As we close out on a year that offered as much fear and despair as hope and optimism, members of the architecture community from around the state share some of what they have learned.
FILO CASTORE, AIA / HOUSTON
On the morning of March 12, 2020, I reported for jury duty. Sitting in a poorly designed, crowded, cold, and dark assembly room, I waited to learn if I was going to be selected. Like everyone else around me, I was constantly checking my phone to make sure I didn’t miss any major, world-changing announcement. Sure enough, an email from the Jacobs leadership team notified me that starting the following week, we were all going to work remotely. Except to collect a few personal items, I have not been back to the office since.
As part of a global design firm with 400+ offices around the world, including Asia, we were made fully aware of the escalating gravity of the situation through internal updates that had started to be circulated earlier in the year. Some anxiety and fear of the unknown were already part of our daily conversations and internal memos. Now COVID was a local reality as well.
A good portion of my duties and responsibilities at Jacobs includes business development and client engagement. I immediately realized that “business as usual” interactions were gone, for at least a few months — everything would be back to normal by summer, I thought. Some 20 months later, uncertainty is the main challenge that continues to muddle my overall daily planning and long-term strategy. Furthermore, I really struggled with folks that kept saying they could not wait to go back to “normal.” My outlook was definitely focused on moving forward to “better.”
Three main facets helped me endure and thrive during this period: my family, my work family (including clients), and technology.
My family, including relatives around the world, has been the constant lifeline that kept me grounded, whether through long neighborhood walks or frequent FaceTime meals. The strength of my work family has been a welcome discovery as we got to know each other better through technology and personal stories that we shared with each other. I learned that there is always at least one sports car fanatic, talented musician, serious gardener, and passionate chef among us. Through informal remote connections, including our 15-minute daily check-ins (where you can show off your favorite coffee mug), many of us were also able to find out about previously unknown expertise or skill sets. Our clients also became more accessible, allowing us to become more attentive and attuned. We all needed to stay more connected. We all needed each other, as people, transcending business hierarchies.
All of this was enabled by the prescient, robust technology investment that Jacobs made over the past several years to establish a reliable, connected enterprise platform as we transitioned from a traditional engineering firm into a technology company implementing design solutions.
However, we learned that even though the pandemic was impacting all of us, we were not all experiencing it in the same way. Absolutely not.
All the 50,000+ Jacobs employees have different personal situations outside the traditional office walls, and not everyone has been dealing with the evolving situation in the same ways. Suddenly, thousands of different realities started to overlap and weave into everyone’s ability to do their work. Even though the video conferencing tools that we were able to leverage almost immediately allowed us to peek into everyone’s personal lives and situations, it has not been easy to provide support to each other from a distance.
Today, as we recalibrate and redefine how we interact with each other, we are emerging out of this global experience stronger than before. We now know more about the importance of human interactions and have been invited to redefine the depth and the meaning of empathy.
Filo Castore, AIA, is a principal at Jacobs People & Places Solutions in Houston. He was born in Fiesole, Italy.
AUSTEN KERNODLE / SAN ANTONIO
When I was a young boy visiting my grandparents for summer vacation, I would never nap on a surface specifically designed for sleeping. Instead, I would wait for a set of warm, golden polygons to fall onto the low pile carpet in the living room. These shapes painted by light were generated by two southern facing windows: one, a typical rectangle, and the other, a half-trapezoid. The sun’s path would cause these daylit shapes to sweep across the floor, and I would follow in semi-conscious slumber, lying in the center of whichever patch of sun I chose to chase that day, only to be fully awakened when it ascended the east wall, leaving my skin cool until the next day’s nap.
Experiential intimacy, like chasing that perfect napping spot, is the result of extended exposure to a space until the user understands it fully. In other words, the genius loci of a place is only unveiled through time. As I aged beyond the napping stage (although many days I could still use one), the narrative both in my life as an individual and as someone obsessed with architecture was one giving primacy to the public over the private.
The idea of the public is necessary, and one that I credit with who I am today. However, from a purely observational standpoint, the way I perceived balance between the two was myopic. On a day-to-day basis, I would encounter a space to work, a space to gather and do jiu-jitsu, architectural works justified by arguments for the public, hundreds if not thousands of spots to go to be entertained, readings about cities, options for where to eat and with whom — and the list goes on. My private life was continuously unfolding into the public realm, and the apartment occupied by my fiancée and me had become (merely) an expensive storage unit for our objects, a place from which to stream instruction to my students, and a site for my much longer, much more adult naps.
