Overland Partners: ‘We Can’t Just Do Pretty Buildings’

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Overland Partners was founded in San Antonio in 1987 and have projects that span the globe.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Overland Partners was founded in San Antonio in 1987 and has projects that span the globe.

In front of approximately 1,000 of his peers at an American Institute of Architects awards ceremony, architect Rick Archer was asked to come onstage and answer questions about The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center in Dallas.

Archer is one of four founding partners at San Antonio-based Overland Partners, which has grown from its humble beginnings in 1987 into a sought-after architecture firm tackling projects all over the world. Overland earned 10 prestigious awards for its work on the homeless center in Dallas, and that night in 2009, though there were numerous other honorees, Archer was the only architect invited to the stage to respond to questions.

When he was done, as he left the stage he encountered a man he identifies now only as one of the leading design architects in the world, who told him, “You sound more like a social worker than an architect.”

“Thank you,” Archer said.

Overland Partners has continued to rack up awards for its work near and far in the years since, including being selected one of the top 50 design firms in the nation this fall by Architect magazine as well as earning more AIA honors. But even as the awards accumulate, the people at Overland Partners say they are concerned more with how their projects impact the lives of people in the communities in which they work.

The firm is a forward-thinking collection of men and women with a visionary approach to a profession not necessarily known for diving into social issues. Overland Partners embraces that idea.

“If we’re going to be relevant in our culture today, we can’t just do pretty buildings,” Archer said. “We have to do things that are making a difference, that are solving the world’s biggest problems. I think that is what great architecture does.”

Overland Partners is the lead architect on the Hemisfair development. It recently completed work on the San Antonio Zoo Animal Health Center and is known for its designs of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Harvey E. Najim Early Childhood Campus for the Brighton Center, and Haven for Hope, a 22-acre site that offers shelter and services to the homeless in downtown San Antonio.

Click through the gallery below to see a collection of Overland Partners renderings.

Archer, Tim Blonkvist, Robert Schmidt, and Madison Smith attended the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture together and became great friends. They went separate ways initially after school but knew they intended to work together at some point.

They regrouped in 1987 and chose San Antonio as the place to build their business because of its rich architectural history. They understood early on they shared a vision for practicing their craft that wasn’t standard operating procedure in the industry.

That became obvious to some in the community in 1992 when the San Antonio Museum of Art solicited proposals for a master plan. Overland Partners was the only firm that responded by telling the potential client it wasn’t ready for a master plan. Instead, it offered the museum a 100-page report on how it needed to reorganize, split from its affiliation with the Witte Museum, and build its own identity.

“It was an audacious thing to do for architects at the time,” Archer said.

Museum officials weren't happy. The partners fielded angry phone calls but responded by saying they had provided an honest assessment. Two weeks passed, and Walter Brown, the chairman of the board for the museum, called to tell the firm's leaders they convinced the museum to take their advice and make changes.

“I think in our DNA – and we’ve only really recently put this into words – is what we do is create physical transformations that lead to human ones,” Archer said.

Overland Partners has completed work on six continents, leaving only Antarctica as the last frontier for the company. It employs more than 80 people, approximately half of whom are women. The firm’s employees come from 12 nations and 14 states. Archer said the firm’s diversity has been key to its success and to developing the kind of mindset he recently espoused in a meeting of senior leaders within the company while discussing what Overland has become.

“We’re responsible to all, but employed by one,” Archer said in that meeting.

Samantha Whitney Schwarze, a graduate of both Syracuse and the University of Texas, leads the urban design team. She came to Overland nearly six years ago and is working on a master plan update for Brooks.

Schwarze said another characteristic that distinguishes Overland Partners is how the firm builds tools to help it identify, achieve, and measure its goals and the goals of its clients. Overland has developed what it calls the “Human Handprint,” software which measures five key parts of every project: aspiration, inspiration, relationships, stewardship, and well-being.

No one in the firm simply thinks about designing buildings, she said.

“For me, the most exciting thing about Overland is that it’s an encouraging environment,” Schwarze said. “… I think this place is all about finding time to keep that fire burning, because you bring that back here. It makes whatever is on your plate better and it inspires people around you to find the thing within them. That’s definitely something that doesn’t exist in every other architecture firm.”

James Andrews came to Overland 17 years ago from Wales. He was attracted to the company’s mission, goals, and approach to the world of architecture after spending time at larger design firms with almost no focus on how buildings can impact the larger community.

He said he knew he had joined a unique culture when he was asked for his personal mission statement when he arrived. He didn’t necessarily have one.

Andrews was part of the design team for The Bridge in Dallas. He played a key role in Haven for Hope and has been involved in working with the City of Santa Fe on strategies for combating its opioid addiction problem.

Tim Blonkvsit (left) and James Andrews (right) on an early business trip to China. Photo courtesy Overland Partners.

Courtesy / Overland Partners

Tim Blonkvist (left) and James Andrews (right) on an early business trip to China.

Andrews also does work in China, where different communities have asked Overland to help envision the future of cities there.

“One of the things I really admire about the Chinese is their ability to plan,” Andrews said. “It’s a wonderful thing to see a city thinking 30 years ahead and allocating land and developing transportation strategies and waste strategies and energy strategies before they hit the congestion and the contamination.”

Andrews said he enjoys the complicated projects most, even though that sometimes means having challenging conversations with clients.

“A client said to me once, ‘I don’t want to go through that. Can’t you just draw me a pretty picture?’” Andrews said. “That’s not always a good fit for us.”

While Overland Partners does work worldwide, it still aims to continue to make a mark locally and help shape San Antonio’s future. Being involved in that process here is sometimes more challenging and frustrating than designing a master plan for 85 square kilometers in China or the legal fight to get a project underway in Zagreb, Croatia.

“We’re fortunate enough that we’re doing urban design projects all around the world and we get to do these incredibly innovative things in China or the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Latin America and then when it comes to San Antonio, it’s hard to even get people to think about some of the basic things like the rest of the world is trying to,” Archer said.

“We’ve been content with okay, and okay is not okay. We have a history with that, of seeing ourselves as a second-class city almost, and we’re not. This is a great American city. It’s a great place to live. We’ve got amazing things happening in this city. I can’t think of a better place to be in this moment.”

2 thoughts on “Overland Partners: ‘We Can’t Just Do Pretty Buildings’

  1. I knew of their awards, but it is nice to read about their philosophy. How I would love to see San Antonio become a city interested in greatness instead of just talking about it. I am not an architect, but I appreciate good architecture.
    Although most people have never heard of it, I purposely traveled to the small city Columbus, Indiana, once because of its embrace of contemporary architecture.

    https://www.npr.org/2012/08/04/157675872/columbus-ind-a-midwestern-mecca-of-architecture

    https://columbus.in.us/guide-to-the-architecture/

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