All posts in Southwest

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Bring Out the Caterpillars

National Butterfly Center prepares to fight for survival as border wall construction begins
As the budget battle in Washington D.C. threatens to shut down the government over border wall funding (again), bulldozers in southern Texas may soon raze swaths of the National Butterfly Center as the already-funded portions of wall prepare to rise. The Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2017 after surveyors appeared in the Butterfly Center, a 100-acre nature preserve that’s home to rare butterflies, plants, and endangered birds, and workers began clearing land in July of last year. The resultant draft feasibility report from the Army Corps of Engineers released in November of last year painted a grim picture of what would happen if the 33 miles of piecemeal border walls in the Rio Grande Valley were built. The 15 proposed walls, most of which would have a 12-foot-tall concrete base topped with 18-foot-tall steel bollards, would cut through homes, cemeteries, churches, state parks, and the National Butterfly Center. The Corps would also clear a “no man’s land” on the southern side of the wall that would extend out 150 feet, and include 120-foot-tall surveillance towers. Lights, underground motion sensors, and access roads would connect to the barren side. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and two other nonprofit groups had sued the federal government over what they claimed were breaches of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and 25 other federal laws. Unfortunately, the Real ID Act allows the federal government to waive federal laws to expedite border construction projects. And on December 3, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of the Department of Homeland Security, allowing construction to proceed. If the wall moves ahead as planned, the National Butterfly Center claims that 70 percent of the preserve will be trapped on the southern side of the divider. The Center fears that the wall’s construction will destroy their visitor revenue as well as the butterflies’ habitat, and has started a GoFundMe campaign to cover their legal fees, operational expenses, and possible demolition expenses in case the wall is built and later needs to be removed. Construction in the National Butterfly Center is expected to begin in February.
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RIDE OR DIE

Waymo’s self-driving taxi service goes live
Self-driving cars are ever inching closer to feasibility, as the Alphabet-owned company Waymo announced the official rollout of its self-driving taxi service today. The launch of Waymo One in Arizona, although only initially available to research testers from Waymo’s research program, is a milestone that critics thought Waymo wouldn’t be able to reach before the end of 2018. This year was a pretty dour period for real-world autonomous vehicle (AV) testing. Uber drew ire and shut down its self-driving car operations in Arizona after a test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street. Federal regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shut down a self-driving school bus program in Florida. And in Chandler, Arizona, just outside of Waymo’s AV testing ground, residents complained that the self-driving cars would regularly stop without warning at a T-shaped intersection and require that the human safety drivers take control. Waymo is starting small with a pool of invite-only riders, but the launch today fulfills a pledge the company had made to get its fleet of AVs on the road before the end of the year. Customers can hail an autonomous vehicle in the Metro Phoenix area through the Waymo ridesharing app in the cities of Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa. Each car will be decked out with touchscreens, where passengers can connect with a Waymo rider support agent to have questions about their trip answered. In-car chaperones will be present during the first phase of Waymo One’s rollout, but moving forward, the company wants to graduate to fully-driverless rides. The early rider program will continue, and test riders will have early access to features that Waymo wants to include in their taxi service. The company is hoping to use the feedback from its Phoenix-area riders to eventually expand the program to other cities and the general public.
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Hellhole on the Brazos

