2015 Design Conference Reflections

The Fourth Annual Texas Society of Architects Design Conference: CRAFT was a highly anticipated event, with registration surpassing planned numbers, even generating a waiting list. Texas weather reared its ugly head early Friday morning (exceeding forecasted conditions) as extremely low temperatures, ice, and snow set in. Intrepid attendees pushed on and by late afternoon there were over 50 on hand milling around the hotel, glad to be off the highways, and anxious for the conference to begin.

Nestled in the arms of early and mid-career work of O’Neil Ford, FAIA, and his assorted partners and collaborators, the conference’s location and theme was a natural choice.  Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke opened with a presentation entitled “O’Neil Ford’s Craft,” and her depth of knowledge of Ford’s work was abundantly apparent. Her post at Trinity University in San Antonio gave detailed insight to the group of Ford’s legacy at the university, with everyone achieving a new level of understanding of Ford’s work there.

Next to present, on Saturday morning, was Tom Kundig, FAIA, of Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle. His well known works, typified by a use of steel and his trademark “Gizmos,” are inspired by his early years growing up in the immense landscape of the Northwest — areas liberally sprinkled with the mining and logging industries and their associated heavy machinery. He artfully interprets these influences noting the craftsmanship of his collaborations, ever emphasizing the importance of engaging the end users at a very elemental and meaningful level.  

Following Kundig was David Salmela, FAIA, of Duluth, Minnesota. His presentation, “Craft Relating to Culture and Place,” enlightened the group as to Salmela’s response to the influences of his region in his work. Salmela’s stunningly beautiful work is often produced on extremely tight budgets but heavily infused with humane detailing speaking to the soul. It was encouraging to see that, despite practicing under vastly different business models, both Kundig and Salmela produce works that, while on their surface may produce a different vocabulary, ultimately show such a commonality of spirit and reverence of craft.

The day’s gatherings were brought to a close with a presentation by Tenna Florian, AIA, of Lake|Flato Architects. Due to weather conditions, we were unable to visit The Josey Pavilion as planned. Florian gamely stepped forward with a very informative presentation about yet another great Lake|Flato project. Having visited The Josey Pavilion this past summer scouting for the conference, I can attest to the quality of this project. It is sited beautifully, responds well to its 

North Texas environment, and warrants a visit if you ever have the opportunity.

The extreme weather conditions caused for a complete scramble and rescheduling of the weekend; since buses weren’t available Friday and Saturday to shuttle attendees to the various venues, we were forced to convene in the lobby of the hotel for all of the presentations. While everybody probably suffered from a degree of cabin fever, there were unintended benefits. There was an abundance of time for Q&A (David Salmela commented that this was the longest Q&A he had ever participated in), allowing the group to delve even further into the essence of the work of each presenter.  And, while some of the tour venues were unfortunately sacrificed, there was even more opportunity for attendees to renew friendships and make new ones. The sense of camaraderie was palpable, which has always been a goal of the Design Conference. We will all be forever bonded by what Canan Yetmen has dubbed the “Great Snowpocalypse of 2015.”

I have to acknowledge the efforts of TxA staff Arlena Buck, Elizabeth Hackler, and our CEO James Perry throughout the course of the year and over the daunting weekend working on the event.  I know Arlena spent long hours on the phone constantly rescheduling and rescheduling again as venues and buses, etc., evaporated with the weather conditions.

Sunday morning brought a little improvement in the weather, and with it at last, bus service, which allowed us to salvage a tour of Denton’s First Christian Church, designed by Ford in collaboration with the Mexican structural engineer Felix Candela. Afterward, we moved on to Ford’s Little Chapel in the Woods for a roundtable discussion with the presenters facilitated by Max Levy, FAIA.

The discussion reflected on the notions of inspiration and craft discussed in earlier presentations. Near the end of the conversation, Max asked the presenters to comment on the state of the art of craft as it relates to the emerging influence of the digital age. While the response could only scratch the surface of this topic, the audience was left with much to ponder. Notwithstanding the weightiness of that topic, it was impossible not to be inspired sitting in the Little Chapel in the Woods soaking up the genius that was O’Neil Ford and thinking about all the craftspeople who contributed with such conviction to that place. It was a wonderful and appropriate close to a magical weekend, and I for one, left renewed and inspired.

Mark T. Wellen, FAIA, is a principal at Rhotenberry Wellen Architects in Midland.