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San Antonio

Game Of Cones

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As the debate over what to do with Alamo Plaza rages on I thought it might make sense to step back and tell the story of a battle rages every day at the gates of the Alamo. I’m talking, of course, about the fight over what is the best snow cone flavor.

In this episode of The Works I tell the story of those who sell snow cones in Alamo Plaza. Their story is not what you might expect: it is a song of ice and fire and government-sponsored lotteries:

As always, feel free to listen to other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

Spreading Wings

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As the new control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport nears completion the grounds around the historic airport will be receiving some new signage. The design of this signage isn't ours but it reflects by our design for the illuminated wings for the tower.

Our wings were inspired by the forms and construction techniques of World War I-era aircraft - the same kind of aircraft that were flown in and out of Stinson in its early years. What we like about the new signage is that it ties together the facilities on the north side of the airport with the new control tower on the south side.

It's cool to have the opportunity to do good work. It's even better to know that your work is helping other people to do good work, too.

Meanwhile on Olmos

 before...and after

before...and after

This little office renovation we did on Olmos Drive (across from one of our early projects) wrapped up last year but it's taken until now for the landscape to mature. The idea was create a more pleasant environment for the workers inside by replacing the street parking with a landscaped garden and by protecting the street-facing glazing with a perforated metal screen.

Happy Labor Day.

Futuristic Ruins

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I recently checked out the new additions to the San Antonio Botanical Garden. The Welcome Center, Discovery Center, Culinary Garden and Family Adventure Garden are all great enhancements to the San Antonio institution but as I explored the gardens I was reminded of how great the Lucile Halsell Conservatory truly is.

Designed in the 1980s it was one of the first major projects by Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz. The project consists of a series of subterranean greenhouses that feature plants from different biomes from around the world. Each of these gardens is illuminated by geometric skylights and the overall composition somehow feels like a futuristic spaceship and a ancient ruin.

San Antonio has it's fair share of good buildings, but I've always felt this was one of its most underappreciated gems.

 

 

The Western Edge

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The fierce ongoing debate about the redesign of Alamo Plaza speaks to how critically important the project is for our city.

It also happens to be a fascinating design problem.

Back in 2013 Margaret Sledge and I decided the challenge of Alamo Plaza was worth studying in the context of a hypothetical design studio at Trinity University. Our students came up with a variety of different design proposals but the one produced by Nate Adams, Jason Azar and Keegan Droxler was particularly memorable. They called for converting the existing historic commercial buildings on the west side of the plaza into a museum / visitor center for the Alamo.

At the time this struck me as a particularly good idea and I was pleased when, five years later, the authors of the “Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan” had the same idea for the location for the visitor’s center. I was less pleased when I saw they were considering demolishing the historic structures located there in order to build a new museum from the ground up.

As I sat through one of last week’s public discussions / yelling matches I started thinking about how the limitations of the three historic buildings that form the western edge of Alamo Plaza could be turned into assets in order to create a world class visitor center. In my spare time this past week I took the seed of what Nate, Jason, and Keegan had started in class five years ago and developed it into something I think is worth sharing.

Of course stealing the ideas of former students is only one of many transgressions I committed. Second guessing a design team who is still very much in the process of designing is also something you’re not supposed to do. Then again, there has been a lot of commenting / second guessing going on since the Comprehensive Interpretive Plan was released. Rather than just react to the what I saw with words I could actually do some design work. And so for better or worse that is what I have done.

Before I describe the proposal in detail I did want to provide three quick disclaimers:

1. I am not an expert on the Alamo - I’d like to think I’m reasonably knowledgable of Texas History and as an architect I do spend most of my waking hours thinking about the built environment. I also spent the better part of a decade living and working within a few blocks of the Alamo so I first hand knowledge of the challenges and possibilities of Alamo Plaza.

2. My particular ancestry does not privilege my opinion - Although I can claim to be a 6th generation Texan whose ancestors played a part in the Texas Revolution, that does not bestow on me any particular claim on the Alamo, it’s past or its future. I do, however, believe that whether you’re a descendent of William Travis or a singer / songwriter from east London, the Alamo and its story belongs to all of us.

