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In The Media

Figure-Ground

ILiveWorkHere.jpg

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.

Spreading Wings

StinsonSignage.jpg

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.

Thanks Again, Mr. Rogers

MrRogers.jpg

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.

 

 

The Tricentennial App That Wasn't

SAGO.jpg

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.

 

This Poster Is Not For Sale

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My Facebook feed contains a pretty diverse collection of posts. From friends who seem to constantly be on vacation to Russian trolls there are lots of things vying for my attention. One ad that caught my eye the other day was for a company that sells posters featuring the control towers of various airports from around the world. Of course I checked to see if they had one for Stinson Municipal Airport. They did not but since we have something to do with that particular project I thought I'd suggest an additional print be offered for sale. Please see above.

I realize there have been a number of Stinson blog posts in the last few weeks and I promise to return to my usual collection of random posts here in the coming weeks.

HiWorks in the News in West Texas

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So I was in Fort Stockton last week for a series of meetings with the Community Theatre and my Theatre Consultant. It was a good meeting and as a part of it I was also interviewed by KWES Channel 9. I spoke at length about the project and a few seconds of that detailed, nuanced description made it onto the air. So for better or worse my fame now extends to the West Texas / Southeast New Mexico regional broadcast area.

At any rate, in case you missed it, you can watch the story here.

 

Enjoy.

"The Works" gets aggregated

WhataburgerChronicle.jpg

Back in July of 2016 I released an episode of "The Works" about the development of the Whataburger A-Frame. It was a fascinating story I was trying to tell and I also ended up doing a written version of the story for the Rivard Report

This week I learned the Houston Chronicle picked up the story and published a piece of their own based on my podcast and article. I have to admit I was flattered to have found my way into the nation's third-largest newspaper. I was also flattered to be referred to as a "scholar".

Of course I would have been happy to have been interviewed by the writer of the piece in the Chronicle but he never reached out to me. That's why I didn't know anything about it until a year-and-a-half after it was published.

Anyway, you can listen to the original podcast episode here or read the Houston Chronicle story here

I'm A Loser, Baby

CityHallRendering.jpg

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.

 

It Never Feels Good To Say, "I Told You So"

 This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

I was in Fort Worth over the weekend to attend a lecture from my friend and mentor Max Levy. He was speaking at the Kimbell Art Museum and the visit also afforded me the opportunity to visit the museum as well as its neighboring extension, the so-called "Piano Pavilion" that was completed in 2013. As far as art museums go the addition is respectable enough. It clearly cost a fortune but I couldn't help but feel saddened by its existence. This sentiment was not unexpected. 

Back in 2011 I wrote an essay for called "Requiem For A Lawn". in which I talked about the addition before it was built and what I feared would be lost once it was finished. Alas, my predictions proved prescient.

Below is the text of that essay that appeared in the July/August issue of Texas Architect:

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up a short drive from the Kimbell Art Museum. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Louis Kahn’s vaulted masterpiece was the reason I decided to become an architect, it certainly did provide a compelling example of what great architecture could be.

As I learned more about the Kimbell in architecture school, I began parking not in the sunken eastern lot but on the street between Kahn’s building and the Amon Carter Museum. This western approach was the one originally envisioned as the main entry and I felt like it was a little secret between Kahn, the building, and me. A key part of this sequence was crossing the broad, tree-lined meadow that served as the Kimbell’s front lawn for almost 40 years.

I have come to appreciate this lawn as an important foil to the massive and dignified Kimbell Art Museum. While the tree lined lawn was originally planted as a mall centered on the landmark tower of the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center, the integration of the greenspace into the overall design of the Kimbell effectively wove the new building harmoniously into its existing urban context.

Perhaps more important, Kahn’s plan preserved an open field of activity for the city of Fort Worth. In my years of crossing it as I made my way to the museum I have seen kids flying kites and dogs catching Frisbees. I have seen families engaged in picnics and fly-fishermen practicing their cast. I have seen the Kimbell’s front lawn play host to several games of touch football and at least one impromptu cricket match.

*          *          *

In 2007, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was announced as the architect for a significant addition to the Kimbell. This would be the second attempt to expand the museum: a 1989 proposal by Romaldo Giurgola was ultimately abandoned after fierce public outcry that its approach would severely alter the integrity of Kahn’s original structure. While certainly flawed, Giurgola’s scheme notably left the western lawn untouched.

