In San Antonio, David Adjaye Designs a New Art Gallery That Takes Cues From Regional Architecture

Ruby City, the new 14,000-square-foot art center, derives its name from the iris-burning hue of its crimson cladding, which includes recycled red glass, pigment, mica, volcanic rock, and other admixtures.

david Adjaye ruby city san antonio
Ruby City, a soon-to-open art destination in San Antonio, takes its name from its red cladding and plaza. Visitors enter the building from under one of its two cantilevers. This much-needed shade from San Antonio’s strong sun helps readjust the eye. Courtesy Dror Baldinger FAIA

On a late-January morning, the midwinter sun turns San Antonio’s Ruby City a blush shade. The new $16 million, 14,000-square-foot art center, designed by Adjaye Associates, derives its name from the iris-burning hue of its crimson cladding, which densely aggregates two types of recycled red glass, pigment, mica, volcanic rock, and other admixtures. But by the overcast afternoon, the brownish mineral tones latent in the carapace have been coaxed to the surface, smothering the otherwise-dominant reds and pinks.

The coloration seems to stand apart from the building (as it does in reality, spilling over into a public plaza). Best known stateside for his central role in the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., David Adjaye, too, stands apart from his work. His erudition seems to foreground, and outpace, his designs, which he explicates with carefully selected analogies and cozy likenesses. Ruby City is not just a gallery but a “little temple for art.”

A few miles south of San Antonio’s core, amid cell-phone towers and highway interchanges, this beachhead of culture arrives at a key moment for the growing city, which has seen a steady influx of white-collar professionals and a rash of cheap five-over-ones to meet them. In this same spirit, a spate of urban projects is under way, including the rehabilitation of San Pedro Creek as a pedestrian promenade; its last leg, due to be completed in the coming decade, will run right past Ruby City’s front door.

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david Adjaye ruby city san antonio
Designed by Adjaye Associates, with Alamo Architects as architects of record, the building (and adjacent sculpture garden) is part of a wider campus that includes a meditation garden and a studio gallery. All are operated by the Linda Pace Foundation, whose offices are housed in an old candy factory on-site. Courtesy Dror Baldinger FAIA

Yet the area isn’t exactly lacking in venues for contemporary art. The Blue Star Arts Complex is less than a mile away, while Galería Guadalupe, a showcase for Latino visual art, lies in nearby Vista Verde South. Closer still is Chris Park, a meditation garden that the artist and philanthropist Linda Pace founded to honor the memory of her son, and a studio gallery embedded within; like the Adjaye construction, both are operated by the Linda Pace Foundation, whose offices are housed in an old candy factory next door. (Pace’s first gallery, the celebrated Artpace, is farther north, in the city center.)

Pace, heiress to the Pace Foods fortune and doyenne of the San Antonio art community, died in 2007. In the year before her death she became acquainted with Adjaye through a mutual friend, the artist Isaac Julien. Pace provided the project’s creative spark. From the hazy reaches of a dream, she glimpsed a fiery idyll and, hurriedly committing the vision to paper, adduced a vaguely Venetian capriccio in snow-globe miniature. The drawing is incandescent, thick purposeful strokes of cherry and apple reds alternating with rose pinks and fuchsias. Adjaye prepared a few concept sketches but, pace Pace, plied her forms into a sort of distressed shoebox—à la OMA’s Casa da Musica of 2005—while mostly preserving her polychromy.

In these sketches Adjaye quickly established the building’s angular physiognomy. Its silhouette recalls the iconoclastic mood of the early aughts, but unlike the jolie laide works of that period, the design does not appear to have been jump-started by a flowchart or diagram. Instead, the Adjaye office proceeded from typological study, turning over the received forms of artist studios—the repurposed shed, the atelier topped with a sawtooth roof—and aggregating them “in order to create a dynamism in the section,” he says. The recombinant massing cantilevered in two directions (west and east), careened, sloped vertiginously upward, and unkinking itself, finally straightened out: the rectangle taming the rhombus.

david Adjaye ruby city san antonio
For David Adjaye, Ruby City’s architect, “the building is always shifting and making references as you walk around it—recontextualizing and reframing.” Courtesy Dror Baldinger FAIA

Generous at the onset, the program afforded not just extra-large galleries (each sporting a different light monitor), but also a second-story courtyard and water feature, a café, and a shop. Following the Great Recession, which stalled the project for several years, the bulk of these was sacrificed. Their deletion has resulted in a truncated massing, though they still replicate the features of the original, like a scalar declension of matryoshka dolls.

