19: El Lienzo


Hightower In the last episode we talked about how architects are portrayed in film. For this episode, I thought I’d start by talking about how architectural dimensions are portrayed in film.


Hackman Buddy, hold this under the backboard. What is it?


Long Fifteen Feet.


Hackman Fifteen Feet!


This is a scene from the 1986 film, Hoosiers. It tells the story of a basketball team from the small town of Hickory, Indiana as it advances to the state finals. The big game will be held in a really big arena – much larger than any the team has played in before. Because of this the coach wants to illustrate that the dimensions of the basketball court are the same as any other. That’s why he brought with him a tape measure.


Hackman Measure this from the rim. How far?


Long Ten Feet.


Hackman Ten feet! I think you’ll find these are the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.


Hightower It’s an iconic scene from an iconic basketball movie. But in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a huge fan of basketball movies. I’m not a huge fan of basketball to be honest. This is a somewhat sacrilegious thing to say in San Antonio – home of the five-time NBA World Champion San Antonio Spurs. But in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m kind of a nerd. And nerds don’t typically care all that much about basketball.


Now a basketball court is a simple rectangle. A football field is a simple rectangle as is a soccer pitch and a tennis court. The dimensions of these are all different as are their surface materials. But their overall geometry is the same despite the variety of the sports played on them.


But there is a sporting event where the shape of the arena is a precise reflection of what occurs within it: where the architectural form of the arena is directly determined by its function.


I’m referring, of course, to the rodeo. No, not the American rodeo but the Mexican version of the sport known as the charreada.


That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the nineteenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.


I’m Brantley Hightower.


Rodeos began not as a sport for entertainment but as demonstrations of the skills that were necessary to handle cattle. In Mexico groups of rancheros and vaqueros would informally gather to-


Clara Please stop.


Hightower What?


Clara Your Spanish is terrible.


Hightower I never claimed otherwise.


This is Clara, by the way. In addition to being my wife and an architect, she’s also an occasional listener to the podcast.


Clara I always listen to the podcast!


Hightower Oh yeah? What was the last one about?


Clara Stuff… I don’t know.


Hightower As a fluent Spanish speaker, I thought Clara might be able to help as we define some terms we need to know before we get too far into this episode. Let’s begin.


Clara Ranchero.


Hightower A ranchero is simply someone who works on a ranch. Think of them as a “ranch hand” in American parlance. They don’t necessarily have any particular skill as it relates to cattle or horses, although many of them do.


Clara Vaquero.


Hightower A Vaquero is a horse-mounted handler of livestock. The Vaquero tradition originated in Spain and was brought to the Americas as it was being colonized. Vaqueros came first and the American cowboy learned their skills from them.


Clara Charro.


Hightower A Charro is a participant the Mexican Rodeo. Although their skills are similar to and derived from those associated with a vaquero, they don’t necessarily work on a ranch. They wear traditional outfits including large sombreros and as a result the are often mistaken for traditional Mexican musicians known as:


Clara Mariachi.


Hightower A mariachi is a musician associated with a specific type of traditional Mexican music. Think of them as an American county and western singer: they might wear boots and hats similar to what “real” cowboys wear, but you don’t want to get them anywhere near a horse. Like a country and western singer, a Mariachi’s outfits tends to be much more ornate than the utilitarian garments worn by charro.


That’s plenty of definitions for now. Let’s start talking about the Mexican rodeo shall we?


Clara Charreada.


Mario A charreada is actually, it's a rodeo, it's a Mexican rodeo. And it's actually the grandfather to the American rodeo.


Hightower That’s Mario Durand. He’s sort of the unofficial spokesman for the San Antonio Charro Association. His dad is its President. I asked him what the difference was between the American rodeo and the charreada.


Mario Typically our rodeo is a little bit different from the American rodeo simply because our rodeo is more… skill based. We don't have as much time limits. The American rodeo you have, you know, eight seconds to ride a bull. You've got to rope a steer in ten seconds. All this other stuff. We're more of showing off the just skill level of the rider with the rope, with the animal, the whole teamwork effort of it.


Hightower The American Rodeo has a series of events like bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling. All of these are derived from specific skills a cowboy would need to have on a working ranch. The same is true in the charreada. Many of the events are only slight variations on the American version – only they all sound cooler because they’re in a foreign language.


Mario The first event is the Cala de Caballo…The next event is the Piales… The next event up is the Colas…  Then the final event is probably really the main event.. It's El Paso de la Muerte, which is the pass of death…


Hightower Like its American cousin, the charreada tends to focus primarily on the dudes. There is, however this one event…


Mario And the women, the women are escaramuzas. They come out and they have beautiful, brightly-colored dresses, and those dresses cover up their saddle. So a lot of people don't really realize that when they're on there, they're actually sitting side saddle… And they do their routines that are actually more like synchronized swimming on horseback.


Hightower  It’s like a ballet except it’s performed in long, colorful dresses. And sombreros. While on horseback.


If American rodeo events tend to be more about brute strength, charreada events are more about finesse and style. An American rodeo rider only has to ride his bull for eight seconds. A charro has to ride his bull until it tires out and stops bucking. And then he has to dismount and land on his feet.


Individual events take time to unfold. As they do, you quickly realize it’s all about the close fit between animal and charro.


