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Building Envelopes: Greater Performance from Fewer Materials

A month or so ago I gave the kick-off talk at the Building Enclosure Council National Symposium, taking a very quick and dirty look at two kinds of history of building enclosures.  I have had a keen interest in building enclosures since I co-chaired the Technology Conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with Andrew Vernooy in 2001, which we titled “Building Skins:  Where Design and Technology Meet”.

One of the first projects I did in my career was an addition to a 19th century stone house in Austin that had 20-inch thick limestone walls.  I really admired that old house with its single-material walls and high thermal mass that actually performed beautifully without insulation or a vapor barrier.

As I have traveled I have admired a very long lineage of single-material walls. Ancient stone or brick walls acted as the structure, thermal barrier, and enclosure as well as interior and exterior finish.  I love the ruins of the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa in central Turkey where massive stone walls constituted virtually all construction—from dwellings and markets to gigantic ramparts.  Another great example is Machu Picchu in Peru, which is made almost entirely of carefully crafted stonework.

Ancient City of Hattusa, Turkey

Ancient City of Hattusa, Turkey

Stone walls, Hattusa

Stone walls, Hattusa

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Centuries later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cass Gilbert designed Battle Hall at UT Austin with very similar construction.  Its walls are just one thickness of stone all the way through, but they have performed very well both aesthetically and thermally for more than a century.  Even when air conditioning was added, Battle Hall’s high thermal mass has helped keep it temperate even during our hot Texas summers.

Battle Hall, UT Austin,  1910

Battle Hall, UT Austin, 1910

Battle Hall interior.  Photo (C) Nathan Sheppard

Battle Hall interior. Photo (C) Nathan Sheppard

There is a second history of walls that conceives of them as layers of various materials, each of which accomplishes a particular function.  Early versions of this can be seen in Roman buildings, like the Pantheon, that have a structural core faced with very different materials for the inside finish and the outside skin.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon interior

The Pantheon interior

Over the last 20-30 years we have become very adept at making walls out of layers with many materials where each material is performing a separate role: one for structure, one for insulation, one for water-proofing, one for vapor barrier, another for interior finish, and another for exterior finish.  We are interested in getting the best performance out of each material with its own specific characteristics.  The coordination of so many materials may not be so great, with different  people doing each installation, often months apart in the building process.   A lot of glitches can happen at the intersection of those various materials, and the result is often not perfect.

Might we get equal or better performance out of fewer materials?  We have experimented with this idea in several projects we have done at Page, learning lessons from older single-material walls.  At the Torcasso residence, located in New Mexico, we used only rammed earth for some of the walls.  They are thick and solid and that single material provides everything needed: structure, vapor barrier, insulation, interior finish and exterior finish.

The Torcasso Residence, New Mexico.  Photo (C) Robert Reck

The Torcasso Residence, New Mexico. Photo (C) Robert Reck

Torcasso Residence interior, New Mexico.  Photo (C) Robert Reck

Torcasso Residence interior, New Mexico. Photo (C) Robert Reck

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In Austin, we designed a small office building for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates.  It features thick, unreinforced concrete walls, which serve as both the structure and the environmental barrier, and we used the walls’ thickness to significant thermal advantage.

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Construction of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Building, Austin.

Construction of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Building, Austin.

I am not a building science nerd, and I certainly continue to be interested in walls made up of layers of materials capped by a rainscreen.  However, it also seems appropriate to explore another longstanding genre of wall construction that optimizes simplicity of construction and high thermal mass.

 

 

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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture
Posted June 12, 2016

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou: Buildings in Parks

Buffalo Bayou, Houston   (c) Slyworks Photography

Buffalo Bayou  Houston (c) Slyworks Photography

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.

Above and below: The Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Austin

Above and below: The Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Austin

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.

Above and below: The Lost Lake pavilion at Buffalo Bayou   Photo (c) G. Lyon Photography

The Lost Lake at Buffalo Bayou Park Photo (c) G. Lyon Photography

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Lost Lake Visitor Center/Event Space at Buffalo Bayou Park Photo (c) G. Lyon Photography

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.

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View from The Water Works Visitor Center at Buffalo Bayou Park (c) Slyworks Photography

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.

