That Honest Texas Architecture

I was on the most recent Texas Society of Architects Design Awards jury with Andrea Leers (Boston), Marlon Blackwell (Fayetteville, Arkansas), and Mark Reddington (Seattle), and like my experience on other out-of-state juries, I was able to step outside of our Boston bubble and get some perspective on the architectural priorities in another region.

The first thing you should know about Texas is that the honest expression of stone, wood, steel, and glass is king and most typically deployed in large houses on wooded suburban lots, the Hill Country west of Austin, or on “ranches” (think oil and not cows). The work is so persistent – and good – that it dominated the middle rounds of our jury deliberations. Reactions veered from admiration for the crisp tectonic resolution (with many components and details that would not work in the Northeast) to guilt that we were fawning over houses for the one percent. But after our crash course in the Contempo-Texas House Style, we became more discerning and ended up giving just four of the sixteen awards to houses that would equally be at home in Architectural Digest if a stylist came in and made the houses more homey.


Impressively, two of the winners were designed by Lake/Flato Architects, the standard bearers of the style and the firm that pumps out new practices that know how to do this stuff, at least according to the Texas design scene experts that “observed” our deliberations.

As a result of our discussions, we picked two houses that perhaps self-consciously aimed for a language and focus outside of the Texas tectonic mainstream. The first was by Vincent Synder, someone who I later met at a University of Texas post-review party (I swear, I didn’t tell him that we had very recently given him an award). His house eschewed the high end Mies/Scarpa/Kahn details for a more humble and conceptually interesting stud wall language that both made the house more barn-like and referenced early Frank Gehry (where Vince, it turns out, once worked).


The other outsider house was designed by Karen Lantz of Lantz Full Circle. As I wrote in a snappy synopsis of our comments: “An intensely personal architectural collage that self-consciously includes both off-the-shelf and highly customized elements. Surprisingly, the sheer density of architectural moves hold together because of the sensibility of the architect and the high level of craft throughout.” It’s worth looking at the goofy video tour of the house to get the full flavor.

JT 9





I don’t know what’s in the drinking water in Chile, but several important and talented architects are designing pavilions and buildings that serve as a useful critique of the dominant sensibility of progressive North American architects. From the mannered digital explorations of Scott Cohen to the episodic work of the Patkaus, architects in the US and Canada have championed highly complex spaces and expression that derive much of their energy from the geometries and “forces” of a specific site.

Within the context of this almost-unquestioned fidgetiness, I found myself on the final review of a studio at the University of Texas taught by Sofia Ellrichshausen and Santiago Pezo of Pezo Von Ellrichshausen from Santiago, Chile. The class, unusual because of how carefully the design steps were scripted, started with students making matching spatial models of the churches in Rome. “These series of architectonic devices will be totally alienated from their content to be reconstructed as individual and autonomous formal structures.”


Once the students “knew” their church, they were then asked to push and pull its spatial components to provoke fresh ways to think about their prototype. “Each student will develop a personal transformation of a selected relevant case of the previous inventory. In order to enhance the singularity of the former figure, this unique case will be reproduced as a series of variations in the proportions of its members.”

Thus loosened up, students next applied a personalized and quasi-spiritual narrative to their proto-buildings and sited their projects on small uninhabited islands off of Chiloe Island in Chile. The proposals were required to be constructed of wood using indigenous technology (used to construct local versions of Roman Catholic churches on Chiloe Island), thus adding a measure of reality to stories that had more than a whiff of magical realism.


The whole point of the design methodology, it seemed, was to get the students to design their projects through an idealized and typological lens, rather than to seek an approach through a more conventional site analysis (or a programmatic analysis, for that matter). As a result, the resulting projects were equal parts Aldo Rossi, Louis Kahn, and Massimo Scolari. I was reminded of Scolari both because of the archaic/spiritual narrative and the watercolor renderings that each student was required to produce.

While the projects were a little bit too untransformed for my taste, given the promise of the process, the studio shed some important light on the work of Pezo Von Ellrichshausen, one of Utile’s favorite firms.

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Poli House, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen



The Haunted Horse Head and the Weathered Octopus

Allusive figuration is one of my pet theoretical issues, most recently played out in our design of the Boston Harbor Island Pavilion. The underlying principle is that ANY work of architecture that is inherently shapely (i.e. non-orthogonal) invites interpretation. The curved roofs of the pavilion were identified as two seagulls in flight, the carcass of a whale, and the structure of a boat during different stages of the public process. We worked hard not to accidentally back into a form that too literally referenced any one thing. Our goal to evade literal associations stands in marked contrast to Santiago Calatrava, who typically strives for a recognizable symbol that can help market the project. Calatrava’s swan in Milwaukee immediately comes to mind.

