Marfaland

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A week ago I traveled with my family for a vacation in Disneyland in Anaheim, California. This week I am in Marfa, Texas for a workshop on audio storytelling sponsored by Transom and hosted by Marfa Public Radio. The goal, as you might guess, is to make The Works better.

At any rate, walking down Highland Street in Marfa has reminded me of walking down Main Street in Disneyland. Although the scale of the latter is somewhat smaller - Disneyland famously played with the dimensions of the street and the buildings to make them "feel" better more inviting - the distance from Sleeping Beauty's Castle to the Disneyland Train Station is about the same as the distance from the Presidio County Courthouse to the tracks of the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

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Walt Disney did not use Marfa as a model for Disneyland. It is instead an idealized version of a turn-of-the-century downtown inspired both by Disney's memories of his hometown of Marceline, Missouri and the memories Harper Goff had of Fort Collins, Colorado. The reality is the basic urban model of a main commercial street with set on axis with a "weenie" (be it weenie a courthouse or a castle) can be found in small towns and larger cities throughout the country.

It turns out that in addition to being a cool feature for a theme park it's also a great way to design for the real world as well.

 

Missing From Travis Park

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My grandfather's generation fought Nazis in Europe. I bet he never thought his grandson's generation would need to fight neo-Nazis and the hatred they represent in public parks here in the United States.

On this episode of the podcast we talk about Travis Park and the monument that was built there. As always, please talk a moment to listen to the story and if you like what you hear, feel listen to the other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

The Architecture of the Justice League

image courtesy Hanna-Barbera Productions

image courtesy Hanna-Barbera Productions

Justice League opens this weekend and to be perfectly honest, I don't care. The reviews haven't been great and when it comes to movies that pander to my childhood nostalgia I'm much more of a Star Wars man.

But the marketing barrage that has accompanied the release of the film did remind me of a Saturday morning cartoon I would occasionally watch as a kid.

I don't remember much about the plot of individual episodes of Super Friends beyond the fact it featured the adventures of a group of superheroes. That said I do remember something about the architecture of the show. It seams this team of costumed vigilantes hung out in a headquarters called the "Hall of Justice". This was no subterranean Batcave but a monumental piece of civic architecture that would have been a prominent landmark regardless of if it was located in Gotham, Metropolis or Cincinnati.

I mention the third-largest city in Ohio because it is the real life home of Union Terminal, a train station that clearly acted as an architectural precedent for the hall portrayed in the cartoon.

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Not being a superfan of DC superheroes I don't know much about the Hall of Justice or how it came to be built. But as an architectural supernerd I do know a few things about Cincinnati's Union Terminal.

It was designed by a team of superarchitects that included Paul Cret, a French architect who immigrated to the United States and became a successful and influential designer of public buildings. He helped design much of the campus of the University of Texas, including its iconic main tower building.

Around the same time he was working on the UT campus he was also working on an art deco train station for Cincinnati. It was completed in 1933 but because of the great Depression, World War II and the subsequent decline of rail transportation, it never served the capacity it was designed to accommodate. It was eventually abandoned but in the 1980s it was repurposed as a multi-use cultural facility that contains museums, theaters, and a library.

Cincinnati, it turns out, was the home of the broadcasting company that owned Hanna-Barbera Productions, the animation studio responsible for the creation of Super Friends. I'm certainly not the first one to point out the relationship between the fictional Hall of Justice and the real Union Terminal and the latter has actually been used as a set for several live-action portrayals of DC Comics superheroes.

I am unable to go into more detail about how the real life Union Terminal is incorporated into theses shows (or even if the building makes an appearance in the new movie) because as I've mentioned before, I really don't care.

HiWorks at Five

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Data from the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that about half of new businesses don't survive past their fifth year. HiWorks is now officially five years old so, well, I guess that means we're awesome.