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View to downtown Houston from The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park (c) Slyworks Photography

Page - Waterworks Houston 13Mar2016-27

The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park Houston (c) Slyworks Photography

 

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Thinking about Buildings in Landscape, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
Posted March 24, 2016

Architecture is Frozen Music at UT Rio Grande Valley Performing Arts Center

In a March 2014 blog, I discussed the construction and design of the new University of Texas Pan Am Performing Arts Center in the Rio Grande Valley.  Now the building is complete and this spring saw its first concert.  Following a punch list that was accomplished over the summer, the complex has opened full blast this fall.

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There are two things I particularly love about this project.   First, it is very much a campus building.  Houston architect Ken Benson designed the UT Pan Am campus in the 1970s, and it has something of a bizarre history.  Benson grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and was inspired, not only by the local south Texas vernacular (which produced an impressive collection of distinctive brick buildings), but also by Lou Kahn’s brick buildings in the similar hot, humid climates of India and Bangladesh (see images, below).   The fact that I was familiar with and admiring of both the regional vernacular of South Texas and Kahn’s buildings in south Asia may have been one of the reasons we got the job.  From the very start we were inspired by the very unusual context of the UT Pan Am campus.

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In order to re-establish the Arts Complex and bring it up to current performance standards we removed two buildings and restored two others around an existing courtyard.  We also added an entirely new structure that includes a 1,000-seat performing arts auditorium, and four rehearsal halls–one each for band, mariachi jazz, vocal, and orchestra (as illustrated in floor plan, below).

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The new complex feels great on the campus: it creates a prominent and contextual gateway that the campus never had before.   This also gives a particular significance to the arts.  The seminal idea for the complex was to make big masonry volumes  - much like Kahn –  with bold, strong openings.  The openings are here are more lyrical than elsewhere on campus in deference its occupants.

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The second thing I love about the building is the sequence of movement through it.  Both reading the plan and in actual experience, one readily understands the slow transitions – both in terms of space and scale – that develop as you move through the building.  There is an exterior layer of deep, welcoming porch with a broad wood soffit that is beautifully detailed and executed.  Inside it, a second layer of lobby space wraps around the very strong brick volume that marks the performance hall.

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The next layer, inside the brick volume, is full of passages to seats on the upper levels and is lit dramatically from above.  The center of all these donut layers is the hall itself, which is full of warm word and rich color. The acoustics are fantastic.  The entire space is highly tunable and can be altered according to music type.

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Behind the main performance hall, on the campus side, are the rehearsal halls–four solid brick “ducklings” nested up against the big brick volume of the main hall.  UT Pan Am was already well known for its music program.  The new building will allow it to take another leap forward.  The new complex serves not only students and faculty, but also neighboring communities.  It will be the home of the Valley Symphony Orchestra directed by Peter Dabrowski.

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Posted October 1, 2015

Architects: Give Credit Where Credit’s Due

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Posted June 10, 2015

Invisible Resiliency

Recently, I experienced a sort of cosmic convergence of unrelated things happening.   First, an 18-year old undergraduate student came to my office to discuss an essay he’s writing about a building of his choosing that he admires.  He chose the Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW).  Initially, I thought that was a dubious selection, but he explained beautifully what he admired from a lay perspective.

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He was in awe of how the airport gets tens of thousands of people into and out of the facility and deals with their associated needs every day–routing them just where they all want to go, funneling them through security, feeding and entertaining them and connecting them with their air routes.  He also understood the complexity of fueling systems, maintenance, equipping, baggage conveyance, security requirements and other infrastructure needed to support the aircraft end of the operation.

He got it that DFW is not flawless, but he found it quite phenomenal that it managed to handle all it has to deal with: baggage, food, people, planes, trucks, fuel, supplies, power, parking, police… The list goes on.

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Hearing this through the eyes of an 18 year old, I thought, “Of course, DFW is really impressive in terms of what it accomplishes.  Why aren’t we constantly more impressed when building manage these herculean tasks?”

The very next day I was at DFW for an AIA jury to select the Latrobe Prize recipient this year.  The jury convened at the airport because jurors were flying in from all over the country.  We met at the Grand Hyatt, located smack in the middle of Terminal D. You fly in, work, stay and fly out.   This is not my favorite way to travel, but I did not have any say this time.

