Originally published in Discovery, Summer 1984, Pages 4-7
Architecture, at its best, embodies a society’s consciousness of itself. It is a powerful means of cultural expression. The artifacts that result from the act of building can become a telling interpretation of their place and their inhabitants – a natural and quotidian way of expressing human experience, of transferring ideas and values.
This sort of architecture has less to do with style or trends than it does with a sensitivity to the patterns of everyday life. It has less concern for originality of shape and form than it does for genuineness of shape and form. It values fidelity over fashion, normality over novelty, and indigenous expression over imported expression. It produces environments that set the stage for, rather than upstaging, life that takes place within them.
It is this set of architectural concerns that dominated the career of O’Neil Ford, the preeminent Texas architect of the past generation. Ford was not a high art, high style designer. He was one of those architects who, over his fifty-year career, seemed “not to fit” all of the labels that came and went. When the romantic eclectics of the early 1930s were filling the suburbs with beguiling facsimiles of Norman, Tudor, Georgian, and Spanish houses, Ford’s work seemed too plain, too abstract, not “correct” enough to fit in. By the mid-1950s when the vanguard International style began to gain full steam, the same sort of work was too tactile, too crafty, too romantic to be an integral part of the new mode.
Ford was not an architect’s architect. Because he worked outside the mainstream of contemporary practice his work was not a particularly popular subject in the architectural press and remains little known nationally and internationally. He left behind him, however, a large and diverse body of buildings that bespeak eloquently a consistent and heartfelt set of environmental values: a body of buildings more often simple than complicated, careful rather than bold or brash, sensible rather than showy, genuine rather than contrived, moving more often than aggressive, and almost always sensitive and humane.
Roots and Beginnings. O’Neil Ford was born in Pink Hill, Texas in 1905. His architectural career began after a bit of bohemian wandering when he went to work for David Williams, a Dallas architect, in 1926. Williams and Ford together became interested in systematically visiting and documenting the architecture of early Texas buildings in the hope of finding inspiration in their visual simplicity, their straightforward use of materials, and their honest expression of lifestyle. Ford and Williams admired these vernacular structures because, as they noted: “They are in good taste. They sit quietly and make no noisy clamor after attention. They are comfortable and beautiful, and there is not a useless detail nor a bit of unnecessary applied ornament.”
As a result of his interest in and respect for the early buildings of the Central Texas region, Ford was asked in 1938 to become director of the restoration project for La Villita, an eighteenth century residential quarter in San Antonio. Beneath the debris and shanties of La Villita he found seven little houses built of adobe, earth, half-timber, fieldstone, and caliche. He termed Villita’s builders the “modems of 1700″ and applauded their straightforward construction techniques, their sensible accommodation to climate and surroundings, and their austere sense of formal elegance.
Ford’s restoration plan was a sensible and responsive one. He fought pressure to create a quaint Spanish village which the residential district never was. The restoration was not theatrical or overtly picturesque. Near the seven small houses he placed a new larger structure to house group functions required for the conversion of the village into a craft center for native woodworking, metal working, ceramics, and textiles. The new building incorporated lessons learned from the smaller ones as well as from close scrutiny of other older buildings in the surrounding area.
Much of O’Neil Ford’s longstanding environmental concerns were already evident in the early La Villita project: a reverence for the past and one’s heritage, a respect for climate and context, regard for building materials and their implied construction properties, deference to simple, unaffected formal solutions, and a love of indigenous craft.
Civic Convictions. Through his involvement with La Villita, Ford came to know and love San Antonio and its environs. In the late 1930s he moved to San Antonio, married into a prominent local family, and with his wife Wanda began an active involvement in environmental politics in the city. During the course of the La Villita project he started working with Mayor Maury Maverick on a redevelopment program for the adjacent San Antonio River, then a sluggish creek given to infrequent but formidable floods. He encouraged the creation of winding promenades along the river banks and the planting of some now gigantic cypress trees.
After World War II Ford began involvement with the pioneering San Antonio Conservation Society in its continuing efforts to preserve and restore the city’s exquisite string of eighteenth century missions. He promoted a renewed appreciation of San Antonio’s nineteenth century German heritage and encouraged the preservation of its historic neighborhoods. When his office outgrew allotted quarters in his home, Ford relocated in the derelict but characterful King William district, encouraging others as well to reclaim its robust older buildings.
Even at the peak of his professional career in the mid-1960s, Ford did not neglect his longstanding social and political activism in San Antonio. In 1963 Ford, with Allison Peery, made a proposal to “bring life to the San Antonio River” which, although it had been beautifully landscaped from efforts of the 1930s, had seen no real commercial development outside one restaurant and a theatre.
