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Ghosts and Galas
Los Angeles #3, 1971.
Anthony Hernandez / Courtesy East of Borneo

Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles
A Project by Allan Sekula
East of Borneo Books, $55

As Los Angeles prepares to welcome yet another big-time architectural gem to Grand Avenue, an uncanny series of events replays itself just as it did twelve years ago, when the Disney Concert Hall was unveiled. Eli Broad’s museum by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro opened this fall. Like the formal exuberance of Gehry’s building, the Broad’s deep and distorted pattern of perforations will surely be replicated in imagery that advertises, tantalizes, and provides a backdrop for partying elites, but it will likely fail to communicate a more compelling backstory. Thankfully, Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles is a timely and welcome unraveling of the cursory attitude with which Los Angeles’ built manifestations are often approached.

In 2003, downtown was not sexy. Gentrification was a far-off dream of “inner city” political boosters, but hopes were high for repopulation thanks to a recent relaxation of zoning ordinances that would allow for residential conversions of office buildings. Richard Florida’s book Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2004) was still one year out, and development-friendly Antonio Villaraigosa had not yet become the city’s first modern Latino mayor. Southern California’s real estate market had another four years of bloating before the bubble would pop (locally and across the nation), and Southern California Institute of Architecture was adjusting to its recent move into the Santa Fe Freight Depot building in the arts district—a barren stretch of town where mostly artists lived in cheap lofts.

Artist, filmmaker, and photographer Allan Sekula was at work documenting the construction of the Disney Concert Hall, which would open in late October that year. This work, which he produced collaboratively with four other artists—James Baker, Karin Apollonia Muller, Anthony Hernandez, and Billy Woodberry—would ultimately comprise the group installation titled Facing the Music.

Prayer for the Americans 3 (Disney Stockholders), 1997/2005.
Estate of Allan Sekula/Courtesy East of Borneo

A product of working class Los Angeles, and passionate about the political condition of working men and women, Sekula was unflinchingly resistant to, as he said, the “uncritical celebration of the new downtown.” Facing the Music questioned the late-capitalist idea that inner city cores could be improved by building large-scale entertainment and sports venues, retail corridors, and eye-catching buildings that would generate sales revenue and jobs (all mostly low wage). In the early 2000s Los Angeles was hot to follow such national trends with Gehry’s Concert Hall, L.A. Live, Staples Center, and the ambitious yet repeatedly stalled-out Grand Avenue master plan project.

Instead of privileging the spectacle of the Gehry building, Sekula and his collaborators subverted it by stepping into its inner world: its steel, bolts, safety measures, loose wires, and drywall. Simultaneously, Sekula’s camera turned away from the building toward the margins of the site, where the effects of redevelopment shifted or challenged populations and cultures already inhabiting Grand Avenue and beyond: the homeless, the workers, the ghosts of Bunker Hill. By deliberately ignoring the explicit imagery and formalism of Gehry’s architecture, Facing the Music uncovered the latent legibility of the building. The installation was shown, intentionally and provocatively, within the belly of Disney Hall, at the REDCAT gallery in 2005.

The new book is true to the 2005 exhibition, unfurling a further line of connection with additional content that Sekula compiled until his death in 2013. Included are Leonard Nadel’s images of Bunker Hill from the early 20th century (Nadel was a photographer for the Los Angeles Housing Authority from 1949–1952). These images offer glimpses of intimate domestic interiors captioned with notes Nadel took while speaking to residents, like: “substandard, $40 a month,” and “infested, illegal kitchen.” Louis Adamic’s 1930 article from Outlook & Independent magazine provides the quintessential blueprint for a critical analysis of Los Angeles’ cadre of entrepreneurs (Otis, Huntington, Whitley), who, he states, “have small use for poor people.” Those same mini-moguls’ financial lineage would eventually make way for the Music Center and Grand Avenue (by bulldozing Bunker Hill).

Facing the Music is nuanced and paradoxical, not smug or polemical. The work explores the intersectional account of Disney Concert Hall and those who constructed the building, those displaced by it, and those who benefitted most from its development. Sekula and his collaborators’ appreciation for the sweaty orchestration of the building’s construction is celebratory in portraits of the crew’s scribbled hardhats or the careful manner in which tool belts are hung at the end of a shift. The way Sekula presents the miserable faces of Disney Hall’s opening night attendants, in his video Gala, is not so sincere.