This remained true and unexamined until a tiny culprit — a virus measured in nanometers, according to my limited understanding — caused an entire planet to retreat into the abyss of the private. As our public lives folded into a more private realm, there was more time for thinking. The chatter of making so many decisions each day faded, and, in the resulting clarity, I found myself in search of golden polygons, trees rustling, or even a shadow I could count on. I searched every day and eventually realized that no unveiling was going to happen: The space was devoid of intimate potential. I was not depressed by this. Instead, I continued to think and dive deeper into my library. A conclusion emerged that was contrary to most of what I had been taught and had come to believe: I absolutely love single-family houses.
There, I said it!
I enjoy just about everything about them. From imagining different lives in them to the architectural quips about houses that have become overplayed and are guaranteed to get a few eyes rolling, to the rapid testing of ideas, and all the good and bad in between. So … we bought one. We ended our lease and purchased a little house. Going through that process during the pandemic is a story for another time. But until then, we have found a few reliable shadows to pursue, and hopefully some wacky houses will emerge out of the pandemic to get us all thinking again.
Austen Kernodle recently graduated from Princeton University with a master’s degree in architecture. He now teaches in the architecture program at San Antonio College.
STEPHEN “CHICK” RABOURN, AIA / MARFA
The Donald Judd retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art opened on March 1, 2020, as New York City began what would become its first wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Several Marfans who attended the opening came back to Marfa to quarantine, and there were rumors of possible infections but little to actually know. A little later, several residents arrived from New York on a private plane, and the sheriff of Presidio County posted their addresses on Facebook to out them as potential spreaders. But it took a long time for Marfa to report any cases, and none of them spread significantly throughout the community, though we later routinely tested with the National Guard in long lines of vehicles wrapping around the courthouse.
It was sublimely quiet for several weeks with no cars parked on Highland Avenue, with all the businesses shut and all the tourists absent. The town felt like it did back in 2006, when the town ran quietly and secretly behind the scenes. Like urban wildlife, locals shyly reemerged on bicycles in the quiet streets. There was nowhere to eat other than your own kitchen. It was wonderful.
My wife and I cooked as if every day was a holiday and cultivated cocktails. We began having long coffees on the patio in the morning and then reconvening for happy hour by 5:00. We each work by ourselves — she in her soap factory and I in an obsolescent classroom at the First United Methodist Church — so our routines were not dramatically altered. But the relaxed schedule felt necessary to process the chaotic, perplexing, and sinister public spectacles playing out on a hellish daily loop.
The slowdown opened a mental space for reflection about place, the past, and the roles that architects play in unfolding historical narratives. The West in general — and thus West Texas in particular — was won by equal parts force and deceit. The victory was achieved via racial and environmental depredations that continue today. Judd bought the abandoned and looted Fort D.A. Russell, which was no longer required to quell existential threats: The Nazis were defeated; the Comanches and Apaches were displaced; and the border was a recognized fact. A security was established that allowed people of means to buy and build whatever they wished. Judd dreamed of an art museum beyond the reaches of the market. Today, people come here dreaming of real estate and architecture, sited on pristine landscape, framing dramatic views, and built using the highest technological means and craft. Many see open land as an opportunity to build their monuments, with the landscape acting as both a blank canvas and a grand backdrop. Architects find these propositions very sexy indeed. But no landscape is without memory, and in far West Texas, that memory is fertilized with human remains and overgrazed.
Marfa has been a great redoubt from the pandemic, as well as from the crush of development and inequality in the cities. But if anything, the pandemic is speeding up migration from the cities and will continue to serve as a reminder that we’re all stuck in the same moment, with the past looming over us, clamoring forward.
Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.
ANASTASIA CALHOUN, ASSOC. AIA / AUSTIN
When I was growing up, the world seemed loud. Music, trains, sirens — they would all send me into a minor panic. I spent a lot of time trying to control the volume on the world. I spent a lot of time alone, not because I was shy, but because of the calmness that came with it. I don’t remember it being a conscious choice. Rather, it was an instinctual act of self-preservation. As I grew into adulthood, instead of trying to fight it, I leaned into it. I felt that if I somehow moved fast enough, if I could keep pace with it, the world wouldn’t seem as loud.
But when the pandemic hit, it felt as though we had collectively been on a runaway train moving at a hundred miles per hour that suddenly hit a brick wall. At first it was eerie, as if the world had fallen into an unexpected sleep. I fought it wholeheartedly, racing to match my hustle and bustle with a strange digital version of it, at the same speed. I was working full time at an architecture firm, wrote regularly for Texas Architect, co-chaired TEDx San Antonio’s programming committee, and somehow also found time to launch a new side business. My iPhone had never seen so much love as during those early days of the quarantine.