Mario It's funny you say that, because back in the old days there used to be a saying that was, "Charro sin caballo no es charro." Meaning, literally translated, "A cowboy without a horse is not a cowboy."


Hightower This difference between what is emphasized in the two rodeos is also reflected in the architecture of the arenas where the events are held.


Like basketball, the American rodeo arena is generic. It’s actually not uncommon for basketball games and rodeos to be held in the same area. That’s how it is in San Antonio - both sports are played within a generic rectangle inside of the AT&T Center.


But the arena for the Mexican rodeo is very different. A charreada is held in a keyhole-shaped arena designed specifically to accommodate the different events held within it:


Mario …Typically the overall name is considered Lienzo… The way it's broken down is that the long part, the rectangular portion, is actually the Manga, the sleeve... and the other part, the round pen, the Ruedo… It’s broken down into those two sections and different events occur in different places.


Hightower Several events feature the charro and his horse charging down the long linear part of the arena into the round portion at the opposite end. Gates can be closed to create a circular pen to contain the events featuring wild bulls and broncos.


The shape of the lienzo also plays into how the participants in the charreada are introduced. A formal opening procession is held where the charros parade down the length of the Manga, and then ride in a slow circle around the ruedo where most of the seating is located.


Hightower The lienzo in San Antonio is one of my favorite buildings in town. Its materials may be simple but they are assembled in a remarkably elegant way. The seats are cast concrete steps that form a curving arc of bleachers. They are kept cool by fans hanging from a corrugated metal roof supported on a series of thin steel columns.


It was all made by hand – hands that cared a great deal about what they doing.


Mario The arena as you currently see it was actually built in the mid to late 60s and most of our members that are there now, mostly the older guys, are actually the ones that helped build all that. So it is kind of interesting to be in there with them and they kind of tell you, "Oh, you know, I remember this guy was in here with us." And they were all 18-year-old guys just working away, building forms out of the concrete...


Hightower Under the stands made of concrete are a series of open-air rooms with long horizontal windows that open just a few feet from the action of the Lienzo. You feel very much a part of the action here – it’s almost like a private box at a professional sports arena. But here the feature wasn’t added as a cynical move to increase revenue. Here it was just a practical use of space. Some of these little rooms are occupied by concession stands. Others have been enclosed and made into restrooms. But most are available for anyone who wants to watch the action of the charreada from a slightly different perspective.


That’s exactly what the people who built it intended.


Mario Overall the stadium as you see it has not been touched since that original plan. So everything is very much well preserved. It is in its original condition.


Hightower One reason people watch sports is to see skilled athletes do amazing things. That’s certainly a reason to watch the charreada. What these men and women are able to do both on and off their horses is truly amazing. But both the Mexican and American rodeos are also about connecting with the past. They’re about maintaining a connection to a shared cultural heritage.


I was born in and lived half my life in a suburb. The other half I’ve lived in cities like San Antonio, Austin and Chicago. I have never lived at or worked on a ranch. I couldn’t rope a steer if my life depended on it. But I had ancestors who could. These long-gone relatives worked farms and ranches and so the rodeo and the tradition it represents is still a part of who I am. The charreada is a part of who Mario is.


Mario I am American, I was born and raised here. My parents are Mexican-Americans, they were born Mexican and came over, they're American. But everything gets lost in that transition. The original roots, the culture, where we came from… So it's kind of a great way to help keep that alive, help promote it, bring it back in a way.


Hightower The charreada as we know it developed after the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s. Mexico was changing rapidly and it was looking for an identity to hold on to. The charreada represented a uniquely Mexican institution. And like Samurais of Japan or the cowboys of the United States, charros remain a respected part of the national identity.


Mario Many people still hold them in a high regard simply because it is something that takes a lot of discipline, a lot of time, a lot of dedication, and mostly to do that you end up seeing somebody, if they're willing to put all this effort into it, they're pretty high up there. And that was something that was established early on. Even in our regulations and founding rules, it's almost like a very minute description of how we live our life.   


Hightower The way of the charro may provide a guide on how to live a good life but it also provides guidance on how to build a good building.


Hightower Back before I had kids I would go on these long bike rides. I’d start at my house, ride through downtown, past the Alamo and along the San Antonio River. Along the way I would pass by this arena – this Lienzo. Even before I knew what it was, I could tell it was special. It seemed both foreign and familiar. It looked both ancient and modern. I could tell it was important to the people who had created it.


It reminded me of an essay by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. Like a lot of other early modernists he was trying to define what what architecture should mean. Loos talked about what it’s like to encounter a pure form of architecture.


Loos When we come across a mound in the wood, six feet long and three feet wide, raised in a pyramidal form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: somebody lies buried here.


This is architecture.


Hightower When I would ride my bike through the wooded area by the river and come across the lienzo with its keyhole-shaped arena and its concrete stands shaded by its metal canopy, some voice inside of me would say, “This is architecture.”


It still does.


Thanks today Mario Durand and all the good people at the San Antonio Charro Association. If you have the chance you should definitely go see one of their events. I’ll put a link to their website in the show notes. Special thanks to Christian Enner who provided the voice of Adolf Loos and to my wife and translator, Clara. Perhaps she’ll actually listen to this episode.


Clara Te quiero mucho, Brantley.


Hightower The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.