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Laying Down the Law
Brantley Hightower

The Courthouses of Central Texas
By Brantley Hightower
University of Texas Press, $45.00

Texas, with its 254 counties, each containing a courthouse, has far more than any other state. (Georgia, with 159 counties is a distant second). San Antonio–based architect Brantley Hightower’s slender book, The Courthouses of Central Texas, which showcases 50 examples, is a succinct tribute to one of the most admired groups of buildings in the state.

In March 1957, Architectural Record published an article, “Lockhart, Texas,” written by the English critic Colin Rowe, then teaching briefly at the University of Texas. It remains today perhaps the single most penetrating critique of the Texas courthouse as a generator of urban form. According to Rowe, while,

The place of origin of the type is presumably a matter of academic interest… it is just possible that its place of culmination is in central Texas… where the brilliance of the atmosphere lifts the most modest architectural statement to a new potential, the idea becomes completely clarified; and for the unprejudiced eye, the eye which is willing to see, a number of small towns do present themselves as very minor triumphs of urbanity… As a form of emotional complement to the interminable terrain, the impact of these four-square, geometrical, concentric little towns is discovered to be one of remarkable intensity. They have, all of them, something of the unqualified decisiveness, the diagrammatic coherence of architectural models…

Hightower seems to have been taken by this concept of the “diagrammatic coherence of architectural models.” His presentation of the courthouses as a united collection of “incongruous architectural artifacts” (18) is scrupulously regular. Selected from the counties surrounding San Antonio, Austin, and Waco, they are presented in chronological order in a neat succession from the first, built in 1970, to the last, built exactly 100 years later in 1970. Each courthouse is given a two-page spread, which includes a single black and white exterior photograph, an elevation drawing of the principle facade, a site plan showing the courthouse and the immediate surrounding blocks, and a short descriptive text giving key dates and names. The drawings are all to the same scale, in the elevations 1 inch equals 18 feet and in the site plans 1 inch equals 222 feet. (The irregular scales are presumably a result of fitting the drawings to the pages of the book.) Although the site plans indicate the main circulation corridors of the publicly accessible ground floors, in the manner of the famous 1748 Nolli Map of Rome, the book contains no interior photographs.

Hightower begins and ends the book with short explanatory chapters. In the first we learn about the main types of courthouse squares that are named after the specific towns in Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that they first appeared. In the Shelbyville square, which is the most common, the courthouse sits in the center of a single block. The Harrisonburg square is shifted over half a block so the courthouse faces a single incoming street. The Lancaster square is shifted in two directions so the courthouse faces four oncoming streets. Finally, the Two-Block square is, as its name indicates, the result of combining two blocks so that the square functions more as a public park. We learn that the reason that most of the courthouses were built in the last three decades of the 19th century was because in 1874 the Texas Legislature passed a law allowing counties to issue bonds to pay for municipal buildings.

In the concluding chapter we learn about the architects, particularly San Antonio architect J. Riely Gordon (1863–1937) who designed some 18 distinguished courthouses in Texas built in the decade between 1890 and 1902 when he relocated his practice first to Dallas and then to New York. (Of these, however, only six were built in counties included in the book.) Gordon’s designs were unique for their sculptural, centralized massing and floor plans typically containing a central square atrium connected by four angled hallways leading to quarter-circular entrance porches. The atrium, which connected to a central, windowed tower acted as a chimney drawing air up and through the building for surprisingly effective summer cooling. We also learn the reason that so many of the old courthouses look oddly fresh and new is a legacy of the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program, initially sponsored by then governor George W. Bush in 1999. Between 1999 and 2014, 180 grants were awarded to 96 counties, resulting in the full restoration of 59 courthouses across the state.

Because Hightower’s book follows several others about Texas courthouses, the question inevitably arises: What justifies this re-presentation? Hightower’s critical engagement of the subject is more implied by his methodology and selections than stated directly. He writes somewhat contradictorily, for example, that “it may seem misguided for a small community to make such a large investment in architectural spectacle.”(141) But isn’t precisely the point of these buildings to be eye-catching landmarks? He continues, “As compelling as the courthouses of central Texas may be, they are products of a time and a culture that no longer exists.” (146) But if they don’t embody repeatable, universal design values able to transcend their original context then why should an architect working today bother studying them?

