A City Between Real and Ideal
Architecture students conveyed their own understanding of San Antonio in a multimedia exhibit, inviting the public to participate
In early 2013, Antonio Petrov and his graduate students set out to understand their ever-changing urban environment: San Antonio, a city in the midst of redefining its own identity. Their ambitious goal was to depict the fabric of San Antonio, and to illustrate what they labeled as the “real” city and its “ideal” counterpart. The result was a powerful multimedia, multisensory exhibit that invited visitors to gain new perspectives, share their own and realize how every person constantly contributes to the shaping of their environment.
The students participating in this community engagement project started by looking at San Antonio’s 10 council districts.
“That was our initial matrix,” said Petrov, an assistant professor in the UTSA College of Architecture. “However, we quickly realized that that’s not what the city is. Throughout history, architecture has unsuccessfully attempted to make connections between places and people. Large-scale modern infrastructural frameworks, including the San Antonio highways, paradoxically disengage people in an effort to connect them.“ Petrov and his students saw an opportunity to intervene and to examine different intersecting and sometimes conflicting notions of place and people, with the aim to find the real San Antonio, “And not the stereotypical San Antonio somewhere between sprawl and the River Walk,” said Petrov.
He sent his students to all corners of the city to explore the dramatically different neighborhoods with their own eyes and to capture the streets, houses and people through photographs and videos.
“They returned with powerful images that not only determined how diverse San Antonio is, but we also found that a wide array of colors, changing from neighborhood to neighborhood, represented the amazing cultural diversity of San Antonio,” Petrov said. It reminded him of cities in Mexico, Argentina and the recent transformation of the Albanian capital, Tirana. “After the Soviet regime, Tirana was a very dull, rather unattractive city,” Petrov explained. “But in 2000, they elected Edi Rama, a former artist, as their mayor. And he led an initiative to transform not only the city, but also people’s perception of it by empowering them to paint the façades in bright colors.” Today, Tirana is a very vibrant, colorful city with a growing population. “If you can change your mindset, you can change your city,” said Petrov, who was born in Macedonia before growing up in Europe and the United States, receiving his doctorate from Harvard University.
“While the context is very different, we saw a relationship between color and the fabric – social, cultural and economical – in San Antonio as well,” Petrov said. “To give an example, the more subtle the colors, the more affluent the neighborhood. And I say that without any judgment. There is nothing wrong with the rather grey and beige tones in the Northwest as they blend into the Texan landscape, or the vivid colors on the West Side. These peculiarities make a city.”
As a result, the project team redrew their own scheme of the city. Instead of adhering to the 10 official districts, they identified 17 cultural arteries – concentrations of cultural activity along major roads or corridors such as Bandera, Fredericksburg and Broadway. When the exhibition opened in March 2013 at the Public Art San Antonio (PASA) gallery, two maps reflected the “city between real and ideal.” The first expanded San Antonio’s 278 neighborhoods onto the floor. Visitors were able to walk through this large-scale, bright orange “experience map”, while an adjacent sculpture of mirrors clarified the map’s inverted neighborhood names. Next to a wall of San Antonio images, a second, condensed map of the city outlined the seventeen cultural arteries. This “memory map” symbolizing the ideal, encouraged the public to participate by drawing sketches or formulating experiences, wishes and personal stories related to San Antonio.
Further elements included iPods that were hanging from the ceiling and showing videos about the San Antonio neighborhood they were floating above, copies of the students’ sketchbooks arranged in an illusory cloud, a dance performance, monitors looping films and images of the student’s work in progress, and mirrored posters that promoted the exhibition in more than 400 San Antonio buses.
“A general assumption is that a city defines itself through its collective cultural achievements. But culture is more than landmarks and stereotypes,” said Petrov. “We concluded that it is our own memories of neighborhood streets, schools, favorite parks, the first kiss and coffee shops around the corner that make our city. That’s why our project was about empowering the citizens. We wanted them to co-author the identity of their city and to realize that their city is not a myth – it’s a beautiful reality.”
–Jean Luc Mette