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 sister-in-law 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


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.

*          *          *

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.

New Episodes of "The Works" Are Coming Soon

Today the creators of This American Life and Serial release their newest "spin-off" podcast, S-Town. I know very little about it other than it promises to be in the true-crime genre like the first season of Serial and it will probably be very good.

You might be thinking to yourself, "Hey, Isn't there a really good podcast out there about architecture and design?" There is: it's called 99% Invisible. If you haven't listened to it, you should.

What you're probably NOT thinking to yourself, "Hey, isn't there a second-rate podcast produced by that Brantley guy about architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it?" Well, in the unlikely event you were wondering about that, you're right. 

Twenty episodes of the The Works have been produced over the past two years/seasons. "Runaway success" is not a term one would use to describe the effort but I've enjoyed drilling into some of the unexpected stories about the built environment that have been featured. Some episodes are better than others, but I'm proud of what's been created even if it's proven to be a lot more work than I imagined.

For the third season I decided to abandon the monthly format in favor of a more relaxed, whenever-I-feel-like-it approach. All that is to say that new episodes are in development but there won't be as many of them.

The next episode will be about planetaria; the curious interior spaces where people go to view what they should be able to see outside. Of special interest are the mechanical devises that project the stars onto the interior of the dome above (see image above). Recently these great steam-punk artifacts have begun to be replaced by modern digital projection systems. As is often the case, this new technology brings with it some exciting possibilities even if something is lost in the process.

In the meantime, you can subscribe to and listen to old episodes of The Works here. Enjoy.



Something More About Mary

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Mary Colter and the Desert View Watchtower. I talked about how great the building is and how much I could have learned simply by studying it rather than earning the degrees and working at the firms that I did.

Although I still I stand by the basic thesis of that post (that the Desert View Watchtower is a really great building that has a lot to teach a young architect) a colleague of mine pointed out that the post was written from a place where the existence of choice was assumed: I could choose to go to architecture school, I could choose to work at the firms that I did or I could choose to do none of those things and instead hang out on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The reality is that not all people are afforded those same choices: Mary Colter certainly was not.

Born in 1869 her life was closely circumscribed by the prevailing societal norms of the day. In the 1880s there was no real mechanism for a woman to receive formal training as an architect. Instead she went to art school and eventually "backed" her into to the profession. She was ultimately able to do the work she was able to do because of her amazing talent but also because she was fortunate to find a one-in-a-million patron in the form of Fred Harvey who had the resources and the open-mindedness to give her talent the freedom to flourish.

Her career was exceptional not only because of the quality of the work it produced but also because it existed at all.

As a point of comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright was born just a couple of years before Colter in 1867. He had the freedom to go to architecture school (and to subsequently drop out). He had the freedom to work for Louis Sullivan, one of the leading architects of the day (and to later be fired by him). He had the freedom to choose clients and build the career he wanted for himself. These were all choices Colter simply did not have. Indeed they were choices the women who worked for Wright did not have.

The goal here isn't to compare Colter and Wright in terms of talent or influence. Rather the point is that these two architects were given radically different opportunities based solely on weather or not they happened to be born with a Y chromosome.



"Good Morning America How Are You?"

This week was spring break in San Antonio and my family decided to go visit my parents up in Arlington. We do this every few months and now that we have two girls we usually just drive. Although navigating I–35 and all its associated joys may be the least expensive option it is by no means the most pleasant. Clara and I were less-than-enthusiastic about the possibility of spending five-or-so hours in a car with small children when some friends of ours mentioned they were taking the train to St. Louis.

The train: why hadn’t we thought of that sooner?

For those lucky enough to have access to private automobiles and commercial air travel, Amtrak exists somewhere between a quaint anachronism and a punch line. Although trains on the Northeast Corridor run often enough to be usable, those elsewhere on the network do not. Departure times are notoriously inconvenient in my hometown. For example the romantically named “Sunset Limited” that heads west towards Los Angeles departs San Antonio at the decidedly unromantic time of 2:45am.

I could spend this post talking about passenger rail transportation in America from a historical / political standpoint: how federal subsidies of first the highway system and later commercial air travel helped kill the passenger rail industry in the United States after the Second World War; how the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (better known as Amtrak) was formed in 1971 as a public/private entity to ensure the continuation of passenger rail service; how Amtrak never managed to turn a profit in the 45 years since it was created.

I could do that, but I won’t.

Instead I want to simply mention what a joy it is to travel by train. Even when traveling through familiar country, you see it from a completely different perspective. You enter towns not through a continuous loop of chain fast food restaurants and gas stations, but through their figurative and literal back yards. You see the mowed lawns of homes that back up to the tracks before seeing the grain elevators and warehouses of the towns themselves.