As an author, he seems to have been most interested in the documentation, which visually is extremely satisfying and noteworthy in its refinement. However, to what larger end is this series of elegant drawings? Although he advocates for architecturally defined, human-scaled public urban space, it is not clear how this is to be achieved based on his portfolio of courthouses. As a contrast, when architect Clovis Heimsath wrote his manifesto-like book about the vernacular architecture in central Texas, Pioneer Texas Buildings: a Geometry Lesson (1968), he concluded quite strongly:

We can talk about the geometry of these early Texas buildings and that is their glory, but it is the poignancy of the environment they create, set in the Hill Country, that is the “why” of this book… I want these houses to speak out against the sham of current American domestic architecture. The fraud is so appalling, it becomes the aesthetic sin of the age by its very magnitude: that we snug Americans can live in our endless four-square rooms with our endless eight-foot-high ceilings while the outsides say everything stylistically under the sun is a fraud—we want it, so we have it. (153)

Heimsath’s selection of diagrams and photos provided a design methodology for generating new forms created through geometric re-combinations of the base components of the buildings he documented. Hightower as an architect begins a similar process in a series of evocative diagrams where he layers the courthouse elevations over each other to create the shadowy outlines of an ur-courthouse form. However, this exercise only appears on three pages before it is abandoned. It is at points like this, where the author starts to manipulate his carefully gleaned data in intriguing ways, that one wishes he would have continued. What would have made this book—significantly written by an architect instead of an historian—more meaningful is if it presented a method for synthesizing the architectural and spatial elements of the courthouses and their urban precincts to make new designs that possess the pleasing qualities of the old.

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HUD Secretary Julian Castro to headline IDEAS CITY 2015 in New York City
Julian Castro, the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been announced as the keynote speaker for the third annual IDEAS CITY festival in New York.  IDEAS CITY is a biennial street fair that “explores the future of cities with culture as a driving force.” It will launch its third annual rendition on May 28th–30th on the Bowery. Castro will address this year’s theme of “The Invisible City,” highlighting the parts of the city that go unseen, or the forces that are driving change that are not always easy to map. Castro was appointed Secretary of HUD in July, after gaining notoriety as not only an up-and-coming Democratic mayor of San Antonio, who has been mentioned as a possible Vice Presidential candidate in the 2016 race, but also as a strong advocate and innovator in urban policy with a design slant. From the IDEAS CITY website:

As three-term mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro was known for innovative governance. His “Decade of Downtown” program campaigned for new investments in San Antonio’s city center and older communities and brought in $350 million of private sector money, generating more than 2,400 housing units. In 2010, Castro was enrolled in the World Economic Forum’s list of Young Global Leaders and named by Time magazine as one of its “40 under 40” list of notable leaders in American politics. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, he became the first Latino to deliver a keynote. Castro took office as the sixteenth Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on July 28, 2014.

