about Life 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!
I’m always struck by the list of credits in movies. I love the way that everyone who contributes to the success of the film gets acknowledged. Making a building requires the same kind of complex collaborative enterprise as making a movie, yet for some reason, we have this crazy convention of crediting only a single architect by name.
I’m writing an article for A+U about the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth with the title: “Architecture is a Team Sport.” The University of Texas at Austin owns all the working drawings for the Kimbell, and we had an exhibition of some of them in Battle Hall last fall.
Duane Manning, the guy actually responsible for 90% of the drawings when he was a young architect, came to the opening. I was making the remarks there and commented about what a pity it is that he had not been recognized earlier for his contributions to the building.
This made me think about other people I’ve met over the years who also played critical roles in the creation of this amazing architectural landmark. So I went back through all my files on the Kimbell and tried to piece together some of the people and roles as source material for the article in A+U.
Richard Fargo Brown had an enormous impact on the design of the building. He was the first director of the Kimbell well before there was any architecture associated with it. He wrote a program for what he wanted in the museum that is an uncanny prediction of the building to come. Brown was the one who specified much of how the building would be articulated in its final form – that it should be low, flat and symmetrical, that it should be day-lit (in part by courtyards), and that its construction should be expressed explicitly as an important part of its architecture. “In the end that’s what we got,” he said.
Brown added, “Lou Kahn listened.” One must give credit to Brown for his vision and also to Kahn for his embrace of that inspired vision. The Kimbell does not have tall, monumental spaces like Dhaka, Exeter or the Yale British Art Center that Kahn typically loved at that stage of his career; instead, it was low and flat and modest, which is exactly what Brown conceived.
In the A+U article, I focus on one particular element of the Kimbell–the inventive skylights at the tops of the vaults and their reflectors. During the design phase, Marshall Meyer, a real leader in Kahn’s office, showed an early conceptual sketch to Kahn who liked it and presented it to the client. Richard Kelly, a lighting designer, changed both the general shape of the reflectors and the material they were made out of (from glass to perforated aluminum). The precise shape and performance were computer-modeled and revised again by Kelly and Isaac Goodbar. The perforations didn’t work well in the first two mock-ups and Frank Sherwood in Preston Geren’s office, associated architects on the Kimbell, resolved the problem by suggesting the perforations appear in some places but not others. The result is the magical light that really defines the experience and is a signature element of the Kimbell. It is hard to call this just a “Kahn” detail.
The point of the article is that architecture really is a team sport, and we should acknowledge that fact more than we do. The truth is that all buildings have many, many people seminally involved in their creation. Why are we so hell-bent on singular attribution? Why don’t we credit everyone in greater detail? At Page, we alphabetically list everyone on our website who was involved in a particular project. It is an explicit way of saying we’re all in this together.
In a data-driven world, why don’t we, as architects, gather more data about the performance of our buildings—particularly in the form of post-occupancy evaluations? Wouldn’t it be a potent tool for advocacy of the importance of our profession if we could demonstrate the positive impact of what we do in a language our culture is accustomed to using?
Our office recently conducted a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of 2400 Nueces, a student housing complex at the University of Texas at Austin. Completed in 2013, the 13-story building was developed by EdR in partnership with UT and includes academic spaces, study spaces, recreational and fitness facilities as well as UT’s International Student Offices. Of the current residents,132 answered the POE questionnaire which addressed all sorts of issues about their satisfaction with the building–what was done right, what fell short, and what they would recommend.
From that survey, four key findings emerged:
1. A full 26% of respondents said their GPA went up since moving to 2400 Nueces. A primary goal in designing the building was to create a fun, wonderful place to live, but not Animal House. Much of the student housing the West Campus, where the project is located, is notorious for environments that are not conducive to work and study. Along with EdR, we paid a lot of attention to making a place where social life is tempered by an emphasis on good live/work environments. For example, we intermingled various unit types so that the 4-bedroom units (which tend to be dominated by the more raucous male population) would not be clustered on one hallway and reinforce a “party” lifestyle. Diverse neighbors tend to temper extreme behaviors.
2. Another question asked, “How about your friendships – are they better, the same or diminished compared to other places you have lived?” Here, 44% said their social relationships were better. This is what college is about: friendships and connections. How does a building support these? In part, through making all of the shared/social spaces great places to hang out and interact—mixing in single-loaded corridors and outdoor passages, creating memorable social and recreational spaces with great views and good indoor/outdoor access. At 2400 Nueces those places where casual encounter occurs generally have good daylight and ample space for sticking around and not just passing through.