As vociferous as the opposition was 31 years ago, it is surprising how little reaction Piano’s more recent effort has generated. Perhaps this is due to the fact that unlike the 1989 proposal, the Kimbell itself will remain intact. This new scheme seeks to complement the original structure from a distance rather than mimic it at close range. Kahn’s near-perfect interplay of light and space, structure and material, served and servant will remain the same. Of course, the amount of gallery space will be doubled and the expanded museum will in all likelihood reap the benefits of increased attendance. That is all fitting and proper, but something irreplaceable will vanish in the bargain since Piano’s design places the new building in the middle of the Kimbell’s western lawn.

I am not suggesting that plans for the addition be scrapped (as construction has already begun it is a bit late to make that argument) but I believe it should be recognized that some of the magic that is the Kimbell will be lost.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I for one will miss what once was. I will miss the intimate and easily understood scale of the original Kimbell. I will miss the western lawn and the display of civic life that it nurtured. Piano’s rational is that the new building and its associated underground parking will re-orient entry into Kahn’s building, allowing most visitors to enter from the west as originally planned. Only now, rather than crossing a broad and open lawn, visitors will be merely traverse a court between two buildings. While visitors will be entering from the direction Kahn intended, the experience will be a totally different one.

At the end of last year when groundbreaking seemed imminent, I made a special trip to the Kimbell to see it one final time in its original state. It was a beautiful autumn morning and the lawn’s perimeter trees sent long shadows across the expanse of green. As it was early on a Saturday, I had the space to myself and the solitude only heightened the experience. That morning felt almost like a final parting at the end of a long relationship. Though neither of us would ever be the same afterward, we could still enjoy one another’s company one last time.

Memorializing Plutonium

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

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

And that was about it.

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

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

Now Award Winning

I know what you're thinking.

The holidays were great but you didn't get that one gift you were wanting: you didn't get a copy of The Courthouses of Central Texas. But that's OK. Now's a great time to treat yourself by ordering a copy here or here.

Still looking for an excuse? Now you can justify your investment in the non-fiction book market with the knowledge that The Courthouses of Central Texas is an AWARD WINNING publication as the San Antonio Conservation Society has chosen it to receive a 2017 citation.

Obviously I'm flattered but I'm also looking forward to the spike in sales that will no doubt result, the book's resulting rise to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List and the ultimate adaptation of it into a hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

On The Importance of Safety Railing

 image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently faced the dilemma of whether or not to admit to my daughters that the Star Wars prequels exist. I decided to go ahead and show them The Phantom Menace and felt more than a little bit of pride when they found it to be dull and not all that entertaining. My kids have good taste.

As I watched it with them over the course of several days (it took more than one sitting to get thorough all of it), my mind would wander from time to time. One question I began to ask was this: why in a universe that has sophisticated laser weaponry and hyperspace technology do they not enforce basic life safety building codes?

It turns out the plot of all seven movies would be very different if the Republic / Empire had required basic safety railing.

Take the climactic lightsaber duel at the end of the Phantom Menace. I have no idea where it is they are fighting or why this place needs so many levels of suspended catwalks but installing some guardrails would have probably been worthwhile:

 image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

The lightsaber battle at the end of Revenge of the Sith takes place on the volcanic planet which, granted, is probably not the safest place to be in the first place. But even though it is a mining outpost, safety railing should have been installed. OSHA certainly would have required it:

 image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke foolishly climbs over existing (albeit minimal) safety railing after ignoring his father's repeated warnings to join him on the proper side of the railing. The moral of the story is clear. Don't climb over guardrails - they are there for your safety:

 image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

A major design flaw of the Emperor's Throne Room in Return of the Jedi is that its floor has several large chasms that open to bottomless abysses. Again, guardrails would have made this a much safer place from which to rule the galaxy:

 image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

image courtesy 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

By now a pattern has clearly begun to emerge. In The Force Awakens it should have been abundantly clear that if you are about to face someone with a lightsaber, you should avoid walking out on catwalks that lack proper safety railing. It's not going to end well:

 image courtesy Disney / Lucasfilm

image courtesy Disney / Lucasfilm

I'll admit that as a practicing architect building codes can be frustrating. The requirements are many, they at times conflict with one another and can be interpreted in different ways. Still, they are there for the safety of the public, be they human, ewok or wookie.

San Antonio REX

Earlier this week Joshua Prince-Ramus gave a lecture here in San Antonio. In the last decade he's been a part of some truly innovative projects including the Wyly Theatre in Dallas (pictured above). The Rivard Report asked me to write a short article about the lecture that you can read here.

I am not an objective journalist. What I write is always influenced by the subjective experiences I have had. It just so happens my most recent subjective experience (as described in last week's blog post) was Disneyland and so I naturally organized the essay around a comparison to the Happiest Place on Earth.