Of course one interesting (and telling) thing about this particular anniversary is that I totally forgot about it. Legal documents say HiWorks was established on November 1st of 2012. November 1st, for the record falls right smack in between Halloween and one of my daughter's birthdays. This year it was particularly busy in that we were preparing for a birthday party and had a dance performance to attend. All that is to say the anniversary came and went and I didn't even realize it until a week later.

I suppose it's a good thing that the survival of my business enterprise is no longer a noteworthy event. HiWorks today is a lot different than I would have expected five years ago. It'll be interesting to see where we are five years from now.

Selwyn School

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Earlier this year I mentioned we had started work on a master plan for Selwyn School up in Argyle, Texas. It was a busy summer but the team of architects, administrators, faculty members and students all worked together to create a campus design that fits the uniqueness of the school's approach to education as well as the uniqueness of the school's wooded site. We are all excited to start work on designing the actual buildings that will make up the campus.

On a purely personal note it was incredibly fun to finally have the opportunity to work professionally with Michael Malone and Audrey Maxwell of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects. Although we have been friends and colleagues for years and had always talked about trying to work together, Selwyn School represented our first opportunity to actually do so. Hopefully it will not be our last.

In the meantime, additional images describing our work on Selwyn School are now available on the website. Go Unicorns.

Tilting Up

image courtesy AJT Engineering

image courtesy AJT Engineering

I mentioned back in September work had begun on the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. That work continues and I am happy to follow up by saying that the building is now officially out of the ground.

The main body of the tower (designed by AJT Engineering) consists of a series of stacked precast concrete panels. These are cast at a plant east of town, shipped to the site and then hoisted by a crane into place. This type of construction isn't particularly unusual - many "big box" retail stores and warehouses are built with precast panels as well - but the technique is remarkable in that you go from a foundation to something that resembles a building in a remarkably short period of time.

There is still lots of work to go on the project (the "wings" we designed along with Work5hop are just beginning to be fabricated in Arizona) but it's always exciting to see a design starting to become real.

Leaving Home

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I found a box of old photos recently.

Now these were real photos - 4x6 prints from back when photographs were physical things that you held in your hand. I found this one picture of a rather goofy looking boy standing in front of a yellow rental truck. Although it was not timestamped I knew the photograph was taken in early July of 2000. If the picture had been taken five years later it would have been captured digitally and would have been saved on a hard drive but never printed. It would never have become a physical artifact that you could find in a box.

It is early in the morning and what you can't see is that the boy has loaded all of his worldly possessions into the rental truck behind him. In a minute he will leave his childhood home and spend two days driving a thousand miles to the north. He will get a job in a city where he knows next to no one. He will make friends. He will build a career. He will eventually move back to Texas, but he will never move back home.

He will eventually marry and have kids of his own and they will grow up in a different home in a different city. On occasion the boy will visit his old home - the one he grew up in - but he will always be a guest there.

Even when his kids are young the boy will squint and be able to imagine a time when they, too, will pack up all of their worldly possessions into a truck. Like their father before them they will leave home to create a life and a family and a home of their own. But before they do that - before they leave their home one last time - he will take their photo. He'll print out a copy of that photo and he'll send it to wherever it is his kids are going. 

His kids might not think much about the photo at first. They might think it strange to receive a photo of what they were leaving behind. They might put that photo in a box and forget about it for many years.

But one day they'll find the box. They'll look at the photo and remember the day they left home.

I Read It For The Articles

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A few weeks ago Hugh Hefner died. His passing caused me to think about the one issue of Playboy I own.

I've talked before about Albert Speer and how his style of architecture became so closely associated with Nazism that it fell out of favor after the end of the Second World War. Speer is himself a fascinating character. Of the 24 high-ranking officials of the Third Reich on trial in Nuremberg, Speer alone expressed remorse and responsibility. This is probably why he did not receive the death penalty as did most of his fellow codefendants.

At any rate, last year I learned of an interview Speer gave to Playboy magazine in 1971 after completing his prison sentence. Obtaining a copy through Amazon was surprisingly easy (and cheap) so I finally got around to buying my first Playboy.