Texas judge halts school construction after 95 bodies unearthed on site
Last week, Texas judge James Shoemake ordered the Fort Bend Independent School District to halt construction after the remains of 95 black prisoners were unearthed on a property it was building on. The site, once known as the “Hellhole on the Brazos,” was the former Imperial State Prison Farm, the infamous home of numerous prison camps and sugar cane plantations where slaves lived and worked in hellish conditions before their subsequent deaths. The property is located in Sugar Land, now one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing cities in Texas just southwest of Houston, but which once served as a graveyard for slaves. It was there, after the district broke ground for a new school, where archaeologists exhumed a massive, 19th-century graveyard of nearly 100 bodies that had been concealed five feet beneath the soil in dilapidated pinewood caskets for decades. According to NBC affiliate KPRC, Judge Shoemake ordered the school district to halt construction so that the human remains could be examined and investigated at the site. “This find is very different from any other,” Judge Shoemake said in an interview with KPRC. “We have a history that’s different. I want some more effort. This is important stuff. Families and communities are affected by this. You came here for permission [to build]; I’m not going to give you permission.” Sugar Land has a unique and shocking history. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the town, located along the Brazos River, served as the epicenter of the country's sugar industry. The convict-lease system flourished throughout the region, targeting former slaves who were leased by the state to private businesses and forced to work in coal mines, plantations, railroads, and state projects. According to The Washington Post, the black “convicts” were imprisoned into the system for offenses as minor as homelessness, flirting with white women, or petty theft, yet they were made to work from sunrise to sunset in the fields, occasionally until they “dropped dead in their tracks.” The Fort Bend Independent School District’s construction site encompasses land that was called “Imperial State Farm Prison Camp No. 1.” Conditions were so horrific that prisoners wrote songs about how they would rather die than live another day of beatings, whippings, and slaving under the hot sun. Private contractors did not care about the health and well-being of their workers. According to W. Caleb McDaniel, a history professor at Rice University in Houston, the convict-leasing system experienced tremendously high levels of disease and mortality. If a prisoner died, a contractor would simply demand a replacement prisoner from the state. More than 3,500 prisoners of ages ranging from 14 to 70 years old died between 1866 and 1912 when lawmakers finally outlawed convict leasing out of utter shock at the death rates. This past summer, a team of archaeologists requested permission from the Texas Historical Commission to conduct a more thorough investigation of the human bones salvaged from the cemetery. Their main goal is to perform DNA testing on the remains in order to identify the prisoners. The Fort Bend Independent School District shares this ambition, telling KPRC that “our sole mission is to educate students and we only exist to learn. The more knowledge we have the better. We want DNA testing. We want answers, we want to connect the body with the name, and we want to tell the story of an individual.” As of last week, Judge Shoemake said he hopes to reconsider his decision to halt construction by March 2019.
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Interview With a Housing Vampire

Brad Pitt denies responsibility in Make It Right Foundation lawsuit
After a class action lawsuit against Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation was moved from civil to federal court on November 7, Pitt’s lawyers have submitted a motion asking that Pitt be removed as a defendant in the case. Although the actor founded and directed the New Orleans–based housing nonprofit, his lawyers claim that he had no role in actually designing or constructing the allegedly faulty housing at the center of the lawsuit. Make It Right, founded by Pitt in 2007 to help New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina, is facing a class-action lawsuit for selling what Lower Ninth Ward residents allege were defective, easily-damaged homes. From 2008 through early 2016, Make It Right attracted Pritzker Prize winners and big-name studios such as KieranTimberlake, Adjaye Associates, Thom Mayne of Morphosis, Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban, and more to build experimental, sustainable homes in the hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. A total of $26 million was spent to build 109 affordable homes in the neighborhood, and the project initially appeared to be a success and drew design-minded tourists to the area. The lawsuit, which alleges that Make It Right committed fraud, contract breaches, and engaged in deceptive trade practices, is looking to wring millions in repair fees from the foundation and its former top officials. Make It Right, which sued their principal architect John C. Williams on September 19 in civil court on allegations of providing defective design work, acknowledged that fixing rain-damaged homes could cost up to $20 million. Lawyers representing the class action plaintiffs filed a motion asking that the case be transferred to federal court because three of the former officers live in North Carolina, because the final settlement could top $5 million, and because Make It Right was incorporated in Delaware. As for Brad Pitt’s involvement, his lawyers claim that even if the plaintiffs’ complaints against the foundation have merit, Pitt shouldn’t be included in the lawsuit. While Pitt founded and fundraised for the charity, he claims his involvement didn’t extend to anything approaching the actual design of the buildings. Notably, Pitt is only asking that he be excused from the lawsuit, not that the case not proceed. As Nola noted, this is the first time Pitt has spoken publicly about Make It Right since the 2015 Katrina anniversary.
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From Paris to Colorado

