about Cultural Identity
I am a big fan of parks. My local park in Austin is Zilker Park with its famous Barton Springs Pool. There is a beautiful 1940s bathhouse at the pool, designed by Dan Driscoll, an early Texas modernist architect. I often stage my visits to the pool at times that will require a change of clothes just so I can enjoy the huge open air changing room and the very cool outdoor showers. This blog topic is inspired by my experiences in parks and in designing buildings specifically for parks.
Decades ago, when I had my own firm, we did the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, also in Zilker Park and located just a short distance from Barton Springs Pool. I recently participated in a series of tours for elementary school kids who came to visit the garden. It was amazing to watch the eye-opening reaction of the kids exploring the four-acre park and its exhibits–taking a break from their regular school routine. We had our little talk on the huge porch that comprises half the space of the building at the Umlauf. It has been a real treat to do many tours and lectures there through the years. It’s an incredibly lively setting, and continues to thrive.
More recently, at Page, we participated in the design of Discovery Green in Houston, and, for the last few years, we have been working on Buffalo Bayou Park, also in Houston. This newest project, which opened in October, includes many buildings spread throughout the park.
For a park building to do its job, it’s essential to feel connected to the landscape. The intersection between structure and nature is critically important. At Umlauf, there is that huge aforementioned porch and lots of glass in the primary pavilion. At Buffalo Bayou Park, we did much the same with all of the buildings, including the restaurant, the bike rental and the kayak rental, each featuring a porch all the way around providing both full shade and dappled light. The restaurant’s dining room has a large glass wall with a focus on a big, particular tree, as well as an adjacent lake, the bayou and the surrounding tree canopies.
A second big issue is scale. One plausible approach might be to try to make a building disappear, but I think that’s problematic. Park buildings need to be in scale with their big, open setting, and they often need to be visible at a distance to serve their purpose. At Buffalo Bayou Park, the buildings’ scale is large and in keeping with the grandeur of the setting.
A third challenge is designing buildings to accommodate a lot of use and abuse. Because of the flood plain at Buffalo Bayou we needed to plan many of the structures to be under water at times and vulnerable to floating debris. We built them from stout board-formed concrete so that when there is a water event, the building withstands it. After a significant water-level change, the concrete can be hosed off, and the structure is good to go again. Last spring, we had huge rains in May after the buildings were pretty much complete, and there was no harm done.
Places like Barton Springs Pool, Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou Park are wonderful, egalitarian urban draws. More than most places in our cities, they attract people of very diverse income levels and cultural backgrounds. At the opening of Buffalo Bayou Park in October it was wonderful to watch a real cross section of the Houston population mingling together and enjoying a beautiful day in a beautiful spot. Being able to be a part of making these kinds of places is as good as it gets as an architect.
When I travel, I love to just hang out and observe urban life – how cities support the predispositions of their residents and how city dwellers embrace their environments. I’m happy as a clam watching how crowds behave and spying on urban pedestrian life. Such was this case a couple of months ago when I visited Quebec City. I kept asking myself: why is it so enjoyable to be in a place that has great street life? Why is it so pleasant to be in an environment where people are just doing an amalgamation of everyday activities?
I was in Quebec City for a few days of business meetings and was impressed by its street life in the old part of the city. I had been there decades ago and had fond memories of this compact little bit of urban life that had, if anything, improved through the years.
I have a long history on the subject of street life. When I was right out of school, I was hired by Stanford Anderson at MIT to assist in his extensive research project on the subject. We did meticulous observation, mapping and analysis in Paris and Brooklyn Heights (which were very positive examples) and in downtown Washington DC (where things were pretty much falling apart). The research led to Stan’s remarkable book, “On Streets”.
I was 24 at the time, and was mesmerized by how societies have – for centuries – made these complex crucibles of cultural interaction we call streets. Being in Quebec made me think about what’s happened in the 40 years since those days at MIT. In 1973 – apart from San Francisco and New York City – we had pretty much given up on street life in the U.S. and nobody wanted to hang out in the city. Car-dominated culture, the suburbs, and TV were being regaled as creating a death knell for urban pedestrian life.