Sekula’s leaping connections between, for example, the orange and blue of the Getty’s corporate logo to the color of stolen water nourishing the citrus of the San Fernando Valley may be hyperbolic or even ambivalent, but they expand the investigation and interpretation of both building and site. In a transcript of his lecture “Los Angeles: Graveyard of Documentary,” included in Facing the Music, Sekula writes that “photographs once changed the world, while now they merely initiate and replicate the fashionable surface mutations of a spectacle culture immune to deeper transformation.”

In 2015, as in 2005, spirited investigations that ignore the designer “money shot” are as rare as ever. In a downtown that is increasingly consumed by architectural pomp, Sekula’s means of reading and representing architecture provide a necessary alternative approach.

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A wide array of architects chosen by Walmart owners for Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program
The Walton Family Foundation has chosen a group of 36 design firms comprising architects and landscape architects to be part of their Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program in a bid to boost the standard of architecture in the up and coming area of Northwest Arkansas. A smaller, more refined group of practices from this pool will be chosen by a selection committee at a later date for three pilot projects announced early in September. Those pilot projects are: TheatreSquared in downtown Fayetteville; a 28,000-square-foot adaptive reuse building for the Rogers Historical Museum in downtown Rogers; and a new 35,000-square-foot facility and half-acre playground for the Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center (HWCEC) in Bentonville. The announcement wraps up a two-month, country-wide search for designers that will shape the new urban landscape in Northwest Arkansas. “We are extremely pleased with the level of talent exhibited by the architecture and landscape architecture designers chosen for the program’s first year,” said Walton Family Foundation Home Region Program Director Karen Minkel in a press release. “Our extensive review process, led by reputable industry professionals, will give our grantees access to high-caliber design that meets the needs of these public-use buildings and enhances Northwest Arkansas’ urban fabric.”
Anmahian Winton Architects Cambridge, MA
Alta Planning and Design* Davidson, NC
Bing Thom Architects Vancouver, BC
Brian Healy Architects Somerville, MA
Brininstool + Lynch Chicago, IL
David M. Schwarz Architects, Inc. Washington, D.C.
De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop Louisville, KY
Deborah Berke Partners New York, NY
DLAND Studio Architecture and Landscape Architecture* Brooklyn, NY
Duvall Decker Architects Jackson, MS
Ennead Architects New York, NY
Eskew+Dumez+Ripple New Orleans, LA
Grimshaw New York, NY
GWWO, Inc./Architects Baltimore, MD
HBRA Architects Chicago, IL
HGA Architects and Engineers Minneapolis, MN
KieranTimberlake Philadelphia, PA
Lake-Flato San Antonio, TX
Louise Braverman Architect New York, NY
LTL Architects New York, NY
Marlon Blackwell Architects Fayetteville, AR
Martinez + Johnson Architecture Washington, D.C.
Marvel Architects New York, NY
Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle Minneapolis, MN
Michael Van Valkenburgh Architects* Brooklyn, NY
Modus Studio Fayetteville, AR
Overland Partners San Antonio, TX
Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects Little Rock, AR
Rice+Lipka Architects New York, NY
Robert A.M. Stern Architects New York, NY
Robert Sharp Architects & Massengale Architecture PLLC Fayetteville, AR | NY, NY
Schwartz/Silver Architects Boston, MA
Spackman Mossop Michaels* New Orleans, LA
Stoss Landscape Urbanism* Boston, MA
Trahan Architects New Orleans, LA
WXY Architecture + Urban Design* New York, NY
  • * denotes a landscape architecture firm.
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Pelli Clarke Pelli designs San Antonio's first new office tower in three decades
In downtown San Antonio, famed New Haven, Connecticut–based firm Pelli Clarke Pelli (PCP) teamed up with local Alamo Architects to design the new Frost Bank Tower headquarters. It will be the first office tower to join the San Antonio skyline in three decades and one of several new PCP buildings in Texas, including Dallas’ McKinney & Olive tower and the Shraman South Asian Museum and Learning Center. Weston Urban and KDC of Dallas selected the firms in part because of its extreme care and attention to detail. When the firm's representatives shared the project with the selection team, they presented an impeccably detailed paper model of downtown San Antonio with a variety of different towers to illustrate a variety of choices for the site. Appropriately, PCP’s project leads, principal Bill Butler and Fred Clarke, are both native Texans who have spent ample time in San Antonio. The new tower is proposed to be 400,000 square feet, have an emphasis on sustainability, and will be integrated with the new design of the San Pedro Creek area, where architect David Adjaye just revealed his own art gallery. PCP's plan will include a new bridge and plaza. Ground breaking is slated to begin fall 2016 and completion in 2018 or '19, loosely coinciding with San Antonio’s 300-year anniversary in 2018.
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David Adjaye reveals his design for a museum at the Linda Pace Foundation in San Antonio
Architect David Adjaye, known for his modern, site-specific buildings including the upcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, was commissioned by artist and philanthropist Linda Pace to design a structure along San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek for her eponymous foundation’s growing contemporary art collection. The new building, called Ruby City, is expected to open in 2018; groundbreaking will commence in 2016. Pace tasked Adjaye with creating a gallery space reminiscent of a building she saw in a dream. “When I visited San Antonio in 2007, and met with Linda, we sketched out ideas and together, we envisioned a building that would resonate with her dream of the Ruby City. Like a city, the design offers an organic, heuristic encounter with the Foundation’s works and my hope is that it will become a place where artists and the wider community can be inspired to realize their own dreams through a meaningful experience with contemporary art,” said Adjaye. Appropriately, Ruby City will be clad in vibrant red precast concrete panels with expansive windows overlooking the park and city. The 14,000-square-foot, two-story building will house three gallery spaces containing 800-odd paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos. “The building is envisioned as a beacon for San Antonio. The impact of the Foundation’s mission is already evidenced in San Antonio’s thriving contemporary art scene and its creative economy,” Linda Pace Foundation’s President, Rick Moore, said in a statement.
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Muñoz & Company Quilt with Glass and Masonry

