides a fulfilling closure to what is often abstract, digital process of working for months on a computer. 

I'll still use the digital stamp for most of my projects but it's nice to know the physical stamp is there, ready and willing, should the need arise.

Thanks Again, Mr. Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again, Mr. Rogers.

 

 

And Then There Were Four...

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This past Saturday Alan Bean passed away after a brief illness. He was one of only twelve men to have walked on the moon. All of those moonwalks occurred in the late 60s and early 70s and all of the moonwalkers who are still alive are now well into their eighties. With the passing of Al Bean there are now only four men on Earth who have walked on another world.

What made Bean particularly unique (within an already incredibly unique category of men) was what he did after he walked on the moon. He became a painter. His work focused on spaceflight and his experience seeing things so few of us will ever be able to see for ourselves.

Bean's abrupt career change always reminded me of that line from the 1997 film Contact where Jodie Foster, finding herself unable to describe the overpowering beauty of the cosmos, says that rather than a scientist like herself they "Should have sent a poet." 

Even thought it's been almost fifty years since we first landed on the moon we are still in the infancy of space exploration. We aren't yet to the point where we can send poets into space. But it is somehow comforting to know that some of the test pilots, engineers and scientists we have sent come back so changed that they decided to become poets.

 

 

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