Walking around downtown Laredo, you quickly discover two key areas dating back to the founding of the city: the banks of the Rio Grande, which today host Los Tres Laredos Park, and San Agustín Plaza, a tree-filled oasis that, following classic Spanish Colonial arrangement, fronts its namesake cathedral.
Laredo was founded in 1755, before modern day Mexico or the United States had laid claim to this part of the world, and it has long been shaped by geopolitical forces larger than itself. Located at the intersection of the border and Interstate 35, about halfway between Monterrey and San Antonio, it has also been a key location for international trade and commerce.
In previous decades, folks from Mexico came to Laredo to shop for items like clothes and electronics, while folks from the U.S. crossed to Nuevo Laredo for prescriptions, dentists, and tourism. Numbers of this largely pedestrian cross-border traffic fell drastically when cartel violence spiked about a decade ago. The fear of crossing still remains and has also reduced the number of people visiting downtown Laredo.
To counter this tourism drought, the Fasken family, owners of the historic La Posada Hotel, which sits on the southern edge of San Agustín Plaza, sought out Trahan Architects of New Orleans for help in envisioning a convention center as a means of enhancing downtown.
The firm, which came highly recommended to the Faskens because of its experience creating award-winning riverfront projects, set out to find a suitable site for the convention center. They landed on a downtown block adjacent to San Agustín Plaza, the cathedral, and La Posada, a parcel that also overlooks the Rio Grande.
The architects saw that the site could provide a major visual and pedestrian connection to the Rio Grande — a connection that, a block upriver, has been interrupted by the massive Customs and Border Protection facility. They also saw an opportunity to incorporate and renovate two historic residential structures on the block as part of the overall project: One, the historic Casa Ortiz, was built around 1830; the other, a blue house next door, was built in the 1870s. Both are in need of renovation.
Trahan’s proposal caught fire with the Faskens and with the city, and the Faskens moved quickly to purchase the block in question. The architects assembled a team that included local firm Frank Architects, now Able City, to work on preserving the homes, potentially for use as meeting spaces. They then began developing the design of the convention center, which forms a “U” around the two historic structures. This move creates a central courtyard and presents four main axes for physical and visual connections in and out of the courtyard: south to the Rio Grande, west to La Posada, northwest to the plaza, and north to the cathedral. The four axes take form as arches, stretched and inverted to draw the user into and through the courtyard.
Casa Ortiz and the blue house set the scale for the design at 28 feet high, with new construction proposed as single-story, double-height spaces that emphasize connections and views in and out of the courtyard and the surrounding context. The strip of land to the south, between the proposed convention center and the banks of the Rio Grande, is envisioned as a series of parking gardens leading users to and from the riverfront park.
Trahan Architects is guided by an ethos of rootedness — connecting built environment and place. Partner Leigh Breslau, AIA, explains that the firm set out to design a convention center rooted in downtown Laredo’s Spanish Colonial architectural history by adding the courtyard and arches, by grounding the building around the two houses, and by forming key connections to other existing downtown elements.
Rootedness was also applied to material research: Breslau describes the potential for employing local rammed-earth and metallurgical styles and traditions. He also recounts how the firm researched the use of arches in Mexican historic and contemporary architecture, investigating their role in defining entryways and forming pathways, and examining more evocative thin-shell examples, such as those by Félix Candela. This approach to rootedness reinterprets historical cues in a way that complements, rather than overpowers, San Agustín Plaza, the cathedral, and the two houses.
The impetus for this project came as a result of larger geopolitical complexities, and Trahan’s design, which embraces the view to the Rio Grande and Mexico and provides a welcoming face to visitors from Mexico, could further influence Laredo’s geopolitical future.
A ballot initiative to fund the convention center by increasing hotel occupancy and car rental taxes failed to win support from local voters in 2018; the project is on hold until funding can be secured. If the proposed design is built, the convention center could very well have a tremendous impact on downtown Laredo and the larger region.
Jesse Miller, AIA, is an architect at Megamorphosis in Harlingen. He lives in Brownsville.