Architects David Lake and Ted Flato create smart and solid projects that embody the ‘rancher values’ they cherish. Working as partners in the San Antonio-based firm Lake|Flato since 1984, David and Ted credit their mentor with encouraging timeless designs that are perfectly integrated into the landscape. They look to past practices and current technologies to develop sustainable designs that work with nature, always taking into consideration local design languages, materials and craftsmanship. Though they have won many awards for their work, David and Ted value solutions over fads and collaboration over ego.
Air Barns project by Lake|Flato
It’s got to be so tempting as an architect to build something that stands out and has a look-at-me quality, but your designs are all about integration — with the landscape, with light and air, with the built environment, even with history. How do you get your own ego out of the way and achieve this seamless effect?
I don’t find it very hard. David and I both draw our inspiration from the condition, and every condition is different. And so there’s the site and the constraints of the site, there are the challenges — which in some cases are my favorite situations because the site is flawed and we could actually make a difference and make it even better. Mend it, as we like to say. So it’s always a reaction to a condition, always looking beyond the smaller project at hand to the larger world — a neighbor that’s nearby or the bigger landscape. It’s trying to make projects that fit in and are comfortable where they are and work with the environment.
Chandler Ranch House, design by Lake|Flato
View from Chandler Ranch House, design by Lake|Flato
Cloud 9 residence on lake, design by Lake|Flato
A lot of architects work toward integrating green principles into their designs, but you really take it back to the roots of what were once common sense practices. Can you describe some of these sustainable design elements and how you’re researching these past design and construction techniques?
Well, it begins with working with non-mechanical systems, the way projects or buildings used to be sustainable before we could afford so much energy — prior to air conditioning or heating. And this means considering the immediate challenges of the environment, which is where the sun is and how you keep the sun at bay in some projects or how you invite the sun in to warm an interior space or bring daylighting in. Also enhancing the natural ventilation of a building, to work with prevailing breezes or to keep the colder winds at bay. So it begins with a reaction to immediate environmental conditions that have always existed.
And then it involves layering in new technologies and new systems that make the building an even smarter response to environmental challenges. But it does begin with the real basics, and that’s why it’s always been so integrated. You know, one of the things when we began our practice was when we were doing projects that were in the country where, as we like to say, style took a back seat. The challenge was really how do you make a building that’s really one with the environment, that starts to erase that line between indoors and out. And so those kinds of projects were really how you could make a space that was comfortable even in a hot climate or in a colder climate but still stay connected with the outdoors. So that meant really working with the basics — wind and sun and rain.
We very much believe in looking at earlier regional responses to new places where we’re working. Because that’s often vernacular architecture, and vernacular architecture is architecture where people couldn’t afford to get it wrong. If you blew it and you had a cold winter, you might not make it through that winter! So those buildings have always helped inform us on what some thoughtful responses are to conditions that are still the same. So there’s looking back, and then there’s looking forward and using science and technologies that we now have available to evaluate in a more scientific manner how to keep a building either cool or warm or more energy efficient.
Elm Court residence light and ventilation features, design by Lake|Flato
Natural light in Armstrong Oil and Gas conference room, design by Lake|Flato
You talk about how your designs relate to each local culture as vernacular architecture, and I know a good amount of your work is in Texas and the southwest U.S. To what extent do you think you could understand other regional environments, or do you prefer to stay closer to home?
No, what I love is getting to work in new places with new challenges, and I think we’re very, very good at that. We enjoy getting to work in different climates and places where different materials are available, where skills of local craftsmen are available. That’s what makes our work interesting. For me, that’s what keeps me excited every day — getting new challenges.
Hilltop Arboretum in Louisiana, design by Lake|Flato
Carraro residence in Texas, design by Lake|Flato
Interior gallery in House of Light in Santa Fe, design by Lake|Flato
Central to your design philosophy is something you refer to as ‘rancher’ values — pragmatism, frugality, and using what local resources are available. So when you approach a new project such as the International Center in San Antonio, are you first looking at what’s there already that’s usable and that might inspire your design?
Yes, one of the things about sustainability is being very efficient and thoughtful about whatever cards you’re dealt. One of the most sustainable ways of doing architecture is reusing buildings. So when we’re given the challenge of having an existing building, that’s exactly what we do. What are the real values of that existing building, and how best to leverage it, what to keep and what to open up and what to change and what to recycle. So it’s just an added, interesting problem.
International Center in San Antonio, design by Lake|Flato
To take this rancher values question a step further, I see you’re not afraid to mix some humble materials with more refined ones. Have your clients come to seek you out for this, or is this ever a hard sell?
For the most part now, most people come to us because they know some of the work that we’ve done or just appreciate the overall approach and the philosophy of the firm. But there was certainly a time where we’d start a project with a client and they didn’t anticipate what the building was going to look like. It’s not that it’s a hard sell, it’s about talking about what is the most appropriate way of solving problems and challenges. So sometimes that is using very modest and humble materials, and sometimes it’s rich and beautiful and more expensive things, and you combine them and work with them. It’s a collaborative process — that’s one thing that makes architecture different than fine art. There’s a number of people working together to solve a problem. And so the big part starts with setting up smart goals and aspirations for a project, and everyone agreeing to go in the same direction or agreeing that these are the real challenges we have ahead of us, and then solving those in the smartest way. And then if you start working through that logic, some things end up being surprising.