3. I have no connection to the Alamo Master Plan Design Team - The group of professionals assembled by the Alamo Master Plan Management Committee is credentialed, talented and I have no doubt they have the ability to produce good work. But a design team’s potential is circumscribed by the demands placed upon them by the client. Those constraints do not apply to me and so I am free to propose things the real designers cannot.

So again, just to be clear, this is an unsolicited, unsanctioned, purely hypothetical design proposal for a visitor center that could be built but - but probably won’t.

 The 1882 Crockett Block

The 1882 Crockett Block

As identified by the Comprehensive Interpretive Plan (and my undergraduate students), the Crockett Block, the Plaza Building and the Woolworth Building that form the western edge of the plaza are an ideal location for an interpretive museum / visitor’s center for the Alamo. Adaptively reusing these structures - which are themselves historic - to create such a facility makes plenty of sense: the buildings already exist and the location is ideal. To be sure there are issues associated with reusing these structures but I think it’s possible to view these challenges as opportunities to create a design solution that is uniquely suited to the Alamo.

 The reconstructed western perimeter wall as seen from inside the street level gallery

The reconstructed western perimeter wall as seen from inside the street level gallery

It is true that the Crockett Block, the Plaza Building and the Woolworth Building all sit on a portion of the Alamo’s former perimeter wall. The Hotel Gibbs and Federal Building do so as well but in the case of the commercial buildings in question the non-historic portion of their interiors could be gutted to open up the street level so that a portion of the Alamo’s original perimeter wall could be rebuilt in place as an interpretive exhibit. Visitors to the museum could walk through full-size dioramas that recreate the days before, during and after the 1836 siege. These reconstructions would also be visible through the buildings’ first story windows, creating a visual connection between the existing “real” Alamo Plaza outside and the historic simulation inside.

 A large gallery addition sits over the existing historic buildings

A large gallery addition sits over the existing historic buildings

One of the reasons given for tearing down the Crockett Block and its neighbors is that the current buildings are not large enough to accommodate a suitable visitor center. If additional space is indeed required, gallery space could be built above the original structures. In order to preserve the oldest (and arguably most important) of the three buildings on the block, this addition could be built to cantilever over the 1882 Crockett Block.

 The outdoor viewing terrace between the existing Crockett Block and the upper gallery addition

The outdoor viewing terrace between the existing Crockett Block and the upper gallery addition

A side effect of these structural gymnastics is that this cantilevered addition would cast shade onto an outdoor viewing terrace located on top of the Crockett Block. As well as serving as an ideal place to experience Alamo Plaza from an entirety new perspective, this terrace could also become a premiere location for special events that could be held independent of the public plaza below.

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If the view from the Crockett Block's new viewing terrace is impressive the view form the Floating Gallery above it would be stunning. Floor-to-ceiling glazing would bathe the galleries in light while allowing Alamo artifacts to be seen within view of the historic Alamo itself. A series of partitions could create darker galleries for the display of more light-sensitive items.


Of course the Visitor’s Center is but one of many aspects of the Comprehensive Interpretive Plan. There are plenty of compelling ideas in that plan and of course there are also some that are less so. It is my sincere hope that this modest proposal adds something to the ongoing discussion of what to do with Alamo Plaza. Just as I used my student's project as a starting point I hope the "real" design team can use this effort as a starting point to create something worthy of the Alamo.

On The Other Hand...

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Earlier this month a new "Interpretive Plan" for San Antonio's Alamo Plaza was released to the public. It represented a further development of a "Master Plan" that was completed last year. Last week the city held a series of public hearings to discuss the plans and I was able to attend the final one on Thursday.

On the one hand it was inspiring to see so many people interested in the built environment. On the other hand, things got pretty nasty pretty quickly. People showed up with signs and matching T-shirts. The formal presentation was interrupted by boos and yelled comments. The question and answer period was less about asking questions and listening to answers and more about expressing opinions and shouting accusations.

As an architect I've been on the receiving end of these public forums and it isn't fun. The challenge comes from the fact that the client of a particular project is not always the same as its user. In the case of Alamo Plaza the client is the City of San Antonio and the State of Texas while the users are all Texans and anyone who has ever been inspired by its story. That's a lot of people to try and make happy and in some cases it is impossible to make one group happy without angering another. In meetings such as the one I went to last week it is often the architect who gets stuck the the middle. 