This year’s festival promises to be an energetic follow-up to the previous years under the direction of Joseph Grima, who has been involved in no less than three Biennials in the last year, including Chicago’s Architecture Biennial and Biennale Interieur in Belgium. IDEAS CITY is also a partnership of The New Museum (Founder), The Architectural League of New York, Bowery Poetry Club, The Cooper Union, Storefront for Art & Architecture, The Drawing Center. Some of the other events that stand out are: —IDEAS CITY Street ProgramInstitute for Public Architecture: Total ResetKurt Andersen, Carmen Yulín Cruz, and others: MAYORAL CONVERSATION: Finding The Invisible CityRhizome: AIRBNB Pavilion: Stay With MeKim Stanley Robinson, Bjarke Ingels: Make No Little Plans: A CONVERSATION IN TWO PARTS:Part 1. Toward A Plausible UtopiaMunicipal Art Society, Architizer: Pitching the CityManny Cantor Center, Laura Nova: Moving Stories
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This enchanting bar in Toronto features mahogany-sculpted interiors inspired by tattoos and muscle
Sinewy muscle, tree stump joints, and Spanish art nouveau formed the inspiration for the enchanting new Bar Raval in Toronto, whose classy, tree house-like interior is awash with the gleam of sculpted mahogany. The wood has been shaped into voluminous curves and bulges patterned with sinewy lines all generated by computer code, and then oiled to a lustrous finish. Nestled in the heart of the city’s Little Italy, the watering hole is designed to rival the art nouveau histories of Barcelona’s traditional pinchos bars, where stacked pieces of bread are served on skewers. Cutouts in the curvaceous wood frame delineate shelving and windows, the latter of which are shrouded by metallic lingerie to give passersby fleeting glimpses of the interior—perhaps the flicker of candlelight or the swish of a skirt. This air of enigma, Canadian studio Partisans maintains, is a metaphor for the mysteries of Toronto’s culinary and design worlds just waiting to be discovered. Overhead, a terraced protrusion bearing liquor bottles evokes the stump of an ancient hardwood tree, giving the impression that the bar is sunken beneath the ground and adding to the cosy, somewhat secretive atmosphere. Accordingly, the bar is named after El Raval, a once seedy district in Barcelona. The watering hole belongs to Grant Van Grameren and business partner Mike Webster, one of the world’s most celebrated mixologists and masters of Spanish cuisine, art and culture. While brainstorming on the drawing board the team at the Canadian design studio clipped images of tattoos, muscles, and 19th-century building facades, all of which became integrated into the finished product. “The design developed out of a connection between the formal histories of art nouveau, the plethora of cured slabs of meat, and the anatomy of the chefs themselves: a tattooed, muscle-bound group of intellectuals,” Partisans told DesignBoom. “Our design is a three-dimensional tattoo manifest in pure CNC’d mahogany.”
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Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
Mark Manjavar

Strangely out of place, yet harmoniously so, the recently completed Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in San Antonio is the best work of architecture in the city in decades. Its closest rival, literally, would be the Central Library designed by Ricardo Legorreta in the 1990s a few city blocks away. It is a shame it has taken nearly 20 years for San Antonio to once again embolden itself with vision and purpose for its citizens.

Looking at the Tobin one is first struck by the marked contrasts of the building itself. On the one hand there is the historic Spanish Mission facade of the Municipal Auditorium. And then there is the angular, asymmetric glistening folded metal screen that veils the addition, which comes alive at night with a dynamic lighting display. The project houses three performance spaces, the largest of which accommodates 1,768 people with no seat further than 150 feet from the stage. Its construction tells a tale of the changing times in architecture, where technology and craft are once again at the forefront. That is the tie binding the historic facade to its contemporary partner.

The architects preserved the historic Spanish Mission Facade of the Municipal Auditorium, while cladding the new building elements in perforated metal panels with integrated LED lighting.

Designed by Seattle-based LMN Architects with local firm Marmon Mok Architecture as associate architect, the Tobin has many advanced elements that set the building apart. First and foremost is the dynamically lit metal skin that wraps the proscenium. It is a complex arrangement of folded and perforated panels, realized parametrically, that screens the building’s stepped, windowless masses with a modulating pattern of 18,000 panels, 1,300 of which are unique. Forming distinct yet-interrelated volumes around the building, the veil interlocks around a triangular support beam cantilevered from the panelized weather tight primary building skin. The panels form a continuous band woven both vertically and horizontally creating a seesaw effect that allows for light to reflect in different directions. Designed with eight different panel types sized to match the existing building’s limestone blocks. The result is a facade that has dimensional qualities and a richness of lighting effects both during the day and at night.

Facade Consultant
Lighting Design
Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design
Metal Plate Wall Panels
Seating Riser System
Gala Systems

Inside the main performance hall, a pneumatic flooring system allows for the complete transformation of the stepped auditorium seating into a flat floor within 23 minutes. The sheer mechanical acrobatics that the system undergoes is mesmerizing to watch. Banquets and symphonic concerts can be pared on a single day, which opens up the possibility of endless uses and unique experiences within the main hall.