About a month into lockdown, however, I was laid off from my firm. Although this turn of events increased my personal sense of the uncertainty we were all experiencing, it gave me time to slow down. I started taking long, two-hour walks with my dog. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had the luxury of just wandering with no agenda and no place to be.
At first, I stubbornly held onto the idea of staying in Texas. But the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing riots shifted something inside me. The world felt fundamentally different. This, coupled with the second wave of COVID, spurred me to move back to my hometown in Oklahoma to be near family until I figured out what was next. I had no idea how long that would be: a month? a year? five years? It was surrender in the truest form. I hadn’t had much experience with that feeling in my life. All I could hope for was to ride the wave and see where it took me.
The months that followed were mundane but full of the little pleasures that came with being a part of the everyday fabric of my family members’ lives. I played with my nephews and drove my parents to doctor’s appointments. These things might have been chores, if I hadn’t lived away for most of my adult life.
And I spent a lot of time alone. It weighed on me, at first, but soon I settled into a peaceful rhythm. Despite the chaos the world was experiencing — the social justice movement, the natural disasters, the election — I found a stillness in myself I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. When the polar vortex hit in February 2021, it felt like a lockdown within a lockdown. The snow outside remained on the ground for more than a week, a rare occurrence in Oklahoma, and it was so beautifully quiet. It was during that week that I began to wonder if I would ever be able to return to the outside world as a functioning member of society.
But within a few weeks I received my first dose of the vaccine, administered in a casino after I had lived through a two-hour wait in the parking lot — an oh-so-Oklahoma experience. A month after that, I received the second round, and the social invitations began to come in.
And I was entirely anxious about it. I was invited to a close friend’s birthday party, and I spent three weeks scheming on how to get out of it. I eventually decided to arrive early and then slip away before too many people arrived. But I soon discovered everyone was anxious and awkward and overly eager to connect. We chatted for hours, trying to condense the year we had been through — globally or collectively shared, but individually experienced — into cocktail conversation. We fished on a dock at sunset, an act that was refreshingly normal and surreal at the same time.
Not long afterwards, I accepted a new job at an Austin firm located in a stunningly modern, industrial, open-plan office — a space that felt too loud and too bright, despite it only being at 20 percent capacity. Each day I went to the office, I was in bed by eight. I realized that all the coping mechanisms I had developed to deal with the outside world had worn away over the course of the previous year — and that I wasn’t alone anymore.
It is believed between 15 and 30 percent of the world’s population has a neurological trait known as sensory processing sensitivity, which involves having a highly attuned, upregulated neurological system. It at once allows for heightened aesthetic responses — thus many with it enter creative or artistic fields — and puts one at risk of overwhelm. This sensitivity often appears in neurodiverse populations, such as those with giftedness, ADHD, and/or autism, but it can also occur in the general population. Members of different animal species can also exhibit this trait.
What’s important to understand is that what’s good for these populations — the ability to dim the lights and sit in silence, for example — is also good for the broader population. It’s not that we have entirely different needs; you could think of us like canaries in a coal mine, who can signal trouble before anyone else recognizes it.
A 2019 New Yorker article proposed noise pollution as the next public health crisis, correlated with the destruction of mental, physical, and ecological health. “Quiet places,” says the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, “have been on the road to extinction at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species.” I say this not to bring more doom and gloom into our lives — we have plenty of that to go around — but rather in the hope that, whatever our post-COVID world looks like, we can cultivate a world that is a little gentler, a little quieter. I think we all need it. So whenever we do “return to normal,” I sincerely hope that “normal” contains a few more quiet places.
Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, is chair of TxA’s Publications Committee.
ANNA CAIRNS / COLLEGE STATION
I realized I wanted to be an architect in the fall of 2019 while I was a student at Texas A&M in College Station. I only had a few months left before I would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and, with the deadline to apply to grad school fast approaching, I chose to wait a year to make sure I was confident in my decision to upend my life to pursue architecture. But within a few short months, everyone’s life had been upended. Times Square stood empty, and people were making bootleg hand sanitizer. I already regretted my decision to wait.
When I discovered that my undergraduate institution was reopening graduate admissions to seniors who graduated during the pandemic, I jumped at the chance. My portfolio was a scrapbook of poor craftsmanship, and my writing samples were infused with bright-eyed idealism about my future. The longer I waited to hear back from the school, the more confident I was that I would be rejected. Somehow, they let me in. They told me that I got in exactly one week before I would attend my first studio class.
