Without the San Antonio River, Mission Concepción would not sit where it does today. To better connect the essential waterway to Mission Concepción, the San Antonio River Foundation (SARF), the nonprofit partner to the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), hired environmental artist Stacy Levy of Philadelphia to design the portal, "River Return," at Concepción Park along the Mission Reach.
The first of four planned portals, "River Return" acts as an outdoor living room, equipped with limestone walls that rise and fall, mimicking the flow of water. The walls are short enough for people to sit and enjoy the outdoor space which seems to flow seamlessly into the landscape. The concrete floor of the portal is carved with fluid designs inspired by the frescos inside of Mission Concepción, and from the stone building itself.
Upon arrival to the park, one will likely first notice a two-story limestone tower with a staircase that swirls around its outer edge, resembling the curve of a shell. From the tower, one can see both the San Antonio River and Mission Concepción, linking the two historical sites.
"Because there is such a distance from the (river to the Mission) we needed to go ahead and have a second story (so people can see it)," said Estela Avery, executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation.
Rialto Studio Principal James Gray designed the tower, and Levy designed the curving limestone walls to match the tower, creating a unified space for visitors.
"It's almost like (the tower is) the eye of the hurricane and my walls are spinning off," Levy said. "They are very sewn together. It is very important that the landscape architecture and the building work together."
The floor is laden with designs that resemble leaves, inspired by the Mission's interior, that morph into wavelike swirls, combining architecture with nature and movement.
"I even worked with a hydrologist," Levy said, describing the level of thought she put into the floor design to depict the natural flow of water.
Levy, who used to canoe regularly, is fascinated by the movement of water. The way it ebbs and flows, swirling in patterns as it moves downstream, coming into contact with rocks and other debris.
"I want to freeze a hydrological moment for other people to see," she said.
Levy spent hours inside of the Mission, studying the design of the building and taking that inspiration back with her to Philadelphia where she created the floor and wall design.
"(Mission Concepción) doesn't have a lot of art in it, it doesn't have a lot of decoration," she said. "But where it has decoration, it is very beautifully done, very restrained and quite faint. It looked as if someone was penciling it on."
Back in Philadelphia, she took up her own pencil, studied the photographs she took during her visit, and sketched her interpretation of the Mission and nearby river.
The project took about a year to complete, and it didn't come without challenges. Blazing Lazer Art and Engraving, the company hired to perform the floor carvings, wore hot, full-body suits while chiseling away the concrete to create Levy's designs.
"The weather was a big, big issue," Avery said. "These guys were in these suits that are just horrible to work in, with full masks."
The portal was funded in part by the San Antonio River Authority, the 2008 Bexar County visitor tax, and the City of San Antonio.
"With the recently recognized World Heritage designation, it is even more important to celebrate the connections between the river ... to the wonderful Mission at this location," said Suzanne Scott, SARA's general manager.
The next portal, "WIND," by Belgian artist Arne Quinze, will be unveiled Friday, Oct. 23 at 10 a.m. near Mission San Juan.