With the reduction of the building’s scope, Adjaye took the opportunity to sharpen his narrative. In the more concise as-built version—the same double-cantilever move, only shortened; three galleries, still oversize; and just two pitched light monitors, looking like bobcat ears—emerges a symmetry of a kind, most visible in plan. “The art experience is not one of being in a palace where prized things are kept, but it’s about a journey,” Adjaye says, “a loop” (echoed by the paving pattern in the adjacent sculpture garden).

On a tour of the building he candidly invokes this process of editorial reframing. In contrast to the sun-soaked, western plaza in front, the soffit of the cantilever (through which drills a Turrellesque triangle of sky) and the stained-red vestibule are dark and penumbral, together acting as a “retinal adjuster” that prepares the visitor to “take in information again [after the] editing like you do in a city all day long.” From here an elongated concrete stairway leads to the second-story galleries. Another opportunity to recalibrate: Up ahead from the landing is an angled three-sided room, the long back wall bisected by a precast concrete bench, and opposite, a window-wall—Adjaye and his team prefer “lens”—framing the Ruby City campus.

david Adjaye ruby city san antonio
The cladding comprises individual precast concrete panels (pictured) manufactured in Mexico from an aggregate of red pigment, red glass, mica, and volcanic rock. Courtesy Dror Baldinger FAIA

As for the galleries (empty until installation begins over the summer), they are monumental versions of their purported antecedents, purified, of course, of the mess and frenzied ambience associated with art making. “Most artists’ studios, if you’re lucky enough to visit, are magic places,” says Adjaye, who counts among his foremost supporters Julien and the painter Chris Ofili. “There’s always a sense that somehow there’s an incredible alchemy happening.” Again, the architect’s editorial hand shows itself; only the most volumetrically interesting art spaces make it into the mix, and their vintage is markedly 20th-century (post-)industrial. (The 19th century’s cramped garrets and gloomy Victorian workshops off er little in the way of architectural inspiration.)

These spaces are not complete abstractions of those studio forms, but they retain their legibility as hollowed-out solids. The walls are thick—at their meatiest they approach three feet—concealing an assemblage of ductwork, steel, plywood, and gutters. The building thus posits two truths at once: It is nearly as solid as it looks and it isn’t. Its all-over precast panels, like the shields of a testudo, evoke a fortress, an impression only heightened by the tiered massing. Aside from the proverbial lenses (bisected, in two instances, by angled concrete spandrels), and the infinitesimal variability of the surface (which soon smooths out into homogeneity), there is little relief from the hard stuff. The sole point of articulation is the demarcating line a third of the way up the building; simulating a plinth, these lower-register panels are polished to a sheen. (“I’m very keen on people touching it,” Adjaye says.) The upper-register panels, meanwhile, are left rough but, given their height, somewhat imperceptibly so.

If, as Adjaye has expounded elsewhere, “[the] external envelope and the physical profile of a building are an opportunity to summarize what the strategy is about,” the idea of the project becomes permanence itself. This is in keeping with Pace’s initial drawing: Ruby City is less city than citadel. But maybe this is too neat. For one, the place will be free to visitors. And by Adjaye’s own admission, it is incomplete (the still-absent art notwithstanding) and will remain so until the arrival of the San Pedro Creek Cultural Park. “The main lens,” he says, “is the water in San Antonio.” (Currently, the city is trying to find funding for the third phase of the waterway’s ongoing transformation.) Paved with the same red aggregate as the superstructure, the building’s forecourt teases a broader civic gesture: In the plans, this plaza steps down toward the water in tiered seating, what Adjaye describes as a “public terminus.”

In the meantime, he contents himself with how well the building has settled into its surroundings. From Chris Park, its proud peaks echo the gable of a nearby home. “It’s all about this,” he enthuses. “Look at all the relationships it’s making.”

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