My whirlwind acceptance, empty bank account, and total confidence that the virus was going to shut campus down in a matter of weeks all spurred me to pack up my life and move back into my parents’ home in Houston. I entertained concepts like mass and void, phenomenal transparency, and the right way to draw stairs — in my childhood bedroom, over Zoom.
After a remote fall semester, I moved back to College Station before the spring semester began. I picked up a part-time job and moved in with people I barely knew. For the first time since I entered grad school, I felt like I was embarking on a new life.
As much as I love architecture, the last year has been the hardest of my life. Whether I was in Houston or College Station, I struggled immensely. “I’m just having a hard time being a person right now,” I would say for the fifth time in one week. Socially, mentally, and academically, it was relentless. Having no yardstick for “normal,” it’s hard to say if a year of pandemic school was any better or worse than usual.
Seasoned professionals will tell you that the grueling task of completing an architecture degree is tempered by the bonds you make with others — that your comrades will make the hard work bearable. Those of us who entered our first design studio in the last year may have made friends, but I don’t believe we’ve had the full “studio culture” experience. Before the vaccine arrived at the beginning of summer, every invitation to hang out outside of class had to be weighed against the possibility of missing two weeks of class and work. It’s easy to reduce the effects of the pandemic to the tangibles, but it’s harder to understand the opportunities that were never available to us.
As far as my architectural education goes, present circumstances have made a great impact on how I see the built environment. Spending a year in relative isolation has made me obsessed with the idea of public versus private. Why do we crave the forum? Are people content with their homes, or are they usually too busy to think about it? Have we built the best cities if business sectors are standing empty? After we saw emissions fall so drastically during lockdown, can we definitively say that climate change is, at least in part, a design problem? Do HGTV renovators regret tearing down interior walls now that their children can’t leave the house?
In some ways, I’m glad that I started my career in architecture when I did. It’s hard to build an ego while your mom cooks dinner for you every night and your daily highlight is watching “Jeopardy!” with your dad. I had the luxury of turning off my camera after a brutal review. I have a greater appreciation for the small, intimate ways that architecture shapes our lives when spectacle is so hard to come by.
It’s impossible to say what the future will bring, but this ordeal has given me greater faith in my own resilience than I thought possible. My path has been unconventional, but even that is becoming normal.
Anna Cairns graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in political science from Texas A&M University, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture degree.
MARK T. WELLEN, FAIA / MIDLAND
The current status of the COVID-19 pandemic has devolved into a slightly more predictable constant, somewhat equivalent to a dull headache — not incapacitating, yet bad enough to compromise effective activity. I must remind myself this pandemic is just that, a global health catastrophe unlike any experienced in my lifetime. It has had more far-reaching implications than the inconvenience encountered in our day-to-day practice.
In the early days of the crisis, I had an awareness of the dangers but was generally unconcerned about the possibility of contracting the disease. On March 2, 2020, my father-in-law was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. This event was extremely important to my wife and her large, extended family, and to me. The interment date had been secured months in advance (with much difficulty), and I personally considered my attendance mandatory. Although COVID was not yet a major concern, I must admit to some uneasiness in arriving and departing from a large international airport. Seeing travelers with face masks dangling around their necks was disconcerting, and my confidence began to be challenged.
Over the next few weeks, the looming impact of the pandemic was becoming more direct with each day’s news. And then came April 20, 2020. On that fateful day, the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude dropped to a negative $37 per barrel. The significance of this event may have been lost in the flood of other bad pandemic news, but to those located at the epicenter of the energy industry, the impact was instantaneous and acute. The specter of COVID was immediately supplanted by the gloom of a monumental “bust.” Within days, many of our larger projects were put on indefinite hold or cancelled outright, sending shock waves that COVID itself had yet to give rise to, directly, at least as far as we were concerned. To our good fortune, the boards of some midsized nonprofit projects had secured donations for funding which in turn provided the opportunity to continue work. These projects and a handful of other small ones, coupled with assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program, allowed us to make it through the year without personnel layoffs.
For a while, the devastation of our local economy temporarily eclipsed our concerns about COVID itself, but the reality of the global pandemic soon hit home. The first case of infection of a staff member hastened the office closing and the subsequent pains of adjusting to a work-from-home business model. Since that initial case, other staff members have contracted COVID over the past year (none by intra-office transmission), prompting decamping numerous times. Employees uncomfortable with working in the office continue to have the option of working from home, but we attempt to keep the studio open while encouraging safe interaction. I will admit, the increased prevalence of video conferencing platforms will have some long-term benefits in the way we work, but I remain unconvinced that the benefit of their convenience replaces the effectiveness of face-to-face meetings. The nuance of communication is diffused in the result. That said, one of the pleasant outcomes of these video conferences was a weekly late-day virtual get-together with old friends, all architects from around the state. These hour-long visits were one of the few bright spots in the early dark days of the pandemic.
