Commentary: In Defense of Beige

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A woman walks by Main Plaza, a pedestrian-friendly area in downtown San Antonio.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A woman walks by Main Plaza, a pedestrian-friendly area in downtown San Antonio.

Very soon, San Antonio’s skyline will be getting a much anticipated addition. A new tower of silvery, shimmering glass top to bottom. It’ll be a standout, especially when there’s nothing else like it for 75 miles around.

According to the press release accompanying the building’s announcement, the main direction given to the architects who designed it was “anything but beige.”

The stylists stayed 100% true to their assignment and offered up a tall glass box, similar to the ubiquitous glass boxes in downtowns not exactly known for their charm. Houston comes to mind. And Dallas. And more and more, just up the road, Austin.

Nothing against tall glass boxes. Especially this one. It’s quite beautiful for what it is. And most thriving cities today have them in spades, presumably because to many, they project power, wealth, importance, and high tech-ness. Question is, should we rush to join the parade? Or would this be a good time to stand back and take a second look at who we are and what we’re doing and stick with our downtown core.

Far be it from me to question the taste of modern architectural masters or the respected leaders of our great city. However, since all important public buildings are subject to public opinion, I’d like to make my case for beige.

Beige is beautiful. Beige is the most natural color on earth, because it is the color of earth. Beige is the color of limestone; the soft, soulful stone that personifies the very foundation our city is built upon. Beige, in all its subtle variations of yellow, eggshell, tan, khaki, peach, cool and warm grays can be found in every corner of our city. Other earthy colors like brown, yellow, and red brick are natural complements to the limestone.

Our home in Southtown is beige. The Alamo is beige. A drive through the delightfully beige King William Historic District has warmed the hearts of millions for over 130 years. La Villita, the River Walk, and the buildings that line its banks are shades of beige and earthy colors. Beige gives our town its uniqueness. It’s personality. Its essence.

San Antonio is San Antonio because, much like Willie Nelson, we’ve never given a damn about what the other folks are saying or doing. We just write our own songs, sing them, and dance to them. And the world comes to our doorstep for the experience.

The Municipal Plaza Building. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Municipal Plaza Building, 114 W. Commerce St. Photo by Scott Ball.

San Antonio is San Antonio not just because of what we build, but because of what we’ve saved. We’ve been smart enough – or lucky enough – to save some very old stuff. The old beige stuff. Stuff that gave our Missions a World Heritage designation, the only one it Texas; stuff that gave an old beige home that once belonged to conservationist and collector Walter Mathis the only National Trust for Historic Preservation label in the state of Texas.

Market Square is beige dotted with red brick. The stately historic homes that line the streets in Fort Sam Houston and make it a standout among military bases are beige. The San Fernando Cathedral is beige. The old Esquire Bar was beige until someone in the 1960s decided that covering the front with maroon tile was cool. Thankfully, they left the river exterior beige. The Tobin is hip, mostly because it saved its beige façade and combined it with award-winning contemporary architecture.

The coolest place in town, the Pearl, is beige. The original Frost Bank Tower was beige. You could say that the old Frost Bank Tower that now houses the City Council Chambers and the current Frost Tower are even more subdued than beige. They’re gray. Granite gray. Strong and true as the people who built them.

Even our tall glass and stone buildings downtown built in the ‘80s have a certain restraint to them. They may not all be beige, but they’re nicely understated, much like San Antonio’s persona. As a city, we’re more Tim Duncan than we are Kobe Bryant. More Central Park than Disneyland.

Now, one could argue, and I wouldn’t disagree, that one glass box in a sea of beige could be a very unique focal point. But the problem with these things is, they tend to multiply. One day there’s one and the next day, boom, you wake up in downtown Houston. Plus, there’s plenty of room for glass boxes on the loops.

There is one thing you could say about a glass edifice in downtown San Antonio. It will be a nice, big mirror to beautifully reflect the beige cityscape all around it.


Top image: A pedestrian walks by the beige Municipal Plaza Building.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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31 thoughts on “Commentary: In Defense of Beige

  1. I doubt that there will be glass buildings popping up all over downtown. We aren’t in that type of market. Look how long it took to get the Frost building to paper. We just won’t have the kind of demand it would take.

  2. Think of it as a frosty ice sculpture on a buffet table withwedding and tres leches cakes and flan. Next we need an obsidian obelisk and a couple of standing lamps set for a fiesta.

  3. We do not need a glass building. We are not Houston, Dallas, or Austin. San Antonio is the natural city, in it’s river, the missions, the culture, and the people. The traditional heritage of the Westside, the Southside and the Eastside, needs to be protected. The families and culture are ingrained in the buildings, the streets, the neighborhoods. It is a huge mistake to not appreciate and preserve that culture.

