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A holiday message from 50 years ago

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As I mentioned in the previous post the crew of Apollo 8 experienced a number of “firsts” on their December 1968 flight to the moon. First and foremost they were the first men to leave Earth’s orbit. As they made their way towards the moon they were for the first time able to see all of the earth at once. They photographed this but the far more well-known image from their flight was taken once they were in orbit around the moon.

I wrote a post about this back in 2013 and in it I referenced a video (which is still worth watching) where NASA created an animation that combines the existing voice recording of the astronauts overlaid with the images they took to recreate the somewhat frantic moments that proceeded the creation of this famous "Earthrise" image. Frank Borman was in the process of executing a roll of the spacecraft when Bill Anders, who was surveying the Lunar surface for potential landing sites, happened to see the Earth beginning to rise out of his window. He snaps a shot of it with the camera he has, but realizing its loaded with black and white film, he calls out to the third member of the crew, Jim Lovell, to grab a canister containing color film. As the spacecraft continues to roll, the view disappears out of the small window Anders is using before Lovell can retrieve the color film. All three of them think they've missed the shot when the Earth comes into view out of another window. It is through the round window of the spacecraft's hatch that the iconic image is ultimately taken.

The fact that the photo exists at all is incredible: the spacecraft just happened to be pointing at the exact right place at the exact right time. It’s also incredible that this amazing technical achievement occurred over a half-century ago. We as a nation (and as a people) have enormous potential to do great things when we work together. It’s something worth remembering.

And so just as I did five years ago I will end this post with a quote from the final line from Apollo 8's Christmas Eve broadcast that was made that same day as Apollo 8’s iconic photo:

...and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas - and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Merry Christmas.

When we built Spaceships

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Fifty years ago, at 7:51 in the morning Apollo 8 launched into space from the eastern Florida coast. After orbiting the earth twice it restarted its third stage engine which set it on a course for the moon.

Everyone knows about Apollo 11’s historic landing on the moon that occurred some seven months later but in many ways Apollo 8 was just as remarkable of a flight. It was the first manned test of the Saturn V rocket, the largest and arguably most complex vehicle ever built. It was the first time men would leave the orbit of the earth and travel to another heavenly body. It was the first time man had first looked upon the far side of the moon with their own eyes. It was the first time man would look back and see the Earth in its entirety.

We’ll touch on all of that in the coming days but in the meantime it is worth remembering that there was a time in our nation’s history that we were willing to build spaceships to go other worlds rather than walls to keep out our neighbors.

Toys Were Us

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Sears declared bankruptcy this week. I couldn’t tell you the last I actually stepped inside of a Sears store and so this news will not impact me much at all.

Of course, I have fond memories of the arrival of the Sears “Wish Book”. When I was a kid it would arrive just before my birthday and in the days before the internet it contained all manner of material desires that a child could want. But if flipping through the toy section of the catalog was a virtual experience few things could compete with the actual experience of going to physical a toy store.

Although the demise of Sears may be a larger milestone given its place in American culture (and its not-insignificant role in skirting around the injustices of the Jim Crow era), it is was the closing of the last Toys “R” Us stores this summer that had more of an emotional impact on me. I remember fondly going to the one in the Arlington of my youth. I remember the excitement of finding a new LEGO set or Star Wars figure. The anticipation I felt walking through those doors was something I have seldom experienced since.

Of course I took the girls to Toys “R” Us a few times here in San Antonio but somehow it was less of an adventure for them. The overabundance of choice offered at all times by the internet somehow lessened the singular experience of visiting a toy store. Apparently it lessened the profitability of a toy store as well.

The role of the physical world is changing. It can still be (and should be) a source of excitement and wonder but the ends it serves will be different than it once was. I haven’t figured out what that difference will be yet, but I’m working on it.

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.

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.

The Tricentennial App That Wasn't

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

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

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

Unfortunately that's when things began to fall apart.

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

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

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

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

 

Returning to the Eames House

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

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

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

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

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

Reconsidering the Hyperbolic Paraboloid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Valentine from Valentine

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As I mentioned in the last post I recently attended a radio storytelling workshop in Marfa. It was a great week in which I had the opportunity to meet and work with some great people. Over the course of the workshop each of us students produced a profile of a person doing something interesting in the area. As my subject I chose the postmaster of Valentine, Texas.

The story aired last night on Marfa Public Radio but since it's tangentially related to architecture (the postmaster works in a post office building) I've integrated into the feed for The Works podcast. You can listen to it by clicking the play button below or learn more about the episode on its show page.

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.

Happy Valentines Day.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Shingles

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.

Jennifer In Paradise

In 1987 two employees of Industrial Light & Magic had just completed work on major project. As they were also dating one another they decided to take some time off and go on a vacation together to Bora Bora. It was there that John Knoll took a snapshot of his girlfriend, Jennifer, as she sunbathed on the beach. Later that day, John would propose to Jennifer.