One of the more noticeable and aesthetically prominent elements within the building is the integrated back-lit balcony fascias. Used to signal intermissions, augment a performance with ambient lighting, or create effects, the LED illumination system with a full spectrum of color was not possible just a few years ago. This may be the single most evidently aesthetic element within the hall, one that remains in the shadows until needed. Aside from being a backdrop to the lighting, they serve as a sophisticated dynamic sound baffle system. Perforated with a vegetal pattern that repeats, the fascias absorb sound and displace it throughout the large vertical volume. Together with adjustable panels located behind the seating, they can either be programmed to control reverberation for amplified music performances, or to increase reverberation for acoustical performances.

The Tobin Center showcases a development process that stems from a larger effort within the City of San Antonio. The client’s vision with clever financing made possible by the city is working to catalyze a metropolis that prides itself on its tradition of art and culture. The project successfully blends a historically important building into the present with its juxtaposition of old and new architectural elements, as well as functional and aesthetic building systems. This combination of pragmatism and aesthetic intent should serve the creative community as a model for future projects in the city.

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These competition-winning bus shelters in Austin will harvest rainwater for a pocket park
It’s a matter of time before the canine-abused fire hydrant is outfitted with its own sound system—like this park bench. Two designers are retooling a high-traffic bus stop in Austin, Texas, to incorporate a pocket park for city dwellers to revisit distant nature. AIA Austin’s "design voice" committee and transportation company Capital Metro have announced designers Sara Partridge and Melissa Robledo as winners of the Bus Stop Shelter Design Competition. Located at 1717 South Pleasant Valley in east Austin, the new stop will shade riders from rain and shine with three structure cisterns in colorful designs inspired by Metro Rail’s Crestview Station, which includes a trail providing pedestrian and bicycle access to the station from the surrounding neighborhoods. Meanwhile, a harvesting system will collect rainwater to irrigate the native and adapted plants in the surrounding landscape, while the enhanced lighting and bicycle racks makes it easy for cyclists to switch from two wheels to four. “The bus stop meets riders’ basic needs by providing shade and shelter from the rain, but we have also designed a space that welcomes riders, cyclists, pedestrians and even the riders in cars passing by,” Partridge said. The concept stems from a new “place-making” approach: the design of community-centered and multifunctional public spaces designed for health and wellbeing – in which the park bench becomes an ogle-worthy social hub for reconnecting with nature. “Austin is rich with arts and culture and we wanted to celebrate our community by creating a unique neighborhood space,” said Dan Dawson, Capital Metro vice president of marketing and communications. “We are excited to begin working with our winning design team, and look forward to picking up riders from this one-of-a-kind stop.” The design competition commenced in September 2014 with a design charrette attended by over 30 designers and architects. Finalists then had four weeks to develop designs and submit their presentations. In the meantime, AIA Austin designvoice and Capital Metro surveyed over 100 riders and community members to gauge transit needs and feedback. Capital Metro will contribute $30,000 to the project, which is the average costs for the construction of a bus shelter, while the design team is responsible for securing additional project funding.
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The Hemisfair Confluence
Courtesy Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

In December, Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) unveiled designs for a new civic park within San Antonio’s 1968 International Exposition grounds, otherwise known as Hemisfair. Inspired by the city’s tradition of public gathering spaces and intimate relationship to its eponymous river, the 16-acre park includes plazas, plantings, and promenades, as well as a meandering water feature. Part of an ongoing redevelopment of the 90-acre Hemisfair site on the edge of downtown, the project integrates six new buildings, totaling over 600,000 square feet of mixed uses, and provides direct connections between San Antonio’s resurgent core, River Walk, and historic neighborhoods like Lavaca and King William.

“We did a lot of research into the history of San Antonio to find out the things that make this place special,” said Kathryn Gustafson, a founding principal of GGN. “What a great city. It’s such a party town. This is a civic park for people who naturally go out all the time.”

Hemisfair Park will create connectivity between San Antonio’s core and adjacent residential neighborhoods. It includes an event lawn and stage, shaded promenade along a meandering water feature, and quiet, contemplative gardens.

In addition to GGN’s research, a program put together by the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC) from community input informed the park’s design. HPARC hired planning consultancy MIG, which conducted four months of public information gathering sessions in order to produce a programming document that was handed over to the landscape architects. “The way that the programming was developed was through public meetings and stakeholder charrettes and surveys,” said Andrés Andujar, CEO of HPARC. “MIG is very organized about how to get this information from the community. We ended up with eight programming sections that included our zocalo (plaza), a promenade, a lawn, an area where we had water and shade, which we are calling The Shallows, and so on. When GGN arrived we were available to provide a consultant-led community developed program for the civic park.”

