The San Antonio Decorated Shack

a shorter version of this is posted on my blog

Only the tourists walk in San Antonio, Texas. After a couple of days at the National Communication Conference we decided to get out of the tourist themed commercial zone of the Riverwalk and headed north, the city quickly turned to sprawl. We were vaguely looking for an old whorehouse, now a hip old tilted Victorian house/coffee shop. Every local told us that it was way too far to drive to it, the map told us it was a 2 mile walk.

We decided to see where the widening streets might take us. Our way was littered with dilapidated Victorian houses, urban decay, an art school haven, unexpected graffiti, and plenty of decorated shacks. This painting is a memorial mural over an industrial building that we thought was empty until we saw a tattooed guy come out an iron gated door. We guessed, maybe it was a squat. The entire building was painted from top to bottom and one side had the mural to Angel. There is a list of tags on the right wall in this image (Angel’s friends?). He was born in 1979 and died in 2006.

Naked cherubs lurking in the doorways and Angel’s hair spread along the wall in wavy curls, the mural transforms the ordinary building into either a sacred or a profane space, depending on what side of the Broken Windows argument you’re on.

San Antonio art museum falls into the butt ugly beautiful category. The color must have come from the mismatched section of the paint store for 50% off. And the building is basically a rectangle reminiscent of a prison. But in the true style of the decorated shack, described by Venturi, an interesting window shape and some conceptual art balls rolling out of it, make this building surreal and admirable. A resourceful way to make the ugly into the eye catching.

Like this pig crouching over a little shed, the decorated shack is effective in intriguing the driver from a distance and cheap. Basically bargain price architecture.

Venturi described this is as “inclusive architecture” that efficiently makes for a more vital city. While modern architecture is concerned with good taste and order and often renders the place uninteresting and sterile, the vernacular architecture of the decorated shack brings life to the street. Modernists got rid of small decorations on buildings and unconsciously created mega-structures that themselves became expensive ornament (Seattle Public Library for example). Venturi argues for the ugly and ordinary architecture (decorated with sign) over the heroic architecture (building as the sign) as being more socially responsible because decoration is more flexible, cheaper and adapts better to the environment.

Not sure if I agree because a solid building that is art in itself is more likely to last longer and more resources are saved when a building is built with good materials and to last. Too often the shack is so flimsy that it needs to be demolished and replaced and no one cares because the materials and craftsmanship are so crappy and plastic. This turns into the old debate about what’s better, democratization or conservation of resources.

But i sure do appreciate the decorated shack over the predictable strip mall architecture, like this Safeway plaza turned into a Mega church! You can still see the faded ghost signs of the pharmacy and the Safeway sign is replaced by the small abstract painting of a cross. I wonder why they bothered to get such a large space and opted for such a small sign. I wonder how the members of this church feel about going to Safeway for their religion.

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