UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures.Photo by Rachel Holland.
Robert Rivard

It’s an invitation no one should decline: What would you do with the brutalist period buildings on the southern border of Hemisfair Park, completed 45 years ago for the 1968 world’s fair? Reshape them or knock them down?

It’s arguably the single biggest unworked piece of the Hemisfair Park puzzle as San Antonio embarks on a decade-long redevelopment of this 104-acre downtown jewel in the rough.

It’s also, in my opinion, the least (publicly) discussed aspect of the task before the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, CEO Andres Andujar, and the 11-person board appointed by City Council. The argument can be made that far too few people in San Antonio are paying much attention to the park’s redevelopment, despite its centrality and historic importance in a city otherwise so focused on its own urban core transformation.

Hemisfair Master Plan conceptualization. Click image to download the master plan. http://www.hemisfair.org/pdfs/2012-06-18_Hemisfair_Framework_and_Master_Plan.pdf
Hemisfair Master Plan conceptualization. Click image to download the master plan.

One reason is that such conversations tend to be controversial whenever something out of the ordinary is proposed. Which is exactly what is called for along that part of Hemisfair fronting on Cesar Chavez Boulevard.

Now a serious conversation is about to take place. AIA San Antonio, in partnership with the Plaza de Armas news website, has announced a design charrette titled, “A Brutal Redesign: Reimagining Hemisfair’s Modern Buildings.” The invitation poses a stark choice for participants considering the three buildings: “Re-use or demolition.”

The three buildings, of course, are the former Texas Pavilion, the United States of America Pavilion, which actually included the United States Confluence Theater and Confluence Exhibition Hall, and the ’70s-era San Antonio Federal Building. Am I confusing readers 40 and under?

Today, the buildings in question are, respectively, UTSA’s Institute for Texan Cultures, the Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse, and, as mentioned, the post-world’s fair constructed San Antonio Federal Building. The Adrian Spears Training Center, adjacent to the Courthouse and once the U.S. Exhibition Hall, is not part of the charrette for reasons not immediately clear.

Adrian A. Spears Judicial Training Center. Photo by Rachel Holland.
Adrian A. Spears Judicial Training Center. Photo by Rachel Holland.

Charrettes, of course, are not formal proposals. Architects and others aren’t burdened by budgets, historic preservation, or politics. Charrettes are a forum for ideas and conversation, for thinking outside the box, if you will excuse a bad pun consistent with the period architecture in question.

There are two key dates. The first is Saturday, April 13, the deadline for submissions, and an open house at the AIA offices at the Pearl’s Full Goods Building where Andujar will give a presentation at 11 a.m. and lead a discussion. The second is Tuesday, April 16 at the Alaskan House in La Villita where District One City Councilman Diego Bernal will host an open house and a display of the submissions mounted for public review.

Charrette concepts are not binding, of course, and previous charrettes in San Antonio that have looked at many other urban core transformation challenges often failed to spark innovative change, but at a minimum they start a conversation that might not otherwise happen. That, in my view, is the case with the brutalist buildings and their vast parking lots that stand sentinel on Hemisfair Park’s southern border as if to warn all in Southtown: Stop here. No further passage.

The first phase of the park’s redevelopment plan, set to be completed by mid-2015, will convert much of the 36 acres controlled by the HPARDC into public park spaces, increasing the open space from its current 15 acres to more than 24 acres. The inclination to open the park as much as possible, it seems to me, should guide the city’s treatment of the world’s fair’s remnant buildings.

None, by the way, are inviting to the public. The ITC suffers, in particular, as a cultural venue. When was the last you went there to view its offerings? The ITC is often all but deserted of visitors, its vehicle entry is poorly designed, and its low-slung portals are unwelcoming to pedestrians. Most days, its exhibition halls are dark and empty.

UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures.Photo by Rachel Holland.
UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures.Photo by Rachel Holland.

UTSA officials have been lukewarm to informal proposals to relocate the ITC to a newly-built, glass-fronted space that could be created after the older, western part of the Convention Center is demolished.  I’m not sure why they want to stay where they are, but if they do stay, the ITC will never be more than a third-rate venue, no matter the aspirations of local leaders or the UT System.

Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse. Photo by Rachel Holland.
Judge John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse. Photo by Rachel Holland.

At least the feds can compel people to show up to the courthouse. Once the necessary funds are allotted to construct the new federal courthouse and offices on the site of the former San Antonio Police Department headquarters, we will be left with an inefficient snare drum of a building with no practical purpose.

It’s hard to imagine even the most ardent preservationist arguing for its protection. The memory of Judge Wood, the only U.S. federal judge ever assassinated, deserves to be honored in some new form, but not the building where he once worked.

San Antonio Federal Building. Photo by Rachel Holland.
San Antonio Federal Building. Photo by Rachel Holland.

The adjacent federal building, now an office structure, can presumably be gutted and reskinned as a condo tower with offices and ground retail space. But to do so robs local firms from designing a truly original and sustainable building consistent with the overall vision for the park and the downtown. San Antonio is woefully short of statement edifices. Our best buildings, with some exceptions, are still our oldest buildings.

Leaving the existing buildings, never intended to be permanent, in place along Cesar Chavez Boulevard will make it impossible to connect the park to its southern neighbors. It forfeits the opportunity to link the downtown with Southtown in the same way the remaking of lower Broadway and the transformation of the Municipal Auditorium into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts will link downtown to Midtown.

I suspect there will be no shortage of people disagreeing with my views. That’s the beauty of democracy, of course, and the attraction of the charrette. Let the conversation begin. The Rivard Report, of course, looks forward to publishing other points of view.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

[UPDATED] Lone Star District: The City Needs Another Billionaire

State of the Center City: More Housing, Fewer Vacant Buildings

On Your Mark, Get Set, Design for the ‘Triple Bottom Line’

Who Will Win December’s $1,000 Awesome SA Grant? Find Out at Hemisfair’s Third Brewsday

A RR Primer: VIA’s Modern Streetcar Plans

‘The Politics of Beauty’: What’s at Stake for Hardberger Park

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the San Antonio Report.