Architects Talking to Architects: Erik Murray, AIA

Erik Murray, AIA, is an associate principal at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates in San Antonio.

Erik Murray, AIA, building a chicken coop – photo courtesy of Erik Murray

Where did you grow up?

I spent most of my childhood in Kerrville, a sweet little city tucked away in the Texas Hill Country. I remember stomping through the woods around my house (undeveloped land) and riding my bike all over the city. As I approached high school, I was chomping at the bit to move to a bigger city where “all the action” was happening. I didn’t really know what I had. I’ve been gravitating back to smaller places ever since graduating from architecture school. The funny thing about being an architect, though, is that there are more opportunities in cities, because there are more buildings.

If you were not an architect, what other profession would you have pursued?

I probably would have gone into computer science and coding. I’ve enjoyed tinkering with computers since I was a boy, starting with an Apple IIc — a pretty good computer at the time! A little skill with programming has certainly come in handy as an architect, too, from customizing AutoCAD commands and processes to automating Excel spreadsheets, to developing Access databases for construction administration tracking.

Pen, pencil, or computer?

Pen is my favorite. You have to be bold and decisive with pen. If you don’t like the way things are going, you have to be adaptable, too; you can’t just erase and redraw something. I find that with the computer, I get into fine details too quickly. Oftentimes, when I need to sketch, I draw with whatever is closest.

Do you listen to music when designing? What kind?

When writing: classical or jazz (no vocals). When drawing: hard rock; the driving beat sets my pace and focuses my attention on the shapes.

What is the one building that you just had to see for yourself?

During one of my later years in architecture school at The University of Texas at Austin, I had an opportunity to study abroad in Great Britain over the summer. I’ve been a fan of the architect C. R. Mackintosh, and I was excited that his Glasgow School of Art in Scotland — built circa 1900 — was on the itinerary. It was smaller than I imagined it, but just as interesting. I loved the heavy stone walls and timbers, accented by delicate Arts and Crafts Movement ornament; just delicious!

Also, more recently, I had an opportunity to work with the design team on the conversion of the Pearl Brewery into Hotel Emma in downtown San Antonio. I’ve been driving by that building for many years and always found it interesting, and I really wanted to see what it looked like inside! Early on in the demolition stages of the project, I was able to get a tour of the building. For a building with an industrial use, the shapes were very interesting: cast-in-place, barrel-vaulted ceilings; board-formed columns that appeared to be fluted; narrow ladders; low-head heights; spiral stairs (were people so much smaller 100 years ago?); heavy multi-wythe brick walls that had an integral layer of pine tar pitch (presumably a vapor barrier for the refrigerated rooms for brewing beer); and thick cork insulation inside. What fun!

Glasgow School of Art in Scotland – photo courtesy Erik Murray

The Pearl Brewery, now converted into Hotel Emma, in downtown San Antonio – photo courtesy Erik Murray

Beer, wine or cocktail — what is your drink of choice? 

Red wine is my go-to drink, although I prefer cold beer when I’ve been working outside all day. Liquor is too quick.

What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?

Be a sponge; soak in all the knowledge you can about everything. Many architects have the unique ability to assimilate information from many seemingly unrelated or loosely related concepts/criteria and can then create something cohesive, innovative, and/or interesting. To be able to make good design decisions, you need a good foundation of science-based knowledge. After graduating from school, I quickly discovered that I had learned very little practical information at university, which was made painfully clear to me by some of the seasoned architects that employed me. It was the skills I gained in critical thinking and self-study/continuous learning that have served me the best over time. The world and the profession is changing quickly, so be adaptable.

Architect’s aren’t known for their hobbies … Do you have one? 

I play guitar in my spare time (although spare time can be fleeting). I also pluck at the ukulele and the mandolin. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 10 years old. For me, it’s a great emotional release after a busy week. It’s difficult to push aside the hustle and bustle of daily life, but something about letting my fingers go and my mind drift while playing music makes a fast-paced life a little more manageable.

This was when I played the mandolin at my brother-in-law’s wedding in Central Park in New York – photo courtesy Erik Murray

"Architects Talking to Architects" is a series on the Texas Society of Architects blog that spotlights members from across the state at different points of development in their career. All participants are given the same set of questions, with instructions to answer any six, giving them the opportunity to highlight the items they feel are most interesting. Is there someone you'd like to see featured in "Architects Talking to Architects"? Email communications@texasarchitects.org to let us know.​