8 Minutes, 32 Seconds Of Fame

 image courtesy Aaron Seward

image courtesy Aaron Seward

A few months ago I drove up to the Comal County Courthouse in New Braunfels to talk on camera about the importance of preserving the historic county courthouses of Texas. Through the magic of editing and CGI, the good folks at the Texas Society of Architects and Lost Pines Studios were able to make me look slightly less alien and sound slightly more articulate.

At any rate, the video is now available online and can be seen on the brand-spanking-new Texas Architect website.

Enjoy:

Pershing Park(ing)

A recent competition sponsored by the Pearl, Centro San Antonio, The Rivard Report and Overland Partners sought ideas about how to improve Broadway, one of the main arterial corridors that heads north out of downtown. We just found out that we are a finalist in that competition.

As a street, Broadway has been a central part of my daily routine for as long as I've lived in San Antonio. I used it to drive to Lake|Flato when I worked there and each of the three office spaces HiWorks has leased has been only a few blocks off Broadway. I've told stories about things that happen along its length - see the "Under The Bridge" and "The Kiddie Park" episodes of The Works Podcast. It's the road I take to drive my girls to school in the morning and it's the road I take to drive home at the end of the day.

Broadway is a very diverse street. Along its 8.5 miles it has both cultural museums and seedy motels. Brackenridge Park runs along the west side of it and several historic neighborhoods are located along its edge. One of these is Mahncke Park. That's where Dave Evans, a good friend of mine lives. Like me, he loves to take his kids to the DoSeum and the Kiddie Park and like me he is often frustrated by the parking situation associated with these two immensely popular family destinations. He had the great idea to insert a centralized parking structure over an existing drainage channel - known as Pershing Channel - that runs between Broadway and Brackenridge Park.

While simply covering a ditch with a parking lot would trade one eyesore for another, we together proposed a second landscape deck on top of this parking structure to create a linear park experience. Bridge elements cross both Broadway and Mulberry so that it becomes possible to walk with your kids from the parking structure to either the DoSeum or the Kiddie Park. This avoids dangerous pedestrian surface crossings. 

The winner and runner up and each of the three categories will be announced at an event on Wednesday night. In the meantime, here's a article that highlights the other finalists.

Occasionally We Do Buildings, Too

Connection-Magazine-Hightower

Last month when I was doing a book signing in Houston I had the opportunity to be interviewed by a writer for Connection, the journal of the AIA Young Architects Forum. This particular issue focuses on how the built environment is consumed by architects and the public and the article I was interviewed for talks about my experience producing The Works podcast, writing The Courthouses of Central Texas and writing this blog (how meta). 

One thing we talked about during the interview that didn't make it into the article was the fact that all this "extracurricular" stuff takes time - the most precious and most scarce resource a small office has. As much as I enjoy the writing and the podcasting and everything else, the return on the investment isn't always clear. Ay, there's the rub.

Anyway, you can read the article online here.

Aging Astronauts Selling Cars

 a still from the "Commander" ad for the Audi R8 ad by VBP

a still from the "Commander" ad for the Audi R8 ad by VBP

Although I didn't watch much of the World Series on Sunday, my understanding is that the Denver Nuggets defeated the Carolina Hurricanes. I wasn't paying all that much attention as I watched the game's the first inning, but after Denver kicked a birdie, a commercial came on that caught my eye.

By now, Super Bowl commercials are hyped for being of exceptional high quality (or for being exceptionally bizarre). But even so this particular ad was noteworthy in that it told a tight, compelling narrative. It was like a little 60-second movie.

We see an Aging Astronaut lost in his memories of his mission to the Moon from many decades ago. His son stops by for a visit and hears from his caretaker that his dad hasn't been eating and that this is part of an ongoing mental and physical decline. The son then has an idea and invites his dad to take a drive with him in his new car. As he approaches this new car, we see images of a younger version of the Aging Astronaut as he made his way toward his spacecraft. We then see images of his past launch (or at least stock footage of the unmanned Apollo 4 launch) intercut with images of his present driving experience. The Aging Astronaut smiles just as he did so many years ago as he was flying into space.  

I smiled as I watched the ad. My wife's response to seeing the sleek metallic grey car featured in the ad (The 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus) was to say, "That's pretty." My child's response to seeing the footage of the rocket launch was, "Wow."

It might seem odd for a German car company to use the past glories of the US Space program as a way of selling cars (this is especially true given the fact that GM had a close association with the US space program and famously provided Apollo astronauts with Corvettes). That being said, much of the engineering of the Saturn V rocket pictured in the closing seconds of the commercial was done by former Nazi scientists secretly smuggled out of Germany at the end of World War II. Their story is a fascinating one, but that's another topic for another blog post. 