Later that year John and his brother were working on a new piece of software that could manipulate digital images. When they finally were able to make use of a digital scanner (a hard-to-come-by piece of technology in the 1980s), the vacation photo of his now-fiancée was the only image John had on hand. It was scanned and the image would be used to further develop the software and ultimately demonstrate its capabilities to Adobe, the software company that purchased the distribution license for the software in 1988.

The name of the software they developed was Photoshop. The image that has often been called the first "photoshopped" image has come to be known as "Jennifer in Paradise."

Photoshop revolutionized how we understand photography. Whereas once we could believe something if we "saw it with our own two eyes", Photoshop changed that. Although it has always been possible to manipulate images, until the development of Photoshop it was a labor intensive process that required a great amount of skill. Photoshop democratized the process so that anyone with a computer could enhance (or depending on your point of view, fake) photographic imagery.

A photo ceased to always be believable. It ceased to be always truthful.

Of course, photography was never completely objective. How the photographer frames the image and the exact instant he or she decides to capture by definition eliminates physical and temporal context. We all know this to be true but a issue arrises when a supposedly objective and truthful photograph has been surreptitiously manipulated. Fashion photography has become so notorious for making already beautiful people look even more impossibly perfect that there is now an organized backlash against it. The same is true of architectural photography. For any given image of a building (including some on my website) it is not uncommon for multiple exposures to be compiled and for various "imperfections" (fire alarms, Knox-boxes, humans, etc.) to have been "photoshopped out". As in fashion photography, this sort of image manipulation can be taken too far.

But buildings do exist as physical objects in the world beyond the photographs taken of them. A photo of a building can "lie" but the truth can be revealed when the building is visited in person. Architecture, I believe, possess an inherent "truth" that exists regardless of the quality of the architecture. The story behind their design and construction can be fictionalized and the photos taken of them can be altered, but at the end of the day we experience a buildings as facts.

We suddenly find ourselves in an unprecedented situation where discerning what is real and what is true is considerably challenging. Just as anyone with Photoshop can now create "fake" imagery, now anyone with a Facebook account can spread "fake" news. Powerful people are making statements that obfuscate the truth. Complex histories are being rewritten in 140 characters.

But truth is something, like architecture, that exists in the world. It can be experienced. It can verified. I hope we all take the time to do that. If we do - if we listen to the better angles of our nature and seek out the truth even if it conflicts with the beliefs we may hold - we can together move this country forward.

We can make this world a better place that is just a little closer paradise.

 

 

The Analog Past vs. The Digital Future

We were up in Fort Worth this Thanksgiving to spend time with my family. In order to work off some of the massive amount of calories we had ingested the day before, on Friday we decided to take the girls to the Fort Worth Science and History Museum. The girls enjoyed the trip but I came away a little disoriented.

The museum played an important role in my childhood. It was THE museum we would go to as it was only about a half-hour from our house. My brother and I attended "Museum School" there during the summer and we both have fond memories of exploring its vast and sometimes creepy collection of artifacts. The diorama of a neolithic trepanning was especially memorable / frightening: it featured 3/4 scale cave men holding down and cutting into the head skull of one of their comrades.

Good, clean family fun.

The museum underwent a major renovation in 2007. The resulting building is almost entirely new and is completely unrecognizable from the one I knew as a kid. The physical reality of the museum has no connection to its former self. The exhibits have changed significantly as well. It's now much more of a interactive "children's" museum than the "natural history" museum that I knew it to be. The museum I knew exists only in the nostalgic "Hidden Treasures: Celebrating 75 Years" exhibit on the second floor.  More interactive museums are clearly where the money is these days - there and in the oil and gas industry. The largest and most impressive exhibit was dedicated to telling the magical story of hydraulic fracking to the next generation of young Texans. 

While we were at the museum we also watched a show at the Noble Planetarium. Like many other planetariums, it has switched from an analog to a digital method of presentation (Fort Worth has a dual system that has both digital and analog capabilities, but the attendant I spoke to says they only use the newer technology). In other words, rather than seeing a field of stars projected mechanically through a "star ball" with holes cut for individual stars, several computerized LCD projectors are deployed to cast an animated image of the universe onto the planetarium dome. 

There are certainly advantages to this approach. LCD technologies have the advantage of allowing video to be projected rather than just stars. The show we watched featured Big Bird and Elmo explaining how to find the North Star. That would have been impossible in the planetarium that existed when I was a kid.

Then again, the resolution and dynamic range of LCD projects is less than their analog predecessors. Or at least I think they are. The show we watched on Friday was muddy and blurry. The shows I remember going to as a kid were bright and crisp. Or at least I remember them being that way. My memory could be flawed.

It is hard to compare what is now with what was many years ago. We tend to remember things being bigger when we were smaller. We also remember things being more impressive when our world of experiences were more limited. It can be disorienting trying to rectify these past memories with current realities. The past will always be clearer because we know how it all turned out. The future will always be muddier and blurrier because we do not.