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Toys Were Us

ToysRUs.jpg

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.

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.

 

 

State and Wacker

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There are many things I remember fondly from my time on the banks of Lake Michigan. Sitting on a train for an hour every day was certainly – if somewhat surprisingly - one of them. I’ve often described how one of the best things about living in Chicago was the commute. It was about a half-hour train ride between my apartment and my office and that time gave me an opportunity to read for pleasure in away I never had before (and, sadly, never have since).

But it wasn’t all about the journey  - the destination was pretty great, too. When I’d arrive at the State and Lake Station on the "L" I’d descend the stairs and head north on State Street. Once I reached Wacker Street the buildings on either side of me would fall away and I’d be treated to a panoramic view of the broad canyon of buildings that lined the Chicago River. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and there for a while I was able to see it every day.

Apparently I’m not the only one to appreciate the beauty of this urban space. Hollywood producers find it particularly cinematic as well. That’s why it has appeared in (and been destroyed in) a number of movies in the past several decades. I recently came across a short video that illustrated this phenomenon quite well and thought it was worth sharing.

For what it’s worth I worked in the IBM Building and so had a great view of the Marina City. The office where I worked used to have a great view east down the river towards lake Michigan but a large building built by a notoriously shady developer has since been built that blocks that once  amazing view.

Architects of Music

 image courtesy weirdal.com

image courtesy weirdal.com

Last week "Weird Al" Yankovic dropped a new single: a polk medley featuring several selections from the musical, Hamilton. It turns out that the creator of HamiltonLin-Manuel Miranda, is a fan of Mr. Yankovic and in an interview from a few years ago he told the story of the first time he met the singer/songwriter/satirist. He also revealed a fact about Mr. Yankovic I did not known before:

Alfred Matthew Yankovic graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo with a bachelor's degree in architecture. 

It turns out  Mr. Yankovick is not the only artist to have first studied architecture before pursuing a career in popular music. In fact the list is remarkably long:

Art Garfunkel studied architecture at Columbia University where he ultimately graduated with a degree in art history. By then he had already met his musical collaborator, Paul Simon, years earlier in elementary school.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (a.k.a. John Denver) studied Architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He joined a folk-music band while there and ultimately pursued that career path.

Jerry Harrison of The Talking Heads dropped out of Harvard's Graduate School of Design to join his fellow band mates who had met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Three of the founding members of Pink Floyd (Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright) all met while studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster).

Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel (a.k.a. Seal) also studied architecture in London and earned a two year diploma in architecture before becoming a singer/songwriter and marrying Heidi Klum.

The rapper O'Shea Jackson Sr. (a.k.a. Ice Cube) was interested in architecture as well as rap and earned a diploma in draughtsmanship from the Phoenix Institute of Technology the same year Straight Outta Compton was released.

It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who famously said "architecture is frozen music" and the two mediums are more similar than they might at first appear. Both architecture and music play with rhythm and structure. Both architecture and music communicate emotion and meaning. Both architecture and music can transcend their rigid rules and history to create art of endearing beauty.

Perhaps the creative problem solving taught in an architectural education provides a useful approach to those who go on to create music. Perhaps this is all just a coincidence. Perhaps I'm just too white and nerdy.

The Architecture of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

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Last week was the 50th anniversary the first national broadcast of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I grew up watching the show and hearing the soft, comforting intonations of Mr. Rogers' voice in a recently rebroadcast interview transported me back to my early childhood. I may have been just as much of a Sesame Street kid, but Mr. Rogers always had a special place in my heart.

This may be because his neighborhood was so familiar.

Whereas Sesame Street took place in an urban setting Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was unambiguously suburban. You can see this in the program's iconic opening sequence where the camera explores a scale model of the titular neighborhood. It wasn't exactly like the suburb where I grew up but it looked a lot like the postwar neighborhood where my grandparents lived.  Even though my grandfather and Mr. Rogers were quite different there was a comforting calmness they both shared.

