The Southwest

Originally published in , 1986

In the southwestern United States, civilization still lies thinly over a vast landscape of broad prairies, lonely rolling hills and commanding promontories. This formidable terrain, the infinite sky and boundless horizons dominate even the most impressive human attempts to occupy the land.

Here in the long valleys that terrace away from the banks of the upper Rio Grande River in New Mexico, permanent human settlements were established as early as the tenth century. Still standing are ruins of structures built seven hundred years ago by sedentary, agricultural Indians dwelling in well-planned villages of stone and adobe. In his remarkable expedition across Texas in 1534-1535, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca found Indian communities that jealously guarded their claim to an indomitable land. In 1540 Coronado discovered in the Southwest a highly indigenous culture of some 20,000 to 30,000 people, living in seventy different settlements and speaking distinct languages.

Today, more than four hundred years later, the Southwest remains a frontier still being settled. Streams of migrants enter daily from the northern parts of the States, from the south (Mexico) and from places around the world, seeking the new opportunities that the natural resources of the area can offer.

The settlers of the region, coming first across the Bering Straits from Asia, later from Spanish colonies in Mexico, still later from Europe and Colonial America, matched the toughness and grandeur of the landscape in their architecture. Often third or fourth generation migrants, these settlers in the Southwest carried with them rich and diverse architectural traditions, but traditions that commonly had no single culture source. Thick earthen masonry wall techniques brought from Mexico in the seventeenth century, for example, had come from Spain earlier, where in turn they had been imported by the Moors from the Middle East. The nineteenth-century Greek Revival architecture of Austin, Texas, and the Victorian architectural styles one sees in Galveston, Texas, came indirectly from their original British sources, by way of Virginia, the South, the Midwest and even California.

Building traditions introduced to the Southwest were thus notably impure-already modified and enriched by diverse experiences and circumstances of other places. When applying these traditions in a new and alien setting, settlers often varied and combined elements inventively. The result is an intermingling of architectural forms-heavy adobe walls alongside thin Anglo-Colonial wood detail, delicate Victorian ornamentation alongside robust Germanic masonry. These stratifications of diverse human occupancy, from the earliest Indian pueblos to the most recent sunbelt towns, grew in much the same way as the geographical formations on which they rest. Elements drawn from divergent, even conflicting, sources were modified according to the climate, the availability of materials and the practicality of indigenous building techniques-as well as the region’s own sense of place.

Southwesterners have long valued utilitarian solutions in design – objects, buildings, cities – but do not seem satisfied with usefulness alone. Primitive Indian crafts, such as the coarsely woven but inventively patterned crafts of the New Mexico Indians indicate a rugged pragmatism along with a gentle spirit. The traditional cowboy boot has long been standard footwear because of its practicality and Comfort. Ornamental features, however, are generally applied to these durable shoes in a manner that fashion designers have now usurped. Less fashion than function, the Adams Extract label and packaging eschew trends and fads in favor of a simple legibility that has served its company for 75 years. Architect Mike Lance’s cowhide folding chair of 1977 also mixes down-to-earth pragmatism (it can fold flat to the thickness of the tube frame) with consciously aesthetic appeal.

THE COUNTRY
Physical isolation has always characterized the population distribution in the Southwest. Unlike most parts of the U. S., the Southwest never supported self-sufficient farming. Because of limited arability, the only economically viable agriculture available to early landholders was extensive grazing or, where soils and rainfall permitted, generally single-crop farming on a broad scale. Ranches and homesteads were large and widely dispersed. Country towns, which served as collection and distribution points, were remote and isolated. Only with the advent of railroads in the mid-nineteenth century did settlement of areas become feasible.

Buildings in the landscape become isolated objects, as can be seen by the Lotthouse of 1890, or the “Peaceable Kingdom,” an educational crafts facility in Texas designed by Taft ‘Architects (formerly “In Cahoots”) in 1972. Treated as discrete pavilions rather than space-making agglomerations, structures in the Southwest have continued to demonstrate the ability of manmade objects to dominate visually huge expanses of space. One sees this in the Choctaw Chief’s House in Swink, Oklahoma, of 1837, with its simple log construction and double porches, as well as in the austere clapboard Columbus Church built in Hempstead County, Arkansas, around 1875.

That same sense of isolation and focused energy is shown in the grain elevators of 1924 erected in Optima, Oklahoma.

The tension created between landscape and built form lends added potency to the experience of both elements, as seen in the Kitts Peak Observatory designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1961. On the other hand, the Herb Greene House, built in Oklahoma in 1959, illustrates an example of nature being reinterpreted through the man-made artifacts.

In the Southwest a most surreal effect is often created in the relationship between architectural form, light and space, as illustrated in the Morton House, built in 1980 in San Antonio. The architectural expression emerging from the landscape’s emptiness has a severity and subtlety about it, as seen in both Fort Ben Leaton in Presidio, Texas, built around