Design is a process, not an end product.
As architects, we embrace the design process as both a challenge and a means for reward, as something that ultimately sets the tone of the buildings, plazas, landscapes, and interiors that we create for the public. From planning to realization, the process of design is informed by several stakeholders. Programs are set, design guidelines are established, schedules and budgets are reviewed, constructability and vision are debated, input is weighed, and plans change – several times over.
The proposed Alamo Master Plan is no exception to the rigors of public input that a project of such significance should rightfully have to undergo. After all, this sacred and civic landmark is not only in the heart of our city, it is the heart of our city. But it is also important to remember that the recently released master plan is not exclusive from a process that has been in the works for more than four years, now.
The Vision and Guiding Principles that were developed by the Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee (now the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee) in 2014 have been the framework by which the design team has been charged with upholding throughout the development of the master plan.
The major guiding principles include words such as “preserve,” “interpret,” “balance,” “embrace,” and “enhance.” The document describes both the experiential and physical experience, the balance of literal and interpretive aspects of the Alamo. Not that these tenets are to be mutually exclusive, but it is asking the design team to find an appropriate equilibrium, a place where the Alamo can engage visitors and residents in a deeply personal and true way.
The problem with equilibrium is that it can never fully appeal to everyone. That has become increasingly evident in the recent reactions to the design team’s master plan. There are parts of the design that are applauded and others that are highly contested. It is a plan that is earnestly seeking balance between the literal and interpretive, just as the Vision and Guiding Principles intended. It is in process, and therefore an easy target for reaction.
While the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects has a history of not taking editorial position on the work of its members, it is relied upon as a resource for issues that relate to our city and its development. We are a professional organization that aims to unite the community of architects to advance architecture as a professional craft and to shape a more livable and sustainable future.
Are there aspects of the master plan that still need addressing? Of course. Are we hopeful that these discussions occur? Absolutely. But we respectfully remind that master plans – and this one is no exception – are ever-evolving documents. The most prudent advice our organization can give is to respect the process. Dialogue and input are as expected as they are critical in the process. The forums are set for these discussions, with the next public meeting occurring on Tuesday, May 2 at 6 p.m. in Room 301 of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
As for the challenges specific to the development of the Alamo Master Plan, here are a few we find notable: First, tourists often say “we drove by the Alamo.” Unbeknownst to them, they were actually driving on the Alamo. The mission and battlefield once included a vast amount of downtown San Antonio. To expect a literal demarcation of those bounds would be geographically and economically infeasible, while ignoring them completely would be inappropriate. The design team is trying to balance program requirements as presented to them with their interpretation of how to create a safe, sacred, and civic urban environment.
Additionally, the Alamo is a case study in the complexity of interpreting landmarks. The grounds were not only the site of one of America’s most famous battles, they acted as a mission for nearly a century prior. And since, they have been the center of local and state cultural and civic celebration. This warrants a particular delicacy to the treatment of the site with its rich, diverse emotional history and future plans. What should be solemn? What should be celebrated?
The dialogue and heartfelt reactions to the Alamo Master Plan are healthy, warranted and important parts of the process, the continuum of activities that comprise a master plan. This process is one that will be ongoing throughout the coming months. Experts have been chosen, programs have been issued, and the master plan is evolving based on guiding principles that were set years ago, as well as by public input that is occurring today.
In the coming days, we ask that while you Remember the Alamo, you also remember the process by which design occurs.