• Another AIA competition supported by the councilman has resulted in new designs for River Walk barges that are more accessible, versatile, and evocative of the city’s spirit. The winning design is by Metalab. Image courtesy Metalab.

In 2014, though he had never entered a political contest before, Roberto Treviño, AIA, found himself in something of a familiar position. Vying to fill an open seat on the San Antonio city council, he and two other finalists took their turns interviewing with council members. Twenty-five years earlier, he’d been a freshman in Texas Tech University’s architecture program, in a lecture hall where a professor explained the cutthroat business. “Look to your left and right,” the professor said. “If you’re still enrolled in four years, odds are neither of the folks beside you will be.”

“I remember thinking, ‘These poor guys, they’re probably not going to be here,’” Treviño recalls.

His assuredness back then wasn’t misplaced — he graduated from the program in 1995 — nor was it two decades later in the council chambers. After unanimously choosing Treviño, the council further tested his mettle by asking him to join them that night. “We started off right away,” he says. “It’s been a whirlwind.”

Nine months and one election later, Treviño has already left his mark on the nation’s seventh-largest city, using design to improve the lives of residents and reminding fellow officials what a difference the right architect can make in city construction. And, while his confidence propelled him to these daunting new positions, it’s a sense of responsibility — to his fellow citizens and to his fellow architects — that drives his work.

Treviño grew up in McAllen, raised with his brother by a single mom who worked as a secretary. He was 10 when he got his first job, delivering newspapers on a route patrolled by cranky Dobermans. With his first earnings he bought a pair of Nike running shoes, an investment in his own survival. Treviño says his modest upbringing taught him early that if he wanted something, he’d have to get it. While college classmates in Lubbock blew fortunes on basswood models and ornate bindings, he salvaged shoe boxes for chipboard and got creative with photocopiers.

“I found it almost poetic, too, knowing that when you grow up with limited means and you can’t do much, you now are the guy who holds the key for people who have the means to do things that they love,” he says. “Knowing how to build stuff, knowing how to create things, knowing why they’re made — is very empowering.”

After starting his own practice in San Antonio, Treviño revisited the ideals that first drew him to the job. On a whim, he walked into then-city councilwoman (now mayor) Ivy Taylor’s office, volunteered to help, and got a spot on the city’s building code appeals board. That was followed by places on the Airport Advisory Commission and the Bexar County Appraisal District Board. He’s heard he’s only the second architect on the city council, but to Treviño, it’s a comfortable fit.

“I feel very much like I belong here,” he says. “Architects have a huge responsibility in understanding how people live and what that environment is like for people, so I do think there’s a translation to public service.”

It’s a point he made early in his tenure on the council, when he saw the plans for a new control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport on the city’s south side. Directed, and mostly funded, by the Texas Department of Transportation, original plans called for a tower he says “looked like it was made out of highway parts.” Instead, working with the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Treviño put the tower plans to a competition. “I got with my colleagues and was like, ‘Let’s go out and prove the value of an architect,’” he says. “The local AIA chapter’s been really incredible in helping me push that agenda.” The winning entry, from San Antonio architects Brantley Hightower, AIA; Jay Louden, AIA; and Rebekah Perez, Assoc. AIA, evokes wing designs from the city’s early aviation history and, Treviño says, is a distinctive landmark for the surrounding neighborhood.

Treviño repeated the process when the council was on the verge of buying new River Walk barges based on a design the city has used for decades. Again, Treviño saw an opportunity and organized another San Antonio AIA-supported contest. The winning boat design, by Metalab from Houston, features colorful railings resembling papel picado — evoking San Antonio’s annual Fiesta — and an open, modular floor fit for a tourist ferry or a maritime yoga class. Treviño says the exercise demonstrated that opening up the city’s design challenges can yield better results than anyone at City Hall could imagine.

“If you provide the platform or the setting for people to innovate or come up with great ideas, you actually get more out of it,” he says. “In fact, it’s kind of arrogant to think that the city could think of everything for you.”

Now he’s putting together another competition around accessibility at San Antonio’s City Hall, which dates to 1881 and is only wheelchair accessible via a narrow basement entrance. He says, “This is my challenge to architects: Come solve our civil rights issue at City Hall.”

As a child in McAllen, Treviño says, he would have welcomed someone with authority inviting his contribution, making the civic conversation a little more accessible. “The most important thing I can think about is making people feel like they’re a part of this,” he says. “It’s all about community; it’s all about embracing and loving the community that you’re a part of.”

Patrick Michels is a writer based in Austin.

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