World-renowned architect Sir David Adjaye visited San Antonio Tuesday to give a public talk on Ruby City, the new contemporary art center dedicated to preserving the substantial art collection of Linda Pace, its late founder.
An audience of 1,200 filled the Laurie Auditorium at Trinity University to watch and listen as Adjaye offered a virtual tour of the building’s grounds and interior, explaining Pace’s vision and his approach to realizing it.
Pace first met Adjaye in 2006, and later shared her vision for a ruby-red palace of art, based on a dream that arrived to her following a terminal cancer diagnosis in early 2007. The color red had long been meaningful to her, symbolizing life and vibrancy, and she believed the artistic approach of the young architect Adjaye would be ideal for bringing her vision to life.
She showed him her dream drawing sketch for the building, which he called “a dense poem, a dense mediation on all that she wanted to happen … in terms of history and the past and a possible future.”
In being charged with preserving her legacy, Adjaye’s philosophy of architecture is fitting. As he explained to the hushed audience Tuesday evening, his work is grounded by the concept of sankofa, which he learned from his Ghanian parents. Sankofa represents the idea that “you cannot enter the future without going back to the past.”
In Ruby City’s play of light and volume and its orientation on Camp Street in downtown San Antonio, Adjaye honors Pace’s legacy and the historic past and future of her hometown.
On an initial site visit to San Antonio, a tour to the Missions World Heritage Site showed Adjaye the design ingenuity of the indigenous and Franciscan builders of the mission churches, which capture and filter light purposefully, he said.
“The Franciscans were trying to really measure time before mechanisms,” Adjaye said in a brief post-lecture interview, explaining his interest in making “the time of light present.”
Adjaye also noted his interest in the coloration of natural light, “northern aspect and southern aspect, east and west, and how through refraction, they have very different qualities. So I’m trying to expand the notion of light beyond just day and night, into … a phenomenon that we need to be much more reverent and more present about.”
Reverence describes Adjaye’s approach to the Ruby City building, which he called “the little temple,” joining it at least spiritually with other Texas art temples, such as the Rothko Chapel in Houston and Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, built by San Antonio’s Overland Partners. Its meditative qualities are deliberate, he said, in particular a space at the top of the staircase to the building’s second-floor galleries.
“You’re almost sort of thrown out of the building at that point,” he said during the lecture while showing images of the interior, because a set of large windows opens onto the San Antonio skyline and Chris Park across the street, the landscaped sculpture garden Pace built in 2005 as an homage to her deceased son.
“It’s really a kind of memorial space for me. I wanted to make a space that was meant to reflect on Linda and the city that made her really who she is, and the gifts that have come from her story,” Adjaye said.
The building also reveals Pace’s energy and Adjaye’s playfulness. In offering a polished sheen to the exterior lower level of the ruby-red, concrete-surfaced building, Adjaye said, “we were finally able to get what I was really keen to make, which was a building which had a kind of sensuality at the ground plane.” In short, he said, “I’m very keen on people touching the bottom of the building.”
On the level above, ground red glass embedded in the red aggregate concrete “creates a sparkle which is about the idea of magic, a light that appears out of nowhere, that the building emanates.”
To conclude his talk, Adjaye showed an informal cellphone video taken by Can Vu Bui, the on-site project lead for Adjaye Associates, which clearly showed how the glass-infused surface of the building sparkles in sunlight, drawing “oohs” from the audience.
A Contemporary Mission
At a VIP reception inside the building after Adjaye’s lecture, attendees noted the similarities between Ruby City and San Antonio’s historic structures.
“This is like a contemporary mission, how it has the grounds flowing around it,” said Christopher Erck, a San Antonio developer, art collector, former gallerist and close colleague of Pace. “It’s another mission on the creek,” he said, given its location on San Pedro Creek, near the site of San Antonio’s original founding settlement.
Though Adjaye’s building differs markedly from Pace’s original drawing – a “complete abstraction” reflective of its surroundings, in the architect’s own words, rather than an elaborate, Emerald City-like spired castle – Erck called it “so perfect and poetic for Linda’s collection. … the combination of their visions is magic.”
In introducing Adjaye for the lecture, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called Ruby City “iconic” and “San Antonio’s newest architectural jewel,” and thanked both Pace and Adjaye for giving it as a gift to the city.
Once the building opens to the public in October, admission will “always” be free, noted Kelly O’Connor, head of collections and communications for Ruby City and the Linda Pace Foundation, fulfilling Pace’s enduring desire for making international contemporary art accessible to her community.