The lengthy article about Speer was fascinating and worth the $3 it had cost me. Although I was reading Playboy just for the article (no, really) I naturally flipped through the rest of the magazine as well.

Browsing any forty-five-year-old publication is an interesting anthropological experience. If nothing else it's fun to see ads for 8-track stereo systems, American Motors station wagons and Schlitz beer. It's also fun to see the Marlboro Man still selling filtered cigarettes and Orson Wells selling bourbon whiskey.

And then, of course, there were the naked women.

To be perfectly honest the photos contained in the magazine were relatively tame (especially in comparison to what any reasonably resourceful 12-year-old buy can find online today). But what was far more objectionable were the cartoons dispersed throughout the pages of the periodical. It wasn't that the cartoons were particularly explicit, it's that they were incredibly sexist. The nonchalant chauvinism implied a cultural pervasiveness that apparently was much more accepted back then. But even if that overt sexism has been driven underground it's clearly still here today

I would like to think that the battle against sexism was won long ago. I would like to think the battle against Nazism has been won as well but apparently that battle somehow continues to be fought as well. We still have work to do.

 

 

Still a loser...

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A little over a month ago I reported about how I lost a competition to design an accessible route to San Antonio's City Hall. Today I'm proud to report I've successfully lost another competition: this one to imagine a reuse for an abandoned church on Chicago's South Side.

Every year or so the Chicago Architectural Club sponsors a design competition to address some existing design issue in the city. The challenges are usually pretty compelling and I've submitted entries into past competitions. For this year's Burnham Price Competition I proposed converting the old Saint Stephen's Church into a new National Cemetery for the city of Chicago.

The rapid growth of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in a dense urban landscape that was unable to accommodate the traditional “garden cemeteries” favored by the National Cemetery Administration. But just as it pioneered the concept of the skyscraper by building up to contain the living, it seemed natural that Chicago would embrace the idea of building down to house the dead. The church's main worship space would be restored and a fabric “reflector cone” would be suspended inside to evenly distribute daylight onto the inside surface of the existing dome. A circle of lilies would be planted around a large hole cut into the floor to allows light to filter down to the twelve levels of crypts below. 

Like most competitions of this sort there's no chance than even the winning entries will be built, but it was still fun to imagine what could be. As an architect, that's something I get to do almost every day.

At any rate, you can download a PDF of our entry boards here.

Three Cheers for Thursday

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In an another month HiWorks will be celebrating the fifth anniversary. I could write a book about all the things I have learned along the way. I'm sure some of these lessons are similar to what every small business owner experiences whereas some are unique to those in a design profession. Some of the trends I've encountered are universal whereas some are probably just coincidental. 

For example it seems that whenever I start to wonder about what I'm going to be working on for the next few months I'll get a random phone call from someone wanting a house or a coffee shop or a community theatre. To a certain degree that is the nature of the architecture profession: you can market all you want but at the end of the day you have to wait for a client to hire you.

But the interesting thing is that those random phone calls always seem to come on a Thursday.

I have no idea why this is but it happened again yesterday (a Thursday) and I am grateful for it. I don't know what magic exists between Wednesday night and Friday morning but I am content to take full advantage of this phenomenon be it a legitimate pattern or a random fluke.

Either way I get to end the week with new opportunities on the horizon.

The Screened Porch

At the beginning of this year we finished work on a screened porch for our house. It is something we had been thinking about for as long as we've owned the house (which for the record has been about a decade). The house had an existing back porch but after we demolished it we made the counterintuitive decision to make the new porch smaller in order to make it more functional. By pulling one side away from the house, prevailing breezes could more effectively flow through and cool the space. The addition of a built-in concrete bench and a hammock ensured that the space could be used throughout the year. The lines of the original house were maintained so that the addition felt like an integral part of the original structure.

We've been using the screened porch quite a bit for outdoor meals, birthday parties and simple relaxation. We've also used it in ways we could have never imagined.