Envelope inspired by history of Dallas' African-American community.

For the past 20 years, San Antonio–based Muñoz & Company (formerly Kell Muñoz Architects) has focused primarily on what president and CEO Henry Muñoz III calls "the architecture of identity." The bulk of that work, in turn, has been concentrated on the United States–Mexico border, where the architects collaborated with clients in majority-Latino communities.The commission to design Billy Dade Middle School (in a joint venture with KAI Texas) represented a departure from the firm's usual context. "It struck us that this particular campus had such a rich history and location—in the urban core of the city, and an area where the African-American community has been so important, historically," recalled Muñoz. "It was a great opportunity to explore what that means in the 21st century." Working closely with local residents, Muñoz & Company settled on the metaphor of a quilt, announcing the school's commitment to culturally attuned education with a translucent facade in multicolored glass and illuminated brick. Much of the preparation for the project took place outside the studio. "We approached it not just as designers, but in a more scholarly fashion," said Muñoz. The architects researched the school's namesake—educator, parent, and activist Dr. Billy Earl Dade—through interviews with family members and colleagues as well as archival materials found in a local museum. The linchpin of the design, however, fell into place at a dinner event Muñoz attended. There he asked Claudine Brown, assistant secretary for education and access at the Smithsonian Institution, to help him brainstorm a symbol of cultural identity in the African-American community, one that could help inspire young minds. "Immediately, with no hesitation, she said, 'I think you should look at quilts,'" said Muñoz. As the conversation and further research progressed, he learned that quilts have been used to tell stories, as visual signposts for safety, and as subtle acts of resistance—as well as to meet a basic need for warmth. In addition, said Muñoz, "We found superb artistry, [including] quilting collectives that keep the tradition alive."
  • Facade Manufacturer Trulite (curtain walls and glazing), Pac-Clad (metal panel system)
  • Architects Muñoz & Company/KAI Texas LLC
  • Facade Installer Denison Glass & Mirror (curtain walls and glazing), City Masonry (masonry), J&J Roofing (metal), Satterfield & Pontikes Construction (general contractor)
  • Location Dallas, TX
  • Date of Completion 2013
  • System multicolored glass curtain walls, masonry with transparent glass inserts, metal panels
  • Products Trulite aluminum curtain wall system, Pac-Clad metal panel system, brick from Blackson Brick Co.
On the school's exterior, the architects expressed the quilt metaphor with multicolored glass walls fronting diagonal bays. Beyond the reference to quilts as cultural artifacts, the pattern projects a belief in the community's resilience. "That glass wall is an important way of expressing how anything can be woven together," said Muñoz. A patchwork rhythm recurs more subtly in the facade's brick walls, where transparent glass elements preserve a sense of openness. "At night, when the glass curtain wall is so transparent—like a lantern—you also get a sense of that in the brick wall," he explained. The entrance canopy, clad primarily in metal, deepens the material diversity of the building envelope, underlining the design's focus on inclusiveness. "You should be able to be yourself as you walk under it," said Muñoz. The quilt theme continues throughout the interior, notably in the tiled floors (inspired by the work of quilting cooperative Gee's Bend), displays of text from Dade's writings, quilts commissioned for the library, and a collection of salvaged doors lining the lobby walls. "Dade was a really strong mentor in an intergenerational fashion," explained Muñoz. We looked at a speech he made about opportunity and thought, 'What if we harvested doors from the neighborhood?' So in the lobby you see this patchwork of doors, meant to be doors of opportunity." Built to meet Dallas Independent School District's stringent environmental standards, Billy Dade "combined [environmental] sustainability with the idea of cultural sustainability," explained Muñoz. Though in keeping with the firm's track record of community-based design, the project was nonetheless a learning opportunity for the architects. "This was the first time that we've [designed] a school that is multicultural in a different way than what we've been used to working with," he said. "While the population was different, I hope people found something that they can see themselves in."
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HUD Secretary Julian Castro touts new planning rules for affordable housing
