When the Fort Worth chapter of the American Institute of Architects handed out its design awards for 2014, seven projects were lauded. Four of them were by architect Bart Shaw.
While it wasn’t an unprecedented achievement for one firm to score more than half of the awards, it was certainly noteworthy for a one-man shop. The judges did not know whom the recipients were, as they viewed the work without attribution.
So, when the projects were announced at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and names were attached, it became obvious Shaw was the local architect of the year for 2014.
He won for a collapsible market stand, a paintball building, a public art project and a memorial. Two of the awards were Citation Awards for actual projects that have been manufactured or built — the collapsible market stand and the paintball building on Roberts Cut Off Road.
The other two were Studio Awards for concepts — Fairmount Park, a block-size park in the historic Fort Worth neighborhood, and Sewn, a memorial designed to commemorate the 146 workers who died in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.
The Studio Awards are for great ideas, which may or may not ever be built. Shaw is batting .500 on this score. Memory: Fairmount Park, a public art project, is currently under construction, and Sewn was shortlisted as a finalist but did not win the big competition.
Competition work has been fueling Shaw’s practice for the past five years. His designs have brought him national attention, and for good reason. He addresses the projects with a sensitive humanity and grace. His submissions are thoughtful and extremely well executed.
Shaw is from North Texas and graduated from Texas Tech University with a double major in engineering and architecture. He has a master’s degree in architecture. During his summers, he worked for the Dallas office of the mega-firm HKS, builders of AT&T Stadium, and upon graduation, went to work for the large Fort Worth firm of Hahnfeld Hoffer Stanford.
However, he was low on the food chain, and most of the design work was done by one of the principals. Frustrated, Shaw unleashed his creative chops on design competitions.
In 2009, he entered a competition to design a Holocaust Memorial for Atlantic City. The location for the memorial was adjacent to the famous boardwalk, with the ocean and shoreline on one side and the boardwalk parade on the other.
Shaw spent time researching the Holocaust and was horrified, he says, by contemporary news events of Holocaust denial, people who refused to acknowledge the atrocities ever happened.
“There are accounts from survivors. Their writings are meaningful. I am three generations removed and they are the only way I know about it. I wanted to memorialize those accounts,” the 36 year-old Shaw says.
When he came across the story of a poet who had been captured by the Nazis and screamed, “Write, Jews, write” as he was dragged to the gas chambers, Shaw knew he had found the thematic vehicle for his memorial. “The Jews did write — volumes,” he says. “This is why we know what happened.”
He designed a memorial of stacks of papers being blown by the wind, and in between the stacks are empty spaces that outline the shape of human bodies. “These forms honor those who are missing, the descendants of those who were wrongfully taken from the world,” Shaw says.
The memorial is extremely powerful. The stacks of blowing papers, so close to the water’s edge, and being tossed about by the prevailing winds, could be enough, but the negative space of human shapes made by these flying papers that are not obvious at first glance become the reason for close scrutiny. They appear, then recede as one walks past the stacks of blowing white papers.
“The full-scale figures relay the absence created by the events that happened long ago in a situation we have a hard time imagining today,” he says.
Shaw’s design, Writing a Wrong, was sent to the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial sponsors, where it was judged by a panel that included two of architecture’s über lords, Richard Meier and Daniel Liebeskind. Shaw’s memorial was a finalist from a field of 715 entries. The two minimalists and the other jurors preferred a submission that looked like the boardwalk had frozen and broke into shards that piled on top of each other. The memorial has yet to be built.
While Shaw’s didn’t win, Writing a Wrong received a great deal of positive notice, opened doors to other projects and, more importantly, reminded him of the architecture projects he liked best — the ones that directly connected with people.
He’d been working macro, and the return was in the micro. He had discovered during his last years as a graduate student at Texas Tech, when he’d been working summers for HKS, that he had become very removed from the end user. Then a graduate program came along that paired him with organizations in West Texas that had projects funded by economic development grants.
“Some old people in Littlefield wanted a dance hall downtown; a lady in Lubbock wanted to start a zoo; someone else wanted migrant worker housing. One of the most well-received projects was a juvenile justice center in Floydada,” Shaw says. “All these got to the meat of what design and architecture is — doing something that connects with people.”
