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    United States Courthouse, Austin, designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects of Atlanta. Photo by Casey Dunn.

TxA’s 78th Annual Conference and Design Expo took place in Austin on November 9–11, 2017. It attracted approximately 3,000 attendees — architects, architectural designers, allied professionals, students, and exhibitors. The theme was Threshold: Bridges|Boundaries, a prompt that went straight to the heart of the divisive era in which we all now have to do our business. By and large, there seemed to be more bridging taking place among attendees — a good sign for the profession — but certain boundary lines were exposed as well. Whether making a connection or putting up a wall, we all learned a lot.

If there was one keynote speaker I expected to be more polarizing than the rest, it was Michael Ford, the black “hip-hop architect” from Detroit. It doesn’t take a statistician to tell you that the architecture world in Texas — in the whole U.S. for that matter — is mostly white and male, and, certainly when it comes to AIA members who attend conferences like ours, 50 years old and older. How would this majority of attending TxA members, who came of age before hip-hop was popular, react?

Ford appeared on stage with a DJ, to a packed house. His lecture was interspersed with hip-hop music. He made a compelling argument for African-American culture in general, and hip-hop in specific, as architectural Modernism’s chief critic — its “post-occupancy report.” Ford calls the high-rise public housing developments that “renewed” vast swaths of American cities in the 20th century — which were at least somewhat derived from the theories of Le Corbusier — “the worst remix in history.” He presented hip-hop lyrics that express what these environments do to the human beings who live in them. And he spoke about his Hip-Hop Architecture Camp, which travels around the country, introducing architecture to under-represented youth.

The response from the crowd was overwhelmingly positive. Afterward, more than one older white guy told Ford that, while they had never liked hip-hop, they were ready to give it another try.

Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam followed Ford and put on the most alienating presentation of all the keynotes. It left many in the audience befuddled because Scogin and Elam declined to explain what they showed us — and most of what they showed was difficult to understand. For example, it began with a short film, not about architecture, but about post-structuralist linguistics — a part of postmodern continental philosophy that influenced deconstructivism in architecture. Most of their keynote was like that, put on without preamble for the cool kids in the room with liberal arts backgrounds.

But just when the uninitiated were ready to dismiss them as nothing more than abstruse, black-cape hipsters, Scogin and Elam came to their Austin Courthouse project. Elam walked us through the design, which was based on solid architectural fundamentals. What at first glance might appear an empty formal gesture was actually revealed to be founded on a logical methodology. (Elam noted that its post-occupancy report has been excellent!) The fact that the building is also beguiling makes it all the more a triumph.

If Scogin and Elam left many scratching their heads, the final keynote speaker,  Joshua Prince-Ramus, principal of REX, was frightfully explicit. Humbly, using plain language, he introduced the audience to the way REX produces buildings — a process that, with certain debts to his time at OMA, has led to such standouts as the Seattle Central Library and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas. He relied heavily on the metaphor of the Trojan horse, making the point that, when attempting to advance an innovative agenda with a client, it is best to cloak it in appealing garb.

If he came down hard on anybody, it was on architects who would bend a project to the service of their formal preoccupations. His assertion that “a skyscraper should be the embodiment of a development strategy” was made with the example of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, whose sloping walls cemented its upper floors as apartments and the lower as offices, making it incapable of adapting to the changing market. At the same time, the work he presented was not all bland extrusions in plan. It possessed great aesthetic power, proving the point that beautiful, well-made buildings can also make people money — for a long time.

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