U.S. Housing & Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro visited Chicago today to announce a clarification to the 1968 Fair Housing Act that officials say will improve access to affordable housing in cities across the country. HUD finalized a bureaucratic rule that Castro says will correct shortcomings in the federal agency's provision of fair housing. The 1968 law, part of the Civil Rights bill, obligates HUD and its local affiliates to “affirmatively further fair housing,” a lofty goal that “has not been as effective as originally envisioned,” according to the new HUD rule. "This represents a new partnership with cities,” said Secretary Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Standing in front of Chicago's newly expanded Park Boulevard—the mixed-income housing development was formerly Stateway Gardens, part of the corridor of South Side housing projects that included Robert Taylor Homes—Castro said the new rule will make publicly available data and mapping tools to help community members and local leaders establish local goals for the development fair housing. He added that Chicago had already used the newly available data for a preliminary exercise linking affordable housing and transit planning. The change also allows local housing agencies more time and flexibility in presenting their fair housing priorities and goals to the federal government. Castro referenced a recent Harvard study that found kids from low-income neighborhoods were statistically less likely than their wealthier counterparts to achieve upward mobility. "A zip code should never prevent anyone from reaching their greater aspirations,” said Castro.
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This abandoned rail corridor in Singapore will soon be a nationwide linear park, and these firms are competing to design it
Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has shortlisted five winning design firms for an RFP to overhaul the Singapore Rail Corridor. Defunct since 2011 and once a prominent Singapore–Malaysia trade route, the railway spans the entire country from north to south starting at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station to the Woodlands Checkpoint. A competition launched by the URA requested proposals to transform the 15-mile stretch into a public greenway connecting four important urban nodes: Buona Vista, the Bukit Timah Railway Station area, former Bukit Timah Fire Station, and Kranji. The five shortlisted design teams are as follows:
  • West 8 and DP Architects
  • Grant Associates and MVRDV with Architects 61
  • Turenscape International and MKPL Architects
  • Nikken Sekkei with Tierra Design
  • OLIN Partnership and OMA Asia with DP Architects
“The expanse of the corridor running through the center of the entire country presents an unprecedented opportunity to develop a new typology of landscape with transformative effects for the country as a whole,” said Michael Kokora, partner at OMA, one of five shortlisted firms. “This is a project that has the potential to improve quality of life for generations to come.” To progress beyond Stage 2A, the selected firms will have to draw up a feasibility study and present preliminary designs for a 2.5-mile signature stretch designated as a “green gateway” to the Rail Corridor. The landscape architecture is a linchpin in the evaluation process, seeing as the brief calls for the conversion of the railway into a “leisure corridor for shared sports, arts and community activities” while leveraging the tropical environment. The URA launched the "Rail Corridor – An Inspired and Extraordinary Community Space" RFP in March 2015. Sixty-four design teams responded. Stage 2B will commence by the end of this year following a public exhibition held from October to November 2015 by the five shortlisted teams. After assimilating public feedback, the winning teams will work with the URA to refine the Concept Master Plan and Concept Designs to account for the provision of services and infrastructure such as cycling tracks, shelters, and toilets. Evaluation panel member Dr. Malone-Lee Lai Choo, Director for the Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities at the National University of Singapore and member of the Rail Corridor Partnership, said, “We were looking for schemes that are particularly strong in responding to the ecology of the site, that respect its natural qualities, while introducing sensitive design interventions to enhance them.” “They must demonstrate understanding and appreciation of the needs, sentiments and collective aspirations of users and residents. We would also want the Corridor to be an outstanding urban asset, and are therefore open to innovative concepts, particularly in and around the nodes; ideas that demonstrate freshness of approach and potentially exceptional design qualities that will enhance our urban landscape.”
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Chicago's Graham Foundation awards $490,000 for architectural research
The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts today announced the latest recipients of their grants to individuals, a $490,000 pot of money split among 63 projects all over the world, including an extensive photographic survey of Le Corbusier’s completed architectural works by photographer Richard Pare; a series of community-based design and urban development courses in Costa Rica; and a compilation of criticism about Berlin's Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments).

