Question and Answer: Meeting the Challenge I

Audience: Ken Shine. I wonder if you would comment on another aspect of health that goes beyond the healthy building itself, but the healthy environment. We've seen construction in this country since the Second World War that has exploded the number of places without sidewalks, places that have no opportunities for people to get physical activity. They are no parks right next door and there are substantial portions of the population who go from house to vehicle to building back to vehicle back to house. The social networks that we've been talking about don't exist.

I just wondered whether you've been thinking in terms of both issues; of place and health and the implications of architecture for creating a healthy environment for people.

Mr. Speck: I'll make one shot at that because Mary Margaret and I are working on a project right now that is a campus for a major corporation. It's terrible for the socialization and a sense of community for the people who work at an organization where people park, walk into a building and go back to the parking lot and leave.

In our case we're making them park somewhere and walk on a street to get to where they go. And it’s really about health; it is about that simple activity of walking, which is incredibly healthy, and also about socialization that goes along with that. When you are walking you encounter people in a different way and you stop and you talk and it makes you feel a part of a community.

One precedent for that is the campus for Sprint, the communications giant in Kansas. They actually put their parking lots far away from their buildings for the very reason that their health insurer gave them a break if they would have their employees walk. That speaks to how powerful this can be in terms of increasing people's health.

Dr. Flowers: I think that also speaks to the intermixture, the system, if you will, of public policy and architecture. That leads to a question I had, wondering what public policy we support. Sometimes in our green spirit we might mandate something that actually looks good, but isn't, as you pointed out.

How could we as concerned citizens support intelligent public policies that don't hamstring experiments that might lead us to better solutions and at the same time do things like give a break to the company that has their employees walk more.

Audience: We're the second most populous state. We have three of the top ten largest cities. We have enormous universities, the world's biggest medical center here. Where do we stand in the overall world of architecture as a region, in terms of style, money, innovation? Where do we fit out there in the world of architecture? When they think of Texas on either coast are we at the cutting edge? What's our profile out there, our region of Texas architecture by other people outside our region?

DR. FLOWERS: Sir, are you asking that of the Texans on the panel or of the outsiders?

Audience:: Oh, that's a clever one. Rafael, what do they think of us in New York City?

Mr. Pelli: Well, we don't put sustainability and the environment to the top of the sheet. We're not known for that. If you think about some of the things that Murdock was bringing up about the growth of our state and couple that with the amount of buildings - this kind of 2050 and two-thirds of our built environment coming up – Texas will have an enormous impact on a built environment. But I think it's safe to say that we're not known as being highly innovative in terms of building systems. What do you think, Larry?

Mr. Speck: Boy, you could get me started on this and I get foaming at the mouth about it. But, you know, the truth is there would be very few people in the United States who would tell you that three of the top ten cities in population are in Texas. The rest of the country doesn't think of us that way.

There are many, many things about Texas the rest of the country doesn't understand. I think architecture is very much the same way. We are known for having some of the very finest jewels of architecture that have been built in the latter part of the 20th century in our state. The Kimball Art Museum is sina qua non. You're going to find no building in the United States with more respect than that building, and internationally than that building.

There are other incredible buildings: the Menil Museum in Houston, Penzoil Building in Houston. There are any number of buildings that have huge respect. But our perception from the outside is probably faulty, at best. I think that's partly because we're not a media center like New York is. So things are seen second-hand, third-hand, fourth-hand.

Mr. Pelli: I'll give you my perspective which is very consistent with Larry's. Texas is certainly known for having some exceptional individual pieces of architecture. The Kimball Art Museum certainly comes to mind at the top of that list. Certainly, it had a period of corporate architecture buildings, really state of the art corporate buildings.

Beyond that, though, the two other things that immediately come to mind when I think of Texas is that Texas is one of the areas that has really best fostered a kind of contemporary architecture that still has strong regional roots. I think Ted's work and his firm's work has been sort of exceptional and probably one of the leading kind of lights in that regard. Texas has successfully maintained an identity, particularly with smaller scale architecture in doing contemporary, not traditional, but sort of contemporary architecture that still clearly feels of its place. I think it's done better than most other regions in the country.

The other thing is although Texas at large is not known for its environmental initiatives, the City of Austin certainly is. I think in the environmental community there are people from the City of Austin who have been very influential and the experiences in the City of Austin have been very influential. The City of Austin actually is one of those hotbeds for environmental activism and thinking about buildings and the environment in that world.

Dr. Flowers: Well, we are going to hear from the mayor of Austin after the break

Audience: Larry, you waxed eloquently about your grandmother's house. My guess is that today down the street or, indeed, right next door, there's one of those mega-mansions; a big, ugly, ostentatious multi-million-dollar homes. Zoning only goes so far and it's very hard to legislate taste. But what can society in general and your profession in particular do to prevent ugliness first and, perhaps more positively, to provide incentives for imaginative, creative architecture?

Mr. Speck: You gave me the right lead-in. Actually, it turns out that in my grandmother's neighborhood has been remarkably well preserved, I'm happy to say. There are many neighborhoods in Austin that have fought like hell to keep those mega-mansions out. We do, in fact, have an ordinance which has been very controversial but has attempted to do that.

I think I said that architecture is a physical embodiment of who we are as a culture. And, it also shows our bad sides. It shows our greed. It shows our pretension. It shows our selfishness. It shows our lack of a true sense of beauty, as we saw in Steve's presentation earlier of the Tuscan Sun house in the Hill Country. It shows our sense fantasy about who we think we might want to be - rich and cultured – and if we're not, it comes off hollow.

I think the thing we all need to do, and our profession can help, but it's all of us as a culture, is understand what real value is and what important things are and not succumbing to pretension and greed and things like that because they effectively show themselves in architecture. We should be looking at things that we screw up and say, “What does that say about us and how can we fix that?” Architecture is a great kind of bellwether for telling us who we are and what we might want to change.

Mr. Flato: One of the things about this whole notion of sustainability is that it is a real direction that people can embrace. There's a little less about taste and more responding to real issues.

If you start thinking about using local materials and responding to the environment, you start getting architecture that is very particular to its place. When we're working on new development we sometimes get to write the restrictions. Besides creating a great kind of urban experience, how do you get architecture without having a taste police on hand at all times; how do you bring architecture around?

The notion is creating rules that are about real issues. You choose just a limited number, like palliative materials, which is being responsive to the sun and to the wind and to the rain. Before you know it, you have average architecture that's pretty great because it's all logical for that particular place.

I think the direction that a number of our cities are moving in, is requiring LEED buildings. That's helpful, but it's hard to just legislate beautiful buildings. No question about it. But I see the glass completely full with the challenges that we have ahead of us, which is to say I feel that architecture can start to be more responsible and beautiful.