The Alamo Plaza Reimagined team released a video with images of the proposed redesign of Alamo Plaza this week. The reaction has been a mix of concerns, but most seem focused on the large, vacant plaza surrounded by glass walls.
The first public hearing was a surprisingly calm affair. Some objected to the removal of the 1940 Pompeo Coppini centotaph, a few supported it. Many were concerned about the removal of trees in the plaza. A few objected to the closure of Alamo Street, and many to the fact that the plaza will not be accessible from Houston Street. The major objection to the design was the fact that access to the plaza will be controlled by the new wall, for example in the Rivard Report’s opinion piece today.
What unites these concerns? They are all concerns about the architectural PROGRAM, not the architectural DESIGN. Which is to say, they can be traced back not to the design team led by George Skarmeas, but the CLIENT, the Texas General Land Office, City of San Antonio, and the Alamo Endowment.
The principal DESIGN feature that has garnered criticism is the glass wall enclosing the plaza, following the line of the historic wall to the south, and Houston Street to the north. In fact, the use of structural glass is arguably a designer’s response to the programmatic criticism that the Alamo chapel would not be as accessible as it is today – at least it would be visible. Glass could not be mistaken for a historic material like wood, iron, or stone, leading to a false sense of history. (Yes, I suppose some will think it original, but you need to design for the bulk of the bell curve, not the outliers.)
The cenotaph, to be moved to a site of the funeral pyre two blocks south.
The plan includes a new museum in the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings facing the chapel, a position the San Antonio Conservation Society has advocated for more than a year and a half. Archaeological remains of the South Gate – the once and future entrance to the Alamo – will be visible under structural glass, and the entire plaza will be about a foot and a half lower than it is today – closer to the level it was before a city grew up around it.
Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings.
Shade. A word about shade. It is REALLY IMPORTANT in South Texas for most of the year. When seeing the glass walls and big empty plaza, some critics wondered if we were planning to cook the tourists. To address this, the plan also proposes planting 100 trees along a recreated acequia parallel to the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth buildings, creating shade and respite along the western edge of the plaza.
Probably the most vulnerable part of the plan is the glass wall along Houston Street. It does not correspond to the north wall (under a couple more buildings on the north side of Houston Street) but simply controls access to the plaza. It is here where the urbanists get upset, noting that you can sit in cafes across from the Florence Cathedral or the Pantheon or a host of other World Heritage sites without passing through a gate. Yes, there will be cafes on top of and next to the museum, but behind a gate.
The biggest issue is this – you will no longer be able to take your friends up to the Alamo chapel for a midnight selfie after an evening on the Riverwalk. That, to Texans, is an inalienable right. It is also a programmatic issue, not a design issue.