Courtesy of AIA San Antonio
The Tower Life Building stands tall in San Antonio's downtown and River Walk area.
Courtesy of AIA San Antonio The Tower Life Building stands tall in San Antonio's downtown and River Walk area.

During the day, it's one of a handful of romantic pre-Depression-era skyscrapers gracing the downtown skyline. But at night, ask any San Antonian to name the most iconographic building of their hometown and chances are good the Tower Life building will top the list (OK, the Alamo and Tower of Americas are strong contenders as well). This octagonal, neo-gothic sliver of brick and terra cotta by the city's most prominent, and prolific, early twentieth-century architectural firm—the father-son team of Atlee and Robert Ayers—lights up the sky, it's upper two stages aglow. Visitors to San Antonio for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2007 National Convention and Design Expo will surely agree that as a marriage of lighting and architecture, Tower Life is hard to surpass.

Except perhaps by another, slightly more diminutive landmark—the Frank Murchison Tower at Trinity University. An elegantly simple essay in brick, concrete, and copper by San Antonio's most charismatic and influential mid-century architect, O'Neil Ford, the Murchison Tower is a dramatic presence for commuters from the northern suburbs. Ford's ethos of a Rational Regionalism—combining local materials and the region's rich traditions of handicraft with a modernist's honesty of expression—still underpins much of the current architectural exploration in the city.

Aside from Ford's own firm, Ford Powell & Carson, one of the most direct descendants is Lake|Flato, the city's best-known contemporary firm, and recipient of the AIA Firm of the Year in 2004. A panoply of projects around town—The Carver Academy, the Government Canyon Interpretive Center, numerous private homes, and an on-going adaptive use project at Pearl Brewery—highlight Lake|Flato's direct, ecologically sensitive and inventive approach to designing for the South Texas climate, and often incorporate creative custom lighting fixtures.

But numerous other firms are gaining acclaim as well. Overland Partners' expansions of the San Antonio Museum of Art display sophisticated elegance, particularly in their shoji-like cladding of the Asian Wing, while sustainable features are integral to their South Texas Blood and Tissue Center. Kell Muñoz's Methodist Healthcare Ministries Headquarters and Marmon Mok's Dreeben Family Pavilion at Temple Beth El display an iconographically modern sensibility. Alamo Architects enliven many of their inventive forms with an expressive lightness, as seen in their Humane Society Animal Shelter. Vbar in the Hotel Valencia, by Parsons 3D/I, integrates sleek color-changing LED lighting, as does the new Drury Plaza Hotel garage-recladding project by Sprinkle Robey. And though not technically architecture, the new “Light Channels” public art piece by Bill FitzGibbons, director of the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, also employs color-changing LEDs and aluminum sculptural elements, which dramatically enhance the pedestrian experience under highway overpasses at Commerce and Houston Streets, immediately east of the Convention Center.

An Historic Past San Antonio is equally proud of its wonderful collection of historic structures. San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, was recently renovated by Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson of St. Paul, Minnesota, with San Antonio-based Fisher Heck as associate architects. Dramatic exterior lighting highlights the 1873 French Gothic nave addition as well as the older Spanish Colonial dome and apse, while the interior is resplendent with golden retablos and the rich creaminess of the local limestone. The Majestic Theater, the queen of San Antonio's atmospheric theaters, designed by John Eberson of Chicago in 1929, and renovated by local architect Milton Babbitt in 1988-1989, is a mélange of Spanish and Moorish architectural confection, replete with twinkling pin lights and a cloud machine casting a moonlike luminance across the azure ceiling.

These projects and many more are highlighted in AIA San Antonio's new guidebook, Traditions & Visions: San Antonio Architecture, premiering at the Convention and available afterwards at The guide contains over 350 of the city's finest designs along with insightful essays tracing the city's historical precedents and current directions in design. But as with all architecture, it is best viewed in person—when one can touch the stones of San Antonio's past alongside the concrete and steel of its present. AIA San Antonio invites everyone to do just that.

Chris Schultz, AIA, is a San Antonio native and current AIA San Antonio President.