Still, public feedback is a critical part of any public project and there are certainly parts of the current plan that ought to be revised. But it's impossible to make everyone happy, though, and some compromises will have to be made.  My fear is that the end of all this everyone will go home and the Alamo will remain as it.

Civic discourse should be civil. Otherwise we cannot have nice things.

The Tricentennial App That Wasn't

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At the end of 2016 the San Antonio Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture put together a task force to look into what we as an organization could do to contribute to San Antonio's Tricentennial Celebration. Several ambitious ideas were considered (A building! A book! A symposium!) but an early suggestion that gained a surprising amount of traction was to create a smartphone app.

The idea was that we could tell the story of San Antonio through its buildings. Using geolocation technology a user would receive a notification when they happened to walk or drive by a place that played a significant role in the history of San Antonio. It would be like Pokémon GO except with architecture as opposed to fictional creatures of vaguely Japanese origin.

By early 2017 we had reached out to developers and crafted a list of 100 buildings to tell San Antonio's story. When we learned that the "official" Tricentennial Commission was producing an app of their own we decided to parter with them. Whereas their app was only going to include a handful of historic locations, we would provide the descriptions, photos and even a short quiz for a hundred or more significant sites. A contract was written and I personally spent the better part of July researching and writing the information required by the developer to integrate into the new app. By the end of the summer our contribution was done and we happily handed the baton off to our partners.

Unfortunately that's when things began to fall apart.

The Tricentennial planning effort became embroiled in controversy. The CEO of the Tricentennial Commission resigned. Committee chairs were forced out. By year's end management of the app had been handed off to the City of San Antonio's Department of Arts & Culture and we lost control of its content.

The "Go See SA!" app was eventually released about a third of the way through the Tricentennial year. As far as apps go it's fine. I'm sure plenty of effort went into creating it. Of course I also know how much work was wasted and how much better the app could have been.

Attempts were made to do something with the unused content. There was talk of producing a short, two-minute bi-weekly podcast featuring all the buildings that were to have been included in the the original app. A proof-of-concept episode was produced but that's as far as it went:

If you really want to listen to a tricentennial podcast Brandon Seale is releasing a weekly series about the history of San Antonio (or at least the first half of it). In the meantime, though, hopefully we'll have our act together better when we celebrate San Antonio's 400th birthday in 2118.

 

As Promised

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As you've probably seen in recent posts our portion of the Stinson Municipal Airport Tower project suddenly materialized last week. The "wings" we had designed along with Work5hop were manufactured in Arizona and last week they were shipped to San Antonio where all eight panels were then lifted into place.

Architecture takes a long time. In many ways this project was no different: we won the "design improvements" competition back in 2015, we completed our portion of the design documents in 2016 and construction on the tower itself didn't begin until 2017. That said our portion of the project really materialized over the course of only a few days. Normally the transformation from rendering to reality does not happen so quickly. There's still work to be done: the cables that secure the wings to the tower need to be tightened and the lighting inside the wings still needs to be calibrated and scheduled. But man, we're close. 

And the renderings that we produced years ago were pretty close, too:

 The original rendering for the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower

The original rendering for the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower

This Poster Is Not For Sale

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My Facebook feed contains a pretty diverse collection of posts. From friends who seem to constantly be on vacation to Russian trolls there are lots of things vying for my attention. One ad that caught my eye the other day was for a company that sells posters featuring the control towers of various airports from around the world. Of course I checked to see if they had one for Stinson Municipal Airport. They did not but since we have something to do with that particular project I thought I'd suggest an additional print be offered for sale. Please see above.

I realize there have been a number of Stinson blog posts in the last few weeks and I promise to return to my usual collection of random posts here in the coming weeks.

Stinson Hat

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the progress of the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. As the main portion of the tower was going up the "cab" - the uppermost part with all the windows where the air traffic controllers actually do all their work - was simultaneously being built on the ground. Last week a large crane lifted it to its final resting place on top of the tower.

