Dear Mayor and City Council: Please don’t surrender Alamo Plaza

It’s hard to send a letter to you, because I don’t yet know who will be occupying those offices at City Hall. But, whoever you are, your first week in office, you will be pressured to approve a plan to wall off a major public plaza, the historical heart of so many of San Antonio’s cherished celebrations.

Please do not vote unconditionally to support the Reimagining the Alamo Master Plan in a rush to meet the budgetary cycle of the State Legislature.

There is much merit to parts of the proposal. The Alamo building itself is crumbling, and the plan targets its restoration and preservation. That is urgent.

The Phil Collins Collection is waiting for a home in San Antonio, and the State has acquired several historic structures on the westside of Alamo Plaza to display the valuable artifacts. (Adaptive reuse is wonderful, but please urge the State to reconsider gutting the entire interior of the landmark Crockett Block, designed by Alfred Giles.)

So the east and west parts of the plan on the state’s existing turf seem on somewhat sound ground. But then we get to the plaza.

As we approach San Antonio’s Tricentennial, we should be particularly attuned to the city’s early history. But, at least in the Executive Summary,* the Master Plan ignores the history of Mission San Antonio de Valero – a site not dubbed the Alamo until years later.

In the aftermath of the Battle, General Santa Anna ordered his troops to destroy as much of the site as possible. This was the beginning of the decline of the historic Alamo compound. Restoring the reverence and dignity of the Alamo is the obligation of our generation and the mission of our efforts.

The decline of the compound that originally was Mission San Antonio de Valero began earlier, before the mission was secularized. Where is that layer of history of the mission days? Not on page 1. Mission San Antonio de Valero is not even recognized by name in the summary until page 24. In the appendices.

Reimagining apparently calls for walling in the plaza and locking it up every night. The planners evidently believe members of the public incapable of envisioning the original walls of the compound. To do so, they must be restricted from entering the plaza aside from as a herd entering through a southern portal.

If returning the Alamo compound to its appearance at the time of the battle truly was a principal adhered to by the Master Plan, the “bold” plan would call for the removal of the iconic parapet added later by the United States Army.

Vehicular movement north and south through downtown currently is impaired. Removing another street from the existing clogged pattern is impractical. Yet, even so, it is difficult to argue that closure would not enhance the experience for pedestrians on the plaza.

But ceding the rights of pedestrians to cross through the plaza makes absolutely no sense. Public parks should be porous, easily accessible from all sides. Yet access to this civic space will be reserved to one entryway on its southern side.

Behind glass, this current pedestrian crossroad will become a dead-end. An Alamo cul-de-sac.

Thanks so much, John Branch, http://comicskingdom.com/john-branch

The city of San Antonio has struggled for years to revive Houston Street, and it finally provides a healthier retail environment. Houston Street merchants will again disappear if they lose the pedestrian traffic they need. Pedestrians will all be funneled in and out by way of Rivercenter.

Trees will be removed from the center of the plaza between the Alamo and the Crockett Block to create an open space, a space too hot under the Texas sun for anyone to linger.

A sizzling comal for tourists. A playground for reenactors. A place locals will avoid.

Paraphrasing W.S. Merwin, there is no recipe for “unchopping a tree.” Walk the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project and envision how many years, or generations, of growth it will take for the new saplings to recreate the groves of trees Spanish missionaries originally found along the river’s banks.

In exchange for placing much of the city’s space in a fishbowl with restricted access, the plan offers San Antonio “a new civic space – Plaza de Valero,” a tiny sliver of the plaza in front of the Menger Hotel. This is billed as: “an opportunity for visitors to have a quiet moment, in the shade of mature trees, enjoying food and refreshments, as they experience the reimagined Alamo.” This “new” space already exists.

The very definition of civic is “relating of or to a city or town or the people who live there.” We have a great civic space, the entire plaza, now. A place for exuberant celebrations and the exercise of first-amendment rights, rights championed by those who died at the Alamo. A spot for gathering in the shade of trees.

There is no reason City Council cannot approve the Alamo restoration on the east and the Museum concept on the west side of the plaza as envisioned in the Master Plan on May 11.

Obviously, improvements can be made to enhance historical interpretation in the plaza, but eliminating Alamo Plaza as a pedestrian passageway or civic gathering place for your citizens need not be a requisite to forward a portion of the plan. Judgment on the disposition of the roadway and plaza should be withheld pending refinement and public release of the full plan.

The many volunteers and professionals tackling this project should be commended for their efforts. But that does not mean this initial plan merits a rubber stamp. The streets and plaza belong to the City of San Antonio.

Please request a reexamination and rethinking of this portion of the plan. Don’t consent to turning a beautiful urban park into a walled-off wasteland of a plaza. A place completely isolated from the fabric of San Antonio.

Thank you for your consideration of this request from a concerned citizen.

P.S.  If one haunts the place of one’s death, would it not seem a Sisyphean hell if the only thing you got to witness was men reenacting your painful death over and over? Would you want the site of your bloody end preserved in the desolate state it was in in the aftermath of your death?

Or would you want to witness people actively enjoying the freedom for which you fought on a daily basis?

One resembles a horror film, the other a fulfillment of your dreams.