Recipients of this year's grants run the gamut in terms of media, from films and photography to exhibitions and public programming. (Full disclosure: Graham Foundation Director Sarah Herda sits on AN's editorial advisory board.) The awards ceremony is being livestreamed on YouTube:

Here's the full list of recipients, by category: EXHIBITION [6 awards] Zoe Beloff (New York, NY) Gabriela Burkhalter (Basel, Switzerland) Allied Works Architecture: Brad Cloepfil (New York, NY/Portland, OR) Kari Cwynar (Toronto, Canada) & Kendra Sullivan (Brooklyn, NY) Jamila Moore Pewu (Hanover, MA) Michael Rakowitz (Chicago, IL) FILM/VIDEO/NEW MEDIA [7 awards] Gavin Browning, Glen Cummings & Laura Hanna (New York, NY) Etienne Desrosiers (Montreal, Canada) Granny Cart Productions: Elettra Fiumi & Lea Khayata (New York, NY) Chad Freidrichs (Columbia, MO) New-Territories/[eIf/b^t/c]: Camille Lacadée & François Roche (Bangkok, Thailand) Léopold Lambert (Paris, France) Candacy Taylor (Los Angeles, CA) PUBLIC PROGRAM [3 awards] Elizabeth Lennard (Sausalito, CA) Marije van Lidth de Jeude & Oliver Schütte (Curridabat, Costa Rica) Noam Toran (London, England) PUBLICATION [33 awards] Ethel Baraona Pohl (Barcelona, Spain), Marina Otero Verzier (Rotterdam, the Netherlands) & Malkit Shoshan (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) Alessandro Bava (London, England) Silvia Benedito (Cambridge, MA) & Iwan Baan (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) Emilia Bergmark (Malmö, Sweden), Corinne Gisel (Zürich, Switzerland) & Nina Paim (St. Gallen, Switzerland) David Chambers & Kevin Haley (London, England) Esther Choi (Brooklyn, NY) & Marrikka Trotter (Cambridge, MA) Thomas Daniell (Fukuoka, Japan) Charles L. Davis II (Charlotte, NC) Alexander Eisenschmidt (Chicago, IL) Institut für Raumexperimente: Olafur Eliasson (Berlin, Germany), Eric Ellingsen (Ithaca, NY) & Christina Werner (Berlin, Germany) Didier Faustino (Paris, France) Todd Gannon (Orange, CA) & Craig Hodgetts (Culver City, CA) Kersten Geers, Joris Kritis (Brussels, Belgium), Jelena Pancevac (Paris, France) & Andrea Zanderigo (Milan, Italy) Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo & Mark Pasnik (Boston, MA) Georgina Huljich & Marcelo Spina (Los Angeles, CA) Daniel Ibañez (Cambridge, MA), Clare Lyster (Chicago, IL), Charles Waldheim (Cambridge, MA) & Mason White (Toronto, Canada) Catherine Ingraham (Brooklyn, NY) Doug Jackson (San Luis Obispo, CA) Daniel López-Pérez (San Diego, CA) Sébastien Marot (Paris, France) Noritaka Minami (Cambridge, MA) & Ken Yoshida (Merced, CA) Joan Ockman (Elkins Park, PA) Kathryn E. O’Rourke (San Antonio, TX) Lluís Ortega (Chicago, IL) Miriam Paeslack (Buffalo, NY) Richard Pare (Richmond, England) Stephen Phillips (Los Angeles, CA) Jesse Reiser & Nanako Umemoto (New York, NY) Charles Rice (Sydney, Australia) Sara Stevens (Houston, TX) Despina Stratigakos (Buffalo, NY) Alice Twemlow (Brooklyn, NY) Rebecca Zorach (Chicago, IL) RESEARCH [14 awards] Shumi Bose (London, England) Marshall Brown (Chicago, IL) Fabrizio Gallanti (Montreal, Canada) David J. Getsy (Chicago, IL) Rob Holmes (Gainesville, FL) & Brett Milligan (Davis, CA) Sabine Horlitz (Berlin, Germany) Andres Kurg (Tallinn, Estonia) Tiffany Lambert (Brooklyn, NY) Gregorio Carboni Maestri (Milan, Italy) Mary McLeod (New York, NY) Ara H. Merjian (New York, NY) Meredith Miller (Ann Arbor, MI) Spyros Papapetros (Princeton, NJ) & Gerd Zillner (Vienna, Austria) Benedikt Reichenbach (Berlin, Germany)
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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.