09: Designing for the Pope


Hightower So there were these four guys who all met each other back when they were in architecture school at the University of Texas.


Billy We were all classmates… within a year of each other at UT Austin in the Late 70's... we sort of knew each other… but we all were the group that moved to New York City so… we all shared apartments and did stuff like that. So we got to become much, much better friends at that point in time.


Hightower That’s Billy Lawrence. By 1985 he and his three classmates had all moved back to San Antonio. Together started a new architecture firm. They called themselves Alamo Architects. Not too long after that they landed a big renovation project for an old hotel near downtown. It required a three-story, sixteen-hundred-ton building to be physically moved a half-mile across town. That got a lot of news coverage.


Billy I mean no one could have bought that kind of publicity for a little startup gang of four people… That kind of set us up I guess a little bit as being viewed as sort of the brash, young kids at that point that opened an office and did this crazy thing. And of course we had - as we said so many times back then - we had nothing to lose.


Hightower Although they didn’t know it at the time, this once-in-a-lifetime project was actually a prelude to another, even larger once-in-a-lifetime commission. This next project would require them to design a space for half a million people – half a million people, and also the Pope.


On the morning of September 13, 1987, Pope John Paul the Second was to land in San Antonio where he would celebrate an outdoor Mass. But it’s not like a Pope can just show up in an empty field - the site had to be prepared and an altar had to be constructed. In other words, the Pope needed architecture and the team responsible for its design was Alamo Architects. The story of that design and its construction is, well, Biblical.


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


I’m Brantley Hightower.


The partners at Alamo Architects had heard the news that the Pope was coming to town but it never occurred to them that they might be involved. That’s when fate intervened.


MikeL And as it turns out, one of our neighbors in a little office complex we had… was hired as a consultant to the Catholic Church to help them facilitate… the big mass that he was going to do.                       


Hightower That’s Mike Lanford, one of the other four original partners of Alamo Architects.


MikeL And he came over to us and said, "The Catholic Church – I'm helping them with this, and I'm just wondering what would you do in something like this? Is there any precedent or just tell me what you think." And so we talked about it and… the largest public gathering I have ever been to was the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park.


Hightower Remember the four of them had just spent several years in New York which is how Mike had attended that now-legendary outdoor concert.


MikeL And the basic structure, and crowd control, and the way they organized lanes and grouped pockets of people into that was something that we talked about. And eventually, as we began to talk to the Catholic Church, we always fell back to that same idea of how that was structured inside of Central Park.


Hightower That early consulting work helped get Alamo Architects on a short list of firms interviewing for the job of designing the site for the Papal Mass. But it was still a long shot for a young office that was competing against larger and more established firms. It also didn’t help that none of them were Catholic.


MikeM We were two Methodists, an Episcopalian and an agnostic – pretty much sure the Catholic Church wasn’t going to hire us to do anything.


Hightower That’s Mike McGlone, the third of the four original partners. Billy remembers them being asked about this very issue when they were interviewed for the job.


Billy But they said, "Well, what makes you think that you are an appropriate firm to pick for this because you've never done a Catholic church. This isn't the sort of thing you do." And I was standing up at the time and I just stared at them and said, "Well, you know, the history of architecture is the history of the Catholic church." And just went off on this long exposition about how we all know the Catholic church because it is the history of western architecture and all western architecture is focused on those big cathedrals and all the order and architecture and everything else.


Hightower In other words, he gave a passionate, unrehearsed monologue that surprised both him and his colleagues.


Billy And it was just so totally from left field. They were all just kind of sitting there snickering because I had just like, "Okay. Here it is. This is the best I can do with it." And we got the job and they said it was pretty much kind of that. That it was that crazy answer to that question…


Hightower In the months that followed, Alamo Architects developed a close working relationship with church leadership as they all worked to develop the design. They worked hand-in-hand with a local contractor, Guido Brothers, who provided surveying and logistical support for the planning of the site. The design of the altar where the Mass would be celebrated developed in response to the unusual nature of the ceremony itself.


