Conversation: The Case for Good Architecture in the Alamo City

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1344 South Flores. Google Maps image.

1344 South Flores. Google Maps image.

Lowell Tacker, a partner in OCO Architects, is serving as president of the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which is vacating its offices at the Pearl’s Full Goods Building at year’s end and relocating to SoFlo. The Rivard Report caught up with Tacker, somewhere between designing new schools and riding his road bike down the Mission Trail.

Lowell Tacker

RR: Lowell, let’s start by introducing you to our readers. Tell us about yourself, your family, the architecture firm where you work, and what kind of work you personally like to do.

Bob, as you know I am an avid cyclist, but in my younger days I played rugby and was a sponsored ultra endurance athlete.  I will say I have a bit of a checkered past.

Both of my parents passed by the time I was 15, so essentially I have been on my own since then.  I tell you this to give a little insight into my personality (especially for those of you who know me).  I have a lovely, darling, patient (you reading this Amy?) wife of 24 years who is truly my better 2/3 and two girls. One is out of college and pays her own way, including car insurance, the other is a senior at Texas State and will be on her way to full independence next May. Great kids.

My firm, OCO Architects, has been in business for 29 years. I have two partners, Mark Oppelt and Mickey Conrad, who are great business partners and dear friends. We really have a fantastic work dynamic.  Our firm’s core work is K-12 and publicly funded projects. However, we do venture into the private sector with award winning success. The best architecture manifests itself in projects that can influence and affect people’s lives; in other words, socially responsible architecture.

OCO Architects' Alamo Heights High School Fine Arts Facility. Completed in 2012, the project included 9,415 sq. ft. of renovations and a 13,632 sq. ft. addition.

Courtesy Image

OCO Architects’ Alamo Heights High School Fine Arts Facility. Completed in 2012, the project included building renovations and 13,632 sq. ft. of additions. Courtesy photo. Click here for OCO’s project portfolio.

RR: Let’s get to the most important question out there for our design-wise readers: What’s the job market look like for talented young architecture school grads, including landscape architecture grads? You guys hiring?

I think the outlook is good – at least in Texas.

OCO Architects' East Central High School, completed in 2011. Courtesy photo.

OCO Architects’ East Central High School, completed in 2011. Courtesy photo.

Creative thinking is a must for our profession, so firms are always on the lookout for talent, irrespective of the market. Our state, and particularly our city, has been lucky as lot of projects over the last couple of years have been funded by bond and federal money at a time when private money was on the sidelines.

It appears now that private money is beginning to loosen up which will hopefully spur continued positive growth for our city.

To answer your second query, we did have a opening but filled it recently. But like I said, we are always on the lookout for talent.

RR: And for readers unfamiliar with the American Institute of Architecture, both nationally and the local chapter, is it what it appears to be, a professional organization for architects and a network for continuing education opportunities and making professional connections?

The AIA was founded in 1857 by 13 architects, so it’s been around for a while.  When I joined the board of directors of the San Antonio chapter I asked what the AIA does and I got different answers from every board member.  I have discovered that you get tenfold out what you put in, but if you don’t put in, you just get a membership invoice.  At the chapter level, we advocate for architecture to the public, work with San Antonio College and UTSA to help integrate the profession with academia; work with local and state government on issues that affect the built environment; fundraise to provide college scholarships; provide peer based education for our emerging professionals; and, when appropriate, we help plan and generate ideas for non-profit entities through design charrettes…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The AIA gives us a chance to critically discuss architecture and how it can affect the world without the constraints of our businesses and clients.  It is a very collaborative profession and the AIA gives us an opportunity to do that.  AIA at the national level supports our mission and then does everything I just mentioned at a national level, but the rubber hits the road here locally, with the committees and our staff who work their tails off to further the mission of our chapter.

Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, TX. Completed in 2011 with a large, screened porch and quiet reading areas. Courtesy Photo.

Patrick Heath Public Library
in Boerne, TX. Completed in 2011 with a large, screened porch and quiet reading areas. Courtesy Photo.

The AIA gives us the ability to collaborate with other organizations, which is critical.  The more people and entities we can get moving in the same direction the more progress we can make.  Our profession is so interrelated to the world that not involving others would be a short-sighted mistake.  Our mission statement sums it up: “AIA San Antonio unites the community of architects to advance architecture as professional craft and shape a more livable and sustainable future.”

RR: How did you come to be the head of the local AIA chapter, and what exactly does that entail?

By foolishly saying yes to everything. It wasn’t anything that I aspired to or even wanted, but I was asked to contribute and I felt I needed to do it.  Like our profession, it has been a huge labor of love, but I can say that I am really, really glad I am doing it.  Because of the presidency I have this insane social calendar which is a little different from my normal life…something you know about with your speaking engagements!

