When news broke last week that the City of San Antonio was pausing construction on several of the “network huts” required for the implementation of Google’s fiberoptic broadband internet service, I was both excited and concerned. On the one hand, I was thrilled to hear that physical construction had begun on San Antonio’s Google Fiber network. On the other hand, I was worried to hear that there had been some localized pushback.
One hut that had been the source of criticism was the one built in Haskin Park. My family actually lives less than a mile from there (the girls and I have ridden our bikes there in the past) and so I decided to take a look and see just how offensive these little buildings were.
There’s not a whole lot to a fiber hut: the one in Haskin Park was about 30 feet long by about 10 feet wide. The windowless prefabricated building is surrounded by a larger service yard enclosed by a cedar fence. It’s pushed to the southern edge of the park and although it seems like pushing it to the rear (eastern end) of the park would have made it less conspicuous, it didn’t seem like its placement interfered much with how the park is used.
In the grand scheme of things, the hut seemed pretty innocuous and certainly less offensive than the artifacts created by the recent “fracking” boom that are now scattered throughout north and south Texas. It would be easy to dismiss this sort of thing as a typical NIMBY response but there is a legitimate philosophical concern about eroding public park space with structures that support commercial interests. San Antonio certainly is not alone in its struggle with this sort of thing.
Still, I was left with a sense that how fiber huts have been built so far represented a missed opportunity both for Google and the City of San Antonio. Rather than see these structures as pieces of telecommunication infrastructure to be hidden, why not celebrate them as opportunities to improve the places where they are located? Rather than look at these huts as a necessary evil, why not embrace them as a way for a corporate entity to reach out to the customers in the city it serves?
In other words, this struck me as a design problem; one that could be addressed by architecture.
We were wondering what this sort of thing might look like and so we did what architects do: we started doodling. The current arrangement is simply a hut surrounded by a wood security fence and starting there we began to imagine how that fence could do a better job of screening while evolving into an amenity for the park itself.
Concern has been expressed about the noise that is periodically produced by the cooling units and back-up generators associated with the huts. To address this, an earthen berm could be built to acoustically isolate the hut from the rest of the park. A more robust screening element could then be built to act as a canvas for graphics to imbue the structure with an identity related to its particular neighborhood. This berm and screen could act as a framework for other activities: it could become a play structure itself or even a stage for public performances.
Keep in mind we know nothing about the actual requirements for these network huts, the agreement Google has with the City of San Antonio, or the budgets that are in place. This quick design exercise was made in a vacuum merely to illustrate what an alternative approach might look like. It is but one solution to the problem. It would be easy to imagine many others.
In fact, we were reminded of the Park Pavilion Program that has seen nearly forty new park structures built throughout the city of Dallas. Designed by multiple architects these pavilions have become an excellent example of how good design can imbue places with identity and utility. It’s not difficult to imagine a similar program in San Antonio where a series of pavilions sponsored by Google screen the huts that support their network while also giving back the the community they serve.