Summer at the beach

Summer Break in South Padre #ArchiTalks

This post is my (first) contribution to #ArchiTalks series organized by Architect Bob Borson, who writes Life of an Architect. To see other architect blogger’s musings on “Summer Break”, click on links provided at the end of this post.

As it turns out, I am on vacation as I write this post.  Ever since my daughter started school, summer break has elevated from “Woohoo! Less traffic!” to a real phenomenon once again in my life.  If you have kids, you know that a summer vacation is the perfect excuse to rekindle cherished memories from your childhood, make new memories with your children, and keep you from becoming that “dull person” that everyone is trying to avoid – you know, the one who is “all work and no play”.

What better than a road trip to the beach to celebrate summer and keep that ugly dullness at bay?!  So, we headed southeast on the long road to the Gulf coast- destination South Padre, with a pit stop in Mustang Island.  While they are both part of the Padre barrier islands with sandy beaches stretching out for miles, the latter is preserved as a state park, whereas the former has developed into a popular beach destination, also known as “the place to stay away from during spring break”.  Here’s an image contrasting the two.

Mustang Island State Park above, South Padre Island below
Mustang Island State Park above, South Padre Island below

I’ll let the oceanographers and environmentalists write the articles bashing the foolishness and unsustainable nature of development on barrier islands.  As an architect though, I want to talk about how disappointed I was in the nondescript nature of the built environment on the island.  I was not expecting the Greek Isles, but I was also not prepared for the same ol’ urban built-scape one would see on the mainland.  Some (like my husband) might argue that “people don’t go to South Padre for the architecture”, but I counter with “that’s a shame, because it is a lost opportunity”.

South Padre, the town, has been built from sand up over the last 50 years and the island is only 1/2 mile across, with a bountiful lagoon to the west and a beautiful beach on the east.  Aforementioned foolishness aside, what an incredible opportunity to create a deliberate, vibrant, walkable community.  If you cannot envision what I am talking about, take a look at the numerous projects undertaken by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, who gave us Seaside, Florida and Alys Beach, Florida.  Now, take a little detour to those websites, and tell me you are not compelled to go there.  Humans are attracted to beauty; and in these two examples, the built environment enhances the natural beauty of the landscape.  And there are two aspects that enable that – a master-plan (driven by new-urbanist principles) and spectacular architecture.

Unfortunately, South Padre lacks both.

I’m not going to launch into an urban design critique, but if you are an urban designer, please let me know what you think.  There are 23 beach access points (with plenty of parking!) that are “walking distance” from wherever you stay.  Too bad that your walk will only be about the (beach) destination, not the journey.  Sure, there are a few “nice” houses, condos, and hotels on the beachfront.  But as a whole, the town is visually blah, without any architectural character.  Au contraire, I saw poor examples of every possible style, ranging from mid-century modern to Mediterranean, and Cape-Cod to kitsch.

See those houses – I am not crazy, right?  And these were the “interesting” ones.  Is this island architecture?  Maybe it’s the new “coastal look”!  Perhaps, those walls are actually high-tech one-way-see-through walls that I have not heard of.  Of course, there isn’t a native architectural vernacular – the town is fairly young (incorporated in 1973) and birthed solely for tourism.  Most of the development took place in the 80’s and 90’s, and most provide affordable housing for the million transient visitors a year.  The condo we stayed at was as generic as anything you can find anywhere.  The air conditioner struggled to keep up with the heat and humidity.  It is probably over-sized,  but it didn’t have any help from the building’s design.

Thankfully, City of South Padre has adopted a Comprehensive Plan to rectify some of these deficiencies.  A new master planned community on the north side called The Shores looks promising.   It follows Smart Growth principles (prescribed by NOAA) and defines a cohesive architectural aesthetic (much similar to Seaside, actually).

Building on the beach/coast is the ultimate test of conquering the elements – shifting sands, fluctuating water table, corrosive salty air, high humidity, strong (hurricane) winds.  It’s risky business even when all these concerns are properly addressed.  And when they are not, buildings fall apart right in front of your eyes.  That or your maintenance bills are through the roof!

But hey, I’m on my summer break.  I am going to turn my back to the city, dig my feet into the soft sands, sit back under my rainbow umbrella, open a cold beer, bust out my sketchbook, and color outside the lines.  It will take many days of repeating this same exercise to help me decompress, reset my brain, and tap into the reserves of creativity that get buried deep under the rigors of daily routine.


Bob Borson – Life of An Architect @bobborson
Architectural Bucket List

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture @FiELD9arch

Marica McKeel – Studio MM @ArchitectMM
Summer Break = Extreme Architecture

Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet @Jeff_Echols
Summer Break and Aunt Loretta

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect @LeeCalisti
Summer Break

Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect @EntreArchitect
2 Simple Systems That Will Transform Your Studio

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC @L2DesignLLC
Vacationing with an Architect

Cormac Phalen – Cormac Phalen @archy_type
Miles and Miles of Road

Andrew Hawkins, AIA – Hawkins Architecture, Inc. @hawkinsarch

Jes Stafford – Modus Operandi Design @modarchitect
Summer Getaway

Rosa Sheng – Equity by Design/ The Missing 32% Project @miss32percent
#Architalks 10 – Give me a Break!

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect @mghottel
#Architalks 10 – “summer break”

Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC @MeghanaIRA
Architalks: There, but not there

Amy Kalar – ArchiMom @AmyKalar
Summer Break

Michael Riscica – Young Architect @YoungArchitxPDX
The Architecture Students Summer Break

Stephen Ramos – BUILDINGS ARE COOL @sramos_BAC
Architect: Gift or Curse?

brady ernst – Soapbox Architect @bradyernstAIA
The Education of an Architect

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect @bpaletz
Summer Vacation

Tara Imani – Tara Imani Designs, LLC @Parthenon1
A Brilliant Summer Break

Eric Wittman – intern[life] @rico_w
Summer Break [or] Summer School

Brinn Miracle – Architangent @simplybrinn
Summer Break

About the author: Sharon George

13 comments to “Summer Break in South Padre #ArchiTalks”

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  1. FiELD9arch - Jul 07, 2015 Reply

    I really enjoyed your post. So much of our built environment is a lost opportunity. I only hope to do my small part to rectify that situation.

  2. Lora Teagarden (@L2DesignLLC) - Jul 06, 2015 Reply

    Great blog! I agree with your take on some of the “beach towns”

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