It may be an overstatement to claim the scale model at the beginning of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was the inspiration for me to build models and design neighborhoods as an architect but it's most assuredly not an overstatement to claim that the testimony Mr. Rogers gave in front of Congress in 1969 remains an inspiration for speaking truth to power. The seven minute clip is worth watching: seeing a gruff Senator straight from Central Casting melt under the overpowering kindness of Mr. Rogers is incredibly cinematic and I'm sure a version of it will appear in the upcoming biopic starring Tom Hanks.

In the meantime, though, PBS will be airing its own documentary about Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood. The program airs on March 6 at 7PM on KLRN here in San Antonio.

 

 

 

The Graflex Lightsaber

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One of the gifts my daughters received for Christmas were light-up toy lightsabers. Sammy received "Rey's" lightsaber and if you've seen the most recent installments of the franchise you know this is also "Luke's" lightsaber from the original trilogy and "Anakin's" lightsaber from the prequels. The story of how that came to be is rather convoluted but I think the more interesting story is how this particular lightsaber prop came to be designed.

Here's a hint: it has something to do with a accessory for an obsolete medium-format camera.

In 1976 the production design team was hard at work creating the cinematic universe for Star Wars. It's important to remember that the original movie had a relatively low budget and many of the props were and sets were cobbled together from things that already existed in the real world. The story goes that a set decorator went into a photography store to buy a couple of lenses to make a pair of futuristic binoculars. While he was there he asked if the store had any "interesting" gear that no one was buying anymore. He was pointed in the direction of a box included the flashgun for a Graflex Speed Graphic camera. This particular camera was popular with photojournalists in the 1940s and 1950s but by the 1970s it was out of production and rarely used. The flashgun consisted of a cylindrical metal tube containing batteries that connected to a bowl-shaped flash mechanism.

He took one look at the metal tube and he saw Luke's lightsaber.

Some additional detail was added including plastic strips for the grip and parts from a Texas Instruments calculator (there's always a Texas connection), but the basic form of Luke's iconic lightsaber was sitting there all along in a box of unused camera parts. The movie's other lightsabers were made in similar ways: Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber notably made use of both a residential sink knob as well as a part form an aircraft machine gun.

 Luke Skywalker's lightsaber can be seen at the far right while Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber is second from the left

Luke Skywalker's lightsaber can be seen at the far right while Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber is second from the left

For me the moral to this story is that good design can come from anywhere. You just have to remember to keep your eyes (and your mind) open so that you can see it.

Return of the Guardrail

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In an earlier post I wrote of how the Star Wars universe would have been considerably safer had they decided long, long ago to  install more guardrails. After seven films where Jedi, Sith and smugglers are all constantly falling to their doom I was thrilled to see in the newest episode that basic safety measures are beginning to be implemented in that galaxy far, far away. Guardrails can clearly be seen in Supreme Leader Snoke's throne room (see above). In terms of occupant welfare this is a definite improvement and as illustrated in the film it results in a much safer environment for all those who occupy it.

And with that I wish all of you a happy 2017. I'll see you in 2018.

Marfaland

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

The Architecture of the Rink

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC Brantley

As part of my ongoing effort to sell copies of my book I try to do one courthouse-related event per month. For June I gave a quick talk at the San Antonio Masonry Contractors Association Golden Trowel Awards Banquet. The "Golden Trowel" (in case you didn't already know) is an award that identifies projects that make exemplary use of brick, block or stone. I particularly like how this award is given because it recognizes everyone involved in the success of a particular project; architects, contractors, masons and material suppliers. 

At any rate, in addition to brief lecture on the role of masonry in Texas courthouse design I was also asked to "emcee" the event. This was my first time to do something like this and although I won't be quitting my day job anytime soon, it was a fun way to spend an evening. After reviewing photos from the even I see I need to smile more (see above). I also clearly need to invest in some Hammer Pants.

