“I think the most precious thing about Downtown for me is not the buildings themselves but the overall fabric. It’s the space in between the buildings that is really unique,” says Ashley Smith, Architect at Alamo Architects and resident of Southtown.
Ashley was born in Alabama and studied architecture at Cornell University. She worked in Hong Kong before coming to San Antonio. Ashley says there were opportunities here that weren’t anywhere else. “A lot of my friends were working on really cool buildings but they were on the other side of the planet.” Here, Ashley had the opportunity to design structures that were being built in the same community in which she lived.
View of the construction of the New Frost Tower in Downtown San Antonio. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“My specialty has become research facility design,” says Ashley, “I’ve done a lot of laboratory work and I’ve also done a lot of work for higher education clients.” She has designed for many regional university systems, including Texas State, Texas A&M, and UT Health Sciences Center here in San Antonio.
“I liked making things as a kid,” she explains, “Anything where I could work with my hands was something that was really satisfying to me. So Architecture was appealing as a career option.”
Bexar County Courthouse near Main Plaza. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“Of course everybody thinks about the most fun, creative parts of architecture,” she continues, “but there’s a whole lot of nitty-gritty.” Ashley explains that architecture can be just as much a social exercise as a mathematical or creative one: “It’s full of a lot of compromises but that’s one of the things that makes it so interesting as a field. Because it involves so many different aspects of life. And so many different people coming together to make a building.”
And there’s a strong architectural history in this city that evidences that same process. “Downtown San Antonio has some fantastic historic buildings,” she says, “It developed around a pedestrian scale and that’s the thing that makes it so appealing to people.”
Torch of Friendship casting a shadow on Rivercenter Mall. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
This eclectic landscape, whether it’s seen in Ashley’s near-daily trips to HEB South Flores (the entire staff knows her) or her frequent visits to Mad Hatters to discuss politics or read a book, will lead to more prosperity for the entire community.
There’s a need for more work like that of Alamo Architects and others, she explains: “We need a combination of housing types and business types so that we have an innovative Downtown that’s exciting and that appeals to everyone and will ultimately make San Antonio more prosperous.”
A theme in Ashley’s life has been convening and facilitating discussions. “Architects are trained to work in a process that includes clients, budgets, schedules, the realities of construction, government, etc. ” she explains, “Because of that, we are accustomed to finding a solution among all the various interests and not getting hung up on doing things one particular way.”
Houston Street after dark. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
It was a similar thought process that catalyzed Ashley’s activism, starting with her speaking out against Texas Senate Bill 6 in the summer of 2017. “Since I’m transgender that [bill] would have had a negative effect on my community. It also would have had a very negative effect on San Antonio’s economy.”
Many San Antonio businesses, organizations, city officials, and LGBTQ groups came out against the divisive bill, which was ultimately defeated. “I’ve continued to speak out on a range of issues that I think are important for the Transgender community and for San Antonio,” says Ashley.
Ashley at Blue Star, one of her favorite Southtown districts. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio.
Whether it’s city building, meeting friends at a teahouse or protesting, Ashley has an optimistic outlook on the way our communities find common ground. As she puts it: “Things don’t always turn out in the way that you plan but that’s one of the things that makes it interesting.”