As it turns out, the topic of this research prize is resiliency.  In response to the post-Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy world, the prize received proposals discussing how to withstand the impacts of climate change, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other calamities.  Having read all the proposals, and having focused intently on resiliency, suddenly a snowstorm hit the airport.  This mini-calamity was certainly not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but it was an unusual weather event in an area that typically doesn’t get much snow.

DFW Airport snow storm

I was pretty blown away by how well DFW handled the challenge.  My flight, like many others, was canceled, and I was seven hours late leaving for Austin.  Many people were stranded overnight.  The airport issued cots, and I noticed all of the food operations seemed perfectly capable of serving the many more meals they were called on to deliver.   All of the myriad issues pertaining to interface with ground transportation also seemed to operate admirably.  I’m watching how civilized this all was, and it struck me: this is invisible resiliency at work.

Maybe we, as architects, have lost perspective on how fundamentally we are constantly called upon to build in resiliency–maybe not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but certainly for an unexpected snowstorm.  It was the combination of the student making me re-examine DFW, the Latrobe Prize making me think about resiliency, and then observing snow at DFW that made it occur to me: this is something that really matters in the way we do architecture every day!

We are constantly called upon to make buildings as bullet-proof as possible—especially some particularly demanding building types like a hospital, an airport, a stadium, or a mission critical facility.  These are building types we frequently deal with in our practice at Page, and their complexity and demanding performance challenges are actually quite exhilarating to deal with as designers and as a delivery team.

Our new addition to Austin Bergstrom Airport is an excellent example.  We are adding a front-door pavilion to the airport (see images, below) where people will come in, go through security, have coffee or lunch and proceed to their gate.  The addition is above a complicated international customs floor as well as the loading dock, which handles all the moving in and out of supplies for the entire airport.  The new addition resolves a complicated puzzle, and it has to do so keeping worst-case scenarios in mind.  Without being so conscious of it, we were working hard to create the kind of invisible resiliency we have come to expect of buildings in the 21st century.

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Posted April 7, 2015

Learning From What We Build

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thinking about Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect, Texas Architecture
Posted March 13, 2015

Low Budget, High Impact: The New TDECU Stadium

As the University of Houston Cougars complete their first season in the new TDECU Stadium, I’m reminded of a Houston Chronicle article on the project a couple of months ago that posed: “How do you take a big pile of concrete and make it look good?”  Good question, and one that is all the more relevant when the budget is extremely low.  The Chronicle went on to conclude the way we did it at TDECU Stadium is a winner.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

The University of Houston (UH) is a lean and mean university.  A lot of its students are from families with modest incomes, and the university offers many strong, but affordable programs.  They have an excellent School of Architecture, with a faculty that is really outstanding.  I recently reviewed a promotion portfolio for Matthew Johnson, a younger faculty member there who worked for both Steven Holl and for Allied Works, and whose firm just won a TxA Design Award this year.  Donna Kacmar is another outstanding faculty member who has just completed a book on the virtues of small houses and was instrumental in the outstanding “Women in Architecture” exhibit currently on display at Houston Center for Architecture.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

 

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

I’m very keen on UH, especially as a place where people of ordinary means can get a very good, education. The efficiency required for this kind of affordability applies in spades to the new football stadium.  The university did not have a lot of money for the building, and from Day One they said we would have to stir up some magic.  They needed us to make a significant building with a very small budget.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Stadiums have a lot of specific, complex requirements, including clear sight lines, concessions that feed hoards of people in short spans of time, TV access that must be flawless, ability to load and unload thousands of people in and out all at once, luxury accommodation for premium seating and suites, team and visitor security, locker rooms for pampered athletes, etc., etc.  Just storing the amount of ice for beverages to serve 40,000 spectators (while keeping it fresh and distributing it all at once) is an astonishing task.  This is one of the coolest things about architecture—dealing with how to make things work.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

In addressing these issues, we worked with a handful of extraordinary sports designers from DLR Group: primarily Greg Garlock in Omaha and Don Barnum and Bob Carlson in Kansas City.  All of them are great to work with, and they essentially eat and live sports.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

In addition to making a fine-tuned sports machine, we had to make the building fit in the campus and into the larger city on a site that is prominently located on Cullen Blvd and is at a gateway to the campus from the new light rail line.

