Carlos Jimenez in his own words

Illustration by Adam Cruft

As a professor of architecture, Carlos Jimenez has collected an impressive list of accolades, including Rice’s 2013 George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, DesignIntelligence’s 2013 Most Admired Educator and AIA Houston’s 2009 Educator of the Year and the 2006 Charles Duncan Achievement Award for Outstanding Faculty. But to truly understand Jimenez is to understand his studio — a work/home hybrid tucked away in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood that serves as both laboratory and sanctuary. A serial traveler, Jimenez says no matter where he goes, he can’t wait to get back — his favorite trip is still to his studio.

The Blue Studio

Illustration by Adam Cruft

The studio happened serendipitously. I just had this sense that I needed to build it. I love to build and what it does. It creates an environment — a condition of time. After I bought the lot and started construction, I remember longing to get up the next day so I could visit the site. I would work most evenings to organize the materials, sweep, paint, lay the floor. I needed to be engaged in every aspect of the construction. It was my place and I wanted the ownership, but it wasn’t about owning something — it was about being involved in its making.

I built a small compound where I lived and worked for three blissful years, and that became a sort of generative force. Slowly, this single cell of a studio started to grow, and it has grown across the street and next door. It has had many lives and mutations. I opt for simple forms in architecture as they are always the most radical and complex. And they allow more opportunities to be transformed in time.

Houston’s Sky

Because I grew up in Costa Rica where the skies are often clouded, I was fascinated by the blue skies of Houston. I found them so moving and powerful that I decided to paint my studio the same blue — or at least one that could blend in. There are moments during parts of the year when I feel it disappears into the sky. That might sound like an odd thought when buildings of course have a presence that you cannot negate, but my aspiration was for the building to almost not be there. I wanted the work of architecture to be an interior reflection. We live a life so saturated with all kinds of demands — time, finances, all the many things that overwhelm our lives — and I am always fascinated by this capacity that architecture has to create moments of pause and reflection. I’m not interested in an architecture that is always demanding attention. I prefer when the work dissolves in the experience itself.

Naivety Is Bliss

I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt after I graduated and how it motivated me. It instilled in me the confidence to open my own studio a year or so later. It was a bit precocious, perhaps, but I really didn’t know many things at the time.  To retain a certain level of naivety is a healthy thing sometimes, and I just wanted to put into action what I had learned at school. I thought that’s what architects did.

I didn’t know how to start a career in architecture. I just felt this really powerful feeling compelling me to build. Starting my own studio didn’t feel like a risk at the time.  Ever since I’ve spent years building my studio. Though I eventually got larger commissions  in distant locations, I have always kept my studio as a grounded, evolving site.

A Conversation With the Future

Teaching was not something that I had planned for in any way. A former professor invited me to give a talk in his class about my work, which had gained a modest notoriety. I remember the pleasure I derived from talking with students about what I was doing.

Soon after, I was invited to teach at Rice as a visiting instructor in 1987 and then more formally in 1996. I realized that teaching for me became a conversation with the future, because students always represent the future.

And it’s important for me to teach because it’s a marvelous equation of learning from your students as much as they learn from you. I see my studio as an academic practice, bridging the urgency of the world with the inquiry of the academy. I much enjoy discussing design issues with my students and to take them to see buildings, to visit cities and talk to them about the irrepressible phenomena of the world.

The Anachronistic Art

In a world so entranced with instantaneity, speed and short memory, I believe that architecture is a type of anachronistic art as it reveals the value of time in all of its marvelous tenses. 

Architecture compels you to stop because it offers so many opportunities for reflection, for awareness and for living. Architecture gives enormous pleasure when it masters time as much as form and space.

It enhances your life. I’ve always thought that architecture needs to be present as an aspiration. It comes from a desire to make the lives of those who inhabit our works richer somehow. It begins in those desires to try to build better through knowledge, empathy, culture and technology.

Observing, Not Looking

There’s nothing more rewarding than traveling to different cultures. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to expose students to how architects must negotiate different conditions of place.

We learn about architecture through images, lessons, and precedents at school, but architecture is not one-dimensional. It’s a multidimensional endeavor that requires us to visit not only the works, but also their context to understand how each respective work is influenced by the interplay of local and global forces. For me, it also brings a particular felicity to see students suddenly becoming captivated by something they’ve never seen or experienced before. You see their learning instantly.

The Joy of Getting Lost in a City

A lot of the education of an architect is to teach someone how to observe. To look is too facile, but to observe — to see deeply into how cultures come together through agencies of urbanism, architecture, food, literature, music and all the myriad things that make up the vibrancy of the world. When we travel, we also absorb the places we’re traveling to. Nothing gives me more pleasure, personally, than getting lost in a city I don’t know. By that I mean, I feel alive in that abandonment, no need of any device to extinguish or rescue my curiosity, my anonymity. The pleasure that travel brings about. It’s very edifying.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury

I feel very honored and fortunate to have participated in the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury, which is an education in itself. It happened in a very interesting way. I was a finalist in a competition for an addition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo. One of the committee members was also the president of the Pritzker Jury. I’ll never forget — at the end of the presentation, he said to me, “I don’t think you’re going to get this project, but I am going to be contacting you about something else. I like the way you speak about architecture.” Six months later I got a letter, and it was an invitation to be part of this jury. I spent 11 years as a juror, one of the longest jurors ever. It was a fantastic education and a marvelous experience. I traveled everywhere and met so many architects. I learned during that time — it’s not about one type of architecture over another, it’s more about the power that architecture has. END