Reaching for New Heights
Posted on July 20, 2018
Our office is constantly educating itself in developing a true understanding of the Classical Tradition in Architecture. Few of us were taught in a system that addressed historical precedent in anything more than a perfunctory manner. Except in a general survey course and if you had an interest that went beyond that, many times you hard to really search out options or create them for yourself. We did not have the option of what today might be the exception that some of our younger staff experienced while attending the Notre Dame School of Architecture, a classically based program. Our desire to remedy this began to resolve itself as we became more involved with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. It has long been the leading national non-profit whose mission is to advance the appreciation and practice of the principles of traditional architecture and its allied arts by engaging educators, professionals, students, and enthusiasts. The national organization has led wonderful symposiums, classes, tours and other events that have traditionally been centered in its beginning locale of New York City.
In 2006, a community of architects, interior designers, landscape architects, builders, and supporters of the classical tradition collaborated together to bring these concepts to Texas when our own local chapter of the ICAA was born. Our office has been involved from the beginning of this chapter, with Michael Imber and myself both serving as founding board members and both serving in various roles of leadership. As chapter president and other roles, we have concentrated on bringing the best programing possible to our state. These have included lectures, tours, classes, and an awards program that recognizes the best traditional design that the many talents in our state have to offer.
One of the programs that was developed under the leadership of Mac White and Andrew Gander, along with a team of talented individuals from our office, is the New Heights Program – an outreach into our local community of San Antonio in collaboration with the Alamo Heights Junior School. We sought to provide their 8th grade Portfolio Arts class with an introduction to traditional architecture. The developed curriculum fosters an appreciation of the practice of architecture through experiences in the classroom and in the field, is taught by members of our staff and artisans working in conjunction with the school’s art instructor, Casey Fallis. Together, we have developed a course that presents the fundamental concepts of building, design, and architectural language to help students develop observational, creative, and critical skills that engage the built environment. While also incorporating this into the larger scope of the classes’ art curriculum.
For the studentes, this ten-week course provides them with an introduction to classical architecture and the historical buildings of San Antonio. When this program began, it was the first time a program such as this been offered in a public school and we are still excited to be leading this effort. By providing this opportunity, the New Heights program fills us with hope as we invest in the minds of tomorrow’s designers.
A wide range of topics are covered including Speaking of Architecture, a study in which the basic principles and vocabulary of the classical traditions are introduced, as well as looked at in more depth in later specific studies. Similarly, Elements of Classical Architecture teaches the students the classical orders, proportioning systems, and moldings are introduced and studied.
To create a greater impact on the students, these stories are tied back to our local culture and environment through studying the Building Traditions of San Antonio. We discuss the mix of traditional influences that have made our city such a vibrant place – from the Spanish Colonial roots to the influences of immigrant cultures that brought vibrant building styles, craftsmen like the Germans and Alsatians, to the various examples of later architectural periods that have held strong in shaping our local sense of place.
By using these rich examples of our architectural history, we have several sessions that relate to case studies involving students research. In small groups, they study several major works of six architects that have had a great impact on the city: from Francios Giruad, who was responsible for several early structures in San Antonio including the plans for the reconstruction of San Fernando Cathedral, as well as the architect for the Ursaline Academy; James Riely Gordon, designer of the Bexar County Courthouse; Alfred Giles, early San Antonio architect who designed among many things the Menger Hotel, the Steves Homestead, the Maverick Building and a series of buildings along Crocket street.
Atlee B. Ayers, the architect that brought San Antonio into a new age, shaped downtown with a series of buildings such as the Tower Life Building, the original Municipal Auditorium, as well as other examples including home of Marion Koogler McNay or the Administration Building at Randolph Air Base. Paul Cret, a renowned Philadelphia classical architect who would design the Federal Courthouse and Post Office; and Ralph Cameron, a local architect who would be involved in a variety of projects like the Medical Arts Building (now the Emily Morgan Hotel) or the Scottish Rite Temple.
In Parts Create the Whole: Architecture Composition and Form session students use these examples to study proportional analysis of the buildings, study the materials, and details being used by analyzing how every part of a building comes together to create the final composition. Following an introduction to rendering techniques in Representation in Architecture – Visual Communication of Ideas, students begin to take their analysis further through the development of analytique style drawings. A process by which many elements are studied through a drawing composed of a combination of plans, elevations, sections, and details. These are rendered in pencil drawings and watercolor.
Also, we have a class period dedicated to the Legacy of Churches in San Antonio – Missions and the City, making students aware of the strong influence of a variety of liturgical architecture in our city from the missions; San Fernando Cathedral, the German St. Joseph’s Church, to the variety of Gothic inspired churches that reside in the central city area, to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower or the Chapel of the Incarnate Word.
Much of the work of the semester culminates in a full day field trip to downtown San Antonio, where students walk the city from its beginnings at the Spanish Governor’s Palace and Main Plaza to experiencing the impact of the Riverwalk as an urban planning element for which our city is nationally known for. We see historic and new buildings in the city, visit La Villita and Alamo Plaza, to support the student led discussion of the topic. We also stop for sketching opportunities along the way, providing the students with the opportunity to learn through drawing some of the examples they have been studying.
Most importantly, the students present their research to one another along the way during our day long tour. Each group shares what they have learned about specific architects and their built work. You can really see the students light up when they are able to experience these spaces they have studied.
The course also brings the introduction of craftsmanship directly to the classroom. The first experiment consists of studying plaster ornamentation. By working with Hyde Park Mouldings out of New York, students are introduced to plaster as a material and how it can be used to provide decorative ornament to a building. This past semester, we were able to introduce students to the mold making process by using two different epoxy systems. Though this process, student were able to make their own molds and cast a variety of plaster moldings.
The second is the design of a column capital, students take the principles they learned in the exploration of the classical orders and apply them with local influences and iconography to design their own Alamo Height Junior School capitals. Each student works through the design process, starting with individual initial designs and then were paired into groups to formulate a final design that was worked out between the team. Finally, each group then completed drawings of their capital. These were then given to a local decorative materials vendor, Materials Marketing, who working with their designer and stone carvers in Mexico produced shop drawings for the students to review and produced scaled carved scaled stone models of each of the capitals. These were created in quarters so each of the students will be able to take home an example of their design work.
We also shared the more contemporary aspects of the professions – how construction documents packages are pulled together, how digital and three-dimensional modeling tools are used, and what a day in the office is like for an architect.
This past May, we held our second exhibition of the students work at the San Antonio Area Foundation. Where the student’s work was displayed to the public and they were able to share what they learned with their parents, faculty, and staff. An audience of loved ones and professionals from Alamo Heights School District, local architects, and AIA members, craftspeople, and members our chapter of the ICAA gathered to celebrate their work.
While this program was initiated in New York City by the ICAA, partnered with the Marymount School in 2015, “New Heights” has completed its second year here in Texas with the Alamo Heights School District. It is at the forefront of this type of education now being carried out in several chapters across the country including; the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, the Girls Academic Leadership Academy in California, and the Great Valley Middle School in Pennsylvania. We hope that soon we will have the opportunity to expand this program to other cities throughout the state as ICAA Texas continues to develop its educational offerings.
We hope that this program will give these young students an introduction to architecture and the built environment around them, that it will open their eyes to much broader influences as they continue their educations, and that they will more fully appreciate the relationship of the allied arts with craftsmanship in architecture.