New Episodes of "The Works" Are Coming Soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

On Leaving The Happiest Place On Earth

There is not a word in the English language for that emotion you feel at the end of a good vacation; that mixture of happiness over the memories created, the sadness that the creation of those memories has come to and end, and the complete exhaustion that comes from traveling with small children for several days in a row. After a year of saving, research and preparation, we took the girls to Disneyland and it was, in a word, magical.

I did not grow up going to Disneyland. I knew it existed but it wasn't something that interested me much. In architecture school the word "Disneyland" became shorthand for anything unauthentic. And to be fair, Disneyland is a completely synthetic environment. The animals on the Jungle Safari are not real. The rocks of Thunder Mountain are not made of stone. Sleeping Beauty's Castle is not really a castle. And what is more you, have to pay a large sum of money (and go through a metal detector) to experience all of these things that, again, are not real.

No, the environment is completely manufactured at Disneyland, which is to say it is completely designed. That's what struck me about the place more than anything; the thought and care that went into every detail. Whether it was the choreography of the experience of waiting in line (to make waiting entertaining) or the addition of a musical LED nightlight to the headboard of beds at the hotel (to make even bedtime special), throughout our time at Disneyland we have felt like we were in the hands of skilled designers who cared. I feel this even more so as I sit in a overwhelmingly generic La Quinta hotel next to LAX. Here I do not feel as if I am in the hands of a skilled designer who cares - I feel I am in a cheap motel room.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this trip in future posts but what the trip has reinforced for me more than ever is that design matters. Story matters. And more than anything, caring matters - both in Disneyland and in the real world.

A More Asymmetrical Union (Jack)

Obviously there's been a lot in the news recently about the "Brexit" vote in the United Kingdom. Some commenters have speculated that Scotland - whose population voted significantly in favor of staying in the EU - might declare its independence so that it might later rejoin it as an independent nation. The fact that a 300 year-old union may be coming to an end is something to give us pause but so too is the fact the the flag associated with that union may soon be a thing of the past as well.

Often referred to as the Union Jack (although technically it's not a "jack" unless it's flown on a ship), the flag is as iconic as it is storied. It's the flag you can order on the roof of your Mini Cooper. It's the flag that you can still find incorporated into other flags of both nations and states. It's actually not the flag we fought against in the American Revolution. That flag was slightly different and that difference speaks to what an elegant piece of design the flag is.

The current flag of the United Kingdom is actually amalgamation of the flags of the kingdoms that make up the UK. England's flag had a white field overlaid by a red cross with horizontal and vertical members. When overlaid on top of the Scottish flag, a white diagonal cross over a blue field, you get the flag of Great Britain which is what the British forces flew during the American Revolution.

A few years later Ireland formally became part of the United Kingdom, and so the flag used by Ireland at the time - a red diagonal cross over a white background - was incorporated into the flag of Great Britain (which of course was already a hybrid of the English and Scottish flags). This has been the iconic symbol of the United Kingdom ever since.

It should be noted that Wales, the fourth kingdom in the United Kingdom, is notably not represented in the flag. This is because it was already under English control by the time this whole flag thing got started. Poor Wales.

So there are literally centuries of history built into the flag which I have ruthlessly condensed into the three paragraphs above. Maybe it's a happy coincidence that these amalgamated flags all fit together so well to create a design that is graphically compelling. Or maybe it speaks to the talent and skill of the designers responsible for such things. I tend to believe the latter is the case. At any rate, the Union Flag is a simple design that is made richer through an unexpected amount of complexity.

Take the proportion of the flag, for example. In it's proper form, the flag has a ratio of 1:2 as opposed to the more standard 3:5 of other nations. That's one of the reasons the Union Flag looks so much more regal when it's flown. There's also some strangeness going on with how the diagonal crosses are overlaid. If you look closely, you'll notice the flag is not symmetrical. The red of the Irish cross is not centered within the white of the Scottish cross. Instead it is offset slightly, but even this offset is not consistent. It "pinwheels" around the center of the flag so that its position is different in each of the flag's four quadrants (this diagram does a better job of explaining all this).

