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    The panel discussion pictured included all of the keynote speakers from TxA’s 2016 conference. From left to right: moderator Aaron Seward, editor of TA; Debbie Millman; Michael Manfredi, FAIA; Marion Weiss, FAIA; and Eric Cesal, Assoc. AIA. Photo by Killy Photography.

“Convergence” was the theme of the Texas Society of Architects’ 77th Annual Conference and Design Expo. Of the approximately 1,200 architects from around the state who gathered in San Antonio to take advantage of the tours, continuing education sessions, trade show, professional camaraderie, and wonderful culture of that vibrant city, nearly 1,000 of them attended the fourth and final general session on Saturday, November 5. The session opened with a TxA Honor Award presentation (see all recipients in the Recognition section of the November/December 2016 issue of Texas Architect); a speech by San Antonio City Councilmember Roberto Treviño, AIA; and a screening of TxA’s latest video, about the Dallas Parks Pavilion Program. The audience was then treated to an hour-long panel discussion with all of the conference’s keynote speakers, moderated by yours truly.

While the panel itself represented a convergence on the stage, each of the keynote speakers embodied the coference’s theme in their own way. Debbie Millman’s popular interview series, “Design Matters,” converges people working in all sorts of creative fields in order to examine this thing we call design in its manifold expressions. WEISS/MANFREDI, the firm of Marion Weiss, FAIA, and Michael Manfredi, FAIA, is a convergence of disciplines, including architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design. Eric Cesal, Assoc. AIA, has made a career of leaping into the convergence of disasters and human settlements, putting his architecture skills to use to help people in the direst states of need.

The panel got started with a list of questions I had prepared in advance. Millman explained that “Design Matters” had grown to include interview subjects who come from outside the traditional world of design because she had become more and more interested in how people design their lives. “I define design as anything that has a deliberate plan,” she says. We also settled on the word “construct” as a descriptor for design as it is found within and beyond the world of physical objects: “Whether that be a brand, a house, or a movement, they are all very much constructs with the same DNA.”

Weiss picked up on this word in her answer to my question about what had motivated her and Manfredi to create a cross-disciplinary architecture practice. “We’d say the architecture project over time became more and more constrained by administrative boundaries that said ‘here’s architecture, here’s landscape, here’s urban design, and here’s planning.’ We felt that architecture had become so slenderized as to lose its capacity to construct, or be instrumental in creating public life. So we began our practice with the idea that we could enter competitions that ask larger questions, and began to think about how we might actually allow some project that may be in fact private in nature… to become public in its dimension.” Manfredi pushed the idea a little further: “That hybridity is where we think our world is going. Increasingly, we’re so interconnected in both very positive ways and very negative ways that it’s impossible to see any particular construct as isolated and part of a singular world.”

I invited Cesal into the conversation with a question about beauty, and whether in his work in disaster zones he ever encountered examples of accidental or naïve architecture that affected him in a profound way. Again, the word construct came in handy: “I would say that real beauty is rarely an accident,” he says. “It’s something that you have to carve out of the world.
It’s all around us, but it’s often obscured, specifically by social constructs that we put around it, like ‘Architecture with a capital A,’ which I’m really sick of hearing.” (Full disclosure: I had just used the term. What can I say? It’s pervasive!)

From there, the conversation evolved more or less organically, with questions arising out of answers and the panelists jumping in to add additional thoughts to their colleagues’ responses. We discussed more on the nature of beauty, responses to disaster, architecture as a cure for our increasingly connected-but-isolated culture, the panelists’ impressions of Texas, and their advice on how best to persuade clients. There isn’t space here to report on it all, so if you are interested in hearing more please visit txamagazine.org, where we have posted a full-length video of the panel.

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