Marcus Martinez and Amna Ansari of UltraBarrio. Photo: Meredith Flaherty

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Transit Environment Programming Catalog for METRO. Chapter spreads of catalog that unifies ambitions of sustainability, accessibility, and connectivity. Courtesy of UltraBarrio

Tell us about your work! What do you do? What are you passionate about?

Amna Ansari (AA) and Marcus Martinez (MM): We find inspiration in cities. Their histories, their ebbs and flows, and their urge to evolve—they drive our focus onto the civic realm. UltraBarrio is an urban design, architecture, and strategy practice that believes context is a resource for design; we are concerned with the behaviors that shape the context. Since our earliest projects, we have engaged with topics of the city and with building types as related to cycles of scarcity, surplus, and obsolescence, all of which structure our lens on resilience, equity, and advocacy.

We speak technology as well as technique; we have sensitivities to fauna as well as to furniture. We’ve peeked into the future through some of our projects, and we think some solutions do not require new buildings, but rather a recalibration of existing elements. We hope to shape a future that proves we can create more change for more people, communities, and living things by first maximizing what we already have. 

How (and why) did you start your architecture and urban design practice UltraBarrio? As designers and educators at Rice and UH how do the two roles relate to and shape one another?

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Conceptual drawings showing density opportunities invoked by aerial systems. Courtesy of UltraBarrio

AA and MM: Starting UltraBarrio was a result of a combination of our reflective nature and constant self-audit of our design process. Our experience in a vast cross section of urban and architectural scales informed what we wanted our focus to become. Our roles as educators have positioned us to be accountable for our process, not just the result. We are further informed by our mutual graduate experiences, a blend of topics regarding mobility, technology, social sciences, and representation, which enhances that process and refracts our practical knowledge. 

Could you each share about your career paths prior to forming UltraBarrio?

MM: The path to forming UltraBarrio is dotted with a series of opportunities that fine-tuned our point of view.  Beginning with EMBT in Barcelona, I worked on projects like the ten-kilometer-long revitalization of Meritxell Avenue, which was the first of many projects in which we united expansive urban territories and infrastructure with material craft. It is more than a well-built urban environment; it is rather a resourcefulness in processing the context of weather, pedestrian passages, lighting, and crafted surfaces. This foundation expanded to large parks in Houston and later to urban core multitower projects in Boston and campus planning. I was able to bring my MIT master’s thesis on urban infrastructure into practice on 14 concepts and completed projects. Tailored with public engagement, and envisioned through a series of hand drawings, the Pierce Skypark considered a mile of freeway to be repurposed into an elevated park. What began as a pro bono concept became an award-winning option in the Downtown Houston master plan. 

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Heron House Outdoor Room Diagram. Representation of Heron house relationship of architecture and landscape. Courtesy of UltraBarrio

At the MIT Media Lab Changing Places group—under Kent Larson and where I was a project collaborator—my inner urbanist and my penchant for prototyping were united. There, we developed autonomous vehicle fleet concepts as well as a new architecture of vehicles that would retool an urban fabric. That spirit is very much recreated in UltraBarrio: on the one hand, obsessive about methodology and the impact on materials, systems, and contexts. On the other, speculative, silo-jumping, and risk-taking.

AA: My career path has always been rooted in a preoccupation with process and how different contexts rebalance the ways in which architecture, landscape, and urban design scaffold a future. During my undergraduate studies, I sought out an opportunity to go to the University of Applied Arts Vienna. There, I learned under Wolf D. Prix of Coop Himmelblau, which prepared me for a series of large-scale urban design and landscape projects during my early career in Shanghai.

MIT had a built-in flexibility that allowed us to commit to coursework outside of our department. Courses in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society positioned me to have an alternative lens to see what could shape a design practice. These courses bridged humanities, social science, and technology. My experience in these classes shaped my path towards more specific inquiries—asking, “What will this be?” is not as interesting as asking, “What process will initiate this change?”

