New York City

A friend offered Susan and me her apartment for a week stay in New York City--she made us an offer we couldn't refuse.  Since we lived there in the 80's, we've been back perhaps five times and it's always intriguing to see how the city has changed while remaining, in many ways, the same.  We said "yes!".

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The endless energy remains, like an angel hovering over the city, driving innovation and pushing for the new.  The neighborhood where we worked, lower Chelsea, has been transformed from derelict to divine due to the Hi-Line park being a stratospheric success and generating countless new "starchitect"-designed buildings by Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, the late Zaha Hadid, Enneagram, Diller Scofidio, and others.  Construction cranes tower over many areas.  Times Square is glitzier than ever.  New bike lanes are a welcome addition.  Central Park continues to be the green beating heart, keeping the city sane and breathing.

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The Hi Line

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Central Park

Yet, I can't help but miss many of the things that are now of a bygone era.  The unique districts have lost much of their distinct purpose, having become homogenized thru countless chains strung along the streets and by the extraordinary rents that forced many of the Mom and Pop's to leave.  Nowadays, it's hard to tell that there was a Garment district teeming with teenagers pushing carts of hung clothing along the avenues or a Meat Packing district where you could view innumerable hung carcasses by day and more colorful characters walking the streets by night.  Some heat has left Hell's Kitchen as it lurches towards Purgatory and there is little Italian being spoken in Little Italy.  Much of the grittiness has morphed into gentility.  There is no more graffiti on subway cars and the place actually feels safe.


Garment District 1940's

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Garment District today


Meatpacking District 1950's

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Meatpacking District today

Still, New York City is a marvel, one of the real wonders of the world.  World-class in so many large and small ways.  Walking the streets is full of adventure and discovery.  Many of the new buildings are laboratories of inventiveness.  The detail of the city in old and new is palpable.  New restaurants abound.  It's easy to get around.  While there, Halloween was about to happen and we got to review/judge costumes of young and old everywhere we went.  The young won.





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Rockefeller Center


Brooklyn Bridge



And now, safely back home, I read accounts of a sad young man fueled by bad religion, driving and killing people near the West Side Highway.  Lord, have mercy.

Redemptive Work

We are thrilled to have been a part of a great project for San Angelo, The Stephens Performing Arts Center.  Reclaiming and reinventing the old derelict Coke warehouse has been a very good thing for downtown and for the arts, giving life to both.

Things we like about San Angelo, Part One

During one of our office's Friday afternoon discussions over beer, we decided to document some things we like about San Angelo.  I like old signs.  I took a camera and began to record several of the old painted signs around town.  This signage is often very simple or layered or weathered...but it works, especially when set against a great West Texas sky.   See what you think as you CLICK THRU THE IMAGES BELOW... 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

            Everywhere you look, from the grocery store to the clothing store and hardware store, consumers are presented with various products labeled with the word "recycled".  Many people, myself included, gravitate towards these products because I believe we are making a better choice for our environment.  However, I pose a question, "are we making a better choice?"

            The year was 1970, millions of people stepped outside for peaceful demonstrations while demanding environmental reform in the first celebration of Earth Day.  One product of this movement was a design competition led by the Container Corporation of America.  The CCA wanted to create a recognizable symbol to be used by any manufacturer engaged in recycling.  Gary Anderson, a young college student would be responsible for the circular arrow design we have come to know today.

The first image is Anderson's original symbol, and the subsequent images are used world-wide to represent (L) a product can be recycled and (R) a product was made from recycled materials.

The first image is Anderson's original symbol, and the subsequent images are used world-wide to represent (L) a product can be recycled and (R) a product was made from recycled materials.

                    There are several products we use every day that are made from recycled materials such as: cereal boxes, bottles, paint, paper, concrete and floor coverings.  If you decide to purchase these products then you are completing the recycling loop.  In addition, recycled materials also become new products that are different from their original uses.  Many of these show up in the building industry such as carpet made from plastic soda/water bottles and asphalt or concrete that incorporates recycled glass. 

            Items such as paper and aluminum are also reported to be practical for recycling because aluminum can be used again and again and countries like China, depend on our paper waste to make paper goods.

