Architect Michael G. Imber is best known for traditional forms inspired by the rugged desert Southwest and Mexico: a ranch house with Mediterranean references, an ancient Colonial villa with nods to modernism. The Texas native constantly searches for a strong sense of the local — “an architecture that seeks who we wish to be through who we believe we are,” he says philosophically.
If that sounds hopeful, that’s because it is — and it’s precisely why his work has been immortalized in books and magazines for the better part of two decades. His design process, too, has a certain artistic sensibility, carrying with it that same sense of hope. He begins each of his designs by considering the land through watercolors and then develops his ideas in relation to climate and local historical references.
“San Antonio has a rich historic heritage as a frontier outpost in a wild and dangerous landscape,” says Imber, who counts the Texas Society of Architects’ William W. Caudill, FAIA award as one of his many career honors. “Artists from Europe saw its raw beauty and uniqueness. We try to capture the influence of that shared history in our architecture.”
Previews® Inside Out recently sat down with Imber to talk about the intersection of art and architecture in his native state.
Previews Inside Out What inspires you as an architect?
Michael G. Imber The rich and unique histories and landscapes of places. The homogenization and contemporizing of our world is making it boring.
Previews Inside Out What, if any, maxims or mottos do you design by?
Michael G. Imber We design a modern architecture that embraces the continuum of our histories as individuals and as a people. This allows us to build buildings that can remain meaningful over time.
Previews Inside Out When you look at your design portfolio, which residential project are you most proud of? What lesson did it teach you?
Michael G. Imber The last one. Each project is unique, therefore we are always engaged by the new and different challenges each offers.
Previews Inside Out Can you talk a little about some of the main historical architectural styles found in San Antonio?
Michael G. Imber There are both the real Spanish Colonial influence and the Spanish revival, but San Antonio was a destination as well for many Europeans trying to make a new life in a new land; English, French, Italian and especially German all have influenced its style. This brings an exoticness of culture that blends with the rugged character of the landscape. We built with the landscape and of the landscape with the diverse cultural influences that were brought with us. We build houses that embody these influences, yet are built for modern lifestyles, that are not overwhelmed by history, but embrace it. Rancho Dos Vidas, influenced by our Spanish Colonial heritage, and the Butcher Ranch, influenced by our German heritage, are both good examples of this attitude.
Previews Inside Out What is your favorite style or period of architecture
Michael G. Imber Spanish Colonial — the style that first defines the cultivation of San Antonio. It carries with it the DNA of Rome, through Spain and then through Mexico and into Texas, carrying with it the unique challenges and influences of those lands and cultures and evolving into a style of its own specific to our own identity as a community.
Previews Inside Out Have you ever designed a home around an owner’s art collection?
Michael G. Imber Yes, in fact, we are currently designing a large art gallery for a homeowner’s rare photography collection. Incorporating art should be experiential. Art can shape space, draw one through space, or even be discovered or revealed. Architecture can reinforce it, or it can reinforce the architecture.
Previews Inside Out Tell us a little about your work with the San Antonio Museum of Art. What compelled you to get involved?
Michael G. Imber Formally, I became involved with the museum about a year or so, although my interest goes way back. My interest in how artists see the landscape and interpret it through fresh eyes gives me inspiration in how architecture can respond to a place.
Previews Inside Out What particularly intrigues you about European art?
Michael G. Imber The dialogue. European art is not so much an individual art, but a social one. European art is full of allegory and the representation of the story of who we were, who we are and who we wish to be. Even in landscapes that are sans people, they are speaking to us about how we relate to the world around us.
Previews Inside Out Do you collect art yourself?
Michael G. Imber Yes, I enjoy both Texas artists, like Mary Bonner, who went abroad and saw the world through the eyes of a Texan, and those from Europe, like José Arpa, who came to Texas and saw a new world through the eyes of the old.
Previews Inside Out From your point of view, at what point does something become art? At what point does it become architecture?
Michael G. Imber I believe architecture is art, and a very public one at that. I feel that even with private architecture, we must be mindful that we are building within a community and contributing to a built environment that everyone participates in, now and for generations to come.
Previews Inside Out Are there places where you would like to see art and architecture go?
Michael G. Imber I feel that the obsession with innovation forgets that we are building for people, and if we don’t build for people, then we cannot build places that people can love. Buildings that ignore this precept may be found to be “cool” or innovative today but quickly lose their appeal with time, and with that, they will be replaced. That means, if we are to build sustainably and if we are to build buildings that last, then we must build buildings that we can love. This is what good art teaches us. Art that we can relate to as a people — not merely as individuals — is art that remains meaningful and important over time.