“Andrés is one of the most professional clients I’ve ever had,” said Gustafson.
“It’s a luxury to have a client that comes prepared with a well-thought-out scope and program.”


GGN’s design is multi-layered, with specified zones for the different uses San Antonians said they wanted from this public space, and a variety of typologies that respond to the city’s diverse cultural and natural history. The plazas and a gently curved event lawn combined can accommodate 12,000 people around a stage for music and other performances. This function can be activated day and night with both local and touring acts to create a consistent draw. For the less extroverted, there are placid gardens grouped near the few historic houses that remain at the fringes of the Hemisfair site, quiet areas where “you can read a book or take your elderly parent for a walk,” said Gustafson.

The water feature emerges from a source fountain in a plaza at the northwest corner of the site and then travels along a tree-shaded promenade in a channel that refers to San Antonio’s historic acequias—the irrigation channels dug for the original Spanish mission that later helped define the grid of the modern city. In the southern half of the site the water gathers in shallow pools inspired by the natural limestone formations that collect water throughout the surrounding Hill Country. The water will be a mix of reclaimed municipal water and processed stormwater gathered on site.

GGN is leading a design team that includes local and national firms. San Antonio–based Alamo Architects is providing architectural and urban design services. Seattle engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates is the sustainability and water management consultant. Construction is expected to begin in 2016 once the west wing of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which currently occupies part of the site, is demolished.

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Kelly Green
Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art

Houston’s Rothko Chapel fuses art and architecture to create a contemplative space that some visitors experience as spiritual. Even the less spiritually inclined describe it as a highly intensified art viewing experience. Now a second artist’s chapel is coming to Texas, designed by another great abstract expressionist, Ellsworth Kelly. Originally designed in 1986 for a private collector, but never realized, the 2,700-square-foot structure will be the first-ever Kelly-designed building. It will be built thanks to the efforts of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin, which will also maintain the space and use it for study.

Blanton Museum director Simone Wicha paired Kelly with San Antonio-based Overland Partners to refine and execute the design. “It was developed conceptually, but not schematically. We have been working with Ellsworth to take the concept model and make it a viable building for a university campus public space, while making sure it remains true to his vision,” Wicha told AN. The Blanton has raised over $7 million to build the project, with a total goal of $15 million including an endowment.

Austin, Ellsworth Kelly’s first building, is inspired by Romanesque architecture and includes his first works in glass.

Kelly’s chapel features a cruciform plan, each arm of which terminates with a colored glass installation that will bring multi-hued light into the stone interior. One installation features square windows, each of which is a single color, arranged in a grid. Another includes slit like openings arranged in a circular formation. A third has square colored windows positioned as diamonds arranged in a circle. Facing the entry, a niche will contain a totem sculpture.

Kelly, born in 1923, is known as one of the major American abstract artists working across painting, printmaking, and sculpture. His work spans Minimalism, Color Field painting, and pure abstraction without being bounded by any one movement. The chapel, however, evokes the six years Kelly spent in France in the late 1940s to the mid 50s, before he rose to international prominence. The artist was particularly taken with Romanesque architecture, which is clearly reflected in the chapel’s barrel vaults. In addition to being his first building, this will also be the first time Kelly, now 92, has worked in glass. The Franz Mayer studio of Munich, Germany, will fabricate the glass. Kelly and the design team will use a combination of two layers of glass to create the perfect color.

Though the granite-clad chapel was conceived for a location in California, Kelly rechristened the project Austin in recognition of the particular qualities of Texas light, which will change the experience of the space.

Though Austin is entirely Kelly’s design, Overland Partners is bringing essential expertise to the project. “In order to add insulation and create a cavity in the wall, the walls had to become thicker, so the building also became taller. We’ve worked closely with Ellsworth to translate his design intent,” said Rick Archer, a principal at Overland Partners. “One of the challenges of working with artists is learning to remove yourself completely from the design. This is Ellsworth’s piece.”

