April 19


Building out of SA's comfort zone

Design concept for The Garden in the Machine, by Studio Gang Architects for MOMA's Foreclosed: Rehousing the American DreamIs architecture a consumable, like the goods we buy, or is it simply in the realm of services provided between two parties, like a visit to the dentist? How do we even see architecture, much less our role in the creation of it? As the end users, should we be involved in the design process? Can we influence, much less control, it? Is the result something that has positive or negative value and, if so, how is that measured?

Or is architecture simply an effete culture ultimately meant only for the same people who routinely patronize art museums?

Ever since my college days in architecture school I have been somewhat obsessed with the idea of public engagement with architecture – both process and end product. But engagement begins with awareness. Much of the public does not understand what architecture is, and isn’t. Architects don’t help much, either. They are often engaged in “archispeak” with one another. They rarely take on the role of citizen architect in the community-at-large, explaining and helping us understand what they do, and why.

It is in this context that I was very excited to learn that the City of San Antonio Planning and Community Development Department has launched a new Urban Design Center, whose mission will be to better educate citizens about the value of good urban design and their role in helping create it.


Don Mario's silent empire

Cantinflas in Pepe, his 1960 Hollywood film, which floppedOn a recent afternoon in San Antonio’s Market Square, a German tourist asked one of the vendors for a uniquely Mexican souvenir. After pointing to a plethora of Aztec calendars and rebozos, the vendor produced a ceramic Cantinflas.

“Es muy mexicano, es único,” she said.

Behind her, a display shelf held dozens of Cantinflas figures depicting roles that had made the actor famous. A short legend was inscribed below the figure of Cantinflas as a doctor: “I’ll cure you of whatever ails you.” The tone in español is almost picaresque. The tourist asked if the shopkeeper had statues of other national heroes.

“Solamente Benito Juárez y la virgen de Guadalupe,” she replied.

The German took the Cantinflas.  


Public art as a private matter

A design element at the new Can Plant apartments at the PearlMany years ago whilst backpacking Europe on one of those finding-the-meaning-of-life trips, I stopped early one morning to watch a woman scrub her storefront stoop in Vicenza, Italy.  Picture perfect: a dense, urban small town with bumpy sidewalks and curbs that you wish could talk and tell the city’s story.  Her small fabric shop would not open until 9 a.m., but there she was as the sun rose, scrub brush and bucket of soapy water in hand, swooshing away at sidewalks that most of us would never think of cleaning. In suburban-American amazement, I stared as she reached on her tiptoes to polish a street sign affixed to the side of the building that otherwise had nothing to do with her business. Not her property and not her job; it was simple civic pride. Amidst the monuments and museums I saw on that 12-country tour, this moment has stuck with me. As my travels continued I found this repeated again and again: owners going the extra mile to take care of public space.

Years later, on a backpacking trip in the Yucatan, thanks to a bowl of soup I should not have eaten I was struck by that Americano illness known as “Montezuma’s Revenge.” I was consigned to bed for a few days in the wonderful Spanish colonial city of Merida – a lovely place to be sick. One day during the sleepy midday hours of siesta I ventured out and found signs of life at a local coffee shop. I was lured in by a young man earnestly sanding and painting a newly re-crafted gate at the front door made from reclaimed pieces of scrap wrought iron. The design was worthy of any gallery or craft museum I’ve visited. He explained that he worked as a barista at the shop and he wanted to make where he worked “more special,” so he offered to build a decorative door. His boss gladly accepted his kind gift so long as he used his siesta hours for the installation.


Shelf Life: the American dream is breaking bad

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,

Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost.

Evil, be thou my good.
– Paradise Lost, Book IV, lns. 108-110

In 1667, John Milton published the first edition of Paradise Lost, an epic poem concerned with the Biblical fall of man. To an educated reader (which, in that period, is the same thing as saying “a reader”), it would have been a familiar genre: some of the best and most important works of the literary canon at the time were the ancient epics written by Homer and Virgil. One of the important elements tying the epic genre together is the place of the epic hero. While not necessarily sympathetic, the epic hero is usually compelling, charismatic, and emblematic of the values of the epic's native culture. He's a magnification of an idea, and the audience is meant to identify with him and take him seriously. In Paradise Lost, however, the hero's role is not so clear-cut, because the character who most strongly resembles the epic hero is Satan.

Literary critics have been arguing about this for centuries, with many arguing that Milton, either purposefully or accidentally, wrote a self-sabotaging Christian work, a poem about the Bible that glorifies the Bible's big bad guy. That's not the only interpretation, though. Another, more subtle reading, is this: By placing Lucifer in the familiar trappings of the epic hero, Milton's playing a trick. By putting his God-fearing audience in a position where it's easy to sympathize and identify with the devil, Milton forces his readers to confront their own devilishness. We all want to say we hate the bad guys and the awful things they do, but we really sort of love them, too.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Breaking Bad, AMC's award-winning drama, and I've decided that one of the reasons I like it so much is because it plays a similar trick.


The man behind PdA's illustrations

A Jeremiah Teutsch illustration for a story about Council members Diego Bernal, Elisa Chan and Leticia OzunaYou've probably wondered who is behinds those great illustrations you see on Plaza de Armas. Like the one he did for my story this week on Judge Mary Roman's race against challenger Kevin O'Connell. Now is your chance to meet him, thanks to News 4 WOAI main anchor Randy Beamer, who recently profiled Jeremiah Teutsch. Below is the video of Beamer's story.


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