The rather modest proposal for a series of adjacent lots in the river bend area was to be the first step toward the creation of the lively and exuberant commercial stretch of the Paseo del Rio which has become justly famous as one of the most successful examples of post-war urban design. Ford’s activism and influence in the community (especially the architectural community) at that point helped spread the ambiance of his proposal up and down the Paseo. His numerous subsequent projects in the river area continued to set a standard, from the Hemisfair extension in the late 1960s to the water link between Alamo Plaza and the river which Ford’s office completed in 1981.
If Ford’s tongue, as well as his pencil, won him kudos over the years in San Antonio, it also got him into some nasty scrapes. For fifteen years he and his associates were in front of the battle to reroute the North Expressway so as to do less damage to San Antonio’s lush and historic Brackenridge Park. Ford’s office donated thousands of hours to drafting appeals and testifying before committees. In the end the battle was lost, but minor concessions were won to preserve the ancient trees of Travis Park (where underground parking had been planned) and to make the expressway’s path as nondestructive as possible.
In 1967 Ford was eased out as supervising architect for Hernisfair largely because of his adamance about the preservation of 130 historic buildings in the fair district, which he proposed incorporating into the masterplan. The revised plan, prepared after his departure, destroyed all but a gratuitous few of the existing buildings. In the building of a city, Ford saw old and new as continuous: today a part of yesterday and yesterday a part of today.
Past and Present. Ford’s individual smaller commissions show the same sense of history and continuity as did his Hemisfair masterplan. The Marshall Steves house in San Antonio is a romantic reflection of its place and the rich cultural heritage which it extends. It is manifestly akin to eighteenth century precedents such as the Governor’s Palace in San Antonio of 1747 while maintaining a responsible rationality of its own time. The 100-foot long gallery around which the rooms are clustered is capped by nine brick boveda vaults – a traditional Mexican masonry form which requires no armature. Stone and wood artifacts of the past are integrated without irony or apology.
The McNay Art Institute illustrates a similar approach at a larger scale. Here Ford and his office made four separate additions over a thirteen-year period to a venerable old 1927 residence. The additions extend the character of the original building without replicating it. In the Steves house and the McNay Art Institute no attempt is made to pit one era against another by juxtaposition. These buildings speak on a sensory level to those human feelings within us that do not change with the passage of time.
Ford’s respect for tradition and history enabled him to build on the past, to extend an environmental evolution rather than feeling forced to promote some ephemeral and shortsighted revolution. Part of his commission for the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral, one of San Antonio’s most historic buildings dating to 1749, involved the addition of a parish house beside the church. And Ford’s parish house belongs with its venerable neighbor. It becomes a part of a larger whole-not by mimic or parody but by seeking out those common elements of environment which are real and genuine at any point in time.
Similarly the recent Johnson City post office has quickly become part and parcel of its small town. About the only twentieth century structure in the old central part of town, it has a humility and a suitability to its site, surroundings, function, and context.
Impact. The contribution of O’Neil Ford to the environmental character of San Antonio and Central Texas is both lasting and profound. By his sustained efforts over five decades, Ford helped shape the face of his city. From the early and enlightened restoration of the historic La Villita district to his unremitting tirades against the “uglifiers” who committed, in his mind, continuing environmental indignities, Ford maintained a powerful presence in both professional and political circles of the city.
O’Neil Ford was an activist, an advocate, a critic, a catalyst, and a creator. His influence extends far beyond his own individual projects, impelling designers two generations his junior to espouse his ideals. The impact of O’Neil Ford’s career comes, not from isolated monuments or timely polemics, but from a body of work that is bound by a consistent set of ideals. The work which Ford’s office completed on the waterway connection between Alamo Plaza and the San Antonio River in the 1980s is better because of the support it receives from the lush Paseo del Rio that Ford worked on four decades ago. The Paseo del Rio, in turn, is enhanced by its continuity with the Hemisfair waterways designed by Ford in the 1960s and its proximity to La Villita restored by Ford in the 1930s.
Ford left in his wake not only a long string of fine, sensitively designed structures, but also a refreshing exemplification of architect as environmental advocate for his culture. Design like Ford’s makes boundaries fuzzy and irrelevant between the work of one architect and the work of another or between works done at various points in time. It emphasizes cultural expression and environmental experience over demonstrative design bravado. It is often appreciated fully only in the experience of being there, by those people who use the environments day-to-day. For O’Neil Ford that was what architecture, at its best, was all about.
Lawrence W. Speck, who has recently completed a book on the work of O’Neil Ford, came to The University of Texas at Austin in 1975 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he had received both undergraduate and graduate degrees and where he had taught for three years. In 1978 he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Australia studying the characteristics of regional architecture of Australia as compared to the regional architecture of his home state, Texas. A practicing architect as well as an academic, Professor Speck has won several national design awards including a Progressive Architecture Design Award in 1982 and an Owens Coming Fiberglass Energy Conservation Award in 1983. He is currently co-director of the Southwest Center for the Study of American Architecture.