Like many of you, I am wondering when the first rendering of the new Frost Bank Tower by Pelli Clarke Pelli will makes its public appearance. Cesar Pelli, the Argentine-born senior principal of the firm, is scheduled to deliver a lecture at UTSA’s College of Architecture on Feb. 17, but I am told he will not show renderings of the firm’s San Antonio project at that time.

Other firm partners and architects have been coming and going from their New Haven, Conn. headquarters to San Antonio, but preliminary designs have been closely held by Weston Urban and no presentation has been made yet to Frost Bank’s senior leadership, sources say.

What should we expect? Good design: something innovative, transformative, aesthetically beautiful yet bold, a building that sets new sustainability standards in Texas. Like any living thing well-planted, it should spawn lots of new life all around it. I’ll be looking at how the design changes the street-level experience downtown as much as I’ll be gazing skyward. Expect a tower, not a skyscraper. In all likelihood, the Frost Bank Tower won’t be the tallest structure or building on the downtown skyline. Yet it should capture every eye. Still, don’t expect a radical departure. What works in Shanghai or New York won’t fit here.

Good design will signal a new day in San Antonio. Good design can’t necessarily be captured in a few words,  and lacking formal design training, I’m in the “I know good design when I see it” camp. Let’s see it, the sooner the better.

That brings me to Brantley Hightower, who I first met on a road bike a decade ago when he worked as a young architect at Lake/Flato. Hightower today is the force behind HiWorks, which will be familiar to many Rivard Report readers as the startup firm that joined with Work5hop to design “Wings Over Stinson,” the winning entry in last year’s $15,000 competition to design a new control tower at Stinson Air Field.

The winning design for Stinson air Filed's new air traffic control tower. Image courtesy of HiWorks + Work5hop
The winning design for Stinson air Filed’s new air traffic control tower. Image courtesy of HiWorks + Work5hop

Hightower had a very busy year. He also authored “The Courthouses of Texas” (UT Press, 2015), the definitive work on the state’s many period county courthouses. He has found time to write the occasional article for the Rivard Report, including one published Monday, Feb. 1: “Local Architecture Firm Brings River Walk to China.”

Hightower’s story profiles the work of San Antonio-based Overland Partners in China, specifically how they integrated a new city center around a river flowing through the old town section of Lijang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. San Antonio can take pride that a homegrown architecture firm has built such a global practice. After all, while you are sipping your coffee at Rosella, a few yards away in the same building on Jones Avenue just off Broadway, architects inside Overland Partner’s offices are working on projects in China, India, Eastern Europe, and Mexico. It begs the question of why the firm has not been commissioned to do more high profile work in San Antonio.

“There hasn’t been a lot of high profile work in San Antonio,” one friend remarked when I asked him why the city’s top architecture firms are far better known for work done elsewhere.

(Disclosure: Our son, Nicolas Rivard, works at Overland Partners, and is one of several designers there directly involved in the creation and execution of Place Changing, the collaborative design and journalism enterprise with the Rivard Report that was formed last year.)

My appreciation of good design and how it can transform cities – and how bad design can can kill a city’s momentum – precedes my son’s local employment. His first internship was at Lake/Flato, which also does most of its signature work far from San Antonio, although the 2015 opening of the DoSeum on Broadway proved to be the exception to that rule.

One measure of San Antonio’s growth as a city, in my view, will be opportunities for these firms to help redefine our downtown. By that, I do not mean tall, shiny towers. A city’s skyline is much more. Soon enough, we will see new headquarters and central offices for the Alamo Colleges (definitely), CPS Energy (probably), and the San Antonio Independent School District (maybe). None will be towers, but all will be important to the respective entities and to the city.

The Wall Street Journal, which protects most of its articles behind a paywall, published The Best Architecture of 2015 in December. The year’s single best project, the WSJ’s Julie V. Iovine wrote, was Lake/Flato’s Josey Pavilion, what one firm architect described to me as the “first ‘living building’ in Texas,” an emerging phrase in the lexicon for buildings that do not add to the grid and often are built with recycled materials.

The building itself is a modest, low-slung education and meeting center at the Dixon Water Foundation in Cooke County, an entity that promotes sustainable land and water use practices at its four cattle ranches. The foundation and its working philosophy embraces the best of the old and new Lone Star State, and that philosophy is embodied in the 5,000 sq. ft. pavilion — really a pair of connected sheds —  with a “net zero” energy profile that includes water independence. The building looks like its belongs right where it lives, on the land and low across the North Texas sky.

The Josey Pavilion is proof that architects do not have to reach for the sky or resort to flash to do important design. It’s more important to remember the ground you are on, the sense of place. Simple is always more elegant and enduring than showy. The center of Cooke County is Gainesville, located along I-35N, 32 miles north of Denton, population 16,000-plus. Good design can happen anywhere, outside a small Texas town or inside a Chinese city with 1,000 years or more of history.

The WSJ’s second favorite project in 2015 is found on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs. The academy’s famed 17-spire Chapel, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) and built in 1962, was arguably the most striking work of American architecture of its time.

The Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. hosts between 500,000 and 1 million visitors annually. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. hosts between 500,000 and 1 million visitors annually. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Now, more than 50 years later, SOM architects have designed the Center for Character and Leadership Development, which sits across the Court of Honor from the Chapel and is described by Iovine as “an equally striking building meant to balance the focus on faith with a building dedicated to reason.” A stunning steel and glass tower tilts across the plaza and serves as a vast skylight.

Two other projects cited by the WSJ in its roundup of the best architecture of 2015 are CENTRO University in Mexico City, designed by TEN Arquitectos, and the Columbus Art Museum’s Margaret M. Walter Wing designed by DesignGroup.

What all four buildings share in common is this: none were built in a world capital, none bedazzle the onlooker or user, and all share a distinct sense of place even as they transform and redefine those places.

That brings us back to our anticipation of the new Frost Bank Tower. The new building doesn’t need to touch the sky, or even be the tallest building in the city. It does have to reawaken and enliven some of downtown’s most tired and long-dormant blocks. Because it is the Frost Bank Tower, it has to embody the best of old and new San Antonio. Our pioneer, homegrown, Texas-sized bank and all of us who will live, work and play around it deserve nothing less.

Many in the city eagerly await the unveiling of truly good design. We will know it when we see it.

*Top Image: The Dixon Water Foundation Josey Pavilion.  Photo by Casey Dunn courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects. 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.