Episode 21

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Back in march I promised that new episodes of "The Works" were coming soon.

"Soon" is a relative term and although I thought I was going to have this one ready to go the spring it turns out it has taken me until the middle of September. Better late than never, I suppose.

At any rate, on this episode of the podcast we talk about domes - specifically planetarium domes and the magic that occurs under them.

As always, please talk a moment to listen to the story and if you like what you hear, feel listen to the other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

To Build Up You Start By Building Down

StinsonHole

The Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower is officially under construction. I can't say it's "out of the ground" yet as it's still technically a hole in the ground. But it's getting there.

For the record it's been almost two years HiWorks along with Work5hop designed the winning submission for the competition to propose "design improvements" to the original tower design by AJT Engineering. Architecture is not career for those desiring instant gratification.

At any rate, the "wings" of our design are being manufactured by International Tensile Structures in Phoenix, Arizona and we'll be making a trip out there this fall to see how work on those structures is proceeding. The tower itself is scheduled to be operational next year.

Acts of God and Acts of Men

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When Hurricane Harvey made landfall late last week San Antonio was forecasted to receive a foot and a half of rain. Due to the mechanics of hurricanes and the geography of the Texas coast (hurricanes here rotate counterclockwise and so the storms tend to be much more damaging in their "northeastern quadrant") the vast majority of rain associated with the storm fell to the east and the Alamo City received less than three inches of rain. A little under three inches of rain fell at my home. Parts of Houston received almost 52" inches. It has been hard to watch all the images of the devastation.

Hurricanes are nothing new to the Texas coast but the scale of this one was unprecedented. Was climate change responsible for Harvey? No, but heightened ocean temperatures probably made it more intense. Did Houston's expansive urbanization make flooding worse? Perhaps, but over four feet of rain is going to cause problems anywhere it falls.

Acts of God can be made worse by acts of men. But men (and women, of course) can rebuild. They can plan. They can design for a world that has 100-year storms every few years. And perhaps most importantly they can have the sympathy and compassion to lend a hand to their fellow man when he is need.

 

 

I'm A Loser, Baby

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San Antonio's City Hall is easy to miss. It doesn't sit in either of the city's main public plazas (Alamo or Main) and it is surrounded by mature heritage oak tress. You could drive by it and be completely unaware that the seat of government for America's seventh largest city is located but a few feet away.

The building has other issues as well: the lobby is too small to comfortably accommodate the metal detectors such buildings require and its elevated main floor necessitates visitors in wheelchairs to follow a circuitous path to get into the building. It was this latter issue that inspired Councilman Roberto Treviño to partner with the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects to hold a design competition to come up with a solution to make San Antonio City Hall more accessible.

Our solution didn't win but we're still proud of it. We proposed an act of "invasive preservation" where in order to restore the presence of a piece of historic architecture we actually call for its physical modification. In historic preservation circles that represents a pretty radical notion, but one of the great things about competitions is that they give you the opportunity to safely explore such ideas since they will probably never actually be built.

At any rate, our entry called for the 1927 entry arch - the most defining characteristic of current version of the building - to be physically removed from the façade and relocated fifty feet to the east. By transforming the existing building’s entry arch into a freestanding “Tricentennial Arch” San Antonio’s City Hall would achieve a civic presence appropriate for a city of its size. The space in between the existing façade and the relocated entry arch would then be filled with a series of ramps and landings to provide access to those in wheelchairs while also creating a platform for civic activities. Press conferences, public announcements and civil protests would have an appropriate stage on which to occur.

At any rate, you can see all of the entries in the gallery associated with this article. A description of the project is also now in our portfolio section.

 

Bear Buildings

On the advice of a colleague and friend Dan Wigodsky my family and I traveled to the YMCA of the Rockies located on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park just outside of Estes Park, Colorado. It was a great little vacation for us to go on as a family: there are tons of things to do there and the girls had never experienced mountains outside of those in west Texas. As beautiful as those may be, they have nothing on the Rockies.