To me the presidency is really about supporting the programming and committees we have in place in any way I can: contributing to ideas, serving on committees, advocating in the public realm and providing a sounding board and counsel when needed.  I also have represented our chapter at the state and national level and am extremely amazed at what we do each year, especially when compared to other chapters across the country.

At the beginning of my presidency my  goal was to advocate for architecture and this has been an underlying theme in everything we have tried to do this year. There is a lot of misconception about what architects do and what architecture can do, and my idea is to get the word out on the streets to the public.

RR: What kinds of programs will the AIA sponsor in the coming months? Anything that might interest our readers? Are AIA events open to the public?

We are a non-profit, so we need to fundraise to pay for our Center for Architecture staff and programming.  We host multiple events every year to fundraise and raise awareness in the public realm.

Click the image to find out more from www.aiasa.com.

Click the image to find out more from www.aiasa.com.

Our next big event, which everyone should attend, is the Sustainable Urban Design Lecture on Aug. 1.

We are bringing in Ed Mazria, the founder of Architecture 2030, an internationally recognized non-profit dedicated to carbon neutral buildings by the year 2030.  Sounds complicated?  It’s not. Come hear Ed speak and you will gain a whole new perspective. Doesn’t matter what your core beliefs are: Ed presents compelling, incontrovertible evidence.

Some of the other local AIA events include a skeet shoot, which is a blast (yes, pun intended), homes tour, highly recommended, Canstruction, which raises TONS of food for the San Antonio Food Bank and our Design Awards.  There are a lot of other happenings and ways to engage. Just check out the AIA San Antonio website.

RR: How important are the annual AIA Awards to a firm or the career of an individual architect?

To me the importance of design awards vary from architect to architect, office to office.  Obviously it is nice to be recognized by your peers and the public and in many ways an award qualifies your work.  I think for many people who are not tied into the profession it is easier to quantify architecture through “award winning architecture”.  Heck, we use the phrase in our verbiage.

Click image to learn more at www.aiasa.com.

Click image to learn more about the local award from www.aiasa.com.

Having said that, there are thousands of projects that will never win an award but have made a profound affect on the lives of people. This, to me, is the greatest award.  To go into a project and have the users tell you how well it functions, how good it looks — that’s my award.

RR: Looking around our fast-growing city and rapidly evolving urban core what do you see that you like? What do you see that you don’t like?

Just in the context of concept, I like the new mixed use developments, basically anything that promotes live/work, reduction of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and a sustainable lifestyle.  The Pearl is doing this as does the Quarry with the inclusion of the Artessa.  The nice thing about the Artessa is the proximity to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The Pearl has more office space and the potential to keep growing and ultimately transform the area, so that’s pretty important.

I lived in London for a while and that’s obviously great mixed use just like NYC, DC and Portland. A common thread for all of these places is a robust mass transit system, something that has limitless potential to spur development, and create positive urban densities that can drive financial models. What I don’t like is the continuation of sprawling development based on the same model that covers our city, i.e. separate subdivisions with strip centers anchored by a few big box tenants surrounded by parking and major roadways, none of which is very accessible to anything but a car.

View from Omni Hotel

View from the sprawl, 10 miles from downtown, San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I understand that we have to grow and that growth has to be profitable for developers, but it would just be better if the planning was based around walkable, livable mixed use communities.  Reducing the VMT would enhance air quality, promote fitness and weight loss, reduce stress and save money.  If I told you I could give you six hours a week of productive personal time back along with $250 a month you would jump at it. You can get this by ditching the commute.

RR: If you were the czar, what would you do with Hemisfair Park? How about the buildings left over from Hemisfair ’68?

From top: UTSA's Institute for Texan Cultures, the Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse, and the San Antonio Federal Building. Photos by Rachel Pinner.

The “brutalist” buildings near Hemisfair Park. From top: UTSA’s Institute for Texan Cultures, the Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse, and the San Antonio Federal Building. Photos by Rachel Holland.

Think New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park, but better.  There would be serious green space with integrated mixed use, and little to no vehicular traffic running through the park.  I-37 would move underground so a direct link could be made to the Eastside and Sunset Station. Think what that would do.  The northwest corner of the park at South Alamo and East Market Streets would be a giant sloped green that physically and visually connects the River Walk to the park.  Yes, the park will go under East Market Street and connect directly with the River Walk.

Second part of your query: I think the potential design opportunities could transcend the historical significance of the 1968 buildings. It would be great to be able to integrate them into the design, but I would not want to compromise a really great plan just to work around those buildings. There is so much to be gained for the future given a great design.

RR: A Dallas-like tower hotel atop the Joske’s building. Got an opinion?