  4. Love the conversation and agree with the appreciation for the earthy, warm materials of our city. There are so many aspects to the big glass box concept that need to be vetted very carefully in order to maintain the essence of San Antonio’s downtown character. Just because something is tall, vertical and sleek doesn’t make it good design. There is room for some of that…but our downtown is small and easily run over by development in a land rush. I would love to see each and every decision made with a sense of the historic, the eclectic, but always high quality and functional for people who live here, not just visitors and corporate tenants. Thank you, Lionel!

  5. The problem with beige is that it has become a signal of San Antonio’s bad side. San Antonio for the last 50 years has been stale, without diversity, and without options. You talk about Market Square but walk around there at night and it’s in the highest area in the city for sexual assaults. It can use some change.

    You talk about about the Pearl, but what makes the Pearl great is that it said “no” to the tradition in San Antonio of building retails parks that could care less for the pedestrian like the quarry, and the rim. The principles that went into it were about making it stand out, not be like the rest of the city. Because if they did it the normal San Antonio way it would be uninspiring and bland. It would be car centric not pedestrian centric. Building the pearl had more to do with change than keeping things the way they were. Great cities all have diversity of landscape and buildings just like all great teams have diversity of thought. The problem with San Antonio is that if it was a company, we would only hire people that looked and talked like us. Those types of companies are doomed. Diversity is the engine of innovation.

    Also, those other cities you mention that are all flashy and shiny are categorically kicking our butts in innovation, company creation, AND young talent. Young people are moving those all those cities in droves which you fail to mention. Those cities are walkable, bike-able, and have tons of other young people. They move there because those cities have options just like all great cities. San Antonio has become a one trick pony just for families and just in the suburbs.

    I am proud to be on the team that is changing this city and making more options for people. I go downtown every day and help companies get created. And every day I try to think of new ways to move this city away from its old self and into the new world. The reason Geekdom is so successful in attracting companies downtown is because we paint a picture for people of WHERE WE ARE GOING, not where we have been. Because if I tell people where we have been I would have to tell them that as a city we abandoned our downtown and let it rot and almost die. I would have to tell them that all those beautiful beige buildings that you love so much were sitting empty with no one in them because we told the world that downtowns don’t matter.

    So in defense of glass all I can say is that I am glad a flag of change has finally been planted. And I know that personally I plan on planting many more. And if you don’t like it you should listen to a former president, come downtown, and get into the arena.

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt

  6. Lorenzo, perfectly said. Well explained and justified. This city for too long has accepted held on to this notion that small subtle change is a good thing. We don’t live in that world anymore. It is time for a more progressive, forward thinking community to rise up and do away with “baby poop brown”.

  7. When so much of San Antonio is plastered with Fiesta-type colors I am surprised there is an uproar because a splash of color is to be added to our skyline.

  8. I would be sad and bored if the only color of earth were beige. In actually, there are so many earthy colors—red, brown, yellow. And stone is earth that has just not had a long enough time to erode—green, blue, and pink. Get a bit farther away, and our earthy planet is green, blue and white. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the San Antonio missions were originally painted in beautiful colors over the beige surface. San Antonio is a very colorful city. We have a beautiful red, purple and yellow public library, surrounded by greenery, and yes, recently some beige was added in the form of stone to the landscape. I also love the defunct pink museum building at El Mercado. I hope something great happens to that. I myself work in San Antonio’s only black skyscraper, along the River, which has been there since the 1980s. My main hope for this new, tall building is that it be beautiful. I’m sure there will be many opinions about that once it’s up. Viva San Antonio!

  9. Excellent commentary. That was the same way I felt when they took away the arches on the Centro de Artes and hired an architect out of Houston and put up a glass and metal box when they converted it into the Museo. We have photos of when we would go to the Mercado to pick out a pinata for our childrens’ birthdays and then would have them pose by those arches with them. That destruction of a historic building in a historic distric is what happens when you have people with no vision, no sense of what San Antonio is, making important decisions.

  10. Beige is beautiful and so is the new proposed frost bank building . I think that the beige structures will be much more appreciated when compared to the new blue glass buildings. Like San Fernando cathedral compared to the new tower. It reminds me of a similar comparison in Mexico City . Glass buildings next to 300 year old Spanish colonial buildings. Both make it all Beautiful. tower life and tower frost .

  11. In my opinion, the piece exemplifies what is best in art. A magnificent work, thought-provoking, and inspires response. What I got from it was that we can be both proud (and respectful) of our past while pushing forward to the future. To me, that’s a healthy appreciation of one of America’s unique cities.

  12. The fact that beige still rules downtown by way of a skyline still dominated by prewar architecture is a tribute to San Antonio’s neglect of its urban core for the last fifty years. But I would wager that the true aesthetic of downtown is the black asphalt of the surface parking lot. Lets do things to preserve and enhance our beloved downtown parking lots.