            As I continued to research and answer my own question, "are we making a better choice by recycling?" I discovered evidence that indicates maybe not every location should recycle certain items such as, glass. Not all recycling facilities can accept glass, and some facilities have to transport the glass recyclables at least 200 miles away.  Furthermore, in some larger cities, residents are urged to recycle and they are provided separate plastic bins for separating recyclable materials.  In doing this, cities also had to increase their fleets of waste disposal trucks to keep up with the demands of transporting these recyclables.  While it sounds like the best of intentions, it does contribute to the growing pollution problem. 

            In an intervew with economist Holly Fretwell, Research Fellow at Property Environmentand Research Center and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University, she makes a claim that the U.S. at its current rate of trash production would have enough landfill space for the next 100 years on one of Ted Turner's expansive ranches  with 50,000 acres to spare.  Fretwell also makes note of the positive results that come out of landfills. They are carefully lined and sealed once full and then cities have built beaches, or parks, and even ski resorts all above a pile of waste.

            While doing further research on landfills I stumbled upon another question - are landfills really that bad?  I know, they have a pretty bad rap.  They are unsightly, the smell can be rather intoxicating, and just plain gross.  However, I came across several examples of what a landfill looks like once it's sealed and I was impressed.  Some examples worth noting are:

Freshkills Park - Staten Island, NY. (which also produces solar energy)

Freshkills Park - Staten Island, NY. (which also produces solar energy)

Red Rock Canyon Open Space - Colorado Springs, CO

Red Rock Canyon Open Space - Colorado Springs, CO

Washington Park Arboretum - Seattle, WA

Washington Park Arboretum - Seattle, WA

Washington Park Arboretum - Seattle, WA

Washington Park Arboretum - Seattle, WA

 One positive thing to take note of: now we have these beautiful park spaces and conservation land that could have been asphalt and concrete.

            At the end of the day, are we making a better choice?  I guess it depends on what you decide to recycle or not.  Maybe it depends where you live.  Maybe, we have to accept that both worlds need to co-exist.  Landfills and Recycling Centers.  At least we can ride on our recycled skateboards over the skate park - landfills.

Melissa Speck


The Ones That Got Away...

In cleaning out the innards of our computer, we came upon some old projects that have not been heard from in years:  old projects that were designed but never built or old small built projects that we seemed to have relegated to the digital dustbin.  Finding them was like seeing an old friend on the street after many years.  The connection is real and immediate.  Here are some images of these "children"...for better and worse.


Generative Sketch of The Giving Quilt

Generative Sketch of The Giving Quilt


The Giving Quilt - Donor Recognition Wall










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SHIRLEY FLORAL - Awning studies 



Why Study Architecture?

