At its core, architecture is a practical art. It requires the balanced consideration of multiple, often opposing demands. In daily architectural practice, the realities of constructability and economics are as much a driver of every design decision as is aesthetics. As important as codes and functional requirements may be, sometimes it’s nice to have the opportunity think a bit bigger and paint with a slightly larger brush.
And so I was intrigued when I heard that American Institute of Architects (AIA) San Antonio along with Plaza de Armas was hosting a design "competition" to envision how the brutalist buildings of Hemisfair Park could be reimagined and repurposed. I put the word competition in quotation marks because it wasn’t really a competition – no prizes would be awarded and there is no mechanism for any submitted design to be implemented - but these limitations can be incredibly liberating. Without the normal restrictions imposed by economic, political and gravitational forces, this exercise would allow designers the freedom to ask “what if” on a grand scale.
When asking such questions I’ve found it’s best to be working with someone who can answer them. And so I called Erica Goranson to see if she was interested in teaming together. Erica and I had worked together when I was at Lake|Flato and I am always looking for an opportunity to collaborate with her. In addition to being an incredibly driven worker, she is also exceedingly smart and has a way of approaching problems that is both insightful and fun.
So-called brutalist architecture can be hard to love. The forms of the John Wood Federal Courthouse, the Federal General Services Administration Building and the Institute of Texan Cultures are both severe and alien. These qualities are intensified by the vast empty lawns and enormous paved parking lots that surround them. Separated by several hundred feet, each of these structures reads as an isolated object within a deserted suburban landscape. It occurred to both Erica and I that establishing some sort of connection between these buildings and the adjacent neighborhoods and parks would be critical to any successful design strategy.
One of the more curious aspects of the landscape around these buildings is the earthen fortification that encircles the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Seen from the ground level, this gesture is aggressively unwelcoming. But when exploring the site we found that the act of walking along the summit of this form was in fact a compelling urban experience.
Like walking the Renaissance walls encircling the Italian town of Lucca or the riding the elevated “L” train in Chicago, it provides a radically different experience of the city. While eliminating this feature might be the obvious choice, Erica and I decided to expand this gesture and use it as a device to weave together all of Hemisfair Park.
Just as Robert Hugman proposed a sunken River Walk to provide an alternate experience of downtown, we proposed the creation of an elevated promenade to provide an alternate experience of Hemisfair Park.
Some of these walkways would connect the park to the adjacent Lavaca Neighborhood by bridging over Cesar Chavez. Another would connect to the Alamo Dome by spanning I-35, allowing Hemisfair Park to become an active participant in events occurring there. Other walkways would connect the existing brutalist structures and those yet to be built.
Together they would form a network of “Skywalks” that could be used by commuters, joggers and tourists alike.
As well as considering how these brutalist buildings could be interconnected, we also gave some thought giving them alternative uses.
Although the Hemisfair Master Plan initially appeared to call for the demolition of the Institute of Texan Culture in order to create a park for outdoor recreation, an alternative approach would be to preserve the structure and repurpose it as an indoor recreation center.
Converting the existing GSA building into a center providing services and facilities for the elderly would help ensure the development proposed byt the Mater Plan would be generationally diverse. In order to develop San Antonio’s art scene, flexible indoor and outdoor theater and gallery venues could be inserted into the Federal Courthouse, returning that structure to its original purpose.
The network of SkyWalks makes the now interconnected roofs of these buildings both accessible and usable in a way that opens up intriguing possibilities. The roof of the Institute of Texan Cultures, for example, is perfectly sized for a soccer field. The other buildings could have gardens or outdoor performance venues integrated into their new rooftop landscapes.
Is this proposal practical? No. Would it be incredibly challenging and expensive to implement? Absolutely. But then again, Hugman’s 1929 plan for the Riverwalk was in many ways impractical and expensive as well. It could only be implemented a decade after it was proposed when inexpensive labor became available as part of a depression-era WPA program. What Hugman provided was a big idea – a vision of what could be – and that has helped define San Antonio today.
And for Erica and me, that is the value of design exercises such as this. In the informal design workshop held at the Center For Architecture on Saturday we saw designers, preservationists and other interested citizens engaging with the CEO of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation about the current Master Plan. We saw emerging professionals discussing ideas with some of San Antonio’s most respected architects. We saw a public discussion of the future of Hemisfair’s built environment that will be continued on Tuesday when all of the proposals and ideas developed as part of this exercise will be shared with the larger San Antonio community.
And while some of those proposals may seem outlandish today, who knows? In a hundred years one of these proposals may result in something that seems as integral to our city as the River Walk does today.