I only recently became aware of this asymmetry before but now that I have, I can't unsee it. It's like the "hidden" arrow in the FedEx logo. Even though I've yet to find a plausible reason for this, I think it makes the flag better.

Weather it's flags or buildings we're talking about, good design should be simple and elegant. But when something just a bit unexpected is added - be it the insertion of asymmetry, whimsy or humor - it goes a long way to making good design great.

How To Store Ten Gallons

The cowboy hat is a thing of beauty.

Equal parts form and function it looks just as good on John Wayne in The Searchers as it does on Randy Jones in "The Village People". As iconic and easily recognizable as the cowboy hat is, if you ever take a moment chance to study one, you'll find its shape to be surprisingly complex. It turns out storing a cowboy hat is a remarkably difficult thing to do. To do so properly requires some ingenuity.

I was reminded of this when I was in Hallettsville over the weekend. Under the seats in the main courtroom of the Lavaca County Courthouse is a bent wire that is designed to hold the brim of a cowboy had so that it can be stored upside-down when the seat is folded flat (center image). This is a similar strategy to the vehicle hat holder designed to hold a hat upside down on the roof of your pickup (left image). I owned a pickup truck myself for a few years and I installed such a device because, well, it seemed appropriate to do so.

It seemed seemed appropriate for LBJ to install a dedicated cowboy hat rack in the Boeing 707 which, when he flew in it, was known as Air Force One (right image). It sat next to his desk so like the Moscow-Washington Hotline, it was available should in case of an emergency.

 

The Architecture of Dillon, Texas

 image courtesy NBC

image courtesy NBC

So I recently finished watching Friday Night Lights, an hour-long drama that ran for five seasons. In case you're even more out of the loop than I am - the last episode aired in 2011 - FNL was a TV show based on a movie that was itself adapted from a non-fiction book. Although that sort of lineage is normally a recipe for disaster, in this case it managed to be compelling in each of those three very different mediums. The success of the TV show had a lot to do with the series creator Peter Berg (who also directed the film and is a cousin of Buzz Bissinger, the author of the original book) and the showrunner/producer Jason Katims. The series was scored with perfectly chosen music by musical director Liza Richardson and featured an ensemble cast that was an incredible collection of talent. It also happened to include a high school classmate of mine, Stacey Oristano

At any rate, now that I've watched all 76 episodes I have to admit I'm a little sad. I enjoyed hanging out with this set of characters and I'll miss their company. I'll also miss exploring the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.

The show didn't provide much specific information about Dillon - we know it's small, for example, but we're never really told how small. But one detail the show did communicate was that the built landscape of small town Texas looks a whole lot like the built landscape of suburban Texas.

In almost every episode of Friday Night Lights this counterintuitive but verifiable truth about Texas urbanism was effectively reinforced. If you travel enough throughout this state you quickly realize that the outskirts of Waxahachie, Huntsville and Georgetown look a whole lot like the outskirts of Dallas, Houston and Austin. It wouldn't be hard to confuse a generic commercial strips of San Angelo with the generic commercial strips of San Antonio. The development may be greater in quantity and in density, but they all have the same Chevy dealerships, Applebee's Restaurants and Diary Queens/Alamo Freezes regardless of the population of their host city.

Even though Dillon is supposed to be in west Texas, the landscape of Dillon certainly appears more centrally located in the hill country which makes sense as the series was filmed in and around Austin. Both the 1990 FNL book and the 2004 FNL film were set in the real life west Texas town of Odessa whose population hovered around 90,000 for decades until the most recent oil boom pushed that number closer to 115,000.  

Odessa is a bit of an outlier when it comes to cities in the state. The economy of Odessa is closely linked to its sister city, Midland, located twenty miles to the west. Although both towns share a close association with the oil and gas industry, the corporate offices for those companies tend to be located in Midland whereas the supporting industrial infrastructure tends to be to be located in Odessa. The result is that Midland has a more developed commercial center with mid-rise office towers whereas Odessa does not.

