Friday, January 6, 2012

Mexico’s Greatest Architect | Casey's Last Word

A little more than 20 years ago a young, up-and-coming San Antonio architect named Davis Sprinkle had a bright idea.

The city had announced a juried competition to select an architectural team to design a new downtown library, a radical break from the longstanding tradition of City Council picking politically-connected firms.

Sprinkle knew he needed to partner with a larger, more experienced firm in order to have a chance.

He did not set his sights low.

He called Ricardo Legorreta, then Mexico’s greatest architect.

Sprinkle was startled to quickly get Legorreta on the line.
“He told me, I don’t do competitions,” recalled Sprinkle. “But he said, I love San Antonio.”

Sprinkle said Legorreta agreed to do it on one condition: “That we do a design not to win the competition but to do what is best for the city.”

Legorreta, with Sprinkle and another local firm as his partners, won the competition and the result is, in my opinion when I first saw the design and still today, one of the finest library buildings in the country – the striking “Red enchilada,” with its startling exterior and stunning interiors.

Not everyone agreed with my reaction to it.

I was standing next to City Councilwoman Helen Dutmer at the ceremony where the models of the three finalists were unveiled.

Pointing to Legorreta’s design, Dutmer said, “That doesn’t look like a library to me.”

Then pointing to the offering of a prominent local firm, she said, “That looks like a library.”

It was more traditional, a massive fortress designed as though to keep any knowledge from escaping. >

Plenty of people agreed with her. When, after the library was built, a reporter asked Legorreta about the criticism that it didn’t look like a library, he said, “To me that's a compliment.

It's completely intentional.”

Fortunately, the late Marie Swartz, who headed the library board at the time, and architect Milton Babbitt, who was hired to administer the competition and supervise the construction, had worked hard to convince then-Mayor Nelson Wolff and the City Council that the design competition was the best way to choose the firm, and the jury of expert’s choice of Legorreta held up.

As has the building.

Legorreta had a genius for combining the use of bold colors and water features to bring a sense of coolness in tropical climates.

Sprinkle says he also was struck by Legorreta’s ability to create a sense of mystery, an excitement at what you would find as you turned each corner.

It’s an excitement that I not only saw in my children when I took them to the library, but which I still experience myself today.

It was not surprising when, in 2000, Legorreta won the prestigious Gold Medal Prize from the American Institute of Architects, putting him in the company of the likes of Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Ricardo Legorreta died last week at the age of 80.

Milton Babbitt remembered him with words you often don’t hear from a project manager about an architect with whom he worked: “He was a wonderful gentleman, very charming to work with.

"An elegant, elegant man.”

1 comment:

S Smisek said...

I worked with both Mr. Sprinkle an Mr. Legorreta at the time. I remember clearly as we were sketching out some details during the initial phase of the design competition.., we could not come up with a suitable main entrance to the building. Ricardo walked up.. turned our drawing around then looked at our box we had drawn for an entrance way and quickly drew a circle. Wow.., less is more. It was perfect.

Very proud to have worked with that amazing team on such a wonderful building.