OMA designs sinuous Dior show at the Denver Art Museum
American lovers of both fashion and architecture can get their fix in one hit this winter. OMA has designed an exhibition now open at the Denver Art Museum chronicling the history of French fashion house Dior. From Paris to the World winds a sinuous path through a floor of the angular Daniel Libeskind–designed building, "as a nod to Christian Dior’s obsession for his Granville garden," and the meandering path that runs through it, according to a statement from OMA. The path takes visitors through a timeline of the label's work, and its history with various high profile designers, including Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and its current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri. OMA designed the exhibition to conceptually bridge Dior's clothing with Libeskind's building. The design is built around aluminum surfaces, a reference to the museum's titanium cladding, but the metal in the exhibition comes in curvilinear forms that relate to the flowing couture garments on display. The aluminum begins as a wavy backdrop for the displays that wend through Anschutz Gallery where the metal takes a variety of treatments to match the evolution of the clothing line over time. In the Martin and McCormick Gallery, the metal is used in a series of petal-shaped pedestals that create a valley-like space that displays the fashion house's global inspirations. Dior: From Paris to the World is on display now through March 3 at the Denver Art Museum.
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Mosaic, Mo'Problems

The World’s Fair Grounds in San Antonio gets a playful facelift courtesy of MIG
Some consider the most formative date in San Antonio's history to be the fall of the Alamo, while others believe it’s the day the World’s Fair took over the city for six months in 1968. It was just a dusty city before more than 6.3 million attended the HemisFair ’68. A few of the original structures built for the fair still exist on the 92 acres in the heart of downtown, and many of them were left unused for decades. In 2009, the San Antonio City Council established the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) to revitalize a 37-acre new development, including a 4-acre park designed by MIG. The project’s name, Yanaguana Garden, comes from a folktale told by the Payaya Native Americans of a blue panther that chases a bird through the night sky. A drop that fell from its wings left the blue hole that came to be the source of San Antonio’s river. This fable inspired the mosaic tile benches, panther sculpture, murals, and a blue paved pathway that represents the river, which snakes through the entire site. HPARC’s mission for Yanaguana Garden was to bring both children and adults to the city center. MIG focused on placemaking, designing a public space with courtyards, greenery, artwork, and playscapes. The park features a winding promenade, partly covered by a vine-draped pergola, which leads to the central square with giant checkerboard paving by Pavestone Company. The entire park is illuminated by Lumascape street light fixtures and lined with Victor Stanley benches. MIG also installed an outdoor theater with a dedicated seating area, play equipment by Landscape Structures, and a splash pad water fountain by Vortex Aquatic Structures. In addition to the frolicsome furnishings, the landscape includes mature trees to provide shade. The saplings prevent soil run-off and help maintain proper irrigation year-round. This environmentally sustainable approach will also be applied by the organization to expand and improve the rest of what used to be the HemisFair World’s Fair Grounds. Yanaguana Garden at HemisFair The ’68 World’s Fair Grounds, San Antonio Landscape Architect: MIG Landscape Planting: Bender Wells Clark Design Lighting: Lumascape Playground Equipment: Landscape Structures, Corocord Splash Pad Water Wall: Vortex Aquatic Structures Custom Precast Spheres: Quickcrete Products Corp. Benches: Victor Stanley Paving: Pavestone Company Mosaic Glass Artist: Oscar Alvarado
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Lizard Lounge

Arkansas to get a 28,000 square-foot “reptile garden”
Hot Springs, Arkansas, a town of just 37,000 most famous for its namesake hot springs, is getting an unusual new attraction: a 28,000 square-foot indoor reptile garden. The habitat, the brainchild of local business owner Dennis Magee, will feature a snake house with local non-venomous and venomous snakes, as well as, according to the local Arkansas Democrat Gazette, “examples of the larger and more interesting snakes that are found around the world.” It will also feature all variety of lizards, crocodiles, alligators, and turtles, curated by a herpetologist with the Little Rock Zoo and another from the United Kingdom. It will also have various birds, to be overseen by a retired lawyer and the former president of the Arkansas Falconer’s Club. The expansive indoor zoo, designed by Rico Harris of Harris Architects, will also feature a “Boa Bar,” “Gator Lounge,” and, of course, a gift shop. The date for breaking ground is still unannounced.
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Drawing on Experience