Now there is a remarkable resurgence of urbanity even in many places that are surprising—like Austin. But I think we still have many lessons to relearn from cities that never lost their urbanity, some in North America, like Quebec City.
One afternoon in Quebec City, I witnessed a remarkable bit of urban theater – the quick transformation of a single street in the old quarter. In a period of 15 minutes it went from a car street with a sidewalk to a 100% pedestrian corridor with generous outdoor social settings/restaurants and no cars. The photos here show the quick installation of planters and rails and the relocations of the pedestrian path they provoked. With these modest interventions, what was needed as a car route during business hours became a festive pedestrian party space in the evening. It is these kinds of subtle design moves that contribute to making urban spaces that are truly successful and engaging.
St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and many others places are now trying to rejuvenate the kind of urban life that has been continuously present in Quebec City all along. How did we lose it in so many North American cities? Was it really the TV of the Marshall McLuhan era? Curiously, we now have far more technology than McLuhan anticipated and yet more people are hanging out enjoying urban life. Maybe it’s because we all really need to be in-person social creatures. Even with the ease and mobility of today’s social media, people are still drawn to public places.
In the 1970’s, Charles Moore wrote an article called “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” in which he hailed Disneyland as one of the best experiences of public life in the United States. Moore’s piece was both humorous and biting. Now urban life is reappearing everywhere. We need to be encouraging, celebrating and provoking more of this direction as best we can.
Several weeks ago, I hosted a reception at my loft in Austin for Jhane Barnes, the very well known fashion designer. I greatly admire her clothing and sense of design and was delighted to have an opportunity to talk with her for a bit before the event. Combing through my closet earlier, I had found two outdated, thoroughly worn pieces, among the clothes I had that were designed by her: one a vest, the other a winter sport coat. These were clothes I should have stopped wearing years ago, but I like them so much I just cannot not retire them.
I didn’t know much about Jhane the designer (just her great clothes), and I didn’t know anything about her as a person. But I learned a great lesson about design in talking with her. Any kind of designer is so much better if they’re deeply research-oriented, regardless of what industry. Jhane’s work is technically superb; it’s not just about a look. She’s always searching for new tools, new methods and techniques. She’s all about how the design product is made.
One of her distinctive design characteristics is the quality of the fabrics she uses. When Jhane was young, she got a loom and learned the art of making fabric. In her studio she gathered lots of different looms and tested weaving techniques that she could show to the mills that would produce her work.
Jhane always emphasized comfort and how a piece of clothing would sit on your body. Her manufacturing process had to be strongly economy-driven. How the piece was made, sources for fibers and dyes and what all this would cost became driving forces. Additionally, Jhane’s company had to consider where a product was going to be made, allowing for manufacturing variations by country. All of this makes me realize how much the clothing design industry is like the architectural design industry where one has to be very concerned about building and construction materials, production and costs.
What Jhane does and what good architects do are not all that different. I was impressed by how strong her roots are in her industry and how much depth there is to what she does. She pretty much left the men’s fashion scene in 2013; now she’s designing fabrics, flooring, furniture, eyewear, and socks, among other things. We discussed flooring and how much research she does in terms of finding manufacturers. Again, she’s using those same skills she developed as a fashion designer. Just as she had done when she started in fashion design, Jhane transitioned to other design arenas by doing tons of research. She had to learn all about furniture making and floor making and eyewear making, etc.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with Jhane Barnes as a true designer: someone who is constantly searching, has big ideas and is ambitious for the quality of the products she works on. I admire that immensely!
It really irks me when I hear someone talk about some piece of architecture that “rises to the level of art.” Although I have a lot of respect for art, from my modest perspective, architecture operates at a much richer and more complex level. It involves many more people and must address a myriad of technical and functional issues as well as visual and sensory ones. It requires getting outside oneself and creating something bigger than just personal expression.
Is it possible that sometimes art might “rise to the level of architecture”? There is something in the work of Sol LeWitt that makes me think so.
I made several visits to a great exhibition at the Blanton Museum at UT Austin this spring that made me see Sol LeWitt’s work in a slightly different way. The show emphasized the relationship between him and Eva Hesse and seemed to take the art out of the realm of just self-absorption and make it something that addressed issues the two of them were working on together. This is like the kind of collaboration that often occurs in architecture, and which has always seemed to me much more a team sport than art.
