In the 1996 report, Building Community, 22% of architecture students chose
"improving the quality of life in communities" as the most important reason
they chose to study architecture. Traditional architecture practice is just
one of the ways that we can help improve our communities–political
involvement is another. A few weeks ago, ArchVoices featured comments by an
architect and statesman. Today’s editorial is written by a current intern
and aspiring architect who also happens to be her community’s representative
to their State Legislature.
The Hon. Jessica Farrar received her B. Arch. from the University of Houston
in 1995. She is currently pursuing licensure, working as a partner with her
father at Farrar Architects in Houston. Since 1995 she has been a
representative to the Texas State Legislature, District 148.
In the last legislative session, Rep. Farrar secured funding to create the
Northside Redevelopment Center (NRC). The NRC is now building affordable
housing, leading redevelopment efforts of North Main Street, creating early
childhood development centers and expanding the bike trail system into
In 1997, Rep. Farrar fought successfully to direct the Texas Board of
Architectural Examiners to work toward negotiating a fee reduction for the
new Architects Registration Exam (ARE) which is double the old fee.
Rep. Farrar is also a member of Hispanic Women in Leadership, the National
Women’s Political Caucus, and the Rice Design Alliance
When I was asked to write an editorial for ArchVoices, my first thought was,
“Where to begin?” I believe I have the two best jobs in the world: an
architecture intern and a state representative. The duties of those two
jobs often merge, especially when I work on legislation affecting people
with disabilities, the cost of the ARE, additional funding for the Texas
Board of Architectural Examiners, and affordable housing and community
My work in politics has significantly affected my work in architecture.
Often, there is no distinction between the two jobs in how I function. I
was able to appropriate money from the last state budget to start a
community development corporation in my district, which was in desperate
need of one. When I realized that an existing "Making Main Street Happen"
project stopped just short of my district, I took a delegation of community
leaders to the Mayor’s Office to protest. We recently applied for a HUD
grant that would take a soon-to-be-abandoned historically and
architecturally significant elementary school and turn it into a child
development center. I’m also working to get our bayou included in a
comprehensive hike and bike trail project. And, I’m working with the Texas
Department of Transportation to improve circulation and redevelopment
through more entrance/exit ramps, landscaping and sound abatement walls.
What this means for our architectural practice, besides many non-billed
hours, is the opportunity to work to improve our own environment and to work
on projects that could actually be built. For every hour spent at the
drafting table, there are 3 more hours spent meeting with political
officials and government agencies to spin the dollars and resources our way.
We are changing the shape of our community not only physically but also
As I spent more time with the residents of my district, I realized that
there is a rich history of the Northside area that no one has ever told. At
the turn of the century, this site was the largest industrial employer in
Houston. In speaking to my constituents, they tell stories about their
father, grandfather, uncle, brother and so on who worked at the Southern
Pacific rail yard. Southern Pacific not only established the Northside
neighborhood, but also perpetuated its growth for generations. Most of the
wood bungalow housing stock remains and is in decent shape. The density of
the neighborhood and the age of the trees are really special, too.
At a recent meeting, the residents were surprised when I brought up the
possibility and benefits of a historic district designation–again, no one
has thought much about redevelopment. There hasn’t been that advocacy.
Ultimately, my fear is that if residents don’t drive their neighborhood
improvements, outside developers will. The only reason developers aren’t
here already is that we’ve benefited from a perception of bad crime and poor
access from any of the four freeways which surround us.
The research of Northside and introspection about what its future should be
has benefited me substantially as an architect-to-be. It has enriched my
knowledge and sensitivity of the places in which architects design and
build. Working with the Northside neighborhood has helped me more than
anything I could contribute to it architecturally or politically.
My experience as a state representative has given me a broader perspective
on the context in which we all practice architecture. In architecture
school, there are few parameters and for good reasons. But here, there are
social, historical, monetary, governmental and political factors to be
concerned with. In addition, there is the critical need for community
participation and buy-in.
I like to think that my job as a state representative is to learn as much as
I can, consult the right experts and offer solutions for the community to
rally behind. As such, I consider all the work I do–as an architecture
intern and as a state representative–to be design work. I’m learning many
new things everyday and having a real impact in my community. And it’s even
more fun than architecture school was.