Left: Tobin Center's lobby as of last month, July 2013. Right: courtesy rendering of lobby at completion.
Brantley Hightower, AIA LEED AP

“Writing about Music,” the saying goes, “Is like dancing about architecture.”  That may be a glib line but it accurately speaks to the difficulty of translating the essence of one media into another.  Describing music in print may be hard, but so too is describing architecture.

The built environment is, by definition, a permanent fixture of our lives and its value is measured over the course of years.  A project that might have originally seemed shocking (remember the Enchilada Red of the Central Public Library?) becomes a familiar part of the urban landscape after years of continued use.  To pass judgment on a project on the day it opens can be premature.  To pass judgment on a project that is still under construction is just plain foolish.

That said, with a little more than a year to go before the scheduled opening of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, it seems proper to report on the progress of this important civic project and speculate a bit on the impact it will have on the city.  Therefore, think of this not a “review” of the Tobin Center as a finished project so much as a “preview” of what to expect.

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
An artistic rendering of The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, set to open in Fall 2014. Courtesy rendering.

The Tobin Center was born from the idea that San Antonio needed a world-class performing arts facility.  Despite the existence of the Majestic Theater and the now recently renovated Lila Cockrell Theater, a new state-of-the-art center was desired.  And so in 2008 the question was put to the voters of Bexar County who approved a $100 million bond to fund construction of the facility.

For its part, the City of San Antonio contributed the Municipal Auditorium and the Fire Department Headquarters building, valued together at $41 million.  The Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation, which will own and operate the Tobin Center, agreed to raise an additional $54 from the private sector. The Tobin name for the Center was secured with a $15 million matching grant from the Tobin Endowment, a challenge which has been met.

The architects chosen for the project were LMN Architects of Seattle, in association with Marmon Mok of San Antonio. (In the interest of full disclosure, in 2008 I was employed at Lake|Flato Architects.  The office competed for this project although I did not personally participate in that effort.)

The Tobin Center as of this summer, more than a year until its grand opening in Fall 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Tobin Center as of this summer, more than a year until its grand opening in Fall 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The design developed by the LMN/Marmon Mok collaboration reuses the historic entry façade of the Municipal Auditorium but replaces the rest of the old building with new construction.  The needs of performance halls have grown considerably in the 90 years since the Municipal Auditorium was initially built and the resulting mass of the main performance hall dwarfs the remnants of the original structure.

This was an early source of controversy for the project, with preservationists arguing that the mass and styling of the proposed new intervention were both incompatible with the historic façade.  To be sure, the new contrasts with the old, but that is not in itself a bad thing.  Harmony, if you will recall, can only be the use of contrasting pitches.

This time lapse video taken from nearby Marmon Mok offices, shows demolition and construction on the site from July 2011 to May 2013:

Of course, the reality of any building of this type is that the performance hall itself consists of a big rectangular shoebox.  This basic form is then wrapped in lobby and support spaces to give the design its final form.  I. M. Pei enclosed his shoebox in a series of gracefully arcing lobby spaces at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.  Frank Gehry likewise encased the shoebox of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in his signature sculptural stainless steel panels.

Top view illustration of the Tobin Center master plan.
Top view illustration of the Tobin Center master plan. Courtesy rendering.

In San Antonio, the main performance hall is wrapped in faceted walls clad in an articulated metal screen.  Designed to be animated by changing shadows over the course of the day and to be dynamically illuminated with integrated LEDs at night, this screen represents a significant design move that will define the building’s aesthetic presence within the city.

Detail of the Tobin Center's modern metal facade. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
Detail of the Tobin Center’s modern metal facade. Photo by Brantley Hightower.

These panels are currently being installed and so the coming months will reveal what the finished structure’s appearance will be.

Programmatically, the Tobin Center consists of three separate performance venues in addition to support and office space.  The main H-E-B Performance Hall is the more traditional space with a stage, proscenium arch and seating for up to 1,750 theater goers.

What makes the space unique is a mechanized floor system that allows the orchestra level to be transformed within moments from a traditional raked seating layout to a flat-floor banquet hall or multi-tiered cabaret.  Although the general public will not be able to see this reconfiguration occur, it represents one of the most innovative aspects of the Center’s design.  It allows the same space to be used in a different ways by different performance groups.

Click the video below to watch an example of how the system works via a similar system installed in the River Rock Show Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Flexibility in performance venues is always a tricky endeavor.  Creating facilities optimized to the specific needs of various performance types can result in the proliferation of venues like what is seen at the Dallas Arts District.  Here a symphony center, opera house, performing arts center and experimental black box theater were all built within a few blocks of one another.

This may be appropriate for a place like Dallas (a city that is always looking for a reason to show off), but it would have been overkill in San Antonio.  The more sensible move was to create a smaller number of more flexible venues.  This is exactly what has been done at the Tobin Center.

Next to the H-E-B Performance Hall will be the much smaller Studio Theater.  Designed as an infinitely flexible performance and rehearsal space, the theater has a maximum capacity of 250, depending on how the adjustable seating is arranged.  The space is oriented so that it can be opened up to views of the river. It can also be physically opened up to the adjacent River Walk Plaza.

Rendering of the Tobin Center's River Walk Event Plaza. Courtesy rendering.
Rendering of the Tobin Center’s River Walk Event Plaza. Courtesy rendering.

This plaza, the third performance venue of the Tobin Center, is so far the least complete but arguably the most critical to the project’s ultimate success.  Performance halls have historically been hermetically sealed boxes where the wealthy aristocracy goes to entertain themselves without interacting much with the city around them.  The Tobin Center’s location gives it a unique potential to interact with the River Walk and by extension, the rest of San Antonio.

The river remains one of the city’s most unique public spaces where tourists and residents mix and the idea of the Tobin Center plugging into it is compelling.  But mere adjacency is not enough.  The interaction will need to be dynamic.  Events will need to be curated and the public will need to be engaged.

Today, the Tobin Center – and many River Walk establishments – remain fairly disconnected from the San Antonio River. Looking from Hotel Indigo's patio, foot traffic is blocked by a large stone wall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Today, the Tobin Center – and many River Walk establishments – remain fairly disconnected from the San Antonio River. Looking from Hotel Indigo’s patio, foot traffic is blocked by a large stone wall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

While the use of this space will be critical, the degree to which the River Walk Plaza at the Tobin Center facilitates that use will be key as well.  San Antonio, like most other contemporary cities, has its fair share of deserted plazas that were intended to be forums of public interaction.

The challenge for this space is that it sits directly adjacent to the tallest part of the building.  It can be a fine line between a building that “towers gracefully” and one that “looms menacingly” and it is still too early to tell exactly what the experience from the River Walk will be.  Although the renderings provided by the architects do indicate quite a bit of façade overshadowing the plaza, the feel of it may in fact be quite different.

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts may ultimately be a prestige project for San Antonio, but such projects can have larger civic value. If the Tobin Center is able to do everything it aims to do – broaden the range of cultural events available to the citizens of the region, engage the River to act as another catalyst of activity and development along the Museum Reach, introduce children from a variety of different socio-economic backgrounds to theatre, music and dance –then it will be a building that truly belongs to the entirety of San Antonio.  It will be an architecture that the city will be dancing about for years to come.

Left: Tobin Center's lobby as of last month, July 2013. Right: courtesy rendering of lobby at completion.
Left: Tobin Center’s lobby as of last month, July 2013. Right: courtesy rendering of lobby at completion. Click for larger view.

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm located in the Pearl Brewery

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Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm, and the author of the 2015 book The Courthouses of Central Texas. His podcast, San Antonio Storybook, can be found at the Rivard Report.