Reflections | Design Conference 2014

During the Jan. 31–Feb. 2 weekend, architects hailing from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mexico convened in Austin for the Texas Society of Architects’ Third Annual Design Conference: Borderlands. The three-day conference was filled with world-class presentations by renowned architects, intriguing tours, and stimulating conversation among architectural peers.

Descon2014: Julie Pizzo Wood
Design Conference 2014 name badges await their owners, including Andrew Hawkins, AIA.
Rand Elliott, FAIA, kicks off Borderlands on Friday afternoon with his presentation "Influences, Ugly Drawings and Marfa."
Victor Legorreta of Legorreta + Legorreta illustrates his firm's devotion to responding to the vernacular with a contemporary flare.
Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, enraptures the crowed with his inspiring narrative of the design process and client relations.
Victor Trahan, FAIA, wraps up the weekend's festivities as he asks conference participants, "What is the most responsible way to build?"
Rand Elliot, FAIA, sharing how the crunch of gravel at the Kimbell Art Museum is perhaps one the most influential sound memories produced from architecture.

“You can read about this in journals, but you don’t get all the nuances, the humor, and the poignant aspects of the projects unless you are face to face.”

– Bibiana Bright Dykema, AIA


2014 Design Conference participants warmly welcomed a diverse group of speakers, including Rand Elliott, FAIA, of Oklahoma City, Victor Legorreta of Mexico City, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, of Fayetteville, Ark., and Victor Trahan, FAIA, of New Orleans.

Kicking off the event on Friday afternoon, Rand Elliot, FAIA urged attendees to fear not our “ugly drawings,” but instead find the beauty and appreciate the intricacies within our imperfect sketches. Elliot reiterated the poignant contention with design faced “when drawings become precious” and knowing that “your attention is in the wrong place.” The audience heard not only about the influential individuals that inspire Elliot’s work, but also about his love affair with Marfa and his ode to Donald Judd, RJ Marfa. 

Saturday morning began with a presentation from Mexico City’s own Victor Legorreta. Emboldened by the architectural vernacular, Legorreta illustrates this principle in his work by means of building mass, pattern, and spirited color palette. Whether located in Dallas, Texas or Doha, Qatar, his designs speak to a modern, regional sensibility while maintaining palpable vibrancy.

Later that day, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, a practitioner in “the land of Bill and the billion chickens”, demonstrated his versatility and deft ability to design within budgetary and material limitations. Blackwell enlightened conference participants with his designs that combat undesirable architectural typologies. His projects instead adopt the notion of “agency and agility” to seize spatial opportunities within project constraints.


“Architects throughout the world are looking for something different, something to break the rules, something new … you see all these components here.”

– Victor Legorreta


Wrapping up the event on Sunday, Victor Trahan, FAIA, related the immense power our buildings hold as ecological responders, gems within our communities, educators of architecture, celebrations of inevitable decay, and, on occasion, physical manifestations of failure. Trahan left us in a healthy state of questioning. As architecture continually evolves with technological innovation, Trahan posed that the profession grapple with this concept: “Just because we can do it, should we be doing it?”

The speakers each approached the conference theme in their own personal way, but as one of the attendees, Charlie Burris, AIA, commented, what emerged was the notion of “Borderlands” as “more than a physical/geographical element” — one that “expands into more abstract ideas such as the many ‘borders’ we all have in our practice and our lives.” Although they covered a wide array of projects and fields of interest, the presentations remained salient reminders of the powerful ability of architecture to shape environment, culture, community, and interchange.


“It was very interesting to learn about the personalities involved, the master planning of the campus as a whole and how it was implemented, adapted and changed over the years. It was enlightening.”

–Alan Roberts, AIA


In addition to these presentations, conference participants partook in tours of three Austin-area buildings. On Friday evening, they toured a Lake Austin home by San Antonio-based firm, Lake|Flato Architects. 

The tour was led by the homeowners, which allowed the guests to hear their personal accounts of building the residence and commissioning the extensive artwork collection housed within. The tour was followed by a reception at the Liz Tirrell residence, designed by Frank Welch, FAIA.

Saturday featured a tour of The University of Texas at Austin East Campus, led by Texas Architects past president and UT Austin architecture professor, Lawrence Speck, FAIA. With the 2012 Campus Master Plan and the Dell Medical School breaking ground this last year, the university has begun the process of stitching together the acclaimed historic buildings with the revolutionary, new constructions. The approval of the 2012 Campus Master Plan has brought about monumental re-development of the university, especially to the East Campus area, with the prior comprehensive plan being from 1999. The tour gave participants an incredible insight into the tremendous growth and re-imagining efforts taking place on the UT Austin campus. Conference participants explored the new Student Activities Center and Gates Dell Complex as well as visited the Norman Hackerman Building, Belo Center for New Media, and the renovation of the Jackson Geological Science Building. Concluding the tour, Speck gathered the conference participants on the hallowed Main Mall steps to relate the building history of the campus.

