This year, San Antonio’s Lake/Flato Architects celebrates the firm’s 30th anniversary. In three decades, Lake/Flato has grown from a partnership of two into a dynamic company of 80, garnering more than 150 international, national, and local prizes for its unique approach to architecture.

Just as its South Texas origins have shaped the firm’s philosophy of regionally appropriate architecture, so too has Lake/Flato left its own indelible mark on its home city. In the past three decades, Lake/Flato and San Antonio have grown together. The firm’s local projects, including the Briscoe Western Art Museum and the Pearl Brewery redevelopment, have revitalized our urban core, transforming underappreciated spaces into vibrant centers of community and culture.

Founding members David Lake and Ted Flato met in 1980 at the San Antonio architecture firm Ford, Powell & Carson, where the visionary O’Neil Ford elaborated a regional vernacular. Ford urged his young employees to consider what their building would look like as a ruin, and to design accordingly. For Ford, Lake said, there was nothing like a screened porch — except a beautiful shade tree.

This idea clearly resonated with David and Ted, who founded Lake/Flato in 1984. In the firm’s most recent book, Lake/Flato Houses,” the square feet of exterior spaces is listed alongside “air conditioned” interior space, and usually far exceeds it. Lake/Flato’s preference is even more clearly stated in the name of the firm’s recent foray into pre-fabricated architecture – a project aptly named the “Porch House.”

The Hill Country Jacal in Pipe Creek, Texas. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato.
The Hill Country Jacal in Pipe Creek, Texas. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato.

The firm’s early projects were primarily Texas-based, from San Antonio residences and Hill Country ranches to local civic and commercial projects. The early projects were at once inspired by local traditions, evoking the low-slung and wide-porched early Texas ranch houses, and playful, experimenting with directed sunlight and unusual forms. They drew on historical building techniques, directing breeze and emphasizing shade, to minimize reliance on air-conditioning. The firm soon established a precedent for using regional materials, including locally-quarried stone and felled wood, at once durable and beautiful.

This approach has remained constant over the years. Lake/Flato creates environmentally conscious, low-tech and low-impact structures using not only porches, screened and open, but also dog runs, cupolas, courtyards and overhangs. These principles are applied to off-the-grid ranches, such as the 1997 Hill Country Jacal in Pipe Creek, Texas, and to urban centers, such as the 2003 San Antonio AT&T Center.

Built to endure, these structures naturally integrate with the landscape as they age. The firm’s goal is to leave the environment better than they found it. The firm has remained grounded in the philosophy that “architecture should connect with the environment, not cut further away from it,” Lake said.

This idea of relating a structure to its surroundings is particularly relevant in an urban context. Lake/Flato’s second decade witnessed not only an expansion into other regions of the Southwest, but also a strong engagement with the architecture of San Antonio itself.

The 2001 Dog Team Too Loft, a conversion of an industrial building into an urban home and office in downtown San Antonio, gave a taste of things to come for the city. Lake/Flato repurposed an old warehouse into the Art Pace Foundation for artist Linda Pace, displaying an ingenuity in design rarely seen in San Antonio until now, and revealing potential in the future of downtown that was largely neglected at the time.

Designing within an urban environment presented the firm with very different challenges from building on the open prairie. Vistas needed to be carefully considered, along with sound, light, and air quality. Here, the urban geography of building lot boundaries dictated shape and size, and the rhythm of human movement and local culture became as important as the rhythm of the days and seasons.

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In the last decade, San Antonio has witnessed unprecedented expansion, and many Lake/Flato projects stand at the center of new development. The 2008 Main Plaza, carried out under the leadership and vision of former Mayor Phil Hardberger, the 2014 Briscoe Western Art Museum, and the forthcoming Federal Courthouse are just a few key structures, all of which display Lake/Flato’s habitual regard for tradition and forethought for the future of San Antonio. Space in a city is at a premium, but at Lake/Flato, exterior space is still given priority. The firm always seeks to enhance the flow between indoor and outdoor “rooms” and to forge connections between urban centers.

Perhaps no project has been so influential as Lake/Flato’s innovative master plan for Kit Goldsbury’s visionary renovation of the former Pearl Brewery, which stands at the center of San Antonio’s revitalization. Beginning with the redesign of the Full Goods Warehouse in 2009, Lake/Flato conceived of a continuing development that made use of more than 300,000 sq. ft. of the existing 450,000 sq. ft of abandoned structures left when the Pearl Brewery closed in 1985 after 118 years of business.

The Pearl complex serves as the terminus to the Museum Reach River Walk extension, acting as a pedestrian-friendly gateway to the Downtown River Walk. The Pearl Brewery Redevelopment Master Plan has been recognized as a pioneering model for an environmentally conscious, artfully designed, and pedestrian-focused community gathering place.

Pearl’s success is in a large part the result of Lake/Flato’s characteristic respect for outdoor spaces. Rather than design interior spaces, costly in both money and natural resources, Lake/Flato defined and created outdoor gathering places for the community. Naturally lighted and cooled by prevailing breezes and huge fans that are 18 feet in diameter, these breezeways take advantage of San Antonio’s clement weather to provide more extensive, flexible space than an interior-focused structure would have allowed. Lake/Flato’s design harkens back to practical, traditional Texas building techniques to offer a model for a more sustainable future.

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The popular Saturday Farmers Market is just one of many events that take place in the complex, which now includes an amphitheater overlooking the river, a banqueting and events hall located in the former Pearl Stables, and the forthcoming Emma Hotel. The complex hosts both residential and commercial space, encouraging local businesses and restaurants, and strengthening community cohesion.

The Pearl Brewery redevelopment is now recognized as one of the leading mixed-use developments in the country, and has garnered numerous awards, including the 2014 AIA Award for Regional and Urban Design, LEED Gold status, and a place in the AIA COTE Top 10 for sustainable development.

Pearl has proven a catalyst for explosive revitalization along Broadway. The forthcoming San Antonio Lake/Flato’s impact will further be felt with the forthcoming San Antonio Children’s “DoSeum,” which officially opens its new location at 2800 Broadway on June 1, 2015.

The Museum, made possible by a $20 million gift from Charles Butt, Chairman and CEO of H-E-B, will provide an engaging, interactive forum for children to learn about math, science, engineering, and technology. Lake/Flato has designed the 70,000 sq. ft. structure as three separate buildings, linked, as ever, by open spaces and outdoor learning environments.

Lake/Flato’s inherently playful approach to design is delightfully displayed at the Museum, just as it was in the 1997 Witte Science Treehouse. Unhindered by strict adherence to a particular “style,” the firm’s designs are guided by the opportunities of each individual client and site. Their structures have retained an inherent honesty in the expression of place and materials where functionality is the best ornamentation.

In 2004, Lake/Flato won the prestigious American Institute of Architects Firm Award, the highest industry honor in the United States. Greg Paypay, a partner at Lake/Flato, reflected on how exciting it has been to witness how the firm’s architects of all ages have focused on making “a better firm as it becomes a bigger firm.” Our goal for San Antonio should be the same: that it improves as it grows.

Full Disclosure: Author Gretchen Greer is the daughter of Karla Greer, a principal at Lake/Flato Architects.

*Featured/top image: The Dog Team Too Loft & Studio in San Antonio, Texas after redesign. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato.

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Gretchen Greer is a freelance writer and photographer, born and raised in San Antonio. She has lived in France and England, and currently divides her time between Texas, London and Burgundy. You can find...