3. When asked, “What effect has living in 2400 Nueces made in your life compared to other student housing”, a resounding 67% said it made their lives better. Many of the respondents stated they like the strong architectural character, the large windows and the colors of the building.
4. And, tellingly, in response to the question, “Would you recommend 2400 Nueces as a place to live with at UT”, a full 100% said Yes.
This specific POE gave us some very positive responses and, thus, some evidence to take to the next project about the potential for architecture to make lives better. But even if the news it not so good, it can often be very instructive and a tool for learning how to make our buildings more supportive and productive.
EdR is one of the most enlightened developers of student housing in the country. They have done an impressive job both in building and operating 2400 Nueces, and the survey supports that. Our office will benefit from their expertise and from the POE’s assessment of its impact in designing future student housing projects.
I had a crystalizing moment at the Texas Society of Architects convention in Houston last week. On Friday afternoon I attended the recognition ceremony for Newly Registered Architects that was held in a lovely historic church a few blocks from the convention center. I had been part of initiating this ceremony as president of TxA last year when we did the inaugural event of this sort in a fine old church in downtown Fort Worth. It was great to see this new “tradition” continue, and I hope it lasts well into the future.
Getting registered as an architect is a long and daunting process that requires a great deal of persistence and perseverance. Yet it is really important for anyone wanting to be truly successful in his or her architectural career.
We had a good crop of newly register architects in our office at Page this year and I had encouraged some of them to attend the ceremony, even though it required travel to Houston and time away from the office. I was delighted that four of our folks showed up, and I was genuinely proud to see them recognized in the ceremony that was led by Val Glitsch, the current TxA President.
I am jazzed about all four of these young architects. Delvin Jackson works in our Dallas office, and I had gotten exposure to him when I was lead designer on the UT Dallas Visitors Center where he was part of the team. A University of Houston graduate, Delvin worked in Houston for several years after graduation and has been with us at Page for eight years.
I have been working very closely with Diana Su on the new UT System Replacement Office Building in Austin for the past six months or so. She and I have been through many, many refinements on the building’s skin, and we are still at it. Before she came to work for Page she worked for several years for Miro Rivera, and before that I knew her as a student at UT Austin.
I got to know Bill Huie a bit even before he became a grad student in the School of Architecture at UT. He was already both a Plan II and a Law School graduate from UT and he was thinking about coming back for another degree. Bill was one of our very top students in his era, doing residency with David Chipperfield in London and winning a big national ACSA competition during his last semester. He worked for a couple of other Austin firms before coming to Page fairly recently.
Matt Leach was in my graduate seminar at UT his first semester of grad school after doing undergraduate work at Georgia Tech and working for Mack Scogin Merrill Elam in Atlanta for a little over four years. I latched onto him as quickly as I could, and Matt was my TA for multiple semesters in both of my undergraduate classes. He has been with us at Page for three and a half years during which I have worked closely with him for the whole time on projects like the Austin airport expansion and the new Dell Medical School at UT.
After the ceremony the five of us, along with another former student and Page colleague, Paul Bielamowicz (who had been elected the day before to be President of TxA in 2016), walked a few blocks down the street to The Grove restaurant in Discovery Green–one of our design projects–to have a drink.
This was the crystalizing moment—the realization that it does not get much better than sitting around a table in a beautiful spot (that we helped make) with an amazing group of talented, committed people, talking about things we all care about and love and celebrating life’s sweet successes.
While in Michigan recently, I paid a visit to two new and strikingly different museums, both designed by well known architects: the Broad Museum by Zaha Hadid at Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan Art Museum by Allied Works. After visiting both, it reminded me why it’s important for architects to find opportunities for work that are sympathetic to what they do.
Located on a primary thoroughfare that runs by the campus, the Broad Museum is relatively small and it sits on its site as a pristine object, almost as a piece of sculpture would — like a really big Calder. The buildings around it are traditional campus buildings and the Broad creates a stark contrast to all of its neighbors. It’s a very constrained site, so it could probably never grow. It will likely always be the object it is.
As one would expect of a Hadid project, it’s a very aggressive design– angular and full of drama. It is totally “in your face”, and this seems about right for this type of museum which is all about “in your face” contemporary art.
