San Antonio Central Library, courtesy of visitsanantonio.com
Bekah S. McNeel

“How do we get people to stop thinking that art is elitist?” Guillermo Nicolas asks himself. His answers are varied in their scope and approach, but one of them is strikingly simple: libraries. In particular, San Antonio’s Central Library.

Libraries serve as monuments to the cities they serve. Seattle’s Central Library is a brainy glass and steel geometric stunt on the outside, with bold colors and book-centric features creating a creatively utilitarian interior. Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix has shade fins to mediate the intense desert sun, and perhaps not coincidentally make the building look like a spiky succulent. Under the leadership of San Antonio’s Lake|Flato architects, Austin’s John Henry Faulk Central Library promises to pay tribute the character of its “weird” city.

Seattle’s Central Library. Photo courtesy of Bekah McNeel.

Our Central Library, the Enchilada Red one, is among the iconic central libraries in the country. The Mexican Modernist design of Ricardo Legorreta is a controversial work of art and an audacious vanguard for modern architecture in the city. Davis Sprinkle, who recruited Legorreta’s submission for the design competition, remembers the architect’s one caveat: he would design “what’s best for the city, not what will win.”

Legorreta and his team set out to design a building that would invite, not intimidate. From the playful exterior to the democratically designed interior, the building actually speaks very well to the high value the city places on participation and festivity. Even from the outside, the building reminds us that part of San Antonio’s charm is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Legorreta’s building turned out to be the perfect home for Nicolas’ dreams of art-infused public space.

From the moment visitors walk through the door they are greeted by a world class collection of art. Stephen Antonakas’s Blue Room presides over the entrance with Jesse Amado’s tribute to Linda Pace, Days. In the lobby stands the classically chubby Botero horse, Caballo Tamaño Grande, before rounding the corner on the way to the escalator. Pieces by San Antonio painter Jesse Treviño and Sebastian, the Mexican artist responsible for the Torch of Friendship, are displayed among the new books. By the time patrons have taken 30 steps they have seen almost a gallery’s worth of art.

Riding the escalator up to the second floor of the Central Library is sublime. One ascends into the vaulted yellow room, blinking up into the natural light provided by the gargantuan skylights (which I’m tempted to forgive for their environmental unfriendliness). Chihuly’s Fiesta Tower comes into view slowly, the escalator allowing a perfect reveal.

Jonathan Holmes (Akron, OH) and Christine Chung (San Francisco, CA) visit the Young Voices Cow in the Central Library. Photo Courtesy of Bekah McNeel

The young people’s collection on the fourth floor is home to The Young Voices cow. According to the guide to art in the SAPLs,  “This art piece helps symbolize the library system’s commitment to San Antonio’s youth as well as its pledge to support public art and visual literacy.” On the fifth floor patrons find Orchid, a fascinatingly fluid sculpture by Rogelio Madero de la Peña.

In addition to art, Nicolas campaigned to make the Central Library a hub of technology, as his grandparents did at the Cortez branch, which was named after his grandfather, a pioneer of Spanish-language telecommunications.  For those citizens that do not have access to art and technology in their homes and schools, these are vital to producing the kind of globally literate students who will succeed in an economy where they will compete for jobs against graduates who grew up with both.

Nicolas’ idea is that public space should enrich citizens and build pride in our civic identity. Here, art is not elitist, it’s communal:  public art and architecture make up our shared scenery.

San Antonio Central Library, courtesy of visitsanantonio.com

This means that buildings are in constant conversation with their built environment— the plazas, roads, and other structures around them. The area surrounding Central Library, including the recently added and widely despised plaza on the corner of Augusta and Richmond, is hardly a cohesive, inviting center of activity.

Regarding the offending plaza, Brantley Hightower, AIA, said, “Given that it sits in front of the giant red cube of the library, it may sound odd to fault the new plaza as looking out of place, but that?s exactly what it is … while these walls do enclose the plaza and protect it from street noise, they also have the unfortunate effect of walling-off the library from the street.”

Davis Sprinkle offered the following ideas for how to maximize the use of San Antonio’s showpiece building, and invite more patrons inside.

  • High-density development – both Sprinkle and Nicolas stressed the primacy of urban infill in our efforts at promoting not just library patronage, but downtown altogether. “You’ve got to bring in the demand,” Nicolas said. Rather than incentivizing sprawl, like we have for years, savvy developers now hope that the City will reward those braving the gap tooth streets of downtown.
  • Madison Square Park and Ramona Park – these are two great examples of underutilized downtown parks. To wit…did you even know that the isosceles triangle of greenspace between San Pedro and Seymore was called Ramona Park? Or for that matter, that San Pedro isn’t even called San Pedro at that point, but rather Ramona Plaza? While the dog park at Madison Square Park is a great idea, the parks closest to the library have a long way to go before becoming the kind of places where people are sprawled out on blankets with picnics and books.
  • More public art– in Sprinkle’s opinion, the triangular median at the intersection of Camden and San Pedro/Ramona Plaza and Main (yes, that miasma) is just begging for an Angel Rodriguez-Diaz obelisk like the one at the Blanco/Fulton roundabout in Beacon Hill. With Southwest School of Art’s new degree granting program, the parks and surrounding areas would make ideal showcases for well-curated student sculptural exhibitions.
  • The Plaza– when asked their thoughts on the plaza outside the library local architects suggested renovations that typically hinged on total demolition.  Certainly, if Davis Sprinkle or other architects involved with the original construction had been consulted, they may have pointed to the plans  left behind by the late Legorreta for a tower intended to be a complimentary phase II of the library. To his credit, Sprinkle smiles when I ask what he suggests be done with the offending plaza and simply says, “Cover it in vines.”

Even without these improvements, the Central Library is worth a visit. Great art, lots of books, and free wi-fi. There’s nothing elitist about it.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.