San Antonio Update May 2023
Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.
I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.
Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!
This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.
Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.
The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.
I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.
Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.
And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.
These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.
I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!
Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.
More staying power than a traditional mortgage.
The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.
Catedral de Sal: Industrial Reuse
I saw that the famous Battersea Power Station in London has finally been opened, a stunning industrial reuse on a massive scale. As of ten days ago, it is a collection of apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and parks. It is a city within a city. The Art Deco masterpiece by G.G. Scott sat unused for nearly 40 years and went through a plethora of potential redevelopments, including demolition for housing. The rehabilitation discussion has been going on so long I admit I thought it had already happened! The present industrial reuse took nearly a decade. The building was listed (landmarked) in 1980 while it was still operating.
Yesterday here in Bogotá, Colombia where I am a Fulbright Specialist with Ean Universidad, I toured the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá and it occurred to me that this was an industrial reuse as well. It is a historic salt mine used since before Europeans arrived and in the early 20th century the idea of building a chapel in the mine emerged from the miners’ devotional traditions. Conceived in the 1930s and built in the 1950s, the chapel was succeeded in the 1990s by the new cathedral, a massive series of tunnels and sculptures that the Colombians have ranked as their greatest Maravilla (wonder). Designed by Roswell Garavita Pearl, the new cathedral is some 500m underground, beneath the level of the now-closed 1950s chapel.
The impression one gets upon entering is that of a mine and the long corridors known as drifts that allowed the extraction of salt. The architecture and sculpture for the most part allows the seams of salt and rock to speak more eloquently than the occasional realist sculpture – indeed sometimes the inserted angels look out of place.
The tour begins with the Stations of the Cross, all fourteen done in an abstract manner whereby a stone cross is set within or without the rock. Here the absence of literal interpretation is a blessing, and the sculptures emerge from the seams of minerals with emphasis and empathy.
The main nave of the Cathedral is actually a triple nave and is preceded by a smaller chapel to the Virgin that includes salt chandeliers.
What makes the main space so effective is again the use of a massive cross above the altar that has the height (50 feet) and depth to carry the colossal space. What struck me most were the massive round columns dug from the salt rock to support the main nave. Again, the most effective aesthetic interventions are those than reference and resonate with the natural mineral forms and patterns.
The only downside (and it didn’t bother me that much) was the fairly extensive collection of shops and concessions down in the salt mine after your complete the tour. Some were obvious, like selling salt sculptures or emeralds or bath salts, but some were almost comically irrelevant, like the King Tut museum.
So what do we have? At the end of the day a very impressive salt mine that is one of the only ones you can visit outside of Poland. It is an industrial reuse that takes advantage of the historic use to create some pretty persuasive artworks that successfully illuminate the heritage of the miners and the religious devotions they brought with them beneath the earth.
This is a creative reuse and has become a massive tourist attraction. I like the latitude given to the intervention. While I loved Falun (a World Heritage strip mine in Sweden) when I saw it in 2007, I find this site a bit more alive, with constant living heritage additions, like the various Virgin icons that continue to be added to the chapel, as noted by my friend and colleague Juan Camilo Chaves.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
The Mischief of Modernism and the Hubris of Scale
“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.
And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.
Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.
Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.
The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.
I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.
Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.
Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.
The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.
I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.
SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?
But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.
A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.
This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.
Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.
- The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.
UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures (remotely) was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).
“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”
Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.
Cenotaph Stays for Now
The meeting started at 9 AM and ended at 7 PM with a 12-2 vote by the Texas Historical Commission NOT to approve a permit to relocate and restore the Cenotaph in Alamo Plaza. This relocation had been characterized by the City and Alamo Endowment as essential for the success of the entire plan.
That characterization is curious – one would think that the development of the museum – which has a timeline imposed by donor Phil Collins – would be the key element of the plan. Or the closing of the streets. Or even the relocation of the entertainment zone facing the Plaza, which seemed for years to be the key negative motivator for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. But there has been no movement on that issue at all.
The Conservation Society of San Antonio has been primarily focused on the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, as I have blogged about many times. It was interesting to hear the Texas Historical Commission debate the Cenotaph relocation. My first takeaway was: These people know what they are talking about. Laurie Limbacher displayed a razor-sharp knowledge of concrete and armatures, and several other Commissioners made it clear that they understood the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards which discourage relocation unless it is needed to safeguard a structure.
Which brought everything back to the curious logic of “this must happen first”? THC Chairman John Nau was not buying it. He said the site is too important “to suggest that the entire project depends on granting a single permit.” Were they giving themselves a way out? The project started six years ago and has been fueled entirely by public money so far. It was stated during the meeting that no private fundraising had been done yet, something I wondered about last month.
Meanwhile, the Alamo itself has reopened after nearly half a year, although it and the Cenotaph are still surrounded by barricades.