Our biggest concern as 2021 began was the uncertainty that came with having little or no new work. These worries were fortified by continued low oil prices. Working in a region that is so dependent on the success of energy-related businesses, we are at the mercy of the price of oil. Surviving the many rounds of the boom-and-bust cycle of the energy industry has always been a reality of maintaining an architectural practice in the Permian Basin, but the events of the last year have once again hardened our resolve to remain afloat and move forward.
As the early months of 2021 unrolled, we were frankly shocked by the volume of new work that began to come into the office. Buoyed by the phenomenon of urban landowners’ relocation to more remote locations and a mild resurgence of oil prices, new projects are again flowing. Due to uncertainties in the energy industry as well as in the work-from-home movement, the future of corporate work remains clouded. The current overriding concern for us is the impact of material supply chain interruptions — and the wild cost fluctuations associated with them — as well as construction workforce shortages. Hopefully the corrections, whatever they may be, will happen sooner rather than later, as they remain the largest dark cloud over a surprisingly normalized construction industry.
There is no doubt that we will see an evolving perspective from our client base as market forces and climate issues continue to shape the energy industry. How these attitudes emerge is yet to be revealed. We will continue to adapt and embrace these changes affecting the nature of our office culture and client interaction while doggedly refusing to lose sight of the precept that there is a basic human need for personal connection.
Mark T. Wellen, FAIA, is a principal of Rhotenberry Wellen Architects in Midland. This past October, the Texas Society of Architects honored him with the O’Neil Ford Medal for Design Achievement.
MARISSA CLINESMITH, ASSOC. AIA / FORT WORTH
I had been working at my firm for less than a year when the lockdown started. I felt comfortable with the office synergy, but as we packed up everything we thought would need for the next week to work remotely from home, everyone had some fear of how things were going to unfold.
Starting a new job fresh out of graduate school and switching from college to professional life had already required a significant adjustment. I also happened to get married during the pandemic. It was challenging to both plan the event and comply with CDC guidelines — I never thought a “sanitation station” would be a part of my special day. While others cancelled or postponed their plans, my fiancé and I kept moving forward because we didn’t know if the world would ever go back to pre-pandemic life. We hoped that changing COVID regulations would bring us all back to normalcy, but, after six months, we feared this might be our new normal.
While the pandemic certainly made things more difficult for many in our country and all over the world, the ability to effectively work from home changed my views on work productivity for the better. One of the biggest benefits of working remotely was feeling as if I had received a raise since I was no longer having to commute and pay for tolls, gas, and everything else just to get to and from work. I was also able to spend more time with my new husband, who, like me, was also working remotely. Before lockdown, we had completely different schedules, so being able to spend more time together benefited our relationship. In fact, many of my relationships improved during the lockdown. My coworkers were adamant about Thursday evening virtual happy hours, which were a great way to get a glimpse into colleagues’ personal lives and check in on one another’s well-being. Similarly, I was able to communicate with friends and family across the world and see them more often via Zoom and FaceTime calls. The uncertainty about the pandemic brought many people together to communicate and understand the information circulating in the news and to empathize with those who were isolated during the lockdown.
Through all the stages of the pandemic, my firm’s leaders were always aware of the news and quickly shared information with us. They always appeared calm and collected, but I know it must have been a struggle to keep up with constantly-evolving regulations while doing the work of an architecture firm.
I never felt pressured to go back to the office. While most of my peers were having to go back to the office prematurely at the first hint of normalcy during the pandemic, the flexibility my office allowed has greatly benefited my productivity and mental health. The ability to split my time between working from home and working in the office has dramatically decreased my anxiety.
While I believe a mix of remote working and office interaction works best for me, every employee is different. I hope other employers have learned from the pandemic that they should be flexible in allowing employees to work wherever they are most comfortable and productive. For some that might mean being in an office every single day, while for others it might mean always working remotely. Or it may be some combination of the two. I think the drastic shift caused by the pandemic has caused supervisors to be more open to the possibility that people can be productive in different environments, and I hope leaders in all industries and professions — not just in architecture — see this shift in office culture and technology as a mutual benefit, for them and for their employees.
Marissa Clinesmith, Assoc. AIA, is a project coordinator with GFF in Fort Worth.