David Heymann is an architect’s architect. With clients ranging from former President George W. Bush to the Audubon Society, degrees from Cooper Union and Harvard, many national design awards, and a professorship at UT Austin’s School of Architecture, Heymann, as they say, is the real deal.
Though his passion for architecture is evident, Heymann has never shied away from critiquing the field, often eschewing stylistic trends that cater to the masses in favor of smart designs that respond to and complement the environment in which they are sited. In My Beautiful City Austin, his poignant and hilarious collection of short stories — yes, Heymann’s also a gifted writer — we meet a young architect trapped in a cycle of designing homes for clients that “aid and abet the ongoing erasure of this city’s ambrosial charm,” with refrigerators specifically selected to “hold a large pizza box.” While the stories are fiction, one immediately senses the author’s very real frustration with an ever-changing Austin. Heymann raises important questions about the role (and perhaps even responsibility) of architects and other creatives in shaping their environment.
We sat down with Heymann to discuss his work, his writing, and the state of architecture in our fair city.
Kathleen Brady Stimpert: David, you’re as adept at writing as you are architecture. Do you find commonalities between these endeavors? How does one inform the other for you?
David Heymann: There are obvious similarities: structure, complexity, order, layering, richness. Stories being written start leading their own lives, like designs in process — you sense you’re uncovering not inventing. I’m suspicious of the similarities though. I value the distinctions between disciplines, partly because architecture notoriously steals from other fields. But it’s hard to steal from writing. In stories there’s room for believable excuses, weakness, circumstance, perversion: things that work less well in architectural design. The two reconnect for me at motivation. The stories in My Beautiful City Austin are all fiction, but have believable motivations for why the houses are made, and why the stories are told. I’ve learned a lot as an architect about what drives people. Stories are perhaps less consequent than buildings, but writing has sharpened the way I was already thinking about buildings, that each one was best for being unlike all others, and you could make hay from that singularity.
KBS: In My Beautiful City Austin, you focus on an architect’s struggle to remain true to his craft without “selling out” to clients in order to make a living. That is a dilemma that creatives in many fields grapple with. What advice do you have for them?
DH: What a can of worms! I’m just going to open it and let things crawl out. I mostly include architecture in the Services, rather than the Arts — it fails in so many ways where the arts succeed. With a few exceptions, the making of buildings is controlled by circumstances and marketplace. Some architects are able, for reasons ranging from skill at communicating to good looks, to work against that more successfully. You don’t really sell out in architecture: you find your level. There are certainly offices with high ideals, but none of them are (like a painter burning paintings) blowing up buildings in which their authorship has been compromised, like the fictional architect Howard Roark. That as an architect you are, through the agency of your client, working also to clarify your own capacity is obviously an open secret. But I don’t generally find that an interesting form of creativity in architecture (as opposed to writing, where I insist on it). Don’t get me wrong: there’s tremendous creativity in architecture. But for me it’s more like the creativity of a great detective — at least the great ones in stories! — sorting complex motivations against improbable facts to structure life fully. In writing My Beautiful City Austin much of the work went into convincing the reader that each improbable story is entirely true. That’s a quality I’d like my buildings to achieve. I realize that’s not an answer! I counsel young architects to speak up when they disagree, that professionalism is about honesty, and that professionalism and conventional creativity are two different things altogether. Both are active, but in architecture either one has the potential to cancel the other at any time. Real creativity in architecture is something different altogether.
KBS: Your research centers on the relationship of buildings and the natural landscape. Here in Austin, there seems to have emerged a particular aesthetic— a sort of updated take on mid-century modernism. How do you feel about this sensibility? Are Austin architects successfully responding to the city’s natural environment?
DH: I wish I weren’t the cynic I am about this. That kind of nostalgic false-Modernism — false because Modernism rejected nostalgia — is popular everywhere in the U.S.: architects congratulate themselves for it all over. We associate it with Austin in Austin perhaps because it calls up a city like the one we think Austin is, or was. But Austin doesn’t have great mid-century bones (it was cool for other reasons). L.A. is the city for that era’s architecture. I like less the look than the fact that that architecture was invented to address interesting problems: the evolving structure of families, a new kind of neighborliness, new definitions of propriety, an easing of social hierarchies, a closer relationship to the outdoors and its role in the everyday. It also recognized changing technologies, like the arrival of the family car. I think those evolutions have continued on in ways that could easily make whole new architectures possible (and whole new problems have been added in, like sustainability and the arrival of the computer). Mid-century is 66 years ago! That architecture did often take the natural environment into consideration, often beautifully in form. But it generally did so at the scale of the single-family house on the suburban lot (laid out so the wife could easily take care of the home); it ended up succeeding by air-conditioning single-pane glass enclosures, rather than follow its more radical impulses. ‘Nuff said.
KBS: What do you think is next for Austin in terms of architectural design?
DH: More misery. Given that so many people want to build here, the pathetic ratio of good buildings to mediocre (at all scales) is a drag. I don’t really blame architects for this — see above about hand-maidens to circumstance and the marketplace — except when they crow about
gentrification cool new things happening on the east side, which is unforgivable. Based on the evidence, Austin has never had a good marketplace for great architecture (except Cret at UT). Maybe I should stop advising really good architecture students to leave here once they graduate in order to protect their souls, but I think the problem in Austin is as much our need to build a culture of great clients, including the City.
KBS: Can we expect any new books from you in the future?
DH: I certainly hope so, because I loved writing My Beautiful City Austin. I’ve started something, but it hasn’t yet taken on its own life — I’ve been busy with practice. And I still write long-form essays for Places Journal (here is the link). But fiction is an exceptional vehicle for communicating certain things that are impossible to get at by other means. My Beautiful City Austin actually started as an essay about how my generation had ruined architecture. It was a boring essay, but a terrific set of stories.
David Heymann currently serves as the Harwell Hamilton Harris Regents Professor in Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. His teaching has received numerous honors, including the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, the Texas Society of Architects’ Romeiniec Teaching Award, the Friars’ Centennial Award, and the University of Texas Ex-student Teaching Award. He is an Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Distinguished Teaching Professor, and a University of Texas Distinguished Teaching Professor. Heymann served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs from 1998 to 2003.
The focus of Heymann’s writing, research, and practice is the relationship of buildings and landscapes, particularly natural landscapes. Heymann’s architectural work has been nationally published and recognized with design honors, including selection for Emerging Voices by the Architecture League of New York. In 2014 he was elevated to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. He has been a visiting scholar at the Bogliasco Foundation Liguria Study Center, the Rockefeller Bellagio Center, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston Dora Maar House in Menerbes, and the American Academy in Rome; and he was a resident artist on The Arctic Circle program.
Heymann is a contributing writer for Places Journal. His Places essay “Landscape is our Sex” received the 2012 Bradford Williams Medal from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Heymann’s book of short stories, My Beautiful City Austin, was published in November, 2014.
Kathleen Brady Stimpert is a writer, editor, and public relations professional with a focus on the cultural sector.