Inside, one of the galleries is long and thin, with a mix of light and dark spaces that would certainly not readily accommodate a pre-conceived show very well because the space is so particular. The piece that is in there is gorgeous–a really long, thin assemblage of denture-making materials that is just perfect in its spot. It was clearly made for its location and allowed the artist to play off of the eccentricity of the space. The architecture seems to be leading and the art within is reacting. Hadid’s work is good for that: her buildings are strong and demanding and the artist is responding well.
There are few neutral zones in the building so art needs to be commissioned and made specifically for the spaces to really work. I think it would be difficult to show anything but contemporary art there. A conventional exhibit might be lost or overwhelmed. This is a museum that’s meant to provoke a response, and it is one kind of legitimate museum architecture.
At the University of Michigan, it’s an entirely different experience in the substantial recent addition to a large pre-existing museum building. This distinguished institution has an extraordinary established collection full of history and tradition. Here the architecture, designed by Allied Works, needs to give way to the collection. The architecture is orderly and quiet, and the art, which is beautifully displayed in light-controlled spaces, is resonant. The architecture is respectful of the art and is often deferential to it. The extraordinary art collection that represents centuries of values and ideas is not about to change itself and accommodate the building.
I have great respect for this building. It is an elegant, impeccably detailed enhancement to a splendid university campus. It fits into the context of the existing building and the larger campus gracefully, but without being cloying or invisible. It has a real presence; it is certainly not egocentric or just about itself. It acknowledges beautifully both the world around it and within it.
I am delighted that the people at Michigan State understood that what they were doing was creating a provocative event that artists could play off of and respond to. They got the right architect for that task.
I am also glad the people at University of Michigan comprehended the value of their campus context and their distinguished art collection and got an architect who would respect that and make a strong building that had the confidence to support a larger and longstanding enterprise. They got the right architect for that as well.
I have been on a number of architect selection committees where the institutions did not understand the importance of finding an architect whose work would be sympathetic to their organization’s mission and values. It is not just important to get good architecture, but it is also important to get the right architect.
I often get as much pleasure and satisfaction from seeing the extraordinary successes of former students as I do from my own endeavors. I was reminded of this a couple weekends ago while attending the National Advisory Council meeting at Cranbrook. Reed Kroloff has been the director there for the last seven years, was previously dean of architecture at Tulane University and prior to that, editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine. I’ve watched his career with great interest and satisfaction.
Reed was a very promising student when I first met him as he was entering graduate school at University of Texas at Austin. He was a freshly minted Yale undergrad who had always been super-successful at whatever he did, but he was struggling a bit. At one point, he considered dropping out of architecture school entirely, but I advised him to stay and encouraged him to consider the many different roles one can play within the architectural profession.
Reed was incredibly perceptive, wrote and spoke beautifully, and he could think and understand architecture better than any student I had ever come across. Because he wasn’t thrilled with studio work, he was frustrated and thought maybe he didn’t fit. I wanted Reed to see himself as a thought leader because he was and still is.
At the time I was editing an issue of the journal, Center, a publication of the Center for Architecture and Design, and Reed wrote a piece for it on high-rise regionalism. It was brilliant. Happy to say, Reed stayed and was my teaching assistant for many semesters.
After leaving UT, Reed started teaching at Arizona State and found a niche for himself. He taught a big lecture course similar to my own Architecture and Society course and opened it to non-major students as well. He started writing about architecture for the Arizona Republic. From Arizona State, Reed moved to Washington DC and became an associate editor at Architecture magazine, then moved to New York and became editor, then on to Tulane and Cranbrook.
Reed hit the ground running when he arrived at Cranbrook (much as he had at Tulane before that). His incredible energy and ambition is a positive, forceful quality that radiates to others working around him. When Reed got there, Cranbrook looked a bit run down and dowdy. Initially, he hired two new artists-in-residence as faculty which significantly energized things. Soon, they completely renovated the famous Eliel Saarinen museum building and added a new wing with storage and curatorial spaces. They embarked on an ambitious exhibitions agenda and stepped up their education and community outreach programs.
Reed also started the National Advisory Council (NAC), giving Cranbrook more reach nationally and a core of people to invest with them. Today, the school is worlds ahead of where it was before. Their communications program has been ramped up, both with alumni and the broader world, and now two new websites are about to be launched. The place has made a quantum jump. Reed would credit this to everyone around him, but we all know it wouldn’t have happened without him. At the weekend gathering, members of the NAC passed the hat to establish an endowment in Reed’s name. He was completely surprised and blushed at its announcement.