Johnston Marklee completes the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston
The latest addition to the Menil Foundation’s sprawling 30-acre campus in Houston is now complete. The Menil Collection will welcome the opening of the Menil Drawing Institute on November 3, on a Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates-designed landscape that ties the new building to the existing collection’s grounds. Johnston Marklee’s $40 million Drawing Institute is opening a year later than originally expected due to construction delays. The low-slung, 30,000-square-foot building might appear simple—a single-story collection of rectangular volumes and three open-air square courtyards—but the highly-specific technical details contributed in part to the postponement. On a recent tour of the building by the Houston Chronicle, the extremely-thin metal roof, precisely-angled ceilings, all-custom furniture, and vertically-veined marble in the bathrooms were singled out as examples of Johnston Marklee’s attention to detail (and the lengthened schedule) paying off. The Drawing Institute is the first freestanding space specifically built to study, conserve, and display contemporary and modern drawings, and is the Collection’s first new building in 20 years. The Institute’s 3,000 square feet of gallery spaces will be inaugurated with a 50-year retrospective of Jasper Johns’s work titled The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns. The Condition of Being Here will be on display until January 29, 2019, and like the other four buildings in the Menil Collection, admission to the Drawing Institute will be free. In the construction photos released today, completed pieces of the painted-steel roof, only 4.5 inches thick at the courtyard canopies, can be seen being swung into place. The roofs of the three courtyards open in the middle, exposing each landscaped area to the sky and providing a controlled moment of respite for visitors. The inward slant of the canopies redirects water into the courtyard, where it can be sequestered in the same way as in a bioswale. Resiliency and structural flood prevention were also given a high priority in the new building, especially relevant given the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the city last year. A below-ground art vault was installed to protect the Institution’s archives from water damage, and it includes a waterproof drainage layer sandwiched by two 12-inch-thick concrete walls, as well as floodgates at the vault’s entrance. A concrete curb was also installed at the ground-level slab to protect against flooding in the first-floor galleries. Interested in exploring Houston’s art scene even further? After a tour of what the Menil Collection has to offer, visitors can check out the recently completed Transart building across the street.
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Children are the Future

Snøhetta selected to design El Paso Children’s Museum
The El Paso Children's Museum announced yesterday that Snøhetta will design their brand new home in the heart of the city's Downtown Arts District. The firm beat out Koning Eizenberg Architecture and TEN Arquitectos for the honor, after a selection process that included public meetings, presentations, and the preparation of preliminary concepts for the museum. Snøhetta’s winning proposal lifts the museum off the ground on a series of angled columns, preserving the space underneath for interactive gardens. Designed for the young and the young-at-heart, the museum will inspire curiosity, exploration, and a better understanding of the world around us—something everybody could use a little more of these days—through immersive environments and innovative interactive exhibitions. The coalition of jurors who unanimously selected Snøhetta included the museum's board of directors, an architectural panel, and in, an unusually democratic process for an architecture competition, all the residents of El Paso, who were invited to vote on their favorite concept online. The commission is personal for the firm's partner and managing director Elaine Molinar, a native of El Paso. "The opportunity to create something of lasting impact for the city I grew up in is extremely rewarding," said Molinar. Supported through a combination of public funds, private-sector contributions, and a Quality of Life Bond program approved by El Paso voters in 2012, the $60 million project will be completed in 2021.
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Neon, Y'All