Irby What really drove the design more than anything else was that it was a different mass than what was typically done on a Papal visit. So usually if the Pope comes, you know, the Pope celebrates Mass and it’s kind of all about the Pope and maybe the Archbishop that has invited him.


Hightower That’s the fourth original prater of Alamo Architects, Irby Hightower. Now for the record, although we are both San Antonio Architects who share a last name, we are not related.


Anyway, Irby described the unique way the Archbishop of San Antonio wanted to approach the Mass.


Irby One of his real goals was that it was a team effort on everything. So he did the invitation from all the Bishops of Texas… as a group. And because it was everybody his idea was that everybody – all the Bishops – ought to be also doing the Mass at the same time.


Hightower And so the desire to be inclusive had a very real impact on the design of the altar.


Irby So that immediately drove some dimensions that were quite a bit different than normal because you had to have all of the Bishops all lined up on one side of the altar all at the same moment all doing Mass… So the Altar itself became really long and this kind of platform for them to be on became enormous because of just the number of people on it…


Hightower The site for the outdoor Mass was shaped like a bowl. So if the platform on which the altar was located was elevated like a stage in a theater, everyone could see what was going on.


Irby The design really revolved around building a very large platform, we elevated it of course and just over the course of working on it because it was scaffolding that it ended up this kind of… flattened pyramid.


Hightower The form of stage also made reference to the pre-Columbian pyramids of Teotihuacán in Mexico. Given the church’s role in the colonization of the Americas, this reference made sense.


Irby And then to really do this backdrop which again was sort of scaffolding and banners that was sort of a folk-art church. It took the basic symbol that the Pope has – sort of roses and kind wove that into Our Lady of Guadalupe and other parts of early Catholicism in the Western Hemisphere and came up with this great kind of folk facade.


Hightower So the story became that the Pope was coming to celebrate a Mass on the steps of a church, only instead of there actually being a church, there was only a stage set built to represent one. Since all this was temporary, the altar and towers were built out of construction scaffolding covered in fabric. Here again is Mike McGlone.


Mike M And so we came up with a system of really just scaffold platforms and we kind of created the sides of it with a stretched fabric that was kind of just basically pinned in place but it gave it this kind of really clean, bright monolithic look… We wanted to create a modern colonial façade behind this as a backdrop.


Hightower There is a strong tradition of using religious imagery to decorate the interior of a church, but here the scale was much larger. So to help communicate church liturgy at the scale of the site, a graphic designer named Jenny McChesney was brought on early in the process.


Jenny Because the nature of the site, the outside mass, was going to be on a 144-acre site… We needed a way to visually ground where the Holy Father was going to be speaking.


Hightower In addition to banners at entry points and various other parts of the site, Jenny worked with the architects on the towers that formed the backdrop to the altar.


Jenny It needed to be something that also... communicated part of the message…Hence the idea that we came up with of creating kind of a Mission Church.


Hightower As important as the altar, the backdrop and the banners were for the experience of the Papal Mass, Alamo Architects also had to design for the security of the Pope. The Pope is a Head of State and an attempt on his life had been made only a few years earlier. Here again is Mike McGlone.


Mike M And then of course we had to have this kind of vertical screen behind the altar and that was part of the relationship with the Secret Service which was they basically attended every single design meeting, construction meeting because they wanted to be engaged in that. We had to have all these quasi-secret recesses in the actual altar so that in an emergency the Pope could basically literally be pushed below floor level in a secure, steel lined box.


Hightower Because it was an outdoor Mass in Texas, providing shade became an important consideration. When a structured shading device proved to be too expensive, the architects proposed something that was both brilliant and a little insane.


Mike M The most dramatic thing that we had hoped we had figured out was the cloud – the hundred-foot by eighty foot by sixteen foot, helium filled floating shading device that was going to float over this thing to provide shade during the event.


Hightower Needless to say this was an ambitious project with a lot of moving parts.

