Q&A with David Adjaye

Before she died in 2007, artist, collector, and philanthropist Linda Pace commissioned David Adjaye to design her Foundation's new gallery, called "Ruby City." TA contributor Patrick Michels talks to the architect about the gallery design, his experience working in Texas, and what advice he has for architects in our state looking to create meaningful public spaces.

David Adjaye – courtesy Adjaye Associates

How did you become involved with the Linda Pace Foundation, and how does this building reflect Linda Pace's influence? 

I came to San Antonio in 2007 to meet with Linda, and she shared with me a sketch she had created of an idea that came to her in a dream of a “Ruby City.” That vision, of a jewel-like structure sited on San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek, was a powerful inspiration. During the trip, we explored the Foundation’s property and the extraordinary San Antonio Missions. The architecture of the Missions informed the design — particularly with respect to the vaulting and skylit gallery. We were also motivated by the topography of the site and the wider project to rehabilitate the area into a vibrant new urban park and cultural campus. So the design for the building also became about creating an important civic moment for the city.

Describe a few of your favorite features in Ruby City’s design.

One feature we are enjoying is the opportunity for experimentation with materials in order to create a red building. We have been exploring techniques of embedding fragments of recycled red glass and other reflective materials to achieve sparkle into our ruby-tinted concrete.

What constraints did the space or its surroundings create that you had to respond to?

The building is located on Camp Street, one of several properties of the Pace Foundation, which can best be understood as a campus running from South Flores Street to the San Pedro Creek. It will be the third property developed — the first two being Chris Park and LPF offices on South Flores. The entry to the new building is from the west facing San Pedro Creek, which is currently under development to create a new urban park with pedestrian and bike paths leading from our site to downtown San Antonio.

What kind of experience will visitors have inside Ruby City, and how were those design decisions influenced by the content of the Pace Foundation’s collection?

The building is conceived as a loop, with a specific choreography attached to the significance of Camp Street. A grand stair off the lobby slowly steps upward in a space for Linda's private life. It culminates at the second floor at a window overlooking Chris Park (a park Linda built in memory of her son). From there one can move through the three gallery spaces, each with a lantern oriented to a different sky position. The last gallery before descending back to the lobby overlooks the entry plaza and San Pedro Creek. From the lobby, one can move out of doors to the sculpture court on the south side of the property. A 24-ft canopy provides a shaded entrance and gathering place in front of the building.

The design of Ruby City is really about creating an experience that moves away from the idea of a picture gallery or an archive. Equally, it eschews the idea of the rarified object or a sense of the galleries becoming temple-like. Instead, it offers a relationship between the production and the reception of art, more than the framing of art. In this case, I have tried to access the specific narrative of what the work is part of, or what the setting of the work should be, and how this might resonate with universal questions that transcend time and culture. So the building is about an engagement with people, an engagement with a discussion of art and authorship, and an engagement with different ways of collecting and different ways of seeing the world.

You’ve always made a point of studying the places where you work, even visiting every African nation to study the continent's architectural variations. What do you find unique about the landscape and predominant architecture of Texas?

The architecture and history of the Missions is highly specific, and the design of Ruby City references the historic Spanish tropes of these frontier buildings. More broadly, the marshy landscape and humid climate of San Antonio suggest an architecture of light balanced with the need for shade and a celebration of greenery.

What lessons can your work offer for architects in Texas who want to create meaningful public spaces?

All of my civic buildings aspire to offer a complex framework for social engagement. My hope is that this building will equally extend the civic realm of San Antonio with a space that is inclusive, energized, and uplifting. The concept has been driven by the Pace Foundation’s belief that art is essential for a dynamic society — and it was very much this quality about my other work that presented a synergy between myself and Linda.

Patrick Michels is an Austin-based reporter and staff writer at the Texas Observer.