With this as a background, I was thrilled to run across a mid-career Frank Gehry project at the superb Archeology of the Digital exhibition at Yale. The show, focused on architectural projects that were conceived on the cusp of the digital revolution, highlights projects that anticipated the formal opportunities yielded by digital modeling in advance of the yet-to-be-realized efficiency of the tools. In my opinion, the projects benefited from the struggle between hand-drawn studies and primitive digital modeling. Maybe the shapes look great because they weren’t so easy to make (and thus had to be predetermined in terms of intention and form). The Lewis Residence, planned for a site in Lyndhurst, Ohio and designed by Gehry and his team between 1989 and 1995, is presented alongside Gehry’s more literalizing fish studies. Interestingly, the house includes two elements that fall squarely within my definition of an allusive symbol: a haunted horse head and a badly weathered octopus (my interpretation only). It is fascinating to see how the Gehry team negotiated between their experiments in digital modelling and the hard work of making the forms in paper and wood.



Of coffeeshops, banks and Fritz Zwicky


For months we’ve been waiting with muted anticipation (and frankly, apprehension) for the opening of the 360 Café– a hybrid of Peet’s Coffee and a Capital One 360 bank branch–just down the street , so that when it finally opened yesterday, the normal-ness of it all was almost a letdown.  When I stepped in during lunch break, a few professional-looking people were milling about in a setting not unlike your average neighborhood Starbucks. The only give-away were the employees, neither barista nor bank teller, who welcome you to the future of retail banking with alarming alacrity.

Certainly this is not the first time strange retail program mixes have worked (and even worked well) together; my local hipster bowling alley is attached to a pizza parlor and bar, and has taught me the unexpected delight of inebriated bowling.  But this is different: it’s a high-dollar collaboration between corporate behemoths, and in all likelihood an expensively “engineered” experience, born out of the methodology and rhetorics of innovation consultants like IDEO.

The café/bank could have, for example, come out of a “Zwicky Box” exercise, where a product—either a bank branch or a toothbrush—is broken down into  its constituent functions (“hold toothpaste”, “hold money”), purposedly reconstituted in random combinations, and repackaged as “disruptive innovations”.  Methods like these are now part of the standard lexicon of design schools and, by way of its infatuation with design thinking, business schools as well.  And as more and more industries—be it retail or health care—begin to deal with their innovation anxiety, “disruptive innovations”, of the sort embodied by the 360 Café, will only become more common.


Fritz Zwicky, Swiss astronomer, might take some credit for the 360 Cafe.

It’s instructive to think about what all this means for architects and urban designers, whose traditional purview it is to creatively imagine the use of space. Certainly many things will keep going the way they have.  But for a certain class of high-dollar, high-concept building and public realm projects, they will increasingly and somewhat uncomfortably share the job of defining program and user experience with consultants whose sole job is to “cause some trouble” with ideas and not worry about their physical materialization.  The irony is just that this latter group read the same design thinking textbooks in business school, and now justifies its value based on the same notion of creativity, of which we designers have for so long thought of ourselves as the sole custodians.


Coffee Carts and Vacant Storefronts

Pronto Kiosk by Aidlin Darling Design, San Francisco

Don’t get me wrong, this coffee cart is cute and the perfect embodiment of the intersection of DIY Urbanism and Live!Work!Play! development strategies that are popular in high value cities. But how do we reconcile solutions like this with the issues facing cities like Springfield and Lawrence, Massachusetts, where vacant Downtown retail space is a significant economic development and urban design challenge?

Vacant building action plan, City of Lawrence, Utile

One answer might be to borrow the entrepreneurial and life-style focused ethos of the coffee cart to attack the vacant storefronts directly. The key is to persuade often-absentee landlords to provide their ground-level space to business start-ups gratis or at very low cost. But it’s the convincing that will be difficult, since the cost basis of these buildings is low and the relative costs and risks of tenants is relatively high in terms of insurance, security, and increased scrutiny by City code officials.

One solution might be a public policy that helps to pay for the minimum costs of getting potential coffee cart vendors into the buildings for test runs of six months or one year. These costs might include minimal electrical upgrades, new locks on doors, and an insurance policy that indemnifies building owners as much as possible. In addition, this policy would need to clarify that the “leases” are for temporary occupation to avoid the need for costly code upgrades that would paralyze the program. Partnerships with local community colleges and branches of state universities would be key. Start-up ventures could be a central focus of business programs, thus incentivizing storefront experiments on an on-going basis.