This is not how buildings are normally built. Then again an air traffic control tower is not a normal type of building. When you think about it, this approach makes sense. Since the cab contains the majority of the detail work associated with the project you want to build it in the most efficient way possible. Forcing every sub-contractors to climb ten flights of stairs to do all their work a hundred feet in the air isn't very efficient. Hoisting a massive pre-built component may seem like an extreme approach but it turns out to be the best one. AJT, the engineering firm responsible for the main portion of the tower, has perfected this approach having built several multiple versions of the same tower over the years.

Design is about the finished product to be sure, but it is also about how you get there. Strategizing how the "wings" - our contribution to the design - are prebuilt and attached to the tower represented a significant portion of our design as well.

Stinson Rising

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Construction of the new Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower is currently underway. So far the effort has focused on the concrete tower (the part not designed HiWorks in conjunction with Work5hop) but in a few months our portion of the design will be attached to that central core. These prefabricated "wings" are currently being assembled in Phoenix and the full-scale mockup looks great.

So stay tuned - things are about to get interesting.

Happy Holidays from "The Works" (and HiWorks)

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Two new episodes of "The Works" in two weeks? What's going on? It must be Christmas...

On this special holiday edition of the podcast we tell the story of an empty lot that once a year turns into something very special. As always, please talk a moment to listen to the story and if you like what you hear, feel listen to the other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

Oh, and Happy Holidays.

Missing From Travis Park

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My grandfather's generation fought Nazis in Europe. I bet he never thought his grandson's generation would need to fight neo-Nazis and the hatred they represent in public parks here in the United States.

On this episode of the podcast we talk about Travis Park and the monument that was built there. As always, please talk a moment to listen to the story and if you like what you hear, feel listen to the other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

Tilting Up

 image courtesy AJT Engineering

image courtesy AJT Engineering

I mentioned back in September work had begun on the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. That work continues and I am happy to follow up by saying that the building is now officially out of the ground.

The main body of the tower (designed by AJT Engineering) consists of a series of stacked precast concrete panels. These are cast at a plant east of town, shipped to the site and then hoisted by a crane into place. This type of construction isn't particularly unusual - many "big box" retail stores and warehouses are built with precast panels as well - but the technique is remarkable in that you go from a foundation to something that resembles a building in a remarkably short period of time.

There is still lots of work to go on the project (the "wings" we designed along with Work5hop are just beginning to be fabricated in Arizona) but it's always exciting to see a design starting to become real.

The Screened Porch

At the beginning of this year we finished work on a screened porch for our house. It is something we had been thinking about for as long as we've owned the house (which for the record has been about a decade). The house had an existing back porch but after we demolished it we made the counterintuitive decision to make the new porch smaller in order to make it more functional. By pulling one side away from the house, prevailing breezes could more effectively flow through and cool the space. The addition of a built-in concrete bench and a hammock ensured that the space could be used throughout the year. The lines of the original house were maintained so that the addition felt like an integral part of the original structure.

We've been using the screened porch quite a bit for outdoor meals, birthday parties and simple relaxation. We've also used it in ways we could have never imagined.

To Build Up You Start By Building Down

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The Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower is officially under construction. I can't say it's "out of the ground" yet as it's still technically a hole in the ground. But it's getting there.

For the record it's been almost two years HiWorks along with Work5hop designed the winning submission for the competition to propose "design improvements" to the original tower design by AJT Engineering. Architecture is not career for those desiring instant gratification.

At any rate, the "wings" of our design are being manufactured by International Tensile Structures in Phoenix, Arizona and we'll be making a trip out there this fall to see how work on those structures is proceeding. The tower itself is scheduled to be operational next year.

I'm A Loser, Baby

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San Antonio's City Hall is easy to miss. It doesn't sit in either of the city's main public plazas (Alamo or Main) and it is surrounded by mature heritage oak tress. You could drive by it and be completely unaware that the seat of government for America's seventh largest city is located but a few feet away.

The building has other issues as well: the lobby is too small to comfortably accommodate the metal detectors such buildings require and its elevated main floor necessitates visitors in wheelchairs to follow a circuitous path to get into the building. It was this latter issue that inspired Councilman Roberto Treviño to partner with the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects to hold a design competition to come up with a solution to make San Antonio City Hall more accessible.