As the date of the Papal Mass approached, everyone was working long hours at the site. It was an enormous team effort but by Thursday, September the 10 - three days before the Pope’s arrival - everything was almost ready. Billy remembers it well.


Billy It was the most amazing thing you've ever seen. It was this gigantic tower of color and it all kind of looked like a baroque altar... And it was covered with these banners that… Jenny had actually really done a lot of how they really look and she had done all these other ones for gates and symbolizing all the different parishes and they were all stylized to look like everything that was put together for that day. It was one complete branding exercise...


Hightower They even had the chance to snap some photos of their almost-finished work. But that’s when people started noticing the sky was growing darker…


Billy And it was the weirdest thing I think any of us had ever seen. The sky started to get very, very, very black and blacker and blacker and almost got dark like night. And then on the horizon, at the back of where all the seats were, the sky kind of, the clouds kind of part, the sky kind of cracks open and this bolt of sunlight comes through. There's just piercing bolt of sunlight and it becomes very bright with the big blackness on either side


Hightower It was then that the wind started to pick up…


Billy It was literally so focused that all the programs on one side of the aisle sitting on chairs were still sitting on the chairs and everything on the side was blown down and it went right for the altar.


Hightower Although they didn’t know it at the time, what they were witnessing was a dry microburst. It’s this odd thing that sometimes forms as part of a thunderstorm where cool air descends and accelerates as it approaches the ground. Two years earlier a microburst had caused an airliner to crash on its approach into Dallas. But here in San Antonio, these winds focused their fury on one of the banner-covered towers behind the altar. The microburst didn’t blow the tower over – instead it pushed it into the ground. Here’s Mike McGlone.


MikeM It literally twisted it into the ground vertically. And then when it collapsed it sort of pulled the other one over.


Hightower No one was hurt when the scaffolding that formed the towers came down. But the team was left with 72 hours to recreate what had taken weeks to build. That required the abandonment of some of the remaining elements to be put in place - including the floating cloud.


Design is often thought of as this purely creative endeavor that occurs in a vacuum in some faraway studio. It can be that, but it can also be a quick and dirty effort that occurs in response to less-than-ideal situations. After the loss of the towers Irby, Billy and the two Mikes didn’t have time to mourn the loss of their original design. Instead, they had to come up with another one. And fast.


MikeM That’s when we actually went back to one of the very, very first sketches we had ever done as a conceptual idea which was we were going to have this rigging that was going to hang these giant banners and we were just going to prop it up two cranes and that was going to be it. We started getting calls from SeaWorld, construction companies all over town and they said, “What can we do to help?” And we said, “Well, do you have a two-hundred ton crane that you can donate for a weekend?”


Hightower It turns out they did. Several of Jenny’s banners that were going to be used elsewhere on the site were repurposed and hung between the two cranes. Here again is Billy.


Billy They were the size of the individual banners with the diocese but they were just the symbol of the mass and I think there are five or six of them. They just had the Virgin of Guadalupe Rose on them and nothing else so it was like this perfect magic thing that those happened to be there and it happened to not be used. And so those got strung behind the whole thing as a backdrop.


Hightower Decisions were being made quickly because they had a hard deadline that was quickly approaching. The Secret Service would need 12 hours to secure the site. 


Mike M They said on Friday’s meeting, “OK, tomorrow night at 10:00 the site is ours...” And sure enough like 9:00 the head agent comes over and he goes, “Mike, you’ve got an hour.” And sure enough 10:00 he says, “You’re done.” I turn around and where did the twenty-four guys in sunglasses, dark suits and ear buds come from? And that was it. Everybody literally left the site and they spent the rest of the night kind of prepping for the morning when he showed up.


Hightower Once the stage had been cleared of workers, the Secret Service brought in a team of Navy Seals. Here’s Mike Lawrence:


MikeL And then these... 15 really toned, athletic, young guys came in, and crawled all over it. It was just suddenly like Navy Seals all over the platform, and they were just all over, in everything, underneath, and crawling on the scaffolding… and just did this thorough survey of the platform. And then they formed a cordon and no else could go on to that area until the actual Pope arrived the next day.