According to Wicha, the museum hopes to break ground on the project soon, and expects it to be completed in about a year.

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Brantley Hightower
Five years ago Cotulla had two hotels. Today it has closer to 30 with more under construction.
Brantley Hightower

In May of last year, The Architect’s Newspaper ran an essay about how the ongoing oil boom in Texas was impacting the built landscape. Since then the cost of a barrel of oil has plunged from a high in July of 2014 of $120 a barrel to less than $50 as of February 2015.

Despite dire predictions that such a price drop would shut down production in plays such as the Eagle Ford in south Texas, that has not come to pass. The boom is still alive and well.

To better understand what this means for the architecture of the region, the town of Cotulla is worth closer examination as a case study. Located in the heart of the Eagle Ford play midway between San Antonio and the U.S.-Mexico border, Cotulla was established as a stop on the International-Great Northern Railroad line in 1882. Its economy remained primarily agricultural throughout most of its history and for the majority of the 20th century its population hovered between three and four thousand. Since the 2010 census its population has ballooned as it has been overrun with individuals coming to work the oil fields outside of town. In addition to the RV parks and “man camps” that have sprouted up between the interstate and town, there has been a remarkable boom in the construction of chain hotels.


Five years ago Cotulla had two hotels clustered around the Interstate that runs to the east of town. Today it has closer to 30 with more under construction. They are some of the tallest structures in town and these 2-4 story wood-frame buildings are perhaps the most remarkable change to the built environment of Cotulla. Constructed as quickly and as inexpensively as possible, they exemplify the challenge of building for a boom economy. After the oil has been pumped and the legions of roughnecks leave, most of these hotels will be empty. It is an issue local leaders have already begun to consider.

“Everything that we do has to be with the end goal in mind of being sustainable for the future,” said Larry Dovalina, Cotulla’s City Manager. One use being considered for the surplus hotel rooms is to incorporate them into a free trade zone. Cotulla happens to be located such that truckers driving from the agricultural regions of Mexico can get to Cotulla on a single tank of gas. The hope is that the town could become an inland transfer point for goods entering the U.S.


Today there are really two towns of Cotulla. One is the bustling nexus of semi trucks, oil field workers, and cheap chain hotels along the interstate. The other is the still somewhat sleepy small town about a mile to the east. At first glance, the historic part of Cotulla looks much as it did 80 years ago. The depression-era courthouse still sits upon the hill. The commercial strip along Front Street still faces the old railroad tracks that represent the reason Cotulla came to exist in the first place. What is lacking is any ostentatious example of the wealth that theoretically has come to the area as a result of the oil boom. There is no lavish cultural center or unnecessary monorail. But Cotulla now has things that people elsewhere take for granted. The streets are paved. The schools are better than they have ever been.

This is a reflection of the measured approach community leaders have taken to develop a strategy to allow these two Cotullas to coexist. It remains a challenge to make Cotulla appealing for both a temporary worker who needs a cheap hotel room for the night and a family who wants a place to live in the future.

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Engaging the Environment
Lake Austin House, Austin, Texas.
Hester & Hardaway

Lake | Flato Houses:
Embracing the Landscape

Introduction by Guy Martin; section introductions by Frederick Steiner
University of Texas Press, $45.00

Some may think it strange that one of the most extraordinary and thoughtful design practices engaging the environment anywhere is to be found in central Texas, surrounded not by tall trees and mountains, or next to an ocean, a rainforest, or within an abundance of wildlife. On the contrary, San Antonio has low-lying hills, little water, scrubby brush, and arthritic trees with diverse yet sparse fauna. And yet, that may be exactly why Lake | Flato is the design practice it is.

The new book published by the University of Texas Press, Lake | Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape, looks thoughtfully at that reality by bracketing the firm’s residential oeuvre broadly into six explicitly environmental categories: Bushland, Desert, Hillside, Mountain, City, and Water. Conceptually illustrated with 3 houses each, the categories neatly define the work. Section introductions by Frederick Steiner support the book’s thesis, showing the extent and variety of the firm’s work across the country.