  13. Also, you know what really makes things pop? Contrast. Juxtaposition. What are you concerned about, that pretty glass buildings will upstage and diminish the startling beauty of the several outstanding examples of masonry skyscraper architecture that San Antonio is blessed to possess? Won’t happen.

  14. I am now 100% sure that the only people who want to preserved or stick with the current beige tradition are older Hispanics. Why? I have no damn cool.

    Someone made mention of the west and south and east sides needing to have their traditions preserved. Not sure what the heck that’s supposed to mean. Downtown architecture is downtown architecture. It’s not architecture for any side of the city. It’s architecture that represents downtown and in a broader sense, all of the city and metro area.

    A skyline should be diverse in look and feel. It should be as diverse as a city itself.

    It should project pose and success and innovation because that’s the story it tells of its city.

    Seattle and Dallas and Chicago and Vancouver and Houston and London wouldn’t be content with SA’s skyline and neither should we.

    • The skyline is not as important as the streetscape. At the ground level is where people live. The visual outline of a city is just a pattern of shapes. People should be fixated on how the Frost building will interact with the adjacent properties.. not what it looks like. What will it contribute to the experience of people walking by and through, and how does it add to movement in the neighborhood? Whether it is beige, black, glass, or brick is meaningless if is only looked at from afar. Hopefully other buildings will go up around it and you will rarely if ever see it in isolation (if it isn’t blocked entirely).

  15. I was taught that architecture is one of the seven arts, together with music, sculpture, performance, dance, painting and poetry. As such architecture is subjective.

    This city is notorious for regulating architecture. Thus beige prevails in order for approvals to expedite. Why don’t we just stick to regulating zoning, density, parking, setbacks and heights (that we can quantify) and let architects and economic common sense dictate what to build. I am sure Weston Urban wants the building to lease up. It is their money at risk. Let them build what they want within the guidelines.

    Some people like classical music, others like Rock and Roll. Many like both. Can you imagine regulating Picasso, or Mirò?

    Some people may want to live in the past. Many of us want to look to the future. In architecture, it is not beige. But again, it is subjective.

    Laissez faire.

  16. All great cities around the world have fundamentally embraced the cohabitation of historic and modern practices. In fact, these are attributes of tolerance, inclusion and progress. Just take a closer look.

  17. I would not call the limestone in the downtown beige. When clean, the buildings (post office, hotel to the West, the Cathedral, etc.) glow like heavenly bodies.

  18. As I look at most of the skyline out my window or roof top, the visual highlights are the beehive courthouse, the enchilada red library and Pioneer castle. The beige buildings seem to just melt into each other. At night I would add the Hemisfair tower, that hotel with the changing public art light display and the lit up Rivercenter Marriot. Vibrant and different is a good thing. Nice case against the glass (being Dallas or Houston-like) that moved my needle a little, but still looking forward to the majestic glass addition to my view.

  19. I’m glad someone has the courage to speak out, Lionel. I agree wholeheartedly that the glass box is a bad idea, but for different reasons. Mine is not so much to preserve the beige (although your case is very artistic), but rather to avoid the trite and ordinary. Other major cities are decades ahead of us in the construction of glass towers. One reason is, yes, they are beautiful. But the other reason is that they are much more cost effective to build than stone. And so they have proliferated, everywhere. My concern with building one in San Antonio is that it is not unique.

    Our city cannot compete with other major cities in commerce, transportation, banking or most other industries. What makes us great is our uniqueness. That is why tourism is such a significant industry for us. And the importance of tourism is why our uniqueness is so important. If we give up on what makes us unique and special, and throw in with the “big boys” to compete on their terms, we lose. A glass tower simply is not a good idea for San Antonio. We might as well allow a McDonald’s on the River Walk. But I assume it will happen anyway.

  20. Great discussion in the comments section here. We are lucky to have so many historic structures in our Downtown, but, as many have stated, that is more a function of the city’s historic neglect of Downtown more than its appreciation of its history. Any city so concerned with protecting its history would have changed the situation at the Alamo years ago… This criticism of the Frost Tower frustrates me to no end, because people in San Antonio are so spoiled and always find something to complain about. Why can’t those of us seeking modern structures and progress have ONE NICE THING without people freaking out about our city’s history and culture?! Do they not understand how blessed they are to have so much history and culture as-is?! Lest we forget, the land this is being built on is a motor bank and parking lot and they’re not even tearing down the trees. Nothing historic there…

    I think some of the issue with the criticism has to do with how many people have never lived anywhere else but San Antonio, and thus lack perspective. Any change is viewed as bad, no matter if Graham Weston recreated Mission San Jose, 23 stories high, or built a glass replica of the Death Star. Look to other markets like Austin or Houston and see what they’re building in their cities right now–I can tell you, none of those buildings are designed by a world-renowned architect like Frost Tower. All of them look like any other glass box building. This building’s unique shape and crown will come to define our skyline.

