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Brantley Hightower

Figure-Ground

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Despite persistent, unsubstantiated rumors that The New York Times is failing, the paper continues to produce some of the best visualizations of data being produced these days. In today’s online edition (and Sunday’s print addition) they’ve created a map of every building in America. This massive figure-ground diagram of the nation we’ve built for ourselves is truly amazing. Better than a map or satellite imagery it clearly illustrates the patterns of development that define where we live.

Naturally my first instinct was to find where I live and work. From there I explored some more and was able to locate my kids’ schools and the other landmarks of my life (HEB, Target, etc.).

Of course by illustrating only built structures you also start to realize just how expansive the built world is. There’s lots of open space as well and so it looks like us architects will be busy for some time.

Space for Joy

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I had a hard time trying to decide what to post this week.

There was plenty on my mind. I thought about writing about the subtle sexism of the Netflix series, Ultimate Beastmaster. I started to write about the anger and the privilege of middle-aged white men. Having just turned 42 I could have written something about my own privileged anger at becoming a middle-aged white man.

I might eventually write about all those things but instead today I’m just going to talk about taking Darcy to the Texas State Aquarium. There’s a underwater observation area at the “Dolphin Bay” exhibit that’s essentially just a long, dark room with a single window. It’s a large window, though, and it looks out not at Corpus Christi Bay but into a 400,000 gallon saltwater pool. Inside the pool are Kai, Shadow, Liko, and Schooner, four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

On this particular visit we arrived just as the aquarium was opening and we had the space all to ourselves. Darcy spent a good fifteen minutes running alongside and dancing with the dolphins. It was a moment of pure joy for my daughter. Of course I can’t tell how the dolphins were feeling but it sure looked like they were smiling.

Darcy started kindergarten this year. As her world expands beyond what we created for her as a family I worry I’ll be less and less able to protect her from a world that seems increasingly angry and mean. I hope she is able to keep herself safe. I also hope she is able to continue to find space for joy.

Traveling with Robert Venturi

 image courtesy VSBA

image courtesy VSBA

Along with other members of my profession I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of Robert Venturi. Although I never met him in person, he has traveled with me throughout my career.

I was first introduced to Mr. Venturi via his wife and collaborator, Denise Scott Brown. I read the book they wrote together with Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, as a young undergraduate architecture student. The book provided analytical tools that helped me understand the sort of messy suburban landscapes that surrounded me in Texas. It also taught me that if I kept my mind and my eyes open I could learn from any built environment. This is how I came to be interested in courthouses and small town urbanism.

My relationship to Venturi’s earlier book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was, well, complex and contradictory. Even though it was one of the first works of architectural theory I read it was remarkably accessible. Unlike the writing of other architects, Venturi’s prose was both clear and persuasive and it served as an example I have always sought to match in my own writing.

Of course I was reading Complexity and Contradiction a good three decades after it was originally published. Ideas that were radical in 1967 were somewhat less so in 1997 after postmodernism (a term Venturi disliked) was rapidly falling out of favor. I remember arriving at the end of the book excited by the ideas it contained and then being underwhelmed by the built work Venturi cited as examples.

Complexity and Contradiction was an expansion of Venturi’s Master of Fine Arts Thesis he completed at Princeton in 1950. It loomed large over me when I attended Princeton myself as a graduate student and was tasked with creating a thesis of my own. Just like Mark Twain hated Benjamin Franklin for providing an example that was a bit too perfect for a young boy to follow, I came to resent Robert Venturi for writing a thesis that was a bit too perfect for an architecture student to emulate.

Venturi’s thesis perfectly reflected Princeton’s legacy of integrating history and theory while defining the direction of Venturi’s work for the rest of his career. It was, in short, the plutonic ideal of what an architectural thesis should be. That was a high bar for a student to clear and in trying to do the same I failed spectacularly.

Studying at Princeton put me in close proximity to many of the projects Venturi’s had built along with John Rauch and Denise Scott Brown. His 1980 Gordon Wu Hall on Princeton’s campus happened to be the closest dining hall to the College of Architecture. The building’s exterior made the same playful contextual references Venturi’s work was known for but it was the interior that fascinated me. It was warm and inviting. It felt good to eat there even if I was sitting by myself surrounded by young and care-free undergraduates. 

Venturi would later travel with me to Italy on my honeymoon. When my wife (who like Denise Scott Brown is also an architect) arrived in Rome we carried a long list of buildings we hoped to visit. Even so I distinctly remember wandering into a piazza not on the list and thinking, “I know this place.” I recognized it because Venturi had referenced it in one of his books.

Back in Texas Venturi’s footprint was relatively small. Built in 1992, the Children’s Museum of Houston features playful reinterpretations of the elements that define typical “serious” museums. A decade earlier Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown had designed an art museum for Austin that, had it been built, would have changed the cultural and architectural landscape of that city for the better.

I always appreciated the fact that Venturi had a sense of humor about his work. I also respected the fact that he could admit when he was wrong. In the original text of Complexity and Contradiction he disparaged the a church outside of Florence. Venturi later added a footnote where he admitted that after actually visiting the church in person it was in fact a beautiful and effective building. 

Venturi famously responded to Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” credo by saying “Less is a bore.” After all these years I can certainly say traveling with him has never been boring.

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.