Practicing landscape architecture at SWA, I was fortunate to learn from sites that were not ideal subjects for transformation. Arid, desert sites required working with scarcity of water, while a toxic site involved creating processes to remediate, reclaim, and rescript in order to transform the site into an award-winning botanical garden. Understanding that the site had become toxic from years of aerial deposits by nearby industry confirmed how much of our activities are hyper-connected.  

The varied yet focused experiences elevated our demand for a design practice where we find ourselves being shaped to seek (historical patterns), to interrogate (context), and to magnify (trajectories) problems that may intersect numerous fields—and we find excitement in this discomfort if it is somewhere we’ve never been.

What are you working on currently?

AA and MM: Over the past few months, we have been engaged in a variety of project types at different scales, from architecture to urban design to research to graphic design. 

We developed an exhibition at the AIA Houston that speaks to both the street and the gallery, creating expansive drawings, patterns, and diagrams to capture the role of bees in our natural and built environment. The exhibition is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Innovative Environments. The City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance is sponsoring the 2022 season.

We are continuing efforts on responsive post-disaster housing strategies, developed in collaboration with the state of Texas. We are defining metrics that can accurately and proportionately communicate a given housing prototype’s success. From unit assembly, site, and community resilience, the study looks at a unit’s materials, necessary labor, site adaptability, construction technology, durability, and so on, to determine the unit’s potential for functional recovery.

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Gulfton Neighborhood Event Drawing. Illustrative oblique drawing of events across multiple sites. Courtesy of UltraBarrio

We have been working with local stakeholders in southwest Houston on a nine-acre plan. The plan considers multifamily affordable housing, civic structures, and the expansion of existing buildings that together give form to a central, program rich, culturally connected greenspace. Architectural material and landscape strategies have a unified performance criteria for ambient heat reduction and optimized site permeability. The study area recently expanded to include an additional 250 acres of connected land.  

Can you tell us about a transformative project that you’ve completed?

AA and MM:  We held our first event in March 2022 for our Gulfton placemaking project. Gulfton is an epicenter of immigrant culture and density in Houston, and it is also the neighborhood where Amna grew up. Since the 1980s, newcomers have brought more than fifty languages from over forty countries to the ninety apartment complexes. The apartments, which had been scaled for oil boom singles in the 1970s, became home for nuclear and multigenerational families following the ’80s oil bust. Shocked with densification, the people of this area lack spatial equity in an environment made predominately out of asphalt, making it a neighborhood with some of the highest temperatures in Houston.

Informed by our partnership with the local nonprofit Connect Community and a taskforce made up of property owners and residents, we designed rapidly deployable workshop events of mobile carts and chairs to penetrate the fabric of continuous parking lots and discontinuous sidewalks. Adorned with patterns of residents’ countries of origin, the colorful elements are a warm contrast to the oil-stained public zones that had been temporarily created from unused parking lots. This mobile workshop is interested in creating two culturally connected life cycles, the first as a versatile placemaking tool that can adapt to host a wide range of programs, such as “Market Days,” “Community Story Days,” and movie nights. The second life cycle is formed as a vehicle for knowledge-sharing, where the carts are distributed to support the existing, informal skill-sharing of trades within and between neighboring communities—from mending clothes to selling tamales. 

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Family outreach day at Ashford St. Cloud Apartments. Photo: Amna Ansari

The components are emblematic of the cultural mix of Gulfton, articulated by the textiles, which carry history, tradition of craft, labor, and identity. This project intends for the textile patterns to be a design bridge into the community and seeks to promote meaningful change so that Gulfton can evolve into a habitable pathway while maintaining its authenticity through the ever-present micro-economy of local artisans, home cooks, teachers, and vendors. Food carts and trucks with ad-hoc seating strategies are already a predominant typology across Gulfton, serving as proof-positive that the kit will work well in the neighborhood.

What inspires you today? (Could be architecture, art, literature, public figures, images, etc.)

