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Crit> Briscoe Western Art Museum
Kevin McClellan explores Lake|Flato's newly unified museum on the San Antonio Riverwalk.
Though the expansion of the Briscoe opened some years ago, the museum only just now completed renovations of its main gallery spaces, finally unifying the project.
Lara Swimmer

Lake|Flato has just finished its latest project, a renovation and restoration of the Dolph and Janey Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio. The opening comes several years after the firm completed an expansion of the Briscoe in the form the Jack Guenther Pavilion, which demonstrates Lake|Flato’s sensitive and wonderfully rendered approach. A strange order to say the least—the new building opening before the existing building is finished—but considering the varied and convoluted history of the 1930s-era public library that eventually became the Hertzberg Circus Museum before the Briscoe turned it into its primary exhibition space, not to mention that of the Riverwalk, the story plays directly to the very nature of its surroundings.

Sited on the southeast bend of the Riverwalk across from La Villita and adjacent to the historic Presa Street Bridge and to the city’s oldest pump station, which has been in use since 1891, the Briscoe’s two-building campus is flanked by a landscaped function space. Walled and beautifully paved, the grounds serve to unify the project with contemplative paths and a large multi-purpose area designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. Somewhat disconnected from the Riverwalk, the museum complex sits back, bordered by an access road looping around the campus. Required for access by the San Antonio Water System, which manages the pump station, the ring road serves as an unlikely drop-off. If that had not been the case, one could easily imagine Lake|Flato and Ten Eyck deftly and thoughtfully connecting the site to the Riverwalk, stitching the museum’s access to the bustling activity below.

Courtesy Lake|Flato

Facing the river like fraternal twins, born years apart, the two buildings are separated by a breezeway that provides access from the river to the museum. Intently different, yet remarkably well paired, they are contrasted by their material expression. The elder is dressed to the nines with gray Indiana limestone, taut and expressively carved with skillful hands and attention to detail; the younger is rough hewn in buttery Leuders limestone and patinated copper with great expanses of glass that diffuse its mass. The only connection between the pair is a two-story copper-clad bridge, its upper level enclosed to handle the transportation of artworks between the buildings, the lower open. Matching stone coursing, window insets, and overall massing tie the two structures together in an unconscious and nearly imperceptible way. Where the old building speaks with bulk, carvings of images, and words, the new building does so with material and form.

Lara Swimmer 

Stepping into the Briscoe’s main lobby off of Market Street, the only direct access, one is taken by the craftsmanship. The two-story volume is meticulously brought back to life from the storied days of its first use. Its cork floors have been replaced with chocolate honed travertine, but all else is there: the buffalo hide treaded staircase, outfitted with a new, elegant glass guardrail to meet the current code; marble baseboards; multi-colored gilt ceiling; and carved wood paneling. The T. Kevin Sayama and Andrew Andoniadis–designed museum store, with its elegantly detailed casework, is within eyesight. An exhibition space converted from a three-story book archive is now two stories and is used smartly for both sculpture and two-dimensional pieces. Completing the lower floors is a digital learning lab and expansive reading room used to exhibit art within bookshelves repurposed as hybridized vitrines. The upper floor accounts for the remainder of the exhibition space. Eighteen-foot-high ceilings and original wood and terrazzo floors—wonderfully restored—line the four large, sturdy, well-conceived spaces of the original building.

Courtesy Lake|Flato

Navigating the Briscoe’s interior is simple and direct. The circulation spine that bisects the museum building leads from the staircase and elevator directly to the bridge linking the Jack Guenther Pavilion, which houses the museum’s multi-purpose spaces. Over three levels, Lake|Flato kept the pavilion simple, with the same footprint, access, and material language. The firm has, nonetheless, created vastly different experiences. The uppermost level is structurally intricate and voluminous with exposed steel trusses, which, according to project architect Matt Wallace, “refer to the iron work of the Presa Street bridge, its patterning and detail.” Deep and asymmetric awnings keep the harsh Texas sun from entering the building throughout the year and a small, yet perfectly placed lookout projection serves as a visual reminder that the building is in the heart of the city, overlooking the river. The second floor is neatly detailed and functionally driven, while the ground floor is present and connected to the landscape. Subtle and expressive details can be found throughout the pavilion building, like a cantilevered awning clad in the same cedar battening as inside and an exterior sculpture niche designed to align with access routes for visitors.

The Briscoe Western Art Museum and the Jack Guenther Pavilion come together exceedingly well in downtown San Antonio, one of the most unique and culturally complex places within any city in the United States with its rich and layered history evidenced by the phrase “six flags flying over Texas.” “The Briscoe adds to that history both architecturally and with its content,” said Steven Karr, the museum’s executive director, who believes “it is a metaphor for the City of San Antonio’s growth and evolution.” Ultimately, the building is not one that challenges the role of architecture. The museum design, with the addition of the Jack Guenther Pavilion, quietly does what all great architecture should: It weaves into its context forcefully, yet in a sophisticated, legible manner that neither panders nor subjugates. As a collaborative project with Ford, Powell & Carson, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, landscape designer Pam Brandt, and the San Antonio Water System, Lake|Flato took a site in dialogue with the San Antonio River, Presa Street bridge, and the jumble of different contextual elements and proved once again that architecture can and does present solutions for an ever changing world.

Kevin McClellan

Kevin McClellan is a co-director of TEX-FAB and an adjunct professor at UTSA.