I remember a client a long time ago, and he said ‘you know, the very first thing I told them was I didn’t want any sheet metal.’ And everyone laughs because, lo and behold, their house has a lot of sheet metal on it! But there was logic for why we ended up there — you know, it’s a very refined metal, and the way it came together it was not in the least bit just plain sheet metal but was flat seamed and beautiful pieces of metal, and it just made sense that it would weather better in the conditions where we had it.
Cloud 9 residence hallway, design by Lake|Flato
Lake Austin house exterior, design by Lake|Flato
I understand your mentor O’Neil Ford posed the question “What will your building look like as a ruin?” Even your Portal San Fernando project, which occupies the site of an old parking lot along San Antonio’s River Walk, looks like it’s been there for ages. What elements do you think draw people to your work in this way or that make it feel like it’s ageless?
I think one is that it does spring from its particular place and partners with the environment, and so that already is something that isn’t trendy but is being thoughtful and logical about the place and celebrating a particular place. We also get a great deal of enjoyment out of using materials that are of a particular place — sometimes they’re materials like limestone that are readily available in the hill country of Texas where we work a lot of times. So it’s a pretty affordable material, it’s a material where we have great craftspeople in the area who can work with that, and it’s an ageless and timeless material that weathers well. So that contrasting with kind of lighter, more industrial materials because they make sense for longer spans or opening up a building to have a bigger connection to the outdoors. It’s a response to a particular place that makes it timeless.
Portal San Fernando in San Antonio, design by Lake|Flato
Fountain in Portal San Fernando project, design by Lake|Flato
Part of Lasater residential project, design by Lake|Flato
Do you have landscape architects on staff or do you partner with other firms?
We partner with other landscape architects, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of really, really talented landscape architects. We never draw a line between landscape architecture and architecture, so it is very much a collaborative process. We’re well aware of our strengths and knowledge, and one of those things is that since we’re lucky to work in a variety of different places, we don’t always know what kind of plants are best. And that’s another great example of the importance of collaboration. And that is a very important part of the way we approach projects — that notion of thinking beyond the walls or the edges of a particular project so that immediately it means that the landscaping must be part of the whole building experience. We begin thinking from the outdoors in. We begin thinking about the outdoor spaces, the spaces between buildings and then finally start to come into the inside and then go backwards. And so that line — there is none. And having really, really smart, brilliant landscape architects that enjoy that kind of collaboration is what we’re always seeking.
Lasater residential project, design by Lake|Flato
Elm Court residence, design by Lake|Flato
H-E-B Science Treehouse, design by Lake|Flato
You do a great job of bringing in natural light, opening up rooms to fresh air, and creating courtyards and walkways that give people a sense of discovery as they move through the property. This is something it seems most architects underestimate the importance of, and I’m wondering if you draw inspiration from other cultures that do this so well, like Mexico, Italy, or Morocco?
Very much, and one of the wonderful things about architecture is that it certainly enhances your traveling experience! It’s rare for me not to be intrigued by practically any town or any place I’m visiting, and I’m looking at them from the things they have to offer and learn from. The streets of Marrakesh had an enormous influence on a project we did in Phoenix for Arizona State University. Another project that was probably one of our more successful buildings that integrated gardens was one where we went with the clients to Japan. We had a very complicated site, and it was a client that knew us pretty well as it was the second project we’d worked with them on. At one point they said ‘well, you know, the Japanese could really understand this borrowed landscape concept.’ So we went on a trip, and my job was to figure out what gardens we’d see. And what was fun was that we came back with a palette of design ideas that we all knew quite well, and we came back with a common language. So we could speak about, ‘well, this space is like Rionji’ — so it was a great way to speak the same language and collaborate with the clients.
And Mexico is right around the corner, and we’re always going there. So, yes, other cultures and other solutions inspire us. But almost all of them are about responding to their particular climate and place and doing it in a really smart way and unadorned fashion.
Murchison residence, design by Lake|Flato
Interior courtyard of Armstrong Oil and Gas, design by Lake|Flato
Great Northwest Library in San Antonio, design by Lake|Flato
Open air rooms at Francis Parker School, design by Lake|Flato
H-E-B Science Treehouse, design by Lake|Flato
I love the features in many of your projects that connect with people emotionally or even spiritually, such as the cutouts that let light into the Texas State Cemetery building and reference the headstones outside. At what point in the design process are these ideas coming to you?
First it’s a big picture design — where do you place buildings and how best to interact with the landscape, and how do they make the overall place a better place. And so the cemetery is a great example of that. That was a lot about placing the buildings strategically, because we had a very, very small program. So it was placing what we call ‘edge’ buildings, editing out the outside world and making the cemetery itself a very special and beautiful place. So rather than just thinking about buildings as things that are supposed to solve programmatic conditions, there’s a bigger story there. They’re supposed to engage the larger landscape and make a greater campus or a better space. So it begins with that big picture.