If even ten percent of these ventures stick, it will make an enormous difference on the Main Streets where we are doing a lot of our planning.


Boston Bike Update

For anyone who questions the relevance of bicycling in the civic dialogue of this city, check this out!


Last night was the annual Bike Update from Boston Bikes in historic Faneuil Hall and it was a packed house. Pretty cool that this event shared the same stage with the likes of Samuel Adams, Frederick Douglas, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama to name only a few. Keep up the good work Boston!



The Way Directions Should Be Given

I just picked up Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, and wanted to share this passage.  After Chapter 9 provides directions from A to B the way Google Maps would, she goes on in Chapter 10 to give them sensorially. If only routes could be given this way; the way we actually experience and move through the city. Smith writes the following,

“From A to B redux:

Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only—quicker to walk! Escapees from St. Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves smokes. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. It was just not meant to be. Deal or no deal? TV screens in the TV shop. TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price, Leaflets, call abroad 4 less, learn English, eyebrow wax, Falun Gong, have you accepted Jesus as your personal call plan? Everybody loves fried chicken. Everybody. Bank of Iraq, Bank of Egypt, Bank of Libya, Empty cabs on account of the sunshine. Boom-boxes just because. Lone Italian, loafers, lost, looking for Mayfair. A hundred and one ways to take cover: the complete black tent, the facial grid, back of the head, Louis Vuitton-stamped, Gucci-stamped, yellow lace, attached to sunglasses, hardly on at all, striped, candy pink; paired with tracksuits, skin-tight jeans, summer dresses, blouses, vests, gypsy skirts, flares. Bearing no relation to the debates in the papers, in parliament. Everybody loves sandals, Everybody. Birdsong! Lowdown dirty shopping arcade to mansion flats to an Englishman’s home in his castle. Open top, soft-top, drive-by hip hop. Watch the money pile up. Holla! Security lights, security gates, security walls, security trees, Tudor, Modernist, postwar, prewar, stone pineapples, stone lions, stone eagles. Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St, John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. Free meals. English as a second language. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms. Walk down the middle of this, you referee, you! Everybody loves the Grand National. Everybody. Is it really only April? And they’re off!”

How great is that?


Island Neighborhood for the Boston Olympics

More images of the proposal by Yale students Leah Abrams and Mark Peterson for an Olympic Village for the 2024 Games in Boston. Like most of the student teams, Abrams and Peterson proposed a residential neighborhood that would endure after the Olympics (see my earlier post). By creating an island neighborhood, surrounded by canals and centered on a lush public open space, their scheme would be particularly marketable after the athletes move out.


Buildings with Zig-zag Stairs

Funny how one finds relevant precedent. I discovered the fully-rendered example below while looking for examples of the use of color on building facades. The graphic pattern and the architectural language are not my taste, but the project bears an uncanny resemblance to the Portaluppi project in my last post. Importantly, the depiction of the zig-zag stair concept in this rendering is much more accessible and appealing to a lay audience than the proposal from the 1930s below. I don’t think I would have convinced the team and client that it was a good idea by showing them a Fascist Party headquarters building (alone).

Glowing Lantern for ‘Little India’ in Singapore by Robert Greg Shand Architects

Fascist Party Headquarters in Milan by Portaluppi, 1939-40


The New Wood Architecture

I had the pleasure of hearing the newly-crowned Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban speak at MIT last month.  For anyone who missed it, the full lecture, the 8th Goldstein Lecture in Architecture, Engineering and Science, can be viewed here:

Aside from his wit and obvious humility, I was most awed by Ban’s innovations in timber architecture.  Expressed as a sculptured ceiling in his Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Club House, seen below, the timber forms simple arches that are weaved together to create three-story canopied columns.  The undulating structure reminds me a bit of the curved steel forms of our Harbor Islands Pavilion.


Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Club House – Korea, 2010. Photo: Shigeru Ban Architects

And in his Tamedia Office Building in Zurich, Ban uses mega-sized ovoid mortise and tenon joints to create a structural moment frame built entirely out of wood.  A sight to see indeed.  As we continue to push the limits of wood construction, is this the new wood architecture?


Tamedia New Office Building – Zurich, Switzerland, 2013. Photo: Shigeru Ban Architects

– Maressa