Written by Shelby Rowe, age 17, Central High School senior, intern at KFA

            "What do you want to be when you grow up?" This question is thrown at you the moment you walk into your first classroom. When you are little, answers consist of cowboy, cheerleader, racecar driver, and mermaid. Everyone is so excited for their future and  just can't wait until they are old enough to fulfill their innocent dreams. The closer I got to grown up, the more unsure of my answer I became. Every year, my answer would change. Maybe a veterinarian, a concert pianist, a special ed teacher. I would pass by street artists drawing cartoon faces of people posing in front of them and think, "Well that looks fun. Maybe I should do that." Everything looks fun and exciting to a seven year old who's not worrying about how much money they will make and if that will actually make enough to raise a family on. The  question only comes more frequently in high school. You get to arrange some of your courses to better fit your college and life plan, if you have one. Teachers, counselors, parents, nosy church ladies, all curious as to what you want to do with the rest of your life. "You are the future. What do you plan to do with it?" Everyone hates the "I don't really know," answer, but that was all I could come up with. I have so many hobbies, so many joys, how am I supposed to narrow it down to just one for the rest of my life?                                                                                        Growing up, I filled notebook after notebook with drawings, resisting the urge to not cover my textbooks with doodles. Every week, I looked forward to my art class in school and even better were the art classes after school that I was constantly enrolled in. Further into high school, it became clear to me, and anyone who met me, that whatever I did with my life, art would have to be a part of it. painting and drawing had always been my outlet, the thing I did by myself, for myself. No one taught me how to do it, I just did it because I wanted to, because it made me happy. It wasn't until the summer between my sophomore and junior year that I discovered a new form of art: architecture.                                                                                            History has always been my favorite subject in school because I am fascinated by people, how and why they lived they ways they did, their artistic and musical tastes, what materials they had access to and how they used them. That summer, my family and I took a trip to Europe, traveling to Paris, London, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. In Paris and London, I was intrigued by architectural staples such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, but I also noticed the small apartment complexes, street pubs, tiny boutiques, aging churches tucked away and hidden by the busy streets. In Ireland, I fell in love with the intricate bridges and ancient monastery ruins, Scotland showed me castles and cemeteries. Everything was so detailed, the wood and stone carved by hand, each their own masterful piece of art. This art was different from any that I had ever created or imagined creating. This is when architecture became a very real thought as to what my future plan would contain.                                                                                                                                                 I had always thought of architects as the people who united  America with uniform, blocky buildings, destroying the individuality of beautiful cities and urbanizing every inch of open space. Big cities across the country, across the world, are sacrificing their personalities to chain restaurants and department stores, Wal-Marts and McDonalds. Architects, however, fight this uniformity. They infuse cities with interactive pieces of art, adding a bit of their own personality. Why architecture? This is why. There is something very pleasing to see your art being used instead of simply framed and hung on your bedroom wall. This will be my contribution. I will add to the community character by revitalizing historical styles and incorporating them with my own taste. Architecture will allow me to turn my hobby into something productive and efficient, something needed instead of just something admired by a few of my friends.                                                                                                                                          Architecture affects everyone. People spend their lives going in and out of buildings, up and down downtown streets, walking through parks, constantly surrounded by the work of an architect. As wonderful as a painting hanging on the wall is, I want to look at a home, an office, a school, a library and be able to say "I helped create that. We made that beautiful building happen." These are the places where people spend their lives. I want to make these places more than just four walls and a roof they visit every day. 

Reflections on a River

Part I, History:

Our small city in West Texas has a river running through it.  Yes, it’s a bit of an oxymoron.

San Angelo is at the confluence of three rivers--due to this, there is a lot of history and life involved.  It was a Native American hub of activity as well as the location of a frontier fort.  Because of the river, I believe our city is the envy of every other dusty city within 120 miles. 

However, since the city's humble official beginnings as a western fort outpost called Fort Concho in the 1860's , the river has been neglected or worse.  Early settlers treated it as a trash dump and sewage channel.  Early buildings built along our main street ignored it, putting the backsides of buildings facing the river to allow for easier dumping of trash.  There were a series of half-hearted attempts at "beautification" but not until the 1990's was there serious consideration of making the river a primary focus for the city.  Still, the river was a slowly evolving project until 2006, when a half-cent sales tax was passed by voters to accelerate development.





Reflections on a River, Part II, The Commission:

 There are a few architects in our small city but no landscape architects.  So, when the Concho River Revitalization project was approved by voters to proceed, the City looked outside of San Angelo to a very large A/E landscape firm for services.  However, the marriage between the City and the A/E firm wasn’t a productive one, and the City quickly tired of the designs presented, labeling them as "cookie cutter."  They hired Kinney Franke Architects in their place.  The work included extensive permitting through Federal agencies, bank stabilization, water quality issues, dredging, trails, plazas, lighting, fountains, etc.  The hope was to revitalize and reinvent a key stretch of the river as it flowed through downtown, over a mile long.

There was a learning curve.  Though we had completed parks before, a landscape project of this scale and scope was daunting.   We immersed ourselves in landscapes:  relearning landscape history, visiting other river cities such as Austin, San Antonio, and New Orleans, visiting a Landscape Architect friend in Midland, reading books, meeting with the Upper Colorado River Authority folks, etc.



Reflections on a River, Part III, Thoughts:

With this crash-course underpinning (and having walked and biked our river trail for many years), we proceeded to learn and create.  Now, with the project built and embraced by the city, here are some reflections on the work:

1.       The project was a success because the work grew out of collaboration.  Citizens, City Staff, City Council, consultants, each individual in our office, contractors, stone masons, UCRA staff, and other subs all provided valuable input that we tried to heed.  Perhaps because we didn't know a great deal about landscape architecture at the beginning, we were able to listen more closely and follow good ideas no matter where they originated.  Many participated and have now taken ownership.  A good thing.