Our solution didn't win but we're still proud of it. We proposed an act of "invasive preservation" where in order to restore the presence of a piece of historic architecture we actually call for its physical modification. In historic preservation circles that represents a pretty radical notion, but one of the great things about competitions is that they give you the opportunity to safely explore such ideas since they will probably never actually be built.

At any rate, our entry called for the 1927 entry arch - the most defining characteristic of current version of the building - to be physically removed from the façade and relocated fifty feet to the east. By transforming the existing building’s entry arch into a freestanding “Tricentennial Arch” San Antonio’s City Hall would achieve a civic presence appropriate for a city of its size. The space in between the existing façade and the relocated entry arch would then be filled with a series of ramps and landings to provide access to those in wheelchairs while also creating a platform for civic activities. Press conferences, public announcements and civil protests would have an appropriate stage on which to occur.

At any rate, you can see all of the entries in the gallery associated with this article. A description of the project is also now in our portfolio section.

 

MC Brantley

As part of my ongoing effort to sell copies of my book I try to do one courthouse-related event per month. For June I gave a quick talk at the San Antonio Masonry Contractors Association Golden Trowel Awards Banquet. The "Golden Trowel" (in case you didn't already know) is an award that identifies projects that make exemplary use of brick, block or stone. I particularly like how this award is given because it recognizes everyone involved in the success of a particular project; architects, contractors, masons and material suppliers. 

At any rate, in addition to brief lecture on the role of masonry in Texas courthouse design I was also asked to "emcee" the event. This was my first time to do something like this and although I won't be quitting my day job anytime soon, it was a fun way to spend an evening. After reviewing photos from the even I see I need to smile more (see above). I also clearly need to invest in some Hammer Pants.

Still Under The Bridge

Fiesta is underway in San Antonio.

For a transplant like myself the seventeen-day-lang series of events initially baffled me. Although it was originally a celebration that commemorated the defeat of Mexico by the Texan Armies, it has ballooned into something much larger and more complex. For the record, the Texas Revolution wasn't just a battle between Texas vs, Mexicans: it too was something larger and more complex than (just ask this guy).

At any rate, the celebration as it exists today consists of many seemingly unrelated events. There's an oyster bake, a carnival and lots of concerts. Fiesta has its own acronyms. NIOSA (Night in Old San Antonio) is a block party in historic La Villita. And of course it has its own parades. 

Lots of parades.

In addition to river parades and dog parades, Fiesta has some major street parades. The Battle of Flowers and Flambeau Parades are arguably the crowning events of the Fiesta Celebration. Even though they occur in late April, it can be pretty hot in San Antonio by then (this this year it's already humid and in the 90s). The parade route travels under the U.S. Highway 281 / Interstate 35 interchange and the shade provided by these elevated roadways have become popular places to watch the parades. They are so popular, in fact, that people started camping out days ahead of the actual parades in order to secure a good spot for themselves and their families. 

It's basically a temporary city that forms under the bridge with its own, rules, culture and yes, it's own architecture. This was supposed to be the last year that families were allowed to camp there but the city seems to have backed away from their decision to prohibit it moving forward.

I couple of years ago I produced an episode of The Works that talked about this unique San Antonio phenomenon. It's still one of my favorite podcast episodes and it's worth a listen if you haven't heard it in a while.

So have a listen, have a good laugh and have a happy Fiesta.

Breaking Ground

Last week we attended the official groundbreaking of the new air traffic control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport. As you may recall, back in 2015 HiWorks and Work5hop collaborated to enter a design competition for "improvements" to an already-designed air traffic control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport. We won and over the last year we have been working with AJT Engineering to finalize the design. That design was put out for bid, a contractor was selected and last Wednesday a groundbreaking ceremony was held.

In front of the airport's existing tower a ceremonial pile of dirt was prepared with an appropriate number of ceremonial shovels (see above). A cake was baked and Fiesta medals were distributed. When the ceremony was over the contractor removed the pile of dirt and began work at the actual site of the tower, some 2,100 feet to the southwest.