Dunning Residence, Santa Fe, New Mexico (left). Hillside House, Austin, Texas (right).
Timothy Hursley; Aaron Leitz Photography

A preface by Lake | Flato with an accompanying quote by William Turnbull seems unnecessary, as the book’s introduction by Guy Martin thoroughly introduces the firm’s history and work in a conversational tone that better appeals to a reader with an affinity for conversation, good drink, and the effects of a well-designed home knitted into the landscape. However clunky it begins, the book’s subsequent pages open up a broad and refined catalog of projects that vary tremendously, while still maintaining a razor sharp approach that is characteristically Lake | Flato.

In its 30-year history, the firm has exemplified an attitude to architecture that may well live on more natively and completely in our ever complex and stimulated world than many may expect. Seeing the environment and its resources as prized pocessions which must be valued, used but respected as ever depleting, the ethos of Lake | Flato is keenly placed in its time, in a post-post-post industrial world—or maybe a “premodernist” world, as O’Neil Ford would have it.

Brown Residence, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Bill Timmerman

What is most touching in this thick, yet small and intimate book, is that the role of material is so ever-present and deliberate that it jumps out of reach. What a strange thing that is, since we reside in a world ever more plastic and malleable, defined by digital technologies and ideas, verging on the immaterial to the point that farce plays like drama in pulse-taking pop-culture movies like Her. In short, the work is beyond its representation in both word and especially image, wonderfully lush as the pictures are, taken with the greatest care. The reader is certain to begin looking beyond the pages, eyes heading off the image’s border, further into the skies, waters, trees, and through the words on the page to desire the experiences the houses enable.

At the intersection of the environment and material, where Lake | Flato stands deftly, is an elemental aesthetic taking landscape and weaving it with an incredibly simple palette of wood, masonry, steel, and glass. Flipping through the book’s pages it is clear the 30 years of developing, exploring, and producing has yielded a rich body of work that can be easily identified and appreciated. But I am left wanting not only more of the experience, but also more variation. If imagining my experience, the houses do whisper with the wind, but what is also wanted and is needed is the dressing up.

Fashion is sometimes maligned in architecture, however it is what defines a culture, its tastes and soul, like a Mexican rebozo or Comanche headdress. And it is present in Lake | Flato’s work. We get glimpses of it, showing a level of sophistication that results only by mastering technique and developing a specific vocabulary.

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Texas Holl 'Em
Holl's building has a distinctive
Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

On January 15, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), unveiled plans for the redevelopment of its 14-acre campus, which includes new buildings by Steven Holl Architects as well as Lake | Flato Architects of San Antonio. Holl is contributing a unifying master plan, a 164,000-square-foot gallery space for 20th and 21st century art, and a new 80,000-square-foot facility for the Glassell School of Art. Lake | Flato is designing a state-of-the-art conservation center, which is still in the concept phase.

“This is the most important commission of my career,” said Holl at a press luncheon in New York where he presented the plans. “What you see here is the culmination of a 36-month design process.”


The master plan seeks to integrate the new structures with MFAH’s current facilities, which represent nearly a century of building. They include a limestone Greek Revival edifice by Houston architect William Ward Watkin (1924, the oldest art museum in Texas), which is connected to a free-span steel and glass addition by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1958/74), his only museum work in the United States; a sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi (1986); and a Rafael Moneo–designed building for the display of European art (2000). The plan also strives to improve the pedestrian experience across the campus, as well as in Houston’s Museum District neighborhood as a whole, by moving 190,000 square feet of parking into two underground garages, which will make room for a series of new public spaces in addition to the new buildings.


Holl’s design for the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building for 20th and 21st century art is sited on the location of an existing surface parking lot at the northeast edge of the campus, across Bissonnet Street from the Mies and Moneo structures. The building, clad in etched glass tubes that allow in filtered daylight and emit a glow at night, is three stories tall. Seven vertical gardens are cut into the building perimeter with exterior reflecting pools at the ground level. In these vegetation-shaded sanctuaries vision glass takes over from the translucent tubes. Inside, two levels of galleries—54,000 square feet in all—surround a top-lit, three-level rotunda. The upper level is sheltered under a “luminous canopy” roof, which has concave curves inspired by the billowing clouds of the big Texas sky. All of the gallery spaces feature natural light. Holl is working with New York–based lighting design firm L’Observatoire International on the project. In addition to galleries, the building contains a 202-seat theater, restaurant and café, and meeting rooms.


