Ted Flato: Catching the Breeze
Architect Ted Flato's bold, classically modern designs reveal deep roots in Texas
I had been on the ground in San Antonio for maybe a day when I heard the story that Tommy Lee Jones had allegedly–allegedly–introduced his architect and fellow Texan Ted Flato with the sentence: “Ted Flato builds the best damn barns in the country.”
It was a bone-dry, Texas-size understatement that unfortunately sounded too good to be true. Nobody, not even Flato, knew the circumstances anymore, another sort of scent tag that the quote had been dragged through the pecan grove on a rope and might have banged into a few trees.
On the other hand, as an inside-architecture joke, it had a kind of Jonesian flung-from-the-saddle cowboy wit: Flato did, in 2004, design two horse barns for the main Jones ranch a couple of hours from San Antonio and a third barn for storing hay and tractors on a Jones farm on the San Saba River. All three structures are good, interesting, and important barns.
But they’re barns. Over his twenty-seven-year career, Flato and his partner, David Lake, of the San Antonio–based firm Lake/Flato, have designed many buildings that were larger, finer, and more expensive than those three barns, including the International Center on the San Antonio River Walk; the twenty-three-acre, multimillion-dollar conversion of the old Pearl Brewery into an art and business nexus; academic buildings at the University of Texas and Arizona State; and, along the way, more than a few spectacular residences from Austin to San Diego. Lake and Flato also designed the AT&T Center, which doubles as the San Antonio Spurs’ home court and as the venue for the annual fiesta of the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. On the surface, then, hiring Ted Flato to do barns in the midst of a stellar national career was a bold commission, roughly the equivalent of scrambling an F-22 fighter jet for a hop to the store to pick up a cold six of Dos Equis.
All of which still left the best-barns-in-the-country claim without an author. Printing hyperbolic proclamations rumored to have been said by Tommy Lee Jones based on Jones’s own ranch buildings without verifying those statements with the man himself is not a formula for a restful or even a very happy life.
“It doesn’t sound like me or like anything I would ever say,” Jones tells me, registering with F-22-like velocity that he is not—repeat not—the problematic squib’s author. Too bad, could’ve been fun. But, in fact, the Flato barns are brilliant, rancher Jones loves them unreservedly, and he is generously moved to explain why.
“You could reasonably ask, why would anybody call up Ted Flato to build some barns?” he observes with gracious self-deprecation, “but I called him and was pleased that they accepted the commission. The thing is that I really hate ugly barns, and I’m pretty fussy about my plows, my tractor, and my horses. I have studied bad horse barns for years. In my barns, there’s room for the horses to eat off the ground, not off the walls, which is unnatural for them. A barn is a place where I live, and I want it to work, and be strong and beautiful. Ted and his people understood that better than anybody.”