I’ve long admired Sol LeWitt’s discovery that what he did as an artist was not to make the art, but rather to produce the idea for it and to create instructions for others to actually fabricate it. At a certain stage of his career, when you bought one of Sol LeWitt’s works, you received a few pages of instructions detailing how to make it. There are hundreds of wall drawings in existence now that involved active participation by their owners who purchased the instructions and sought out fabricators who then followed the directions.
The instructions go something like this: “Have a person draw a non-straight line at the top of the wall in black crayon. Then red, then yellow…” etc. The result is that dozens of people might actually be involved in making the art and would receive credit. (LeWitt insisted those makers get acknowledgement for their contribution.)
Some friends of mine had a house in which they, in consultation with LeWitt’s studio, hired a bunch of art students to produce one of his pieces for a specified wall. When they sold the house, the buyers had the option of buying the house with or without the art, even though it was on a permanent wall. The buyers chose not to fork out the extra bucks for the art, so the wall was painted over. My friends still have the instructions and can re-create the art somewhere else if they like.
What is it that an artist contributes? It’s not the actual making; it’s the idea. LeWitt established this notion as a breakthrough idea in the 1960s. Since then, many artists now have their stuff made by fabricators, particularly in sculpture. The hand of the other maker is evident, along with the ideas of the artist. In LeWitt’s mind, this approach expanded the art, as the maker’s hand is evident as well as the artist’s.
Isn’t this art “rising to the level of architecture”? We as architects seldom actually make our buildings ourselves. We are responsible for producing the ideas and creating a set of instructions so others can actually fabricate the artifact. In the end, the artifact shows the imprint of the architect, but also of the many people who were part of the making process.
It occurred to me in that Blanton show that Sol LeWitt was aspiring to make something that I find very beautiful in architecture. He was making instructions and giving them to someone else who would actually produce the final result. In the process he was growing beyond the traditional controlling role of the artist and acknowledging a collaborative role with both the user and the fabricator. That’s what architects do!
The University of Texas at Austin purchased the instructions for a Sol LeWitt piece in 2011 from Madison Square in New York and rebuilt it at the Austin campus. “Circle with Towers” was originally created in 2005, and then again at UT in 2012. Here is art aspiring to be architecture. (There is even a space inside that can be occupied, and it is meant to have people interacting actively with it.) This is art rising to the level of architecture. It is truly getting those two hands to come together: the visionary and the maker.
(For more on the “Circle with Towers”, click here: http://landmarks.utexas.edu/artistdetail/lewitt_sol)
I recently traveled to Bolivia to participate in the XIII Seminario Internacional de Arquitectura, a biennial architectural conference held at the University of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. I had spoken at the same conference fourteen years ago and, as was the case before, I really got my eyes opened about the current state of architecture in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America. Three things particularly impressed me:
1). We in America have a terrible misconception about many other parts of the world. The picture portrayed in both general and architectural media seems really twisted. South America is mostly off the radar screen, although we do get a tiny glimpse occasionally. When it is portrayed, we see massive favelas or a few precious object buildings.
Both of the times I have spoken in this recurring conference in Bolivia, as well as the exposure I have had through the annual Latitudes conferences at University of Texas at Austin, have opened a window to a very sophisticated group of architects practicing in South America and to economies that are thriving and building at an impressive rate. Talking with many of the architects in Bolivia it is clear they plowed though the 2008 economic downturn hardly missing a beat. They are executing impressive school building programs, large neighborhoods of well-designed medium density housing and suburban planning that puts our ad hoc mish-mash in the US to shame.
2. I was also impressed by the huge change that has happened in Santa Cruz since 2000. The city has boomed, and has actually developed in a fairly orderly and intentional way. There is a beautiful central historical core that is being nicely preserved and enhanced through careful controls and guidelines.
Still following a City Beautiful plan from the early 20th century, concentric rings of neighborhoods have been developed around the core. Traffic is served by a series of radial and ring roads that have been consistently implemented over decades. Santa Cruz is a garden city, and it reminds me of similarly well-planned cities in Australia.