I’ve taken this opportunity to reflect on the great success of one former student. But I have to say that in my years of teaching, I can think easily of another 15 or 20 who have also made a very big mark with their careers. It’s incredibly satisfying to witness that. There are also hundreds of others about whom I’m tremendously proud for what they have done.
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.
As an architecture and engineering firm, how do you step up your game periodically? In the life of a practice, it’s important to take a snapshot and reflect upon various considerations, and that’s what we’ve done in creating the new Page whose name and logo were revealed December 16. It’s been a process of renewal, of rethinking our ambitions, our identity, direction, and values to communicate who we are and how we want to take this 116-year old firm into the future. For this blog posting, I wanted to write a recap the experience:
In early 2013, we started our re-branding process which itself was the result of a graphics refresh undertaken earlier with Herman Dyal in 2012. In that effort, Herman, who is also a good friend, came up with some great ideas and we recognized a need to do something more ambitious and fundamental. We studied a number of different firms both within and outside architecture, but there wasn’t any single firm or even small group of firms that stood out for us. We drew bits of inspiration from many different sources.
We are redefining the culture of our company by making it a much flatter organization with broader ownership and more empowerment and responsibility for a larger number of people. The ultimate goal is to encourage entrepreneurial spirit among our people and increase collaboration among our various offices.
To maximize the message, we are working through conventional media/communication outlets, as well as concentrating a lot of attention on social media. The new website, pagethink.com, is very strongly focused on our people—who they are, what they do, what they think, what expertise they have, etc. We are making a strong effort to get leaders and experts in the firm to blog and tweet and post regularly so that there is a constant refreshing of that grassroots description.
Since its founding as C.H. Page in 1898, we have rebranded ourselves many times through the years and have even used a whole family of names including: Page Brothers, Page, Southerland and Page, PSP and most recently, PageSoutherlandPage. Now, we consider Page the next and natural stage of our growth and evolution. The newest statement of our brand makes it clear that we focus on “design that makes lives better”. It is a sincere expression of values we have held for some time, but have not declared as explicitly as we are doing now.
Ultimately, the self-evaluation process keeps us focused on values and priorities and enables us to communicate to clients, potential clients and others what we, at Page, stand for in architecture and what we have to offer.
I was in Italy recently, visiting one of my favorite cities, Volterra, in Tuscany. I can’t go to Italy without admiring how art and architecture speak to each other there and often integrate beautifully. This is constantly evident in Volterra where the two have a potent and historic dialog. One particular example is the Duomo, a Romanesque church completed in 1120. The architecture is solid, spare, and enduring. Inside is a colorful, ornate ceiling (part of a modification done in the 1500s) as well as niches with sculptures depicting various religious figures.
Each element of the building–what the architect designed, and what the artists created–has its own distinct role and function. The two cooperate but are different from each other. By contrast, much of what is hailed today as “a work of art” in architecture (and called such by architects) seems to me neither great art nor as good as it might be as architecture.
Lou Kahn once famously said, “an artist can make a cart with square wheels, but an architect can’t.” I like Kahn’s clear understanding about the difference between the two fields. I have great respect for artists and enjoy working with them, but I have no desire to be an artist. I love being an architect—a field that seems to me a distinctly different enterprise—for me, both more complex and more consequential than art.
The Torcasso house in New Mexico, which I discussed in another blog, has several elements in it that were done in collaboration with sculptor, Margo Sawyer. I had worked with Margo on two earlier projects–the Austin Convention Center and Discovery Green in Houston. In Austin, Margo’s huge wall piece has HVAC registers incorporated into it, blurring the boundary between building and artwork, but her sensibilities as an artist remained distinctly different from ours as architects throughout the process. I think the work is made stronger by the dual perspectives. The same is true at Discovery Green where the huge art volumes are also the exit from the underground parking garage. Building and art merge amiably, but the piece would not be as good if done just by an artist or just by an architect.
In the New Mexico house the pieces we did in collaboration with Margo divide living area from dining area and dining area from kitchen. They incorporate functional elements like the fireplace and lots of cabinets for storage. The art and architecture are thoroughly integrated and have a wonderful dialog with each other. But, again, I think two distinctly different mind-sets made this project better. We each knew our boundaries and where one’s profession stopped and the other started.