22 thoughts on “Contemporary Architecture: Where San Antonio Falls Flat

  1. “The modern language of these town homes is a clear departure from other structures in the neighborhood and they would seem more at home on South Congress in Austin than on the East Side of San Antonio.”

    That seems awfully subjective. South and East Austin have a vibrant mix of new modern structures side by side with renovated historic structures. Many people, as Austin’s booming growth indicates, enjoy that mix and do not feel it detracts from the integrity of these neighborhoods.

    While opposition to modern may make sense in a Monte Vista where the housing stock was in fairly good condition prior to its renaissance, San Antonio’s East Side seems particularly well suited to this sort of vibrant mix of new and historic in light of the large numbers of empty lots that checker the area. It would be far too costly to build historically appropriate properties on these empty lots due to the rigid design requirements, so edgy modern properties that can be built at a reasonable cost meet an important infill need. The alternative is a neighborhood filled with lots that sit empty and serve no purpose.

    • I totally agree with you, Tex – that is a totally subjective statement. They entire essay is a series of subjective statements. And so long as we’re being subjective, I personally kind of like the Cherry Street Modern and hope that more developments like it are built here in town. After my kids are grown, that is the kind of place I would like to live as I hate yard work with an intense passion.

      The point I was trying to make is that if we choose to develop our neighborhoods into vibrant mixes of old and new, we need to make sure the quality of the new is just as good as the quality of the old and that the two harmonize with one another. I’m in no way proposing that we build historic structures to mimic neighboring buildings, but new buildings should “fit” into their context in a way that makes sense.

      South and east Austin are incredibly cool – but they are cool in a distinctly Austin way. All I’m saying is that I want the new that is inserted into the east side and other neighborhoods around town to be cool in a distinctly San Antonio way.

  2. Yes, I’m thinking exactly of the old AceMart building turned hotel downtown for some reason. Although I can appreciate the fact that the old building was preserved in a way, the city could have stepped in quickly and done something very unique with that building since we haven’t in awhile. I live downtown and to be quite honest, haven’t seen anything new or unique besides the revitalization of Main Plaza. Look around at the buildings that are dilapidated, it’s disgusting!

  3. Well I can definitely say that this city seriously lacks when it comes to height. We don’t have anything that breaks the 40 story mark. Downtown is filled with short buildings. Where are the modern 60-70 floor skyscrapers?

  4. Architecture is supposed to follow the Vitruvian Triad of Utility, Beauty, and Soundness. Contemporary architecture looks like it only bothers adhering to the principle of utility. It’s horrifically ugly.

    • Brian,
      It seems most examples of the ugly modern building don’t even do the -utility- part of that triad well, so much as they use the guise of “utility” as an excuse for piss-poor design. Like Brantley, I like the basic concept of the Cherry St. Modern — but the execution is right sloppy. The great modernist Mies van der Rohe (as good a Vitruvian classisist as any) is barfing in his grave. No sense of proportions nor attention to what’s thick and thin, materials jambed together with no thought for transition, total oblivion to sun orientation with shade in all the wrong places, glare blasting into some spaces but tiny basement windows elsewhere, no effort at refinement or grace. Even Buckminster Fuller said, if I recall, “I never think about aesthetics, only how to solve the problem. But when finished if it isn’t beautiful, I know it’s wrong.”

  5. Can’t build anything taller than the tower god forbid a shadow falls on the Alamo but a ripley’s directly across is fine!

  6. It’s because everything is designed in autocad or sketch up. Our builders are cheap, they use facades and generic designs. If you just look at all the buildings being made, even the interiors and think in terms of 3D design, it all makes sense. The craft of architecture has been set aside for the all mighty buck. This is happening every where around America, but yeah it’s pretty bad here.

  7. You should have seen the first 2 iterations of the Wyndham. Design Guidelines are in place but working with national chains is challenging. The OHP and HDRC struggle to improve poor design in historic districts and River Improvement Overlay districts, it’s no easy task.

    • It would seem these “guidelines” have no teeth. Or perhaps those entrusted to enforce them have no balls?

  8. Grand Hyatt, anyone? Our skyline is an vast beige assortment punctuated by pin pricks of color. We are the chicken fried steak platter of architecture and design.

  9. San Antonio Architects did have an opportunity in the decades between 1960 and 2000 to capture the market here, and did make some progress. They now seem to be insular, and as a result, less effective at garnishing the projects. Chances are that Wyndam has it’s own Architects and is not in any particular frame of mind to hire the locals.

  10. Skyline is depressing. The Grand Hyatt was a nice addition but it’s only 34 floors. Where are the 70 floor buildings??

    • Kevin, 70 story are very rarely built in the U.S. 70 stories get built monthly in oil reach countries. But in America, the average height of a high rise or “skyscraper” is going to be in the 45-50 story range.

  11. Even worse than uninspired or ugly architecture in newly-constructed buildings is when we allow a great existing building to be defaced or outright ruined.
    The library board, which has no architects, proposed, got approved and constructed a shockingly ugly “plaza” on the back side of the Central Library. Both the design and landscaping of this “plaza” are an insult to Legorreta’s wonderful building and to the architect’s legacy.
    And, to add further insult, this year they deemed it necessary to slap the words “Central Library” on that building as if anyone might get that building confused with some of the surrounding beige buildings. Unbelievable.

  12. I think San Antonio’s desire to “preserve the past” really limits the city in the architecture category. I think if you drive around some of the Alamo Heights neighborhoods you can catch a glimpse of modern being inserted into traditional neighborhoods done correctly. I think the same can be said for several Austin neighborhoods even though it is a much different city than ours. I lived in a neighborhood near downtown that had gone historic a few years back and I eventually decided to sell it (to two Lake Flato architects ironically). A big reason for selling was the ridiculous amount of restrictions placed on improvements, completely misguided and unrealistic in many cases. I had always wanted to build modern and so when I sold my house I took the chance. Building modern in San Antonio came with a few hurdles. The first is where to build. There are so many neighborhoods that won’t let you build what you want and the places that will are either outrageously expensive or what I would call bad or transitional neighborhoods. Southtown is either too expensive or too transitional in the more “affordable” parts. Places like Alta Vista and Tobin Hill are still too transitional for me. I’ve kept up with these areas for years hoping they would come around but they just haven’t. Places like Mancke Park are to expensive. I have no faith that anything east will ever blossom on a scale that I would be comfortable with. I understand that that’s the trick to living in a great area, getting in early before prices skyrocket but I’m just a bit gunshy when it comes to San Antonio development. Anyway we eventually found a nice older neighborhood across from UTSA (1604) that was established but didn’t have the restrictions that most others have. The second hurdle is cost. If you have money then no problem but if you’re a middle class family then it gets a bit harder. Hiring someone like Tobin Smith or Lake Flato is just not an option unless you’ve got money. Even after you find someone to draw things up you have to find someone who can actually build the house you want for some sort of reasonable budget. The last thing I wanted was what I like to refer to as “cheap modern.” And actually, that’s how I feel about the Cherry St Lofts and many of the “modern” projects in town. So really I feel like the biggest challenge is bridging that gap. Coming up with a modern, well thought, interesting design that is well built but within budget without cutting any corners that would affect the quality of the structure. Sorry if I rambled a bit. But my point was that I think San Antonio makes it harder to build modern than it should be but it can be done. I started a blog during my building process but it hasn’t been updated in awhile. I wish more people would build modern instead of these mass produced soulless homes that everyone seems to end up in. http://www.modernhomesanantone.blogspot.com

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