AA and MM: We are both an inspired and curious crew, but there are moments that give us pause that often come from our roles as instructors and mentors. We’ve had the privilege of working with the future generation of creatives who are unapologetic about what they find meaningful. We also find it admirable that they are a generation that seem less fueled by competition and more on sharing knowledge. We hope that this is a foreshadowing of an optimistic future.

Who was/were important mentor(s) for you earlier in your career?

AA: I learned that help from others cultivates your passion. Interactions early in our careers, such as those with peers and professors, have been crucial in reinforcing a creative path. They keep you motivated and build your confidence. For me, professors such as Dietmar Froehlich and Dwayne Bohuslav gave me that boost when I needed it the most. They exposed me to art and film, which provided me with multiple lenses through which to look at architecture.

MM: I’ve felt surrounded by early mentors. I like to think most of us do—the trick is learning to welcome the impact that others can have on you. My first-year professor, Susan Rogers, was such a powerful and influential professor. She helped me discover my own criticality by awarding me the opportunity to make my own mistakes.

Blair Satterfield, a longtime friend, collaborator, and now the chair of the architecture program at the University of British Columbia (and a Rice grad), is another mentor. While working at the same office, we produced projects together that were high concept, yet relatable, precise, but also full of insightful humor. He is definitely the person most responsible for my boxes of Moleskine accordion sketchbooks.

Working under David Manfredi was like attending another grad school. Each project was a thesis grounded in the history of place and architectural craft. It was an amazing training ground—though you had a maximum of two minutes to convey your contribution and always had to be ready. Our focus was to structure a design strategy that aligned an idea with the requirements of stakeholders and city authorities alike.

What is inspiring about doing your work in Houston? What is frustrating?

AA and MM: While there are obvious distinctions from Boston, Houston has always been the city to which we planned to return. A Boston lens made a difference in how we see Houston’s existing building stock, established neighborhoods, and neighborhoods on the cusp of securing their own identity. Time away to adapt to the tempo of other cities through walking, biking, and mass transit encouraged us to change the pace, mode, and perspective in how we experience Houston. Easing back into driving was the best decision. We enjoyed the light rail, walking—going to Airline Drive for produce and the connective trails are worth the heat. In short, there’s an abundance of culture to be appreciated between destinations. While we don’t locate our work squarely on preservation, we do wish there was more of an urge to comingle with the history, scale, and material nature of the existing neighborhoods, structures, prairies, and thickets in which we reside.

What is one of your favorite places in Houston?

AA: Driving over the Port of Houston on Loop 610, I’m reminded of port cities like Karachi, where I spent the first eight years of my life. It feels so otherworldly and visually translates the massive international trade networks that exist. These networks and delivery systems, visualized, speak volumes about the human condition and the environmental issues we need to address.

MM: Eating in Houston feels so cross-cultural. It is what I imagine eating dinner at the United Nations must be like—if jeans and the occasional Astros jersey are allowed. If I had to name a place, the latest place I've enjoyed is the reflective nature of the Menil Drawing Institute at the Menil Collection.

Amna Ansari’s intentional multidisciplinary background aligns architecture, urbanism, landscape, and infrastructure towards socially vibrant, equitable, and enduring spaces. Amna’s method of actively processing a broad range of scenarios concerning urban strategies for the future has been recognized through exhibitions, talks, and awards. Amna has taught graduate and undergraduate architecture studios in Boston and Houston, including Wentworth Institute of Technology, University of Houston, and currently at Rice Architecture.

Marcus Martinez is a San Antonio native and fellowship recipient at MIT. A recipient of multiple design awards, he has specialized in urban core, cultural, and infrastructural projects in Spain, across Texas, and Boston. He is currently on the faculty at the University of Houston as a design studio instructor, a lecturer in visual studies, and a leader of drawing workshops. His work has been featured in exhibitions in Rome, Lincoln Center, and in TED talks.

This interview is a part of the New Design Talent series created by Jack Murphy, former Editor of Cite. It is intended to highlight emerging designers who are newer to the Houston area design community.

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