Last month, the Texas Society of Architects invited four nationally recognized jurors to Austin to help identify the best design work in the state. They spent the next two days discussing and debating the merits of 221 projects submitted by Texas architects. San Antonio architects did remarkably well. Of the 16 projects that received awards, seven were designed by architects located in the Alamo City. This speaks very well of the quality of the local design community.
Interestingly enough, only two of those local projects were actually built within San Antonio. Indeed, there seems to be an unfortunate mismatch between the available talent and the quality of work being done locally.
For a city that rightfully celebrates and zealously guards its history and the structures that tell that story, little attention and even less resistance is paid when poor design makes its way into the urban core. While there are plenty of exciting projects underway, there are surprisingly large numbers of projects that are not as good as San Antonio deserves.
As a practicing architect, I know there are many factors that determine the outcome of a project. No architect ever sets out to design a bad building, but all too often projects are constrained by limited budgets and ambitions that result in buildings that are technically competent but still sorely lacking.
Why should the ambition of a building matter? Sir Winston Churchill put it best, perhaps, when he said while arguing for the sensitive rebuilding of London after it was devastated by German bombing during World War II. Speaking before Parliament, he said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” In other words, our values are reflected in the architecture we choose to create, and later that built environment has a powerful effect on what we choose to value.
In San Antonio we value our history because those who lived here before us sought to build the most remarkable city possible. They built the Alamo, the Menger Hotel, the Bexar County Courthouse, the Tower Life Building and the River Walk. These places and spaces define who we are today and force us to contemplate the kind of a city are we creating for future generations that will call San Antonio home.
Several important first steps have been taken. Both the Mission and Museum Reaches of the River Walk have proven to be great amenities for locals and tourists alike. They have served as critical generators of private development.
The Pearl Brewery redevelopment – one of the two San Antonio projects to win a design award this year - has created a lively new center of activity that is uniquely tailored to its historic and physical location.
This project’s master plan was designed by Lake|Flato Architects (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I used to work, though I was never involved with any Pearl project).
Unfortunately, other developments along the river have not been so inspired.
Although the recently completed Wyndham Garden Hotel (see top photo) is a perfectly serviceable hotel, its design would be equally at home on the side of an interstate highway as on the side of the Museum Reach of the River Walk. Its synthetic stucco exterior is cheap and its interior décor generic. The economics of chain hotel construction are very different than for a mixed-use development like the Pearl, but as they both make up a part of the built San Antonio environment, both should be held to the same standard.
As more people are drawn back to downtown it is inevitable that the center of the city will become more dense as previously empty buildings or lots are infilled with new development. One such example of this is the Hughes Warehouse Adaptive Re-use that was the other local building to receive a design award.
Crafted by and for Overland Partners, this project saw the creation of a vibrant workplace out of an older structure originally built for an entirely different purpose. The renovation carved out a portion of the original building to create an entry courtyard while allowing light to penetrate the voluminous work floor.
Although adaptively reusing an existing structure represents a sure-fire way to integrate a new development within its existing urban fabric, inserting a completely new structure can be more challenging. Located at the foot of the newly restored Hays Street Bridge, the Cherry Street Modern represents an earnest attempt to insert a modern housing type and stylistic language into a more historic neighborhood.
But the challenge of such projects is how to create something that is new while still respecting the craft and scale of the surrounding neighborhood. 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.
I do not know what a better solution might be, but the disparity here plays into the perception that these developments invariably lead to unchecked gentrification.
Architects ultimately do not design buildings in a vacuum. The work they produce is an index of the expectations and aspirations of their clients. As such, the “civilians” of San Antonio owe it to themselves to have higher standards. They owe it to themselves to be better consumers of the built environment and create a San Antonio that is respectful of its past while at the same time poised to embrace its future.
*Featured/top image: The Wyndham Garden Hotel is seemingly out of place on the Museum Reach. Photo by Brantley Hightower.