Bekah S. McNeel

District One Councilman Diego Bernal may have had the best summary of the sentiments shared by many going into Tuesday night’s reception for the HemisFair “Brutal Redesign” submissions.

“At first I saw it as maybe a way  (for the design community) to interfere with what (the City is) doing at HemisFair,” Bernal admitted with a self-effacing shrug, “I was okay with it as an exercise for smart, bright, creative people.”

However, upon seeing the results of the charrette, Bernal claims that he was “very humbled.”  The design concepts put forth by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architect’s Emerging Professionals, as well as city planners and other civic-minded designers, were in varying degrees practical, progressive, and historically sensitive. They gave Bernal, along with everyone in attendance, an idea of what the conversation surrounding Hemisfair might look like.

Erica Gagne discusses her Hemisfair redesign proposal with District One Councilman Diego Bernal
Erica Gagne discusses her Hemisfair redesign proposal with District One Councilman Diego Bernal

Which was exactly what Steven Marrone, co-chair of the Emerging Professionals committee, seemed to have had in mind.

“We hope that people in the public see it and begin to wonder what could happen,” Marrone said.

The fact that the charrette had no economic backing or incentive allowed the minds of the participants to roam freely and dream big.

Some propositions: skywalks, fairways, pavilions, and a soccer stadium on the roof of UTSA’s Institute of Texan Culture.

These sort of dreams are reminiscent of the HemisFair of 1968. The monorail of ’68 is seen in the skywalk of 2013.  One proposal returns the John Wood Federal Courthouse to its original use: a theater, only this time that theater is Slab Cinema and the space can also accommodate live music. I personally think that the city should find a way to enact that one, if nothing else. I’m also partial to the soccer field on top of the ITC.

The reception was held in the former Alaskan Palace on Navarro and was full of ideas worth considering. Sponsored by AIA San Antonio and local news site Plaza De Armas led by Editor Elaine Wolff, attendees mingled around the proposals while designers explained their visions. The event had the atmosphere of a gallery opening, which may reflect the destiny of these works – to hang on walls rather than to see construction.

But for so many reasons, we should applaud that. To name a few:

Erica Goranson explains her design proposal for brutalist buildings in Hemisfair Park.
Erica Goranson explains her design proposal for brutalist buildings in Hemisfair Park.

1) There are young, creative, professionals thinking locally.

2) Designers weighing in on solutions. It’s how you get a city full of great buildings, rather than a series of utilitarian strip malls. Think more Pearl and less Quarry.

3) There was an event, in a vacant building on a Tuesday night, that included wine and dolmades. City leaders, architects, journalists, planners, and other professionals were looking at design work and making stimulating conversation about the past and future of our city. And there was no money on the table to be won. I don’t think it’s insignificant how sophisticated that is.

4) The city is speaking up on our most central park. And our leaders are listening. Bernal said, “If you expect the government will do it all, that’s the moment we screw it up.”

HemisFair’s brutalist buildings are like baby Dumbo in the Walt Disney classic. Lumbering, awkward, with looks only a mother could love. Architects, particularly young ones, are those mothers (and fathers).

Brutalism, the architectural movement, peaked in the mid-1970s and has as many critics as it does fans. The same goes for its progenitor Le Corbusier. Like Marmite (a yeast extract spread)… you either love it or you hate it.

Brutalist buildings can be hard to love. UTSA's Institute of Texan Culture.
Brutalist buildings can be hard to love. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Culture. Photo courtesy of Brantley Hightower.

HemisFair, home to the 1968 World’s Fair during the height of the brutalist moment, showcased what was then a vision of the future. Now, these architects and designers would have it preserved in a way so as to become a living archive of our design heritage.

For the record, there are some others who love the buildings as well. I don’t care how alien the ITC looks, I’ll always have the memory of my grandmother taking me there to look at the Swedish immigrant exhibit. I took my own little friends to the Asian festival. And who in Central Texas didn’t stare into the fountains on a fourth grade field trip?

Nostalgia isn’t a good enough reason to impede progress, but I’d like to go on the record as a fan of the buildings. (Though, to be honest, my memories inside the U.S. General Services Administration Building are not doing it any favors.)

So bring on the conversation, San Antonio. What are we going to do about these brutalist treasures?

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.