And then it’s the little details that really make it rich. You know, a lot of these projects take several years; you design them and then you’re always designing the details for practically another year. And you’re thinking about how the materials come together, and always trying to leverage and be smart with what kind of cards we might have been dealt. One of the things on the cemetery project that we noticed were piles of broken up pieces of old headstones that were discarded, and so we incorporated those into the stone walls, and they made the walls a little richer. And in the course of doing that and in the course of thinking about and imagining the place and how you come into the place, the project starts to inform some of the design details. And one of those things in a cemetery is the notion of the headstones out on the ground plane. But at the same time we were designing basically a gallery, and we needed wall space. And so you think, well, you want to bring light in but you also want to have ample wall space to display the exhibits. So the thought was we could bring the light in along the floor, and then we started thinking of the headstones. We were working with these massive stone walls, and we wanted this great sense of shelter and enclosure that contrasted with the more open outside world of the cemetery, so those just start leading back and forth. And there were references and artwork that we’d seen in the past — there were some Robert Wilson prints that we were aware of with little bits of light coming into a darker space.
So all of those things — that’s where a project starts to go from just a lovely idea to a much richer experience. And that’s also what keeps you engaged for another whole year that it takes on a project. It’s always a little bit frustrating for people, because sometimes there’s a feeling of ‘well, wait a minute, I thought we’d finished designing here, and you’ve added this new idea.’ But that’s how those things happen.
Interior of Texas State Cemetery, design by Lake|Flato
Exterior of Texas State Cemetery, design by Lake|Flato
I know you and David studied architecture at different schools, but I’m wondering if there was anything in your backgrounds or in your influences growing up that made working together feel like a good fit?
We’re both from Texas, and we both have enjoyed the landscape in Texas and the challenges of Texas — a place that can be hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and rainy and dry. So we both have a common love of the place. But we also had a love for doing buildings that connect to the landscape, and the landscape is probably as important to us as the buildings. That was always something that both of us have enjoyed in the past.
We also were both very, very interested in sustainability. David went to the University of Texas at Austin, and at that point in the early ’70s there were some great people at UT that were early innovators in sustainability. And the same thing goes for when I went to Stanford — they were doing the same thing. There was a strong engineering department there that was exploring early solar collectors. And then both of us wanting to build smart, simple, practical buildings, and that’s what brought us both to O’Neil Ford, who was kind of the father of ‘gee, that looks great, but how are you going to put a roof on it?’ He was a great counterpoint to a time period where it was all about words and ideas and kind of an intellectual architecture, a postmodern architecture at the time. And both of us were taken more by the notion of solidity, something that had more weight, more depth, more simplicity.
Dunning residence, design by Lake|Flato
Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, design by Lake|Flato
Agudas Achim Synagogue, design by Lake|Flato
I see you’re working on some innovative mixed-use projects such as the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio. Where do you think this type of development is headed, and what most excites you about architecture looking forward?
That’s a great project, and what excites us most about working in cities is doing projects like the Pearl that are inner city developments that make it a richer urban place. For western architecture, that’s absolutely critical. We have cities that have kind of lost their soul in the center of the city, so those kinds of projects are very helpful and lovely to do. It brings back not only activity in the inner city but it actually starts bringing back housing and people and a more pedestrian-friendly environment.
But probably one of the most hopeful things for us is that sustainability is becoming a fad and is popular, and what a neat thing to have be a fad and be popular! To actually create architecture that is responsible and thoughtful and isn’t about the latest shape or something — that it’s got more integrity just couldn’t be better. So that’s very hopeful.
David and I have a great office with a number of very, very talented people. Because it is a different kind of art form — a very collaborative art form — it’s a lot about working with other talented, young architects, and we’re lucky enough to have some of the best. For me, there’s nothing more fun than having someone else have a good idea, and you notice it and you encourage it. And after the buildings are built, having someone else walk up and fetch an award for it.
Mixed-use Pearl Brewery project, design by Lake|Flato
What would be the highest compliment of your designs, and what do you love most about your work?
The highest compliment would be that this project really enhances my day-to-day experience, that I’m delighted every time I walk into this building or place. And from a contractor, someone who builds, it’s great to hear ‘you know, this is a really neat building and I enjoyed making it!’ And you would not normally get that from a builder or contractor!
For me, what I love most now is the collaboration and working with engaging and talented people. And solving problems. What I enjoy most is when we’ve got something that really needs our help, and we get to do it. There’s nothing that I like less than not having a project built — I love putting the effort in, but I don’t enjoy not having it come to fruition!
Ted Flato and David Lake
For information about landscape architects and other partners Lake|Flato has worked with on individual projects, visit the Projects section of their website.
For an even more in-depth look at the designs and approach to each project by Lake|Flato, a wonderful book is available about their work.
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