2.       Practicing good urban design was crucial:  Tying seamlessly into the existing fabric of City (streets, sidewalks, landscaping, plazas, etc.), using sequential vision to create a sense of discovery, accentuating landmarks, and focusing and fostering activity zones were all key in creating a larger coherent fabric, with each individual element adding to the whole.

3.        There was a lot to work with on an already beautiful river, even though much of what was built was tired...very tired.  By building on these existing qualities and buildings, by "going with the givens," it allowed us to cost-effectively enhance the  character of distinct areas.  For example:

  • The "wasteland" areas below bridges were eroded and full of trash.  Yet, there was abundant shade and the temperature was noticeably cooler than adjacent sun-filled areas.  And so, we developed these shade zones as areas to put seating, exercise areas, artwork, etc.  They have become very popular on hot West Texas afternoons.
  • The river had areas with distinct characteristics.  And so, we were able to enhance these characteristics and create certain zones along a river trail: a Nature Zone, shade/shadow zones, a Cultural Zone, a Kid Play zone, and other future development zones, like pearls on a long necklace.  We simply built on what was already emerging.  I believe this is what Christopher Alexander calls "listening to a place."




Reflections on a River, Part IV, More Thoughts:

1.       We discovered that Landscape Architecture is not all that different from the architecture of buildings and places.  Good design seems to be a universal--whether it be buildings, landscapes, objects, or places--that can unlock potential.   This sounds very heady but during the design for the river, we became much more aware of simple elements such as plant types, xeriscaping, water use in a desert environment, hot/cool, shade/shadow/light, moving thru spaces, natural materials: we tried to use these as tools to create a sense of place...and sometimes of wonder, which seems to be at the heart of good landscape design.  Used well, these elements make a place where folks want to bring kids.  We are particularly fond of the large slab stones that were brought in to create a substantial and low maintenance pattern throughout the project.

2.       I'm glad the City insisted on longevity and low maintenance.  Too often architects design things that are beautiful...for a year or two.  And then the earth starts to reclaim what it lost, the beauty gets swallowed by time, and maintenance issues increase.   In light of this, everything we specified or designed was for the long term.  For example the LED lighting along the trails rarely needs maintenance, requires less energy, and lasts ten years or more.





Reflections on a River, Part V, Even More Thoughts:

1.       We learned a lot about water quality from the Upper Colorado River Authority.  We visited the state of the art LCRA facility in Austin and traced where stormwater from the streets begins as black sludge and, after passing through several passive BMP's or filters, the water is purified and cleaned until it is clear as crystal.  We tried to adopt as many of these Best Management Practices as possible so that our river can begin to recover from years of neglect.  What is on the ground ends up in the river and the muck on the streets steals the oxygen from river water.  So we tried to slow stormwater down to prevent erosion and we filtered it slowly through open fields or Aqua Swirl tanks or bermed detention ponds so that it would lose impurities as it made its way to the river.    We studied ways to stabilize eroding riverbanks, arriving at rip rap as our best alternative due to costs and zero maintenance but also because rip rap boulders slow water down and creates habitat for aquatic life.

2.       There is a thriving art community in San Angelo.  Artists came forward to propose different art pieces for identified areas.  A sculptor was commissioned to create limestone panels of scenes depicting local flora and fauna.  Sixteen of these panels were set into a series of stone column  markers with uplit light cubes at the tops.  A series of mosaic pieces were installed in shaded areas below bridges:  mosaic cars/trucks and a fantastic fifteen foot by thirty foot large mural.  Overall, thirty new pieces were added to create a remarkable string of artwork along the trail.

When I first arrived in San Angelo twenty eight years ago, I remember jogging a broken pathway along the Concho River, amazed at the beauty and potential.  I remember seeing heron nests in trees and ducks landing on water.  Through the years, before the river project began, I biked often and slowly along the banks, getting a sense of the place, learning the history, patterns, the natural trails of wildlife, the smells, the hot/cool areas, shade/shadow/light at different times of the year, never imagining that we would be a part of revitalizing the heart of a fine city.  You never know.  I'm very thankful that our firm has had the opportunity to work on a project that brings such life.  We were pleased that the project won the statewide award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for Best Park of 2014.