The amount of construction is amazing, with design supplied by architects from Bolivia as well as other parts of South America. Both in the older part of the city, with its central square and the main cathedral, as well as on the periphery, there is evidence of really good urban design work that is actually being implemented.
3. The conference leaders assigned a number of architecture students from the Universidad Privada de Santa Cruz de la Sierra to take care of me, and the rest of the speakers who represented other countries in South America. These students were incredible—bright, enthusiastic, curious and engaging. They have tremendous pride in their region and their city and are extremely knowledgeable about both its history and its current development.
Their university has many travel and exchange programs all over the world, so these students had been around and knew global architecture as well as they knew the local scene. The students and faculty leaders loaded me up with recently published books about both local and larger regional architecture in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America. Through both the educational system and scholarship/publications, this culture is investing in a vigorous and promising future.
In the US we talk about globalization in architecture, but the content is pretty shallow and the perspective is sadly warped. We hear a lot about Dubai and China—especially when big name architects from Europe and America plop their latest confection there. But we know almost nothing about rapidly developing parts of the world like South America where there are many promising things happening in our field.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the construction site for our new UT Pan American Performing Arts Center. We’re using load-bearing masonry walls, and at this stage, with the project half-complete, the building has the look of a modern-day Roman ruin. I love this stage of construction when the structure is coming out of the ground and turning into interesting forms and spaces. The whole building process is incredibly exciting and inspiring.
This will be a big building and a real landmark. It will serve as the campus gateway and will feature a 1,000-seat performance hall as its centerpiece. It is part of a complex for the arts on a campus originally designed by Kenneth Benston in the 1980s. His work was inspired by Louis Kahn’s buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh and Ahmedabad, India. Those Kahn buildings were masterpieces of masonry construction, and Bentson did a good job of learning from them.
South Texas is a very hot, semi-tropical climate where the terrain is absolutely flat—not so different from Dacca and Ahmedabad. Masonry has long been a prominent building material in the region. As a kid, my grandparents lived in this area, and I have keen memories of the powerful brick buildings in a landscape full of citrus and palm trees.
From the start, we wondered if we could make a real masonry building here—not brick veneer on a steel or concrete frame, but thick, strong load bearing walls. In fact, real masonry walls turned out to be a very practical and economical structural system for this building in this region.
In the end, the walls will be a hybrid system—much like Kahn used and much like the Roman’s used in the precedents Kahn so admired. We will use both brick and concrete block, and the block will often be employed to create formwork for concrete lintels, piers and arches. This general construction technique is quite common in Mexico, just across the border, but is not so common elsewhere in the United States. It is fascinating to watch it go up.
There are large, circular and arched forms in the walls. These impart a great sense of strength and power that isn’t so palpable in the kind of frame construction we normally do. There is a definite toughness about it, and it reminds me of the experience of seeing Kahn’s work in South Asia years ago. There will be extensive glazed walls once the building is complete later this year that will provide a nice counterpart to the masonry in the finished building.
In addition to the main performance hall (which is clearly visible in its roofless form in the construction photos), there will be four rehearsal halls for choir, band, orchestra and mariachi. They form a village of rectangular rooms behind the concert space. When completed, the building will serve, not only as an important educational facility for the university, but also a cultural and performance center for the larger Rio Grande Valley.
Having started my career with several construction jobs working for building contractors, I have always had a keen interest in how the construction industry works. The movement to construction management a couple of decades ago has certainly changed the way buildings get built. Contractors are often primarily coordinators who self-perform little of the work, leaving the primary job of building to sub-contractors. The result can sometimes be a very balkanized job site where it is hard to ascertain an overall approach to creating the building. It is also hard for workers to feel the kind of pride in construction that existed when a single entity—their company–took the primary role of actually making the building.
By contrast, I am extremely impressed with work I recently observed by B.L. Harbert International, a construction company based in Birmingham, Alabama. I was on a trip to a very challenging building site in a developing country and had the opportunity to see first-hand how they work in the field.
