In the modern pantheon of professionals, we often think of architects enshrined in their skyscrapers, insulating man from the wild.
Not so for San Antonians David Lake and Ted Flato. For 30 years, Lake/Flato Architects has harmonized with one of the most unforgiving landscapes on earth: Texas. In a sense, they have not tamed the beast, but rather studied its ways to incorporate existing opportunities for prospect and refuge.
The results are stunning.
Gone are the assumptions that living “off the grid” or “green” imply aesthetic sacrifice. The buildings in “Lake/Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape,” are a far cry from geodesic domes covered in solar panels. Instead, they weave sustainability throughout elegant materials and construction, without compromising the sheer pleasure of being in each space. By embracing the possibilities suggested by the landscape, they hone them into shelters that are welcoming, interesting, and sometimes even breathtaking. From the cozy Jacal House to the sweeping Cutting Horse Ranch, each house in this book celebrates and enhances its natural home.
RR: For most San Antonians, Lake/Flato is familiar because of large public buildings like the Hardberger Park UEC, the Pearl Brewery, and soon the Children’s Museum. How do the L/F houses tell the parts of the story that we may be missing?
David Lake: Well, those houses are really where Ted and I got our start. Our roots were grounded in getting people to reconnect to the outdoors. It’s still a theme that runs through our work.
Ted Flato: We were lucky that our early clients lived out in the country and wanted to connect to their environment. Style took a back seat. Most were more porch than house. They created our DNA. They allowed us to create our own systems of sustainability. We design our houses around direct response to nature, rather than complex systems.
RR: Sustainability used to be treated as a niche interest. How do you think your houses have taken environmental consideration out of its niche and into the mainstream?
TF: It’s a wonderful time that sustainability is celebrated as “cool.” We always viewed it as a basic part of our design. It makes it more accessible, because we are trying to make spaces where people are comfortable. We’re reaching back to how houses were made pre-A/C. Thinking about solar orientation and prevailing breezes. We have taken a very straight forward, simple approach to sustainability: the most successful efforts in sustainability are the ones that connect people to the outdoors.
DL: Actually, it goes back to learning the vernacular of Texas architecture. For instance, porches are the premier example of rooms that are intrinsically welcoming to the environment, and yet they provide shelter. I added a screen porch to our home living room and it’s our favorite room. When you are on the porch you don’t feel confined in this man-made vessel. You feel sheltered by the environment. When people live in our houses we want them to have a visceral connection to the environment.
TF: And it’s one thing to be able to do that in a rural environment, but some of the most important work is when we’re in urban settings where a little bit of nature makes a huge difference.
RR: Rarely do we think of architects as naturalists, but your firm seems to be full of them. What does an architect gain by becoming intimately familiar with the natural world? Or conversely, what does one forfeit by losing touch with the natural world?
DL: Lake|Flato was founded on the purpose that architecture should make a seamless connection to the environment. We’ve always wanted our buildings to have the least environmental impact possible. Now more than ever I think it’s critical that all buildings, regardless of scale take that into consideration. The goal of our architecture is to heal the land.
TF: Having that appreciation for the natural world allows us to imagine what the client’s experience could be when connected to it. My favorite houses are the ones that are intimately connected to the outdoors. We always want to think, “How can the house somehow enhance this site?” You just can’t beat a beautiful old oak tree.
RR: David Lake is quoted in the book saying “If you can design in Texas, you can design anywhere.” Even more specifically, San Antonio places you at the convergence of five distinct ecosystems. Have you felt an advantage to basing your practice here?
TF: Very much! Texas has a huge range of landscapes, from the arid western desert to the thick pine forests in the east. Right smack dab in the middle is San Antonio. We have the Hill Country to the north with its topography and rivers, and it gives us the ability to work with limestone. To the south you have these wide open views and you get to work with steel pipes and ranch materials. It’s not only the landscape. You have material and culture that changes with them.
DL: San Antonio, in particular, has a rich cultural history. So we have the Missions, early Spanish buildings, the German influence in King William, and even French with places like Club Giraud. That blending of cultures has made our city very handsome.
TF: It’s a place with many generations of craftspeople. When you go to a jobsite it’s radically different even than in Austin, because you are working with families of stone masons and builders.
RR: Are there any landscapes you would like to work with that you have not yet gotten to? Tundra? Tropics?
TF: Yes! That’s the beauty of what we do. There’s nothing more fun than getting to explore a new place. They have new materials and craftsmanship. That’s what keeps our work fresh! Each site warrants a different way of working.
DL: I think we’ve always wanted to do something in a really delicate ecosystem. Like building an eco-hotel in the rainforest. Or, I’d love to do something in the Northwest on the San Juan Islands, only because I love going there. Same with the Caribbean- just give me a little island and let’s see what we can do. And a net zero house would be fun no matter where it is.
RR: The book credits the influence of O’Neil Ford for your distaste of frills. Now, 30 years later technology and industry standards have made the design process more complex. How do you maintain your no frills attitude?
TF: O’Neil’s work was the antithesis of (architectural) post-modern, because it wasn’t about craft. Once you respect the material, there’s no going back. You honor those who build buildings. It’s about being honest with the materials. On the jobsite O’Neil could speak the language of the builders. He emphasized the importance of having builders who “get it.” Lake|Flato wants to create logical, simple buildings. Silliness, cleverness…those were embarrassing to O’Neil.
DL: The big shift has been taking what we learned from O’Neil about the art of architecture — simple design that works — and balancing it with the systems and technology that make up the science of architecture. It’s integrating art and science into design that works and is poetic.
(Full Disclosure: Bekah McNeel, a regular contributor to the Rivard Report, is married to Lewis McNeel, an architect with Lake/Flato Architects.)
*Featured/top image: Lake Austin Residence, photo by Hester + Hardaway, courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
Ted Flato and David Lake will appear at the San Antonio Book Festival to discuss their book, “Lake/Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape” from 1:15-2:15 p.m. at Rogers Hall at the Southwest School of Art Navarro Campus (first floor).
Click here to check out the schedule online. Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and customize your own schedule for the day by choosing your favorites.