Goodnight Charlie’s is a contemporary honky-tonk with Texas roots
“We didn’t want a Disney World experience at Goodnight Charlie’s, so we pared back,” said Gin Braverman, principal of Houston-based Gin Design Group (GDG), about the city’s Montrose neighborhood’s newest (and only) honky-tonk. “We didn’t want it to feel contrived.” In order to flesh out project architects Content Architecture’s contemporary structure for a musical lineup that ranges from twang to tonk, GDG began with Goodnight Charlie’s good bones and dressed them with simple, vernacular elements. The rectangular structure’s cedar-clad exterior is complemented by interiors of warm, accessible materials that would be at home in Texas’s barns and farmhouses. Rough cedar and plywood dominate the interior, materials evocative of the simple, collaborative approach a community might take in a barn raising—and the cooperative process that came easy for the interior designer and Content, whose practices share a building. Galvanized aluminum paneling wraps an angled wall behind the bar and around the door to the kitchen—a utilitarian choice that ends brilliantly, as the aluminum picks up and diffuses the multiple light sources in the room, including a lattice of raw lightbulbs, the fresh neon signs of the bar logo, and a cheeky crescent moon behind the stage. Bar storage is achieved with rolltop doors set within a steel structure, where a rotating narrative of bottles and ephemera is allowed to build naturally, a scheme Gin Design Group put considerable intent behind. “It was important that nothing appeared staged,” Braverman added, “so the finishes and fixtures align with that direction.” Nested tables with benches in hardwood provide a flexible gathering space within the performance area, while warm leather high-top chairs in burnt sienna encourage patrons to (figuratively) saddle up to the wide bar top, rendered in concrete and powder-coated metal. Beyond the bar area is a real-life Texas porch that opens out to the neighborhood, complete with swings hung on long steel chains and classic picnic tables. Looking up reveals the structure’s exposed trusses and cedar louvers. The restrooms are more intimate and detailed, with a portrait of Goodnight Charlie’s namesake—Charles Goodnight, the first cattle rancher in the Texas Panhandle—separating genders. Inside there are farmhouse sinks and white tile that has a handmade texture. Wallpaper takes on a Federalist air, the red print featuring the Texas seal, the Alamo, and an eager American eagle above a wave of stars. “The materials are just broad enough,” added Braverman. “They are a nod to Texas in general.”
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You Have Died of Dysentary

Oklahoma exhibit showcases graphics of golden age of passenger travel
Ticket to Ride, the show now up at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, gathers paintings, posters, and graphic works by artists and commercial designers who depicted Western rail companies and the landscape they traversed between the late 1880s and early 1930s, the golden age of passenger travel. Private cars were not widely available, so artists and illustrators relied on the Western rail lines, such as the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe, and other Western lines, for travel. The rail companies also commissioned artists and illustrators for images of Western subjects to decorate their offices and hotels. The exhibition features Hudson River School pioneer Thomas Moran and “Master Painter of the American West” Maynard Dixon, among those who rode the Western railways and enjoyed their patronage. Ticket to Ride Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma 555 Elm Avenue Norman, Oklahoma October 5 through December 30
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Urban Theatricality

Rios Clementi Hale choreographs a new park for Houston
Rios Clementi Hale Studios (RCHS) plans to transform Houston’s Jones Plaza from a sterile concrete jungle into a verdant, multi-functional space for locals and visitors to enjoy. The 1.5-acre design concept called “Urban Choreography” aims to embody the charm and appeal of Houston’s celebrated Theater District. With the growing number of workers, residents, and visitors to the area, there has been an increasing demand for pedestrian and transit-friendly environments with an abundance of green and open space. “Within Downtown, the Theater District and its many venues create a ‘magnetic field’ of culture that generates buzz and catalyzes investment in the surrounding neighborhoods,” RCHS said in a statement. “Jones Plaza, at the epicenter of the Theater District, can provide an inviting green oasis that enhances downtown life and it can flexibly accommodate a wide range of outdoor performances and special events that serve the entire region.” Inspired by the fluid, dramatic, and theatrical movements of the performing arts, the Urban Choreography design concept will connect Jones Plaza to its surrounding environment while creating a unique and artistic space for gathering. The vast plaza is reminiscent of a theatrical stage, where various steps and levels culminate to a plateau of lush green space. The expansive Street Theater, tree-filled Gateway Gardens, and dynamic Spring Stage, characterized by water cascading toward the street, can be found in three corners of the plaza. Each distinct space is connected by a proscenium walk, with multi-functional media towers that allow for various performances, activities, and special events. Meanwhile, a grand staircase and elevator connect the park to an upscale restaurant on Capitol Street. Perhaps the most substantial impact Jones Plaza can have on its surrounding environment is its ability to attract people to the heart of Houston's Theater District. Its presence will only heighten the cultural growth of a region known for its art, creativity, and diversity. RCHS will collaborate with Houston First Corporation, the City of Houston, and Theater District stakeholders on the project.