In this project, Harbert is making extensive use of American materials, which are assembled in Alabama, then containerized and shipped, in just-in-time fashion to the job site. Clearly, they have to plan how the building is going to be built, to sequence it precisely, and to think through the entire construction process. I haven’t seen this methodology in ages, and it encourages me greatly to witness Harbert in action.
The amount of foresight is phenomenal. As a container arrives on the site it is dismantled and distributed to all of the various trades who need its contents. Then those same containers are often converted to workshop shelters for assembly of intricate mechanical and electrical systems.
There were 1,400 workers on this one building site. Harbert had its own employees, including some 200 ex-pats, and they self-perform a great deal of the job with a minimum of sub-contractors. They had hired hundreds of local workers, many of them unskilled when they came on the job.
Harbert has invested a lot in training these local workers. In that process, the workers have gained greatly increased skills, which they can use for the rest of their lives. Often, Harbert had to buy the workers shoes and work clothes and had to teach them fundamental notions of efficiency. There is a great deal of concern for these workers and a sincere desire to help them work better and more safely.
I was really impressed with how much the Harbert management is committed to the local workers. It’s clear they embrace these people as well as care about making a good product. The workers are well paid by local standards and Harbert gets solid results from their investment. Seeing Harbert organizing their workers, teaching them, and then getting good work out of them was really gratifying.
I’ve visited Harbert’s headquarters in Birmingham. Their offices are in an extremely well designed modern building. They clearly appreciate good architecture and are willing to put their money where there mouth is. They have great policies for employees: an on-site gym, running trails, fresh foods in the office, etc. It seems to be a very well run operation that really respects employees. Overseas, I observed the same sensitivity, directed over there to respect for local customs, attitudes and cultures.
It was a real joy to see such a sophisticated and efficient construction firm that cares about their people and takes great pride in building very fine buildings in very difficult circumstances.
This summer I visited Vancouver, certainly one of the most spectacular urban settings in the world. While there, I met with Mark Reddington, partner of LMN Architects of Seattle, and Ken Cretney, chief operating officer for the Vancouver Convention Centre. Ken came on board with the center six months before the building was finished; as such, he wasn’t the original client for the project and is now responsible for the building’s ongoing function and performance. LMN are the architects for the Convention Centre West, the only building to win a National AIA Award for Interiors, for Architecture, and for Urban Design. The building has also been recognized by The Committee on the Environment (COTE); by World Architecture News (both as the Most Sustainable Building in the World as well as recipient of its Effectiveness Award, and by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
This is a truly amazing building. It interfaces beautifully with the street, the city, the water, and with a park that outlines Vancouver Island. At street level, there is retail that gives a pedestrian friendly face to a building type that can be daunting. All of the typically unsightly elements associated with large convention centers (e.g., buses, trucks, parking, loading docks) are underground; thus, there reduced congestion around the building. As I learned from Mark and Ken during our tour, there were all sorts of issues from a sustainability perspective, including marine ecology. The solution to that problem was to create a new enriched environment for the marine life in Vancouver Harbor. In terms of form and character, it’s substantially built with local materials, employs extensive local artwork and it absolutely celebrates daylight. I find it extraordinary that it does all these things extremely well and never feels like one design consideration trumps or overwhelms the others. In fact, they all reinforce one another.
The net result is a building that makes a real difference, both to the city and to its citizens. It is also a highly effective marketing tool. As Ken noted, “the architecture really enhances any event held here. Conventions are more exciting and dynamic… because of the building.” He pointed out the main ballroom, which has a moving wall to reveal beautiful views of the harbor and the mountains beyond. The interior is a warm, ingratiating space full of light that encourages people to stay. In short, the building contributes to its primary purpose: having great events. Ken added that if convention committee people see the building, almost invariably they book it.
This project is a huge economic engine and generates a lot of money for the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tax revenues. The success of the design brings in millions of dollars to Vancouver, which now competes with the global cities for significant events. Equally important, the building makes a visible contribution to the city’s residents who go by and engage with it every day. It’s a source of pride and excitement; people go there just to hang out.
I genuinely love buildings like this one. They make the life of a city and the lives of its residents better! This is the true potential of architecture – to transform the energy, vitality and economy of a place. The power of the building goes way beyond what you can see in a photograph and attests to just how meager an experience of image alone is to the real understanding of great architecture.