You see the landscape in between not through the the tiny window of a commercial airliner at 30,000 feet, but through a wide picture window bigger than those of many houses. Instead of being crammed inside an aluminum cylinder you have room to stretch out and the freedom to walk about. You get to experience the architecture of a train before experiencing the architecture of your destination. 

Of course, our trip to Fort Worth and back again took over two hours longer than it would have had we driven and had all the inconveniencea of hauling luggage and arranging transportation to and from the the train station / airport. Still, the girls had fun and it was a memorable experience. It is an experience that will probably need to live in our memories as the current administration plans to defund Amtrak among other things it deems frivolous.

Maybe passenger rail travel is unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Maybe trying to make a nineteenth century mode of transportation relevant in the twenty-first century is a fool's errand.

Or maybe that's what make it so wonderful.


Or I could have just spent all that time here

Before starting HiWorks in 2012 I spent ten years working for other people. That's how it's supposed to work: in addition to the Architect Registration Examination aspiring architects must also spend years "apprenticing" with established firms to learn the necessary skills do design buildings.

And so after I graduated from architecture school I naturally wanted to work for firms that reflected the values I had as a nascent architect. And so I moved to Chicago got a job with Perkins & Will because they believed architecture "Had the power to transform lives." A couple of years later I moved to Dallas and worked for Max Levy because I wanted to learn what he knew about how design can "connect people with nature". After I moved to San Antonio I spent the better part of a decade working for Lake|Flato because they believed "first and foremost that architecture should be rooted in its particular place."

I learned plenty form each of the offices and if I had it to do over again I don't know that I'd do anything differently.

That said, every once in a while I come across a building that so completely embodies my values as a designer - a building that is such a perfect act of architecture - that I think if just spent long enough looking at and studying and experiencing the building, I would have learned everything I needed to know.

In my recent trip to Arizona I had a chance to revisit one of these buildings. The Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was designed by Mary Colter and built in 1932. Yes it enjoys an amazing site, but it is so perfectly rooted to it's particular place that it looks like an outgrowth of the canyon itself. The observation rooms and galleries connect people with nature while also connecting people to the cultural traditions of the Hopi People who once called northern Arizona Home. It has the power to transform lives as it certainly transformed mine.

Space Frame!

A space frame is a type of lightweight two-way structural system that can be thought of as a 3-D truss. They were really popular in the 1970s, 80s and 90s although Interestingly enough the concept was originally developed by Alexander Graham Bell at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the advantages of the system is it can span a long distance using small, lightweight members that are relatively simple and inexpensive to assemble. This, however, is also its weakness: if any one its constituent parts were to fail it can compromise the entire system and cause a catastrophic collapse. There have been several high-profile failures and as a result space frames are rarely used today.

But between 1987 and 1991 the system was used extensively in the construction of Biosphere 2, a structure designed to act as a large-scale closed ecosystem. I had the opportunity to tour the structure last week. It sits about thirty miles north of Tucson and it looks like a futuristic outpost on some distant planet. That was kind of the point: one of the goals of the endeavor was to test how we might make a self-sustaining colony on Mars or a similar alien planet. The plan was for a series of "missions" to be conducted where crews would be lock inside the enclosed structure for years at a time to simulate a mission to another world.

Things didn't quite go according to plan. The ambition of the project outstripped the available technology and knowledge and the scientific value (and base motivations) of the project came to be questioned. The private venture was eventually sold to the University of Arizona who owns and operates the facility today.

One of the things Biosphere 2's space frame structural system accommodated was the creation of a series of "biomes" that simulated climactic regions found on earth. But in the enclosed environment of Biosphere 2 climactic conditions could be controlled and tested in way that would be impossible in the outside world. What would a few degrees of temperature change do to a rain forest? In Biosphere 2 that question can be tested in a way that would be impossible in the outside world.

Biosphere 2 was an exercise in optimism that couldn't quite live up to its promise. The same could be said of the space frame (and the lift slab and the concrete thin shell). Still, the value of any building (or system or endeavor) should be judged not by the degree to which it fulfills its original mission, but by the degree to which it can be adapted to meat a need that comes to exist in the world.


Memorializing Plutonium

Last week I received an email from a graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis. She was interested in learning more about a competition I had entered that was sponsored by the the publication, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The group was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked to develop the first atomic weapons. They are the group responsible for the "Doomsday Clock", a hypothetical timepiece that measures how close we are to a nuclear apocalypse (midnight). 

At any rate, in 2001 the group sponsored a hypothetical competition to design a permanent storage facility for 200 metric tons of plutonium piles that were then awaiting disposal. The entry produced by the 25-year-old version of me came in second (a position I still find myself in when imagining post-apocalyptic futures) and our submission was published in the May/June 2002 issue of the magazine. There was also an awards reception where I got to hobnob with nuclear scientists and ultimately I was able to add this project to my portfolio and resume.