Above all, the stadium had to be a nexus.  This is where tens of thousands of people experience the UH campus in a very intense setting that leaves a strong impression of what this school is.  Kids may grow up with their only exposure to UH being a football game they attended, and their decision about where to go to college may be significantly shaped by that.  I think when they leave this stadium they will come away with a sense of a place that is vibrant, alive, and promising. To quote again from the Chronicle’s article, for University of Houston, “the new TDECU Stadium is a game-changer.”

I am a long-standing advocate of creating outstanding architecture built on a shoestring budget.  Much of the world has to work within tight budgetary constraints, and we need to be able, as architects, to deal with those constraints skillfully and powerfully.

 

 

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Posted December 2, 2014

Constructing the UT Pan American Performing Arts Center

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Texas Architecture
Posted March 24, 2014

What role for architects in planning future cities?

A recent article by Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine took issue with a New York Times-sponsored program called the Energy For Tomorrow Conference.  Betsky was specifically concerned that the Times had not included any “urbanists, planners, or even an architect” but did include “leading urban expert Jeremy Irons.” He queried, “What are architects when we’re thinking about the future of the designed environment… chopped liver?”  Betsky suggested several prominent architects would have been an appropriate addition, including OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among others.  While I agree we should expect some architects and urbanists at such a conference, I question some of Betsky’s suggestions.  Are the starchitects he mentioned really contributing to energy efficient, sustainable cities?

Early in his career, Rem Koolhaas of OMA advocated for density and intense urban vitality, but then seems to have decided object buildings were the thing.  He has done projects that seem remarkably anti-urban and marked his career with buildings that don’t make great cities.  The gargantuan CCTV tower in Beijing is a prime example.  That building required demolishing an entire neighborhood in order to install a prominent object.  The streetscape and pedestrian quality suffer in order to create a geometric, one-liner statement that has a crushing scale at ground level. Do snazzy object building with poor pedestrian environments around them really make a sustainable city?

The CCTV complex in Beijing

Above: The CCTV complex in Beijing

I have written before about the problems of the accumulated object buildings by starchitects in the Dallas Arts District that fail to create a good urban environment.  OMA was involved there as well with the Wyly Theatre where both the main entry and lobby (the most lively parts that might enrich an urban neighborhood) are submerged a level below the street, but easily accessed via underground parking.  Creating an auto-centric building in a downtown environment – one that is desperately trying to make real headway toward mass transit and pedestrian-friendly movement – hardly seems the sort of decision one would want to hear about in a conference dedicated to energy savings and sustainable cities.

Above and below: The Wyly Theatre in Dallas

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Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times recently slammed the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in the same Dallas district, calling it “bullhorn urbanism.”  That’s what we, as architects, have become known for: big, loud, sexy object that are more about themselves than about making a city.

The Perrot Museum in Dallas

Above: The Perrot Museum in Dallas

Look at Dubai and dozens of huge cities across China which have received huge press in architectural circles. They are what we have touted as great successes, but they are not sustainable urban environments.  If that’s the best we can do, then we don’t deserve to be at the tables of forward-thinking conferences.

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Above: The Dubai skyline

To Betsky’s credit, he observes a little later in his piece, “Perhaps they are right.  The one bit of designed infrastructure going in up in New York right now, the Calatrava station at ground zero, is a farce…” I wonder if this is the reason they’ve left architects out of the discussion.  We have got to start talking about real issues that are important to a larger society and not just about glitzy structures.  We need architects and planners to speak up on this topic – and loudly.  We need our media to be focused on real, relevant issues the larger culture cares about.  Then we will be invited to the table when those important matters are being discussed about the future of our cities.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
Posted June 11, 2013

A timeless house in Dallas by Edward Larrabee Barnes

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.

Barnes 1

Barens 4

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.

Barnes 2

Barnes 3

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.

Barnes 5

Barnes 6

 

 

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Thinking about Buildings in Landscape, Cultural Identity, Texas Architecture
Posted April 3, 2013