“I used to play Nerf football on this street with the other neighborhood kids,” says Dillon Kyle, AIA. “Now you never see children playing outside around here.”
We were driving through River Oaks in Kyle’s white F-150, on our way to tour a house he designed that was under construction. There didn’t appear to be much that had changed about Houston’s toniest neighborhood since his youth, at least nothing that might explain the absence of Nerf-football-playing kids. The stately, sober houses, designed in a variety of traditional styles from the East Coast and Europe, still form a charming backdrop to the well manicured lawns and gardens. Though some of the houses are newer, they resemble their venerable neighbors in materials and composition. The few modern homes, many of which have been replaced by still more modern moderns, still recede quietly, respectfully, behind sylvan shrouds. The sinuous black boughs of the live oaks still reach out to each other across the street, forming an intricate trellis over the roadway that blocks the fury of the high, summer sun, letting only a gentle, dappled light fall through to the ground.
“I do love the landscape here in Texas,” Kyle says. “I’m drawn to it. I don’t love the beach or the ocean. I don’t love the mountains. There’s something about this middle landscape, this normal, average Texas landscape, that I find particularly beautiful.”
As comfortable in these surroundings as he may be, Kyle left Texas to go to college. He started to study medicine at Princeton, admitted that the sight of blood made him woozy, and switched his major to architecture. After earning a bachelor’s degree there, he went to Harvard for his M. Arch. He practiced architecture in New York and the San Francisco Bay area before heeding the call felt by many expat Texans and returning to his home state in 1995. While his wife engaged a clerkship in Dallas, Kyle lived in a mobile home on his family ranch outside of Brenham, where he started his practice. His first project was a house for his cousin. It was never built, but word got around among family and friends, and before long he got another job designing a house, and then another, and then another. A year later he moved the practice to his hometown.
Delving into the residential market in Houston, Kyle came face to face with a factor he had not previously considered: clients with traditional tastes. “I had preconceptions of what it meant to be a student who had gone to Princeton and Harvard. I thought there was a certain look to the work I would do — Capital A architecture,” he says. “But as the practice developed, all sorts of work came in, some traditional, some remodels; I didn’t have control. I could say, ‘well, I’m not going to do work that doesn’t fit this preconception,’ or I could yield to it and grow a practice in the midst of the clients and projects that are available.”
The latter is just what Kyle chose. Today, his firm, Dillon Kyle Architects, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, employs 23 people. The bulk of the studio’s work continues to be residential — traditional and modern, as well as intriguing amalgams of the two. “I have always been fascinated by taking polarized ideas, like free plan vs. traditional plan, and melding them and seeing how you don’t just accept one or the other. You let there be a hybrid, a different kind of space.”
The house that Kyle designed for himself, his partner Sam, and their three dogs (he and his wife parted ways years ago) is just such a hybrid. Located in Houston’s Shadow Lawn historic district, among homes designed by William Ward Watkin, Harrie T. Lindeberg, and John Staub, it is clad in St. Joe Brick and topped by pitched roofs. The interior, however, has a definitively modern sense of flow, composed of small, connected rooms of slightly varying elevations that are held together by a continuous ceiling plane.
The firm is also taking on more commercial projects, including its own office, which is now under construction on West Alabama Street, next door to the Brave Architecture-designed Sicardi Gallery and across from the Menil campus. Orthogonal and flat-roofed, the steel structure has a narrow two-story podium and a large open-plan third floor that cantilevers out over the parking lot.
Up to this point, Kyle has remained, for the most part, under the radar, conducting his business on a word-of-mouth basis and not seeking promotional opportunities with much avidity (a carport he designed for the Meredith Long Gallery won a TxA Design Award in 2009 and was mentioned favorably by Alexandra Lange in a 2013 piece she wrote for “Design Observer” called “Patterns of Houston”). This project, however, will serve as a coming-out party for his firm, and Kyle is taking full advantage of the prominent location. The first two stories of the building will be clad in glass through which will be displayed the architect’s materials library — a transparent, welcoming gesture that was inspired by the Menil’s open-door policy. The studio itself, of course, is up on the third floor in the tree canopy, also an inspiration for the building and a metaphor that Kyle returns to again and again.
“Trees are the things that make Houston exquisite,” he says. “Trees are kind of like porches, the thing along the street where people get together. The language of trees feels accessible to me.”
After a moment’s consideration, he revises a statement he made earlier about Texas’ middle landscape: “Houston is not a place of inherent natural wonder and beauty. Most of the beautiful oak trees we see here were planted; there isn’t a beautiful forest that we’re destroying. It’s a place where an architect can improve the landscape.”
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.