And that was about it.

I honestly hadn't thought much about it in the subsequent fifteen years until I received that email last week. What I learned is that in 2005 a professor at Iowa State had written a scholarly essay about post-nuclear monuments, museums and gardens that had referenced my competition entry. That's how the Washington University student had found out about the project this year.

So just to review the timeline; in 2017 a student found a 2005 essay that referenced a project that had been published in 2002 that I had completed in 2001. It is true that nothing on the internet ever really dies - or it at least that things on the internet have a half-life similar to that of plutonium.


When hail hit San Antonio last year our neighborhood was in the direct line of fire. Pretty much every house around us has had its roof replaced in the last nine months. As Sammy and I walked to school every morning we would always see work being done. We saw workers install everything from standing seam metal roofs to asphalt shingles.

Lots of asphalt shingles.

Today over eighty percent of American roofs are covered with asphalt shingles. Asphalt shingles are manufactured to look like traditional wood shingles: individual sheets are varied and colored to simulate the appearance of their predecessor. The reason is clear: people like the look of wood shingles but asphalt shingles are less inexpensive, they're fireproof and they're quick and easy to install.

Of course it wasn't always this way. When I grew up I lived in a neighborhood where all the houses had wood shingles. Over the last several decades these traditional wood shingle roofs were slowly replaced so that now it is remarkable when I come across one. This recently happened when I was hiking (again with Sammy) at Palmetto State Park. As we walked toward the park's historic Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) picnic pavilion I noticed the wonderful depth and texture of these shingles (or rather these wood shakes - wood shingles are machine cut and regular whereas wood shakes are hand cut and more varied). 

Of course the irony is that just as asphalt shingles replaced wood shingles on homes all over the country, the wood shakes at the pavilion at Palmetto State Park actually were themselves a replacement. The roof of the pavilion was originally covered in dried dwarf palmetto fronds - the type of plant that gives the park its name. Part of the ethos of the CCC was to use locally available materials as much as possible. It was the Great Depression and so while labor was cheap, materials were expensive. If you could cover the roof of your building with something that was literally laying around the forrest floor, all the better. The problem was that dried palm fronds need to be replaced often and are a bit of a fire hazard. The same could be said of wood shingles.

It's not uncommon for one system to replace another over time but it's important to remember that something is often lost in the transition. It's much more convenient, for example, to be able to make a call from anywhere versus being tied to a land line, but the quality of the connection is almost always worse. It is much easier to communicate with someone via email, but the intimacy and physicality of a hand-written letter has been lost. Covering your roof with a tactile, natural material - be it wood strips or palm fronds - may be expensive and time-consuming, but somehow it feel better than draping blankets of asphalt over your roof like everyone else in your neighborhood.

Notes From a Contested Border

My daughter at the US / Mexico border

My daughter at the US / Mexico border

A couple of weekends ago I took my girls out to west Texas. I picked them up from school on Friday and headed west on I-10 out to Fort Stockton. We stayed there overnight before making our ascent into the Davis Mountains on Saturday morning. We visited the fort, we hiked and we went to a star party at the McDonald Observatory. It was a great little adventure for us to share.

On Sunday morning we made our way back toward San Antonio via U.S-90. The highway takes a more southerly route that hugs the Rio Grande for about ninety miles between Dryden and Del Rio. For much of that time it's possible to look across the rugged Chihuahuan Desert landscape, over the Rio Grande valley and into Mexico. In Langtry there's even a state-run Visitor's Center and you can walk a short trail down to the border itself.

Over 12,000 miles of America's 19,000 mile border with Mexico is between Mexico and Texas. Most of this area is sparsely populated (El Paso, Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley being notable exceptions) and although the Rio Grande acts as a physical demarcation, it isn't much of a physical barrier. The line on the map is often invisible here. There are no walls here nor are there fences.

Nor do there need to be.

Here the desert itself acts as a barrier and even so the US Border Patrol maintains a strong presence. The idea is that even if the border itself might porous, the ways out of it are not. In addition to a series of constitutionally questionable interior checkpoints, Border Patrol agents are constantly patrolling the area. We probably passed twenty of their vehicles on our drive.

More importantly, there are no marauding bands of illegals. There are no murders. There are no rapists. In all my trips along the border, I have never seen the "illegals" that are supposedly pouring across the border. I'm not saying they don't exist, but the fact is the system implemented over the last several decades works well and the increase in security there after 9-11 has been a economic boon to the region

I know that there is a narrative that exists that the border is a lawless place that is unsafe. That is not true in my experience. I've found the border to be a place of rugged beauty; a place teeming with wildlife; a place where I would happily take my daughters.