Architects Talking to Architects: Vincent Snyder, AIA

Vincent Snyder, AIA, started his firm, Vincent Snyder Architects, in Austin in 1995. The firm’s work ranges in scale from residential to institutional and is internationally published, exhibited, and recognized. Most recently, Snyder was the recipient of the 2014-2015 Rome Prize Fellow in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome.

Vincent Snyder, AIA, at the Gardens at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy – courtesy Vincent Snyder

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a rural area near the small town of Wahoo, Nebraska, which is situated in the open landscape of the Great Plains. Both the name of the town and the friendly people remind you not to take yourself too seriously. One of the major reasons why my family and I chose to move to Central Texas 20 years ago, after living in several different cities, was Austin’s unique setting. Austin is located at the intersection of four major landscapes, one of which is the Great Plains. I really appreciate the easy access to the variety of rural areas around Austin. When we first arrived in Austin, it would only take you about 15 minutes to drive from the center of the city to the countryside. Although that amount of time has almost doubled, compared to many other major cities it is still relatively quick.

A snowy winter landscape of the North American Great Plains – courtesy Vincent Snyder

Pen, pencil, or computer?

I bounce between ink and Rhino at all stages — sketches through construction documents. But scissors/tape and Exacto/glue are equally critical tools for the physical models at all stages as well. When drawing, I place a sheet of acetate on my monitor to protect it while I sketch on trace directly over the Rhino developments, which provides the personal immediacy that I need at various moments of the design process. I know there are other high-tech tools that are supposed to produce direct digital results, but I love the flow of the ink. I also really value the variable precision of Rhino.

Where do you find inspiration?

In one sense, I wish I had a “go to” answer. As architects, we like to say that each project is different, and indeed they are. My broad response is that I find the inspiration for each project from its particular cultural setting. I tend to pay careful attention to previous cultural responses to any given context. To clarify, I am talking about manifestations that are not limited to the production of buildings. Shifts in cultural contexts happen at all scales — both in size and distance — resulting in expressions that extend far beyond buildings.

Of course, all of these discoveries have the potential to then be transformed during the design process into an architectural language regardless of their current form. The more obvious distinctions between different cultural contexts are associated with great distances, such as across the globe. However, cultural uniqueness may also be significant at the scale of the neighborhood, and they may even be quite distinct between two locations directly adjacent to each other. The culture(s) associated with any given site always offer unpredictable insight into the previous inspirational responses of the different contexts. Naturally, I actively seek those qualities and never quite know what will be inspirational until it happens, and then you have it! 

What is your favorite time of year?

As for many Central Texans, that would be the fall season, especially just when the first Blue Norther actually reaches the Hill Country to “break the back of the summer heat” (Hedjuk). The quality of the sunlight changes so drastically, and your visual access opens up for miles. Fall is also the time of year of my daughter’s birthday, which is near Halloween and seems to start the beginning of the fall holiday season.

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

At one point in my life, I was lucky enough to work on two projects simultaneously, one in Paris and one in Basel. Over the course of two years, I traveled several times between both cities on a little road that went through the small town of Ronchamp. How could I not to stop at Le Corbusier’s chapel each time? Of course, this means that I had the great privilege of seeing that marvelous building in every season and every kind of light and weather condition. My favorite visit was during a snowstorm. With each visit, the chapel always repositions its personality in some way, but it is always deeply spiritual.

A few blocks away from where I am staying this year in Rome is my other favorite building — Bramante’s Tempietto (the precedent for the Texas State Capitol), which I am also currently able to visit often. The harmony of that exquisite building and the particular enveloping space of the cloister result in a resonance that is so pure and powerful.

Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome was a precedent for the Texas State Capitol in Austin – courtesy Vincent Snyder

What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?

I would like to offer relevant advice, but I am not sure I can. Just when I am certain about something, a shift occurs that often drastically undermines my long-held beliefs and understandings. This is certainly in keeping with the age-old notion about the necessity of being comfortable with constant change. However, I think I would also temper that acceptance of uncertainty with a determined pursuit of plausible truths through exacting work. Do what you really want to do, but be equally as rigorous.

"Architects Talking to Architects" is a column 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.