The memorial project and the positive reaction to it propelled him out of the secure corporate environment, and even though 2010 was not a good year to financially light out on his own, he did.
“In retrospect it wasn’t the smartest time to leave,” he says, “but I felt I needed to get out. A second child was on the way and I couldn’t see myself doing production work forever.”
Commissions began to trickle in. A Louis Vuitton store for The Woodlands was designed, then the Fort Worth-based shopping center never happened. A paintball building was designed and it did get built, garnering one of the recent awards.
And in between these projects Shaw sought out more competition work
He designed temporary housing for disaster victims, Lift:Home. The houses are preassembled modules that will fit on a truck bed. There are two exterior modules and an interior one that contains all the interior partitions, ceilings, lights and fixtures. The modules are trucked flat to the site and a crane unloads them. The the roof is pulled up and the walls are snapped in place. Voilá, instant house. The result is a very elegant option to the reviled FEMA trailers.
Shortly after completing the Holocaust project, Shaw was chosen to design a Fort Worth Public Art project. This has the same sort of human connectedness as the Holocaust project. An empty block within the Fairmount Historic District was in need of attention. The six houses that had once been there had been demolished in the early 1990s. All that was left were vestiges of their foundations.
Shaw decided to accentuate that ghostly remainder, and proposed recreating the front steps, turning them into long picnic tables and using them to surround a newly planted tree. The tables, shaded by the trees, would be nice gathering spots for the neighbors. Memory: Fairmount Park is under construction in the 1500 block of Fifth Avenue and should be finished in the coming weeks.
Occasionally architects, instead of artists, are chosen for the Public Art projects, says Martha Peters, Fort Worth’s Public Art vice president. Shaw submitted his name and it was put on the approved-artist list after his Holocaust memorial was seen by the Public Art staff.
“He is very thoughtful in his conceptual designs. He has the right stuff,” says Peters. “The installation at Fairmount Park will be wonderful in the midst of that historical neighborhood. It just resonates.”
Unfortunately, public art-making is not economically feasible as a career, competition projects even less so. Shaw’s Fairmount Park project has a $70,000 budget and that has to cover engineering, permits, concrete, trees, installation and his attendance at meetings, of which there have already been eight. “Everyone involved is making more money than me,” he says.
There might be financial recompense in an award-winning project he completed earlier this year. Shaw entered a design for a market canopy in the AIA’s Farmers Market Pop-Up Project. This was in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s notice that there are over 8,000 farmers markets operating in the U.S., 5,000 more than a decade ago.
All of the vendors use shade canopies that have to have their own anchoring devices, as most are usually used on parking lots and stakes will not work. The design competition was seeking something that could be transported easily by one person, unfold into a standard 8-foot-by-8-foot footprint, be easily branded, and supply enough shade and space to display produce.
Shaw’s G Model won the national competition.
“The solution is a simple stable structure that provides elegant protection for a farmers market vendor. The structure provides a platform for custom-printed fabric to be wrapped. When transported, it serves as a hand truck, so goods and the canopy can be moved simultaneously,” the AIA said in its announcement of winners.
Shaw built a prototype and it was displayed on the floor of the Chicago Convention Center during the National AIA Convention. During the convention, Shaw’s bright yellow market stand drew many interested parties from around the world.
“When it got to Chicago, it lighted up. It looked great,” Shaw says. “People from India wanted to take it and sell it. Some people from Mexico thought it’d be great for carnival promotional events. I expected it would get a fair amount of criticism, as that’s what you get from architects, so I was surprised to get so much positive feedback.”
When it also garnered a local award, one of the jurors noted that it was the sort of project that could eventually earn Shaw some serious money.
There does seem to be the possibility of financial exploitation to many of Shaw’s designs, but he is not well-versed in marketing his work. Other architects have noticed the opportunity potential. “Geez, if he ever goes public, I’d like a piece of that,” says one.
“Bart is really good with the competition projects,” says Fort Worth AIA president Greg Ibañez. “He’s very skillful at presenting them and deft with computer graphics, so he presents them in a compelling way. He’s just really talented.”
For now, the world is benefiting from Shaw’s slow business growth. As the local economy picks up steam, he may not have time to enter the competition ring with the avidity of the past. It will come as a loss, but it could just be to the local gain.