YUP!  Development downtown is good, and there should be a positive return on any meaningful investment. However, it would be better to develop residences rather than more transient lodging.  I understand this is a big part of our economy but coming from Santa Fe, I know what can happen to a historic downtown without residents.  Residents would drive peripheral development such as grocery stores, retail and offices.  Permanent residents would take a little more pride and care when it comes to their neighborhood, more so than visitors who come and go.  A critical mass of residents makes places safer, improves schools, drives mass transit, and creates the need for more infill development in areas already touched by development.  It is real important to maintain our intimacy and scale, yet not let that keep us from growing.  Lastly, it would be a shame to do anything that could hinder World Heritage Site recognition for the Alamo and the rest of the missions.

RR: Does it matter that the last new downtown building that isn’t a hotel was the Central Library, opened in 1995? Should we be focusing on adding residential towers, a la Chicago, Boston or San Diego, or should we continue on our current course?

It is interesting to point out the library was publicly funded.  I would consider hotels new downtown buildings which is what I perceive as the ‘current course’ you are referring to.  Residential development, combined with infill retail, office and other ‘neighborhood’ type space, combined with select public projects, going to be required to enliven our downtown.

Option Two rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

A proposed rendering of a hotel tower atop the historic Joske’s building. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners. Read more here.

A strong mass transit system would only expedite the process.  The year our first mass transit bond failed, Portland’s passed and right now, their whole downtown area is in an unprecedented state of growth.  Dallas is making huge changes to their downtown, as has Houston. We need to evaluate why more private development is not happening and find ways to fix it. Perhaps this is already happening. I would aver that once a critical mass of residences is developed, all the other amenities will follow.  Fortunately, this is slowly happening as evidenced by the success at Pearl, 1800 Broadway, 1221 Broadway, Blue Star and the Cevallos Lofts, just to name a few.

RR: What do the youngest architects in your firm have to say about living and working in SA? What would we hear them talking about if we were a fly on the all at Fruteria or La Tuna or the Friendly Spot, or wherever young architects who work at firms on South Flores Street hang out after work?

I know our youngsters love San Antonio. It’s a good place for young families, has a lot of amenities and a reasonable cost of living.  It’s not so big that you get lost in humanity like Dallas or Houston, and you can still escape to the country or coast pretty easily.  There are a lot of emerging professionals who really appreciate the renaissance of the downtown area.

They dig informal hang-out places like the Friendly Spot, Feast, Alamo Street Eat Bar and the Pearl.  Look at the amount of cyclists downtown now. Young hipsters on fixies hanging out at trendy venues. Add some retirees, young families, kids and empty nesters and you have a vibrant downtown.

RR: Seems like every other week, something new opens at the Pearl. The AIA chose to leave the Pearl recently? How come? And tell us about your new digs and how you chose them?

Yes, we are moving to the heart of the SoFlo district to 1344 South Flores.  It’s a really neat space with terrazzo floors and exposed wood timbers. I also think it will have a prominent presence due to the street frontage. To be honest, we would have loved to stay at Pearl, but market forces caused us to rethink our position. One of my responsibilities is to make sure our chapter is financially sustainable and this move will go a long way to facilitate this requirement.

AIA San ANtonio's new digs on South Flores. Photo courtesy Lowell Tacker

AIA San Antonio’s new digs on South Flores. Photo courtesy Lowell Tacker

A prime requirement in searching for a new space was to keep the Center in the downtown area so we could be central to our membership.  We also believe that downtown is the right place to be, we are next door to the City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability, so we are hoping for some synergy there.  It’s kind of neat to find ourselves in the middle of a developing area, much like we were at the Pearl five years ago.  The move is scheduled for the end of November and we should reopen December 1, just in time for our holiday open house.  Needless to say, you will have to drop by to check it out!

RR: Anything coming up you want to tout?

Well I am going to give a shout-out for the Ed Mazria lecture again.  But, as with my office, I am only as good as the people who support me so I want to thank the AIA board of directors, committee chairs and members who make the chapter go. Thank you, Torrey Carleton, Laura Smith and Paula Smart, the intrepid AIA San Antonio staff. They have made this a very successful year.

 

Related Stories:

Low Impact Development: How San Antonio Can Profit From Sustainable Design

D.C. Official’s Visit to San Antonio Begins on the Mission Reach

On Your Mark, Get Set, Design for the ‘Triple Bottom Line’

Confluence Park: Nature’s Learning Laboratory Atop the Mission Reach

Hemisfair Park: Time for Bold Steps

Thinking Big and Brutal: An Architect Examines Hemisfair Redesign

Hemisfair Park: A ‘Brutal Redesign’ or the Bulldozer?

San Antonio’s Big Bet on Public Art: Hemisfair Park and the San Antonio River

 

2 thoughts on “Conversation: The Case for Good Architecture in the Alamo City

  1. The AIA published a really good book called San Antonio Traditions and Visions
    It is guide by sector and has maps to significant buildings around the City, that you wouldn’t find on your own.

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