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A Sky-lit Patio

August 22, 2016

This month we continue “Names and Places of UTSA,” a blog series on university history, with a post by archives student assistant, Kira Sandoval.

Color photo of the Sombrilla, 1995

View of the Sombrilla on a sunny day, 1995, UA 16.01.01, Office of University Communications Photographs.

As a student at UTSA, when I am asked for directions, I generally give them in relation to where the Sombrilla is located. It is the most recognizable architectural element at UTSA and at the heart of campus. Its aesthetic design makes a large impact while also providing shelter and a place of gathering for the UTSA community.

As the university belongs to the rich Mexican-American Spanish culture of San Antonio, many know that the word “sombrilla” means sunshade, which comes from the Spanish word “sombra” meaning shade. The Spanish word ultimately derives from the Latin word “umbra” meaning shadow, shade or ghost. Depending on which Spanish speaking country or dialect one is using, “sombrilla” could mean umbrella, parasol, or sunshade, and here at UTSA the structure functions as all of the above. It protects students from the elements of the Texas Hill Country—rain, sun, occasionally a rogue hailstorm—while still allowing a breeze to flow under the canopy to refresh its inhabitants.

Portrait of O'Neil Ford, 1974

Portrait of O’Neil Ford, 1974, MS 27, Gil Barrera Photographs of UTSA.

O’Neil Ford and his architectural firm, Ford, Powell & Carson, designed the UTSA campus, including the Sombrilla. Ford was a significant Texas architect who influenced Southwest architecture during his lifetime. He is known for designing the UTSA campus, the Tower of the Americas, Trinity University and for the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. Ford designed the campus to be centered around a plaza, like many old European cities. Paseos radiate out from the plaza in four directions, indicating through the architectural plan that it is the center of campus and socialization. The original design of the heart of the plaza was for a “sky-lit patio”, which we see now as the incarnation of the Sombrilla.

Large columns of light beige Texas concrete are used to hold up the structure, mimicking the native building material used to create the Hill Country aesthetic of the campus buildings. The covering is made of translucent acrylic to let light in and create an illusion of an open-aired ceiling like that of a pergola. Strips of wood of varying colors are evenly spaced in panels creating geometric zig-zags and patterns overhead. The combination of the designed pattern of the wood with the acrylic gives the Sombrilla an airy illusion of a floating shelter.

Fountain Under the Sombrilla

Fountain Under the Sombrilla. Photo by Kira Sandoval.

The 8-ft tall fountain under the Sombrilla—also designed by Ford, Powell & Carson—was planned for in 1975, but, lacking proper funds, the space for the fountain was excavated from the plaza and used as a planter until construction could begin. The fountain was completed in 1978 and was recently revamped in 2014 with ecological concerns in mind. Thanks to its redesign, the fountain now sustainably runs on solely reclaimed water from the air conditioning systems in nearby campus buildings in order to ease any strain on water supply. The breeze let in by the Sombrilla combined with the sounds of falling water from the environmentally-friendly fountain create an oasis from the Texas heat in the center of campus.

O’Neil Ford’s design for the Sombrilla has endured decades and serves as a communal area for students and staff. It is one of the most popular spots on campus to enjoy your lunch alone or with friends, the location of the first end of semester celebration, of dancing and performances, many a Best Fest and Fiesta celebration, ceremonial events, talks, and much more. It has even lent its name to a university publication. Its native sourced materials, combined with European ideas of city planning which put it at the heart of campus and events, give it a timeless appeal for resting, visiting and lingering.

Fiesta UTSA (OOTSA) under the Sombrilla, April 16, 1982

Fiesta UTSA (OOTSA) under the Sombrilla, April 16, 1982, UA 16.01.01, Office of University Communications Photographs.


UTSA Bulletin, 1974-1975

The Roadrunner, 1976-1978

Sombrilla, 2014

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