I recently attended the wedding of two former students that took place at the Anthony Chapel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, designed by Maurice Jennings, a former partner of Fay Jones. The influence of Jones’ celebrated Thorncrown Chapel is evident, but Jennings definitely takes the idea one step further. Situated in the Garvan Woodland Gardens, the chapel is carefully sited with a view towards Hamilton Lake. The architecture is clearly commuting with nature, and there is a beautiful, dappled light within the structure.
Lee and Amy had made several trips to Hot Springs before choosing to hold the wedding there, even though no one lived nearby. Hot Springs is a resort town that enjoyed its hey-day in the 1930s, with a beautiful main street, spa springs and scenic surroundings. The combination of the lovely old town and the chapel itself tipped the couple’s decision to have their wedding there. It was an amazing event and many of their friends had come in from points around the country. Eight of the twelve in the bridal party had been my students (four had been TAs), and it was great fun for me to see Lee and Amy so happy and surrounded by friends and family that care so much about them.
After the ceremony, it was hard not to reflect on the power of architecture, and its ability to create an occasion. What drew us all to Hot Springs was the architecture. People come from all over the world to use this chapel and, as such, it’s actually quite an economic generator for the community. It helps the town survive. But also, it creates the setting for hundreds of wonderful, memorable events every year. Again, this is what architecture does! It is not only important what a building is, but what it does and how it enriches people’s lives.
The chapel has a fascinating, complex framing utilizing a 3-D steel joint that becomes a 3-D wood truss, and this form is repeated from end to end of the 57-foot high structure. The result is a delicate, intricate ceiling, one that seems to lift itself up like branches of a tree.
The gardens were the vision and gift of Verna Garvan; she commissioned Fay Jones to do the site plan for the gardens (including the chapel) as well as to design and build a nearby polygonal pavilion (below). Jennings, who took over Jones’ office, was then commissioned in 2004 to complete Anthony Chapel. The passion of both architects for nature, light and structure is what makes this such an elegant and uplifting place.
The day all came together beautifully: the setting, the stunning spring weather, the building, the friends and family, and the ceremony. What a spectacular and memorable occasion!
We always seem to be infatuated with newness in Architecture, and I will confess I am susceptible to the quick rush of novelty more than I would like to admit. But I am also a great admirer of timelessness—that far more potent elixir that lends Architecture an enduring depth that most other media cannot touch. I recently visited an exquisite house in Dallas by Edward Larrabee Barnes that embodies that rare trait of timelessness in a powerful way. I think it’s the best thing Barnes ever did. I have been to the house three times—each time when a different owner inhabited it. It was originally commissioned by my friend Melba Whatley (then Greenley) and was completed around 1984. Melba was very active in the Dallas Museum of Art and Barnes was doing the museum’s big new building at the same time.
The house was stunning when Melba lived in it—beautifully sited on a rolling piece of land in Preston Hollow, immaculately detailed with minimalist precision and spot on in its scale and proportions. It is richly complex in plan, but also dead simple in the composition of each element. Each sequential owner of the house has lived in it in a different way. Melba had tons of books, and her library was a major feature. The current owners, Will and Catherine Rose, have filled that same room with an extraordinary collection of contemporary art. The proportions, light and simplicity of the room are exquisite, and it works equally well as a library or a gallery. This is what architecture should be: adaptive, and flexible enough that the times and inhabitation can change, while the strengths of the Architecture remain constant.
I also love the fact that it feels like a Texas house (and very different than the houses Barnes did on the East Coast). There is some reflection of Luis Barragan in its hot climate responses—its deep porches and its rambling organization around a courtyard and pool. But instead of the lush Mexican vibrancy and color Barragan would have employed, this house has an elegant, buttoned-down quality that is perfect for Dallas. The way it nestles in to those beautiful North Texas live oaks make it feel like it is an integral part of the landscape. This house is proof that modernism has the ability to transcend generations. If the house were built today it would seem as fresh and contemporary as it did 30 years ago. There is a staying power and, yes, timelessness here that is really remarkable.