Up until recently the Ector County Independent School District operated two high schools - Odessa High School and Permian High School whose Permian Panthers were the featured football team in the book and the film versions of Friday Night Lights. At the beginning of the TV series there is only one high school in Dillon and so there is only one high school football team in town, the Dillon Panthers. A critical plot development occurs at the end of the third season (2008-2009) when a second high school, Dillon East, is reopened, splitting the town in two. A somewhat similar situation occurred in Victoria, Texas at about the same time where a town's single high school was split into a Victoria West and Victoria East. Back then Victoria had a population of around 62,000 and so it seems reasonable to assume that Dillon was about the same size.

There are, however, some important differences between Victoria and Dillon. Victoria does not have an airport with commercial flights whereas Dillon does. Victoria has a mall which is a feature Dillon seemed to lack up until the series finale when the town suddenly had a large, two-story shopping center with escalators that allowed Coach Taylor to make a particularly dramatic entry.

Dillon also seems to mysteriously have a lot fewer hispanic residents than you would expect to find in Victoria or anywhere else in Texas. Odessa, for example, is over 50% hispanic.

Even if we don't know exactly where Dillon is supposed to be, there doesn't appear to be any other sizable towns located near it. For this reason one would assume Dillon is the seat of its respective county. That said we never see a county courthouse or even a central business district that we would expect to be built around one. If we look at Victoria as a precedent, it has a well-defined downtown with am impressively romanesque courthouse that faces a public square. It even has a few mid-rise office buildings clustered around this downtown. 

Along with an almost complete lack of hispanics, this is perhaps the most notable thing missing from how Dillon is depicted in Friday Night Lights. Dillon may have its own megachurch, strip club and housing project, but it doesn't seem to have a center. We never see the type of concentrated historic development that we would expect to serve as the iconic center of such a town.

If a courthouse had been shown, our perception of Dillon might be very different. It wouldn't just be a devil town of run-down commercial development. Instead it would have been an identifiable place in the world. Interestingly, Peter Bogdanovich made a similar choice when he was making a movie about life in small town Texas. The fictional Anarene of The Last Picture Show was based on - and was filmed in - the real life town of Archer City. Archer City has a courthouse but it never appears on screen. To do so would have made the setting a more iconic and identifiable and would have run counter to the narrative. 

Of course from a narrative standpoint the football field serves as the center of Dillon. And so for the world of Friday Night Lights, the omission of a downtown Dillon makes sense. Then again the show isn't really about football and it's certainly not about small town urbanism. It's about community and the many ways it can come to exist. To be sure there is the community that is built around football - both between individual players and between the players and their fans - but there is also the community that is built around family and friends and neighbors. And of course there is the community that is formed between individual players and their coach.

My personal football career was limited to a somewhat lackluster single season on the Young Junior High C-Team. This may come as a surprise, but I wasn't very good. My coaches were all supportive individuals but for me it was a series of teachers, professors and employers that over the years collectively acted as my Coach Taylor. Mrs. Reubush instilled a love of learning and hard work early in Elementary School. Mrs. L'Huillier, my 7th grade English teacher, provided the tough love that I needed to learn how to communicate effectively through writing. Ms. Danze and Mr. Blood taught me that it was possible to be both a good architect and a good person. Max Levy still provides me with the pep talks I need to rally in the the second half.

As interesting as a place like Dillon may appear to be on TV, it's worth noting that by the end of the series finale of Friday Night Lights, pretty much all of the characters we have come to love in the previous seventy-five episodes have left Dillon. This speaks to another reality of small towns in Texas - that the opportunities they afford their residents are increasingly less than what are offered by the larger urban centers of the state. It's one of the many contradictions that Friday Night Lights so perfectly renders. Texas is a state that is both rural and urban; red and blue, provincial and sophisticated. For as charming as they may be when we drive through them they can be challenging places to live. 

And yet people still do live in places like Dillon and they are proud to do so. I've had the opportunity to work with some of them as they work to make their small towns more compelling places. 

I believe they will succeed in doing this with clear eyes and full hearts.