You can see in the renderings of Ruby City, the building David Adjaye Associates has designed to hold the Linda Pace Foundation’s art collection in San Antonio, the same “skewed, swelling shapes” that architectural historian Stephen Fox praises in his essay in Cite 78. “[Adjaye’s] buildings,” writes Fox, “don’t conform to their programs and sites; they deform in response to them.”
It is a very compelling, very optimistic deformation. The site, in this case, is the Pace Foundation campus on Camp Street in Southtown. The campus comprises the one-acre meditation garden CHRISpark, one-room SPACE Gallery, and the former Tobin Building, a 1927 candy factory that has been converted into residential lofts and Pace Foundation offices. The three large galleries of Ruby City will add 10,000 square feet of exhibition space for contemporary paintings, sculptures, installations, and video works.
What Fox calls “disarmingly exuberant cheerfulness” in earlier Adjaye buildings here manifests most obviously in color and material. When they met in 2007, Pace sketched for Adjaye a vision for Ruby City that had come to her in a dream: a series of magenta turrets, all bedazzled and bejeweled, atop a circular plinth like a merry-go-round. Adjaye translated this whimsy into off-kilter forms and material experimentation. To be clad in an array of red-stained precast concrete panels that Adjaye says will have embedded in them “bits of recycled red glass and other reflective materials,” Ruby City will shimmer in the Texas sun, even more so in the context of the drab buildings immediately surrounding it.
But the exuberance goes beyond the surface. Ruby City wants to be more than a pretty box. It opens outward along Camp Street, with a plaza shaded in part by a 24-foot overhang and a sculpture garden, all the way down to adjacent San Pedro Creek. “We have sought to engage with the wider project,” writes Adjaye in an email to OffCite, “to rehabilitate the area into a vibrant new urban park and cultural campus. So the design for the building is about creating an important civic moment for the city — and the plaza will be a critical feature of this narrative.”
Today, San Pedro Creek resembles nothing so much as a ditch. When I visited the site, I saw overgrown banks and a few turtles kicking in shallow pools. It seemed the kind of infrastructure most buildings, especially new cultural institutions, would turn their back on. But the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, working with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), wants to create instead what Rice School of Architecture Associate Professor Christopher Hight might call “projective infrastructure.” Hight curated a recent lecture series with the Rice Design Alliance (publisher of this blog) that featured projects reimagining overlooked waterways and other interstitial urban spaces.
“We are taking a public works project and turning it into a public amenity,” says project manager Kerry Averyt. The project, now in the design phase, would widen San Pedro Creek to manage flooding — a recurring problem in San Antonio — and develop trails, benches, outdoor amphitheaters, art installations, and playground equipment along its two-mile stretch. “The idea was to restore the creek not as a dividing line but as a connecting of neighborhoods,” says Bridget Hinze, an administrator with SARA. “Right now, if you go along the creek, it’s everybody’s back door. If you go along the River Walk, the front door is often at the river. That is what we’d like to see along the creek.”
Ruby City will be one of the first new buildings in San Antonio to open up to the creek. And the exuberance with which it does so merges the natural and the urban. It goes beyond simple orientation. In Houston, it would be almost disobedient to be so civic. So public. And it recalls a question that Kinder Institute for Urban Research Director Bill Fulton posed at the recent The Cultural Landscape Foundation conference in Houston. When, Fulton wondered, would Houston stop thinking of its bayous as an escape from the city? “I think the goal should be to get all the people on the bayou system on foot back up into the city without getting into their cars, so that they understand that this incredible natural system actually connects a remarkable set of urban places that they can experience as well.”
Adjaye has conceived of the project as a “loop,” he writes, where a user can enter from the to-be-developed trails, come through the sculpture garden to the plaza into the lobby, then climb a “grand stair” into the galleries — to take in a broad view of that entire sequence from the second story: “The design … is really about creating an experience that moves away from the idea of a picture gallery, or an archive. Equally, it eschews the idea of the rarified object or a sense of the galleries becoming temple-like.”
Here, though, Adjaye might be understating his own design. Saskia Sassen has argued that Adjaye’s buildings are, indeed, rarefied objects, whose uniqueness can evoke an awe that leads to shared experience. “Distinctiveness, precision, and complexity can engage the subjectivity of users and passers by, drawing them in if even for a moment into a less personal and private mental space,” she writes. For Sassen, Adjaye’s buildings “disaggregate … the claustrophobias of identity.” She means that a singular architectural object can draw people in, away from themselves, into public life.