The new structure is clad in glass tubes with inset gardens and reflecting pools, allowing Light to filter into the interior.

The new Glassell School of Art will replace its existing 35-year-old facility, which was designed by Houston architect S.I. Morris, who had a hand in the Astrodome. At 80,000 square feet, the new building has an L-shaped plan wrapping around a public plaza that opens onto the Noguchi sculpture garden. Clad in sandblasted precast concrete panels, it has a green roof that slopes up from the ground, which visitors and students can climb to catch a view over the trees and rooftops of Houston.

The museum also announced that it will select a landscape architect to work with Holl on fleshing out the master plan. Construction will begin later this year and is slated for completion in 2019.

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Landscape & Fabrication
Jeff Goldberg

On December 12, in New York City, seven jurors convened to evaluate and discuss more than 200 projects submitted to AN's second annual Best Of Design Awards.

The jury included Thomas Balsley, of Thomas Balsley Associates; Winka Dubbeldam, of ARCHI-TECTONICS; Kenneth Drucker, of HOK; Chris McVoy, of Steven Holl Architects; Craig Schwitter, of Buro Happold; Annabelle Selldorf, of Selldorf Architects; and Erik Tietz, of Tietz-Baccon.

This year, the jury reviewed projects submitted in nine categories, including Best Facade, Best Landscape, Best Single Family House, Best Multi-Family Residential, Best Residential Interior, Best Non-Residential Interior, Best Fabrication Project, Best Student Built Work, and Building of the Year.

In some categories the jury selected a winner and honorable mentions, in others just winners, and in one, Single Family House, they selected a tie between two winners. Over the coming days we will be posting all of the jury’s selections.

Best Of: Landscape

Clark Art Institute
Williamstown, Massachusetts
Reed Hilderbrand, Tadao Ando, Gensler


“I think it’s an extraordinary example of the possibilities of the integration of architecture and landscape and then nature beyond. The lines have been blurred wherever you go, wherever the eye travels. What is particularly impressive to me is the performative nature of the landscape. It seems to be something that was first and foremost on their minds as they were doing the site planning. It’s quite an impressive piece of landscape architecture.”—Thomas Balsley

Jeff Goldberg; Alex MacLean

The redesign of the Clark Art Institute’s 140-acre campus opened this summer following a 14-year collaboration to bring nature and art closer to everyday life. The design team worked to shape a publicly accessible landscape that unites diverse buildings and more fully situates the institution within the natural and cultural patterns of the Berkshires.

Millicent Harvey; Jeff Goldberg

New roads and two miles of walking trails expand access to underutilized landscape resources. The team reshaped meadows, protected streams, restored woodlands, and rebuilt the campus core, transforming parking lots into a tiered reflecting pool that unifies a new visitor education and exhibition center, the museum, and the research center.

Reflecting the Berkshire landscape beyond and functionally marrying site drainage, groundwater management, and gray water systems, the pools articulate a stewardship agenda that unites the cultural and natural resources of the Clark.

Patrick Winn; Scott Adams; Fernando Ortega

Best Of: Fabrication

The Gourd
San Antonio, Texas
Overland Partners

“It’s not just something to look at. The kids can use it and probably have fun and people looking at it from the outside are going to be intrigued by it. The panelization is intricate enough, but you get the understanding of how it comes together. You’re using the fabrication technique to illustrate the joy of the structure.”—Erik Tietz


Built for the San Antonio Botanical Gardens’ human-sized birdhouse competition, the Gourd offers a playful platform from which to contemplate the complex relationship between humans and the natural world.



Overland Partners chose a shape inspired by the bottle gourd, first used in its hollowed-out form by Native Americans to attract Purple Martins as a nesting spot. The Gourd is built out of 70 plates of 12-gauge Corten steel wrapped around a robin’s egg blue internal octahedron structure, and perforated with more than 1,000 Ball Mason jars. Each steel plate, unique in shape and size, was fabricated using CNC laser cutting and assembled in house by the design team.

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Product> Above the Ordinary: Best Bath Fixtures and Fittings
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