One of the more memorable moments occurred when we took an aerial tramway from Estes Park up to Prospect Mountain. At the top of the mountain you can buy bags of peanuts to feed the chipmunks who have grown quite chubby on the daily handouts they receive. I suppose one could take issue with encouraging tourists actively interacting with wild animals, but man those little guys are cute and the girls had a blast watching them fill their little cheeks with nuts.

We were so engaged with the chipmunks that we didn’t notice a black bear had wandered into the area. While the humans retreated to the safety of an elevated walkway, the bear nonchalantly ambled from one trash can to another and stand on its hind legs to knock it over so it could rummage around inside for food.

We always think about architecture as a thing that is all about people: we design primarily for their needs and their comfort. But the built environment invariably exists within the natural environment and so it makes sense that animals other than people will interact with it. These interactions can be good (I’m thinking of the bat habitat that was accidentally created under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin) or they can be bad (I’m thinking of how skyscrapers that are brightly illuminated at night can confuse and ultimately kill migrating birds).

There are black bears in the San Antonio Zoo that I’ve seen with my children on countless occasions. But watching that same kind of bear inhabit an environment created for humans was a thought-provoking experience. I haven’t reached any conclusions about what this means or what as an architect I’m supposed to do but it did make me think about things in a way I hadn’t done before.

And that is pretty much the best thing a vacation can do.

The Future Is Not Here yet

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

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

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

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

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

Location, Location, Location

So the Cardinal family that we watched raise a family a few months ago has returned: they built a new nest, and they laid a clutch of new eggs. Sammy found the nest - a little lower to the ground this time - and we all were looking forward to watching another set of baby chick hatching. Unfortunately tragedy struck when something - probably our neighbor's cat - decided to have some eggs for breakfast early one morning.

I have often noted that being an adult is hard. It is, but being a cardinal in the wild is apparently much, much harder.

The Architecture of the Rink

To be perfectly honest, roller skating is something that I have thought very little about in the past several decades. The only reason I mention it now is that my daughter recently read a graphic novel about roller derby that piqued her interest and she wanted to give roller skating a try. It turns out "The Rollercade" is just a little over two miles from our house and so last Saturday I took her there so we could tie rental skates to our feet and have a go of it.

I honestly can't remember the last time I had done this but my best guess is that it was around 1989 and that it was at the "Skate Connection" in Arlington. My general impression of "The Rollercade" in the late 2010s is that it is basically identical to the "The Skate Connection" in the late 1980s. The dim lighting, the disco balls and the polished parquet floor (with a rough patch in the corner where a roof leak had warped the wood) was all eerily familiar. Some of the music was new of course - songs from Taylor Swift's 1989 were not available in 1989 - but "The Hokey Pokey" and "Thriller" seemed to be played directly from the playlist of my youth.

Although modern four-wheeled roller skates and the rinks where they were deployed date back to the mid-1800s they became a staple of the American suburb in the 1950s. The wellspring of post-war American suburbs, Levittown, naturally had its own mid-century skating rink. Roller skating underwent a renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s when polyurethane wheels improved the skating experience and disco music gave skaters something to do

Although the inline skating boom of the 1990s saw a renewed interest in skating as a sport, part of their appeal was that this type of skating could occur on any paved surface and so did not require a trip to the local rink. As a result the skating rink itself remained in a state of arrested development: the lights may be updated to LED and Tab may no longer be offered at the soda fountain but otherwise the roller skating rink of the 2010s is basically the same as the one of the 1980s. 

A roller skating rink is a singular architectural experience. Like a bowling alley or a baseball stadium it is a place whose sights, sounds and smells are instantly familiar even if you haven't been inside one for a quarter of a century. I hope the memories my daughter made last weekend survive as long as mine have.

I hope "The Rollercade" survives that long as well.

Plenum Space

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

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

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

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