*As of this time, the only portion of the plan available to the public online is the sketchy Executive Summary. The public comments you receive prior to voting are based solely upon that and what can be pried out of presenters during hearings. The publicly funded Master Plan appears a closely guarded secret.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: A temple to food

Whether a recipe requires fresh sea urchins (still alive), horse meat or an enormous 25-euro ostrich egg, the Mercat Central in Valencia has almost anything your culinary heart could imagine artfully displayed under a soaring dome designed to inspire.

The lively market features the wares of some 300 vendors, many willing to deliver directly to your home. But that would definitely spoil the stimulating sensory experience of wandering amongst the stalls.

This stunning temple of food replaced an earlier “New Market,” which dated from 1839. A design competition was held for a model modern market in 1910, with the new-new temple to food finally opening in January of 1928.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Another day at work on high

I have tried to close the frontier between architecture and sculpture and to understand architecture as an art.

Santiago Calatrava

First we noticed window-washers dangling to clean midlevel glass on the enormous humpbacked Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. Not a job meant for us. Then we spied another pair perched much higher, balancing on the peak of one of the topmost ridges of the opera house. Made the window-washer position appear a cakewalk.

We approached the opera house from below, walking along the pathways of a linear park stretching five miles through the heart of Valencia – Jardines del Turia. Wide enough to easily accommodate soccer fields and numerous tree-shaded bicycle and pedestrian trails, the park is sunken below street level in the former bed of the Turia River.

After more than 80 people lost their lives when the river sent floodwaters rushing through the city streets in 1957, engineers diverted the river Turin away from the center of town. What to do with the bed was debated for many years. Some wanted to pave it over to provide a quick route to the beach. Fortunately, those who wanted a park held the asphalt-lovers at bay (Does this sound familiar San Antonio?).

In the 1970s, the park was completed. Three decades later, the ample width of the riverbed provided a major opportunity for a massive economic development project on the east side of city. A Valencia-born architect and engineer, Santiago Calatrava, was selected by the city to design a string of contemporary public buildings on 90 acres of the river bed.

On an architect’s dream playground, Calatrava completed numerous monumental landmarks between 2005 and 2009, redefining the city of Valencia. These descriptions are from his website.

In recognition of the civic importance of the Opera House, Calatrava gave the building the iconographic character of a monumental sculpture. In form, the building is a series of apparently random volumes, which become unified through their enclosure within two symmetrical, cut-away concrete shells. These forms are crowned by a sweeping steel sheath, which projects axially from the entrance concourse out over the uppermost contours of the curvilinear envelope. The structure that results defines the identity of the Opera House, dramatically enhancing its symbolic and dynamic effect within the landscape, while offering protection to the terraces and facilities beneath.

http://calatrava.com/projects/palau-de-las-artes-valencia.html

The Opera House, Planetarium/IMAX Theater (Hemispheric Theater) and Príncipe Felipe Science Museum form a linear sequence from west to east. A fifth structure, known as L’Umbracle, is a promenade and parking garage, built within an open arcade that is a contemporary reinvention of the winter garden. A raised, axial walkway, offering views to the sea, serves as an ordering element, with gardens and reflecting pools on either side.

The Science Museum is a spatial tour de force, 104-meter wide and 241-meter long. Like the grand exhibition pavilions of the past, it is a longitudinal building, created from the modular development of transverse sections that repeat along the length of the site. Five concrete ‘trees,’ organized in a row, branch out to support the connection between roof and façade, on a scale that permits the integration of service cores and elevators….

The Planetarium/IMAX theater resembles a human eye, set within a 24,000 square meters pool. The ‘pupil’ is the hemispherical dome of the IMAX theater, which is transformed into a globe through its reflection in the pool. The concrete socket of the eye incorporates an ‘eyelid’ of vertical, articulated metal slats, which can be raised to permit views across the pool.

http://calatrava.com/projects/ciudad-de-las-artes-y-de-las-ciencias-valencia.html

Of course, those structures were not enough. Internationally known for his bridges, Calatrava added his second to the river – the Serreria Bridge. Almost 400 feet high, a curved pylon extends its harp-like “strings” across the former riverbed.

And wait, there’s more:

As Calatrava’s immense City of Arts and Sciences has taken shape, it became evident that the complex needs a multi-functional space, capable of accommodating large amount of audience and versatile enough to host various different types of events and activities. Calatrava therefore proposed the construction of a Agora on a site between the Sawmill Bridge and the City of Arts and Sciences’ Oceanographic building.

A diaphanous large hall, built of steel arches and a roof with glass will be crowned with a movable structure that controls the natural light and endows the otherwise horizontal building with a vertical component. This large hall will be raised slightly above the ground level. Underneath the large hall will be a lower level with seats of up to 6000 audiences as well as space for VIP rooms, dressing rooms, toilets, shops and in-house office facilities.

http://calatrava.com/projects/agora-ciudad-de-las-artes-y-las-ciencias-valencia.html

Sinful as this seems, we did not enter any of these structures. We were blocked from one or two undergoing repairs, and the higher-than-a-pyramid stairways mounting the sides of the science museum were closed (Darn?).

Instead, we skirted around and through the row of projects, soaking in their sculptural interactions with each other, the land, the cityscape and the sky.