Throughout the weekend, the immense importance of “Borderlands” became clear. The vital role that practitioners within the surrounding states and sovereign nation bordering Texas, along with the projects located in these unique environments, make for responsive, vibrant communities and inspiring designs. As Legorreta said: “We need to need to know more about each other. Learning about what other architects are doing across [Texas’] borders is something that should be known.”


“I don’t think the conference outcomes are ever what has been anticipated… they are always so much richer and inspiring. This one was very special.”

– Charlie Burris, AIA 


Whether it was mingling with colleagues during Friday’s reception at the Tirrell residence or chatting over tacos at Torchy’s, or exchanges between the conference speakers and audience members, more than anything, 2014 Design Conference ignited conversations — conversations on the particulars on the creative process, on designing with ever-evolving technologies, on embracing project challenges as opportunity, and on the contextual and ecological responsibility of architects.

Regardless of the subject matter, both the casual and the coordinated dialogues highlighted the mutual passion we hold for the profession. “I am happy to see the passion these architects have for the profession. Without passion, there is no architecture,” said Legoretta. In a fast-paced field filled with projects and deadlines, the opportunity to get together face-to-face provides an unparalleled opportunity for inspiration.

This event would not have been possible conference organizers Michael Malone, AIA, and Mark T. Wellen, FAIA. Additionally, Texas Architects would like to thank all of the speakers, tour hosts, staff, and last but certainly not least, all the conference participants. Without your dedication to furthering the architectural profession, Design Conference 2014: Borderlands could not have been such an incredible success. 

Charlotte Friedley is the newest addition to the Texas Architects staff; she joined the Society as a communications specialist in January. A recent graduate of UT Austin's Architecture and Urban Studies programs, Charlotte looks forward to lending her unique perspective to enriching untold architectural narratives.  

by: Charlotte Friedley

Talk About It

About 3 years ago: Charlie Burris, AIA

This is my third conference as I’ve been onboard from the onset of the idea. The idea birthed from the Pubcom retreats which have been enjoyed for many years by Pubcom members. To me these special events are really about several things….hanging out with design-focused colleagues (including the speakers!), making new friends, seeing some great architecture, and of course the great speakers from a variety of other locations with their unique perspectives. This was somewhat embodied by Rand Elliott’s conceptual focused talk, not so much about buildings and projects as the thinking process and ideas behind architecture, the passion we all share.

The broad spectrum of the speakers is always of great interest as is the conceptual theme of the conferences. I found that a theme such as Borderlands really has more than the obvious physical element but expands into more abstract ideas such as the many “borders” we all have in our practices and our lives. I thought Victor Trahan made quite a few points that had as much to say about small market practices as well as large ones. It always seems that we’re all in the same boat, just different scales perhaps. It seems everyone has the same struggles in practice. Some of this came out Saturday evening in conversations with Marlon Blackwell and later Victor Tranhan. Fortunately, Victor shared some of those ideas in his talk on Sunday. Victor Legoretta was a joy to be around, and think he and his wife attended all the talks. His work surely carries on the great legacy of his father. The order of the speakers turned out to be just perfect.

These are events that recharge and inspire us in many ways. The private conversations are always special. I don’t think the conference outcomes are every what has been anticipated….they are always so much richer and inspiring! I really think the speakers love being with a group of Texas architects, knowing the tremendous commonality of thinking, respect, and passion that is shared. It’s a blessing to all of us to be a part of such special event. The vision Michael and Mark had has blossomed into so much more than they could have anticipated, and we hope will continue to do so into the future.

About 3 years ago: Mark Wellen

Thank you Charlotte! Think you captured the Conference well in you report. I think you are going to be a great asset to the already fine team we have. I look forward to working with you. AND, thanks to Julie for taking on the responsibility as "team photographer"……you did an outstanding job as well. Lastly, thanks to all the attendees that make this such a special event for us all. I tremendously enjoy the camaraderie we share.

About 3 years ago: Julie Pizzo Wood

Thank you, Mark & Charlie.

About 3 years ago: Charlotte Fridley

Mark, thank you for your kind words of encouragement. I am excited to be a part of such a dynamic and innovative team. I look forward to working with you as well.

Charlie, you hit the nail on the head as they say. Yours words are truly reflective of the inspiring nature of Design Conference 2014.