Hightower And then it was Sunday morning. The Pope landed in San Antonio as planned and his motorcade made its way to the site of the open-air mass.


KSAT Reporter It was a breathtaking site; a hillside filled with thousands of people brought together by love. The spirit moved, and it moved in the person of John Paul the Second as he made his way through the crowd those who got close enough to see him were awestruck…


Hightower That’s from a KSAT 12 news report from back in 1987. Despite the complete exhaustion he was feeling, Mike Lanford remembers that morning very well.


MikeL It was unbelievably hot. It was in mid-September but it felt like mid-August. It was unbelievably hot. And I recall waiting, and when you're waiting for something like that, just the wait went on forever and ever. And we were under such stress from all of the stuff that had gone before, that mostly it was like a glazed over thing, like okay, this is really happening. We're in the middle of this and seeing that along with all the hundreds of thousands of people, it was a pretty overwhelming and exhausting experience.


Hightower Jenny was exhausted, too. The entire team had been up for most of the last three days and although they had pulled off something that seemed impossible 72 hours before, it was still less than what they hoped it would be.


Jenny We were so disappointed. Because our work, our beautiful thing had been destroyed. The day of the mass, that Sunday, we were exhausted. We'd all been up for days and we were sunburned, weary of the whole project.


Billy Because we had seen it complete I think there is a tremendous amount of disappointment. I mean it was just heartbreaking for us… It was just that it was so spectacular in place. I don't know, it was a very heavy time for us. I mean the… emotions were so intense and so mixed because we did pull it off. We did figure out what to do, we hiked up our pants and got into the fray and solved the problem.


Hightower But that morning, Billy knew it wasn’t about their design. It wasn’t about the towers that fell or the cranes that replaced them. It was about a community of worshipers sharing a sacrament as old as the Catholic Church itself.


Billy What we really loved and I think the thing that helped us get through it was looking around at not only all the parishioners who are just, I mean… they were there in wrapped attention, watching this amazing man floating around through the crowd in the Pope mobile… we were behind the security Secret Service fence. We were part of the inner circle and so… he was within a few feet of us and he truly was radiant. I've never before or since met or seen anybody that had the aura that he had as a person and he really was visible and he's palpable and real. I was astounded at that. I mean I've seen pictures of him but to actually be within a few feet of that man it was just like, "Oh, my God. I get this."


Hightower The thousands of people who traveled to San Antonio that day weren’t there to look at architecture. They were there to share an experience with the Holy Father. And they did. And the backdrop for the altar, however hastily conceived, performed its assigned task perfectly well. Only a relative few cared that it wasn’t what it should have been.


For Irby, Billy and the two Mikes, their experience designing for the Pope will always be a source of mixed emotions. But it forever changed how they define what makes good architecture.


Billy It honed what was really important about a project. That it's important that it get done. It's important that people are engaged and pleased by whatever the result is. There are a lot of different ways to solve a problem and we proved that in this particular thing. We had it solved one way and that wasn't destined to be and we had to solve another way. We used the tools we had and we did that and everybody was happy... And so I guess it forever at least changed my view how to put something in perspective. It's only a success if everybody wins. We really did a great project, it just wasn't the project we started out to do.


Hightower Architecture acts as a frame for our activities as a people. It is the stage upon which we perform our lives. Now that frame may change over time and the backdrop behind it may even be blown down. But the experiences we share and the memories we create while upon that stage can last a lifetime. Maybe even longer.


Thanks today to Mike Lanford, Billy Lawrence, Mike McGlone and Irby Hightower, of Alamo Architects. Just to be clear and on the record, Irby, are we related?


Irby We are not. We are not related.


Hightower Thanks also to Jenny McChesney and KSAT 12 who provided the audio form their live coverage of the Pope’s 1987 visit. The music today was by Chris Zabriskie with the clip from Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park provided by Warner Brothers. As always, special thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood who came up with our podcast’s logo and to Clara, who is also not related to Irby, with coming up with its name.


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


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.