    No matter what you do, especially in San Antonio, change will always have its haters. I like the comment above where the poster basically tells the haters to stop being armchair critics. I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t like it, build your own skyscraper or move Downtown and start trying to make a difference. Until you’re down there every day facing the realities of an obsolete, dirty, deserted Downtown, don’t complain. You don’t have any skin in the game. I’d like to see the Rivard Report post a positive commentary on what Weston Urban is doing for our city and Frost Tower. The viewpoint shared in this piece is one we’ve heard enough–and one we’d be wise to ignore and leave behind in 1980, where it belongs.

  21. When Lionel Sosa speaks, we should listen. This guy is a local and national treasure!

    To Mr. Lorenzo Gómez, I really do appreciate that it is the 20-30 year olds who are really transforming downtown San Antonio after so many attempts that made minimal progress.

    But you have to remember that here in Texas and San Antonio we have turned down several attempts at mass transportation that would have really helped downtown. Too many voters/locals have preferred the free parking malls and shopping centers.

    But please, pay some respect to the generation that has gone before you and done so much. Of course much more needs to be done and you are part of that now!

  22. I hate that this has somehow become a millennials vs. boomers conversation. It doesn’t need to be that way. Truth is, we are all the same. Some of us have just been on the planet longer. And some will be here to live with our decisions longer. However, the merits of this discussion should stand, regardless of generations. Whatever is built will be there for a long time. No doubt it will be functional. Some people will love it. Some will hate it. Everyone will get used to it. A great example of that is the enchilada-red city library, which was highly controversial, but I think it’s one of the coolest things ever.

    So… That said and assuming we’re not all just spitting in the wind because the decision was already made before any of us even saw the design (which I’m sure it was), I think what would be really cool is a traditional stone structure, reflecting historic San Antonio architecture, at street level (maybe the first 5-8 stories)… and then a glass tower “blooming” out of that… Like earth and sky. It would be gorgeous. But no one asked me. I’m just enjoying the free skate here. Thanks for reading. 😉

  23. “In Defense of Beige,” let me say, I like the debate. In democracy, we should invite different opinions and thoughts. But I believe we shouldn’t fall prey to national politics and lose sight of respect and decorum. Lionel Sosa is and has been a great leader in our community. He has and continues to be in the “arena.” I believe in honoring the past, if we truly want a prosperous future. As a matter of fact, our future is rooted in our past. Let’s celebrate both. There is room for both. No one loses when diversity of thought is honored and respected.

  24. Architecture should be true to its time and design guidelines should allow for the same. There is no benefit or enhancement of historic context if it is retold in a poorly executed mimicry of the original. One only needs to look to Santa Fe for an example of this. Adobe structures are low slung and load bearing and do not work as car dealerships or 6 story hotels.

  25. Somehow I missed this article when it came out.

    To me, both sides of the argument are really unified in their opposition to “sameness”.

    Weston Urban is trying to develop something more interesting and new downtown, and should be applauded.

    (For all of the lovely historic buildings Mr Sosa mentioned, we also have our fair share of boring, beige stucco boxes.)

    At the same time, to Mr Sosa’s point, there can also be a sameness in new architecture.

    Austin has dozens of new glass towers, evidence of their economic growth and strength of their businesses.

    And while that economic activity is to be admired, it’s also hard not to think wistfully about the funky charm which made Austin so attractive to all of these companies in the first place, now largely lost.

    So to Weston Urban, I say bravo for bringing in world class architectural talent for the new tower. But also look for ways to make it authentically San Antonio.

    That doesn’t have to mean a tower shaped like the Alamo, but there are ways to mix native materials with modern materials, especially in the first few floors where impact to pedestrians and the street life is the greatest.

    If you are concerned about attracting millennials to San Antonio, I think that fostering an authentic yet modern San Antonio architectural vocabulary is just as important as fostering tech startups at Geekdom.

    San Antonio will succeed not by being more Austin than Austin, or more San Francisco than San Francisco. We can be authentically San Antonio and have building designs that reflect that.

  26. Many years ago, I stood inside the Plaza Club atop the Frost Tower looking north with arms wide open and declared, “we are drowning in a sea of shocking beige”, the Central Library our saving grace. Thank goodness for Ricardo Legorreta. Since its inception, this city has had a colorful history with colorful people. Its architecture should reflect that history, both in color and in form. We should preserve our past, our well-made past, but please don’t fear the modern. At one time, the now traditional was modern.

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