Anyway, the commercial successfully conveys that Audi is something cool enough for young, attractive men (with $200k to drop on a sports car) but is also a piece of machinery that even retired astronauts can respect. More importantly, it has the power to bring these two generations together (provided the senior citizen you're hoping to connect with is a professional driver on a closed course). Audi really hopes that in the future you will think about this ad as opposed to the fact that Audi's parent company his been embroiled in a scandal stemming from engineering a way to intentionally cheat emissions testing (notice Audi dropped its "Truth in Engineering" tagline from the commercial).

The ad was produced by Venables, Bell and Partners who have done a number of Audi's more recent commercials (interestingly, VBP also does "customer experience" consulting work and were responsible for the signage, messaging and event theme for the Barclay’s Center by SHoP Architects). The ad was directed by Craig Gillespie who has several filmmaking credits to his name including Lars and the Real and Million Dollar Arm. The production values of the commercial are incredibly high. The spacesuit worn by the younger version of the Aging Astronaut is a good reproduction of the A7L suit worn by the Apollo Astronauts (and designed and build by a women's undergarment company - another story for another day) who flew to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It should be noted, however, that although this particular suit did make use of both blue and red collar rings, they never did so on the same flight (the commercial shows the younger version of the Aging Astronaut with a red neck ring whereas his mustached wingman has a blue collar). Apparently the Aging Astronaut has no memory of the third crew member who would have flown with him on an Apollo mission which is all for the best as it makes for a tighter narrative.

But perhaps the most significant - and perhaps the saddest - accuracy in the commercial is that the Aging Astronaut is depicted as being rather old. 

Most of the astronauts were in their late thirties when they went to the moon (if anything the younger version of the Aging Astronaut may be too young). The last Lunar landing occurred in 1972, almost 45 years ago which means that of the twelve humans that have walked on the moon, all of them who are still alive are into their 80s today. Just this past week, Ed Mitchell passed away in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was the last surviving member of his Apollo 14 crew. It is a sad fact that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when there will no living person who has walked on the surface of another world.

It's not often that a car commercial gets you ponder mortality, but then again, this is the Super Bowl we're talking about.

You know what's also good about this ad? The music. The song that begins to swell in the background as the octogenarian begins his joyride is of course "Starman" by David Bowie. Bowie, who himself died only a few weeks ago, is a perfect choice. The creators of the ad couldn't have known that was going to happen, but it does add another layer to what was already a surprisingly deep TV commercial:

There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds.
There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He's told us not to blow it
'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile.


On Writing Books, Building Houses and Having Sons

   
  
 
  
    
  
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	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}     image courtesy Megan Chapa of San Houston State University      

image courtesy Megan Chapa of San Houston State University

 

There is a quote out there that says, "Everyone should write a book, build a house and have a son." It's one of those fun, quotable lines that's been attributed to everyone from Plato to Castro and was probably said by none of them. A few variations of the quote exist - Hemingway, for example, supposedly added that every man should also fight a bull.

I didn't learn about the quote (or supposed-quote) until well after I had become an architect who designed houses and after The Courthouses of Central Texas was well on its way to publication. As the father of two daughters I didn't comply completely with the bit about having a son but my personal view is that two daughters are worth at least four sons. I naturally found the quote self-affirming in a way that quotes like these are supposed to be self-affirming.

Of course, basing your future on a quote that was probably fabricated is a dubious proposition at best. Having kids is no trifling enterprise. It takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money (and my kids aren't even anywhere near college-age yet). And being an architect, while prestigious, isn't the most lucrative profession in the world. 

And so what about writing a book?

Let's take a look at the last few weeks if the "Courthouses of Central Texas 2016 World Tour". As you may know, I installed an exhibit of drawings at the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, I spoke in Boerne to the Genealogical Society of Kendall County, I spoke at a book signing at Brazos Bookstore in Houston and then this past weekend I took down the exhibit in Boerne. In the process I drove nearly 700 miles and spend nearly 20 hours driving, preparing or speaking. That's a lot of time. Doing the math, I would have needed to sell 60 books just to pay for my hotel in Houston. Although sales at both events were really good, I only sold around 30 books total. And so from a purely financial standpoint, this whole book writing effort has been a fiduciary disaster.

