5 Questions With Corpus Christi Architect Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA
Meet Elizabeth Chu Richter, the Corpus Christi architect involved in many a Coastal Bend landmark – the Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International Center, the Asian Cultures Museum, buildings for Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi and Del Mar College, to name a few. The Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve Headquarters and Lab and the Mustang Island Episcopal Conference Center in Port Aransas are among other notable projects in the Coastal Bend that have crossed her drafting table. She’s been involved in civic structures around the great state of Texas, including the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Elizabeth Chu Richter is the CEO of Richter Architects, an award-winning, 14-person firm based in Corpus Christi and recipient of the Architecture Firm Award from the Texas Society of Architects in 2011 – the only firm from Corpus Christi to have received this distinguished statewide honor. Her husband, David Richter is the firm’s president and their two daughters – both architects – are members of the firm. She was elected to serve as the national President of the American Institute of Architects in 2015. Her statewide radio program, The Shape of Texas, ran on an NPR affiliate for 11 years. She’s earned many distinctions for her vision and activism across the globe, yet her home is here, and her work in Corpus Christi reflects her commitment to excellence.
Architects are keenly aware of the importance of a sense of place. The things that make people happy to live in a city are the same things that draw people to visit.
1. One of the earlier buildings you designed was the Asian Cultures Museum in 1995 – an interesting mix of Far East and Southwest. Please reflect on that project.
This Asian Cultures Museum goes way back to when Billie Trimble Chandler [a Corpus Christi native who spent years teaching in the Philippines and Japan] started it in the 70s. She had a huge collection of Hakata dolls – a real treasure – and other artifacts. The original museum did not have the space to do much beyond diorama displays – no real space for education, performances and changing exhibits. Also, the main focus was Japanese, and they wanted to expand to include other Asian cultures.
The current museum building was at one time a longshoreman's building. The location down in the museum district made it perfect.
Rather than having a single building, we wanted to get a sense of an urban scale Asian village. Due to budgetary concerns, literal historical details – like roof tiles – were not in the cards. We had to be inventive with adaptive reuse. The decorative coping are actually testing cylinders that were used for geotechnical work! There's a linkage, a walkway between the two-story building and the exhibit building – a rhythm of heavy timber to recall details used in ancient architecture and also to give open transparency into the back garden. You sense the transition – something exotic, if you will.
The idea of the design is to invite people in. It was important that we had something that evokes the cultural heritage of Asia yet seems to still fit in South Texas, to work with the climate we have.
2. Please describe some of your other architectural projects.
The design of the Del Mar College Health Sciences and Emerging Technologies Complex on the West campus created connected pathways and outdoor spaces. The building design included the use of passive solar strategies to enhance the use of natural light. The 160,000 square foot complex defined a new focal point and new energy for the campus.
The Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International Center was a good example of adaptive reuse and building on existing asset. Steel columns and beams from the 1920's cotton warehouses were kept in place to provide a sense of the Port's history while transforming the facility to accommodate modern day uses for community events, weddings, and conferences.
3. What is the architectural culture like in Corpus Christi, Texas?
There's nowhere else with a walkable downtown right off of the water like Corpus Christi’s. It is the perfect set up, such an incredible asset for us.
Considering our history, Corpus Christi is not a very old city. It doesn't have a large stock of "old" structures. There is a variety. Some fine assets include the Art Museum of South Texas and its addition designed separately by two AIA Gold Medalists, Philip Johnson and Ricardo Legorreta. Historic treasures include the Centennial House, the Corpus Christi Cathedral, and the houses at Heritage Park. The Seawall is one of our most significant and defining public assets. Within the last few decades, there has emerged a greater appreciation for mid-century modern buildings built in the 1950s.
Our growth has been steady and slow, relatively speaking. Corpus Christi is not a place of great boom or bust. In that way, it has encouraged more thought to development. We will be getting a new bridge [near the location of the current Harbor Bridge] and that's going to have a great impact.
4. What do you like to recommend to Corpus Christi visitors?
I'm delighted that Corpus Christi's restaurant fare is becoming more international with offerings originating from many countries. From local seafood to Thai food to Middle Eastern specialties, we now have many delicious choices.
I like to recommend a drive or walk along Shoreline Drive and Ocean Drive to appreciate the Seawall and the pocket parks along the way. The stair-stepped seawall, a WPA project, is a great example of well-spent public investment in infrastructure that has beautifully defined our city, protected our city, and has become an amenity for public use.
4. What would you like to see in Corpus Christi’s future?
Because of our natural setting, there is discussion happening to create more livable, walkable environments that encourage healthy, active living. In 2015, we held the Designing Healthy Communities luncheon to raise awareness.
When and where you put down concrete, and how you plan your the cities, has an impact. We want to create awareness about what you do everyday, how you get from point A to point B and what you do in between. As a community, we can move forward. The conversation is starting.
Schedule your trip now and be sure to make a plan to visit some of Richter Architects’ many projects in Corpus Christi!