Seeing Is Believing

Think Like an Architect is a refreshingly personal book. Though it clearly fulfills its intention to “communicate ways to give the necessary care to designing buildings that’s needed to enhance the quality of life for the people who live with them as well as the environment around them,” it is also a warm and intimate story of the life and career of its author. Through his own gimlet-eyed observations, experiences, anecdotes, and storytelling, Hal Box weaves a critical tale about buildings and cities-always with an eye to how we can make them better.

The book is written in the first person as a series of letters to friends and colleagues on various topics. They recount Box’s own trajectory through architecture, beginning with his introduction to building in Miss Klimer’s first-grade class and his own decision at age 15 to become an architect. He fondly recalls his days as a student at the University of Texas studying under Martin Kermacy and Hugo Leipziger-Pearce. He describes the work and ideas of his early heroes and mentors like David Williams, Sam Zisman, Charles Granger, O’Neil Ford, and Harwell Hamilton Harris. He gives a detailed chronology of his own early career as a practicing architect, including a charming account of taking and passing the registration exam and a description of the intense decade he spent establishing an influential young firm in Dallas with James Pratt.

Box also recounts his extraordinary academic career in architecture, including his role in founding the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and his 16 years of deanship at the University of Texas at Austin. He savors his collegiality in the latter role with scholars and designers like Anthony Alofsin, Michael Benedikt, Kevin Alter, and Charles Moore, who have clearly influenced his thinking and perspectives.

But Box is clear about the dire need for more knowledge of architecture, particularly among “amateurs,” if that thrill is to be engaged and if the built environment in our own era is to be substantially improved. And that is the point of the book as well. This is an excellent primer, offering basic lessons about the field of architecture and a key to understanding its importance as well as its seductive allure.

Three of Box’s lessons are particularly poignant. Early in the book, in a chapter called “Dreaming and Seeing,” he suggests “ten ways to explore and understand a building.” For those with little experience in thinking about architecture, this is an essential first lesson. Step by step, the author walks the reader through a building, suggesting ways to really look at architectural forms and spaces. He asks the reader, as a student of architecture, to pay particular attention to construction methods, materials, history, and context-key issues that might not occur to the novice.

A second very cogent lesson comes in the middle of the book in a chapter titled “Making Architecture with an Architect.” In 10 short pages, Box delivers a strikingly comprehensive description of what is involved in being an enlightened architectural client. He covers mundane things like fees, contracts, procedural relationships between owner/architect/contractor, and what is involved in various phases of architectural services. But he also gives sound advice on slippery topics like how to select an architect and how to pace the design process in terms of critical decision making. Coming from the perspective of someone who has had a lot of experience being a client for significant projects as well as being an architect, Box offers a savvy, balanced point of view.

An impressive third lesson comes in the chapter “Making Connections,” at the end of the book. Here, complex issues of city planning and urban design are dealt with clearly and in plain language that will make good sense to almost any reader. Box asks the question, “Can a city, historically laid out to sell real estate as a laissez-faire enterprise, pull itself together into an urban form that facilitates wonderful places to live and work?” He sees this as the fundamental urban design challenge of our era and provides a compelling argument for a very different alternative to the pervasive American sprawl city.

In an often autobiographical style, Hal Box has done a “memory download” of all the collective wisdom he has gained about the field of architecture during a long, productive career. Written without jargon, but with evident enthusiasm and affection for the field, this book is engaging and easy to read. It is almost like sitting around a dinner table in Box’s current home, in San Miguel de Allende, and listening to the ruminations of an architect with extraordinary experience, charm, and passion.