It took me six years to write and publish The Courthouses of Central Texas. If you add that to all the lectures, book signing and interviews I'm doing now that it exists as a thing in the world, that's a lot of time and effort. When all is said and done I'll maybe have earned a couple of thousand dollars in royalties from UT Press.

Maybe.

But here's the thing - even though I continue to hemorrhage money because of those infernal courthouses, I still love them. I still love talking to people about them. I still love meeting people who share that interest and hearing their stories about why they love them. I've met plenty of architects, attorneys and county officials along the way but every once in a while I meet someone totally unexpected.

In Houston last week I met a group of students from Sam Houston State University. I was naturally flattered that they made the trip all the way down from Huntsville but I was also fascinated by their program that prepares students for careers in law, law enforcement, politics or some combination thereof. I have no idea what small part my lecture on courthouses might play in their future but I'd like to think that they'll move forward with a greater appreciation of the role of architecture in public life. As these students are a good 20 years younger than I am, hopefully that lesson will live on even after I've shuffled off this mortal coil.

And that, I think, is the essence behind the Plato/Castro/Hemingway quote. Writing a book, building a house and having kids is all about creating a legacy - planting a seed in a garden for someone else to enjoy. A book will hopefully still be read after you're gone. A house will hopefully be lived in by someone. And your kids - be they your biological children or the ones you happen to cross paths with as a teacher of some sort - will hopefully still remember an idea or two you shared with them when your paths just happened to cross at a bookstore in Houston.

And that, to me, is a whole lot cooler than bullfighting.

 

Halls of Extinction

image from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey courtesy National Geographic / Fox 

Even though the series came out last year, I only recently finished watching all thirteen episodes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I was a fan of Carl Sagan's version that came out in the 1980s and I remember repeatedly watching the copy that my parents had recored for me on VHS tape. The new version is hosted but Neil deGrasse Tyson who guides the audience through a wide range of topics that covers - well - the cosmos. 

The series uses traditional animation to tell the stories of historical figures who advanced our understanding of the universe (it is no coincidence that the series was produced by Seth MacFarlane). It also uses sophisticated computer animation to make visible both subatomic particles and immense galaxies.

It also uses this technique to create architecture that doesn't exist.

In the Second Episode, Tyson visits the Halls of Extinction, a monument to the 5 mass extinction events planet Earth has experienced. It's an effective narrative tool. As depicted in the series, the monument has a vast central rotunda with radiating wings that each contain dioramas illustrating the range of extinct species that were wiped out by a variety of cataclysms that overwhelmed the planet. The architecture is both familiar and otherworldly; classical and modern. It is so stunning, in fact, that National Geographic created a special video that focused on the CG environment that was created for the series. What the video fails to mention is that the original design upon which the Halls of Extinction is based is actually 250 years old.

Étienne-Louis Boullée was a French neoclassical architect who lived from 1728 to 1799. He was a part of the a rationalist architectural movement in Europe that flourished in the late 18th century. At the time, architects were beginning to be inspired by what was going on in science and philosophy and sought to create an architecture that was based more in reason than in the mere reproduction of past styles. The work of Boullée, Ledoux and others demonstrates a shift toward abstracted geometric forms, sublime scales and non-traditional proportions. 

The movement paralleled the same Enlightenment ideas that were inspiring the scientific discoveries described at length in Cosmos. Just as Enlightenment thinking lead to our moderns understanding of the world, the work of Enlightenment architects lead to modern architecture.

Boulée's

Boullée's design for a "Conical Cenotaph" was part of a larger sepulchral complex. Boullée said he "Kept the surfaces unadorned... the undivided mass preserves the aura of immutability." Boullée would later create a design for "Newton's Cenotaph", a memorial to a key figure of the scientific revolution. On TV in 2014, Tyson expressed the same reverence for Newton and his discoveries as did Boullée did in his pen and ink drawings in 1784.

it seems that weather we're talking about the past or the present, science or the arts, the intimate or the infinite, architecture matters.

 

There is no such thing as bad publicity

This image may or may not have been altered

It's been three months since The Courthouses of Central Texas was released. Publishing a book is not like releasing a movie where you instantly know weather or not the endeavor has been a success. The process of selling books is much, much slower. My editor once told me that if the original run of 1,200 copies are sold out within three years, they will consider it a success. 

So that means I have a lot of selling to do. It also means I have to pace myself.

In addition to the various book signings and lectures I have planned, I also rely on reviews to help get the word out. A nice one was published a few days ago and Texas Architect ran one in their most recent issue. The Architect's Newspaper ran one last month which wasn't really a review of my book so much as it was an airing of the critic's own insecurities.

The next logical step of course is to seek out celebrity endorsements.