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Balancing Functionality, Aesthetics and Culture

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts serves and celebrates the San Antonio community.

By Henry Burke

Tobin Photo 1

San Antonio, Texas, is a city that embraces its rich history and tradition as well as its vibrant present and future with equal enthusiasm. It is a modern city that knows and respects its roots, and the architectural tapestry of the city is a reflection of that. In few places is this more evident than in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Located along the famous San Antonio River Walk, the project was a reinvention of the beloved Municipal Auditorium, which was originally built as a memorial to World War I veterans. That facility long hosted major civic events, like the Order of the Alamo’s traditional coronation of the Queen of the Fiesta.

When the decision was made to update the facility, the design and construction team was tasked with balancing three very important elements of the project: functionality, aesthetics and culture. From a functional perspective, the goal was to create a multiuse facility that would be on par with any world-class performance space in terms of acoustics and layout. From an aesthetic standpoint, it was important to renew and reflect the city’s Spanish Colonial style in a way that is relevant to current and future generations. And from a cultural view, it was important to community leaders to create what they defined as “a performing arts center for everyone.”

Tobin Photo 2

To achieve these goals, the owners turned to a design team led by Seattle-based LMN Architects. San Antonio firm Marmon Mok Architecture served as the associate architect on the project. Together, they sought out ways to create unity between interior and exterior, as well as between the past and future.

“Speaking about the exterior, the design concept was to unify an assortment of shapes and volumes created by the auditorium, stage house, stairs, and back of the house spaces,” recalls Richard Johnson, principal with LMN Architects. “Another important idea was to create a modern backdrop for the historic façade without competing with it.”

Choosing the proper material was a major key in this process. “It would have been easy to try to mimic the classical forms of the historic façade by using stone or concrete, but that was not the vision we had for the project,” Johnson says. “Early in the process it became apparent that these materials were much too heavy in appearance to clad the large volumes of space in a more modern way.”

Part of the solution was to use a striking, unifying design element to bring all the parts together. A porous metallic veil wraps around the exterior of the structure and gives the Tobin Center a very distinct appearance that makes it stand out in the San Antonio skyline. The veil blends with the color of the original façade and both reflects the sky and captures daylight. During the day, it filters the sunlight and creates complex patterns of light and shadow over the River Walk below. At night, programmable LEDs enable eye-catching light displays on the veil’s surface.

“The idea of the veil was conceived as a way to wrap these forms and create a lighter feeling as a counterpoint to the existing stone,” Johnson says. “Metal was a way to achieve the look as well as do it within budget.”

Tobin Photo 3

The elegant look of the veil did present some challenges. It took the right combination of planning, design and product engineering to pull it off properly.

“A modified MetalWrap product [from Moon Township, Pa.-based CENTRIA] was used. Normally, this is not exposed to view and is used behind cladding such as brick or metal panels, but in this project it would be exposed behind the veil,” Johnson explains. “CENTRIA suggested that the gauge of the exterior skin of the panel be increased for better durability. It was a challenge to essentially build two walls, the veil and weather barrier, within budget. We also had to figure out how to attach the veil to the building while penetrating the weather barrier. MetalWrap gave us a way to do both.”

CENTRIA was able to work with the project team to come up with ways for its components and systems to address design issues as they arose. “We made some improvements to vertical panel joints, such as adding matching color metal flashing,” Johnson says. “One of the goals was to create a maintenance-free wall, since it would be hard to reach behind the veil. The two-coat mica Kynar finish and concealed sealant joints allowed this to happen.”

Since opening in 2014, the Tobin Center has been welcomed as an exciting addition to the community. “The project has been a big success, drawing tourists to that end of the River Walk just to see the veil lights at night,” Johnson says. “It has become an instant icon for San Antonio.”

The success of the project is in large part due to a strong vision that was shared by all parts of the project team, from owner to architect to manufacturer and installer.

“The owner and architect shared the same vision for the project, that it should be something special for the city and that it needed to be a state-of-the-art venue,” Johnson says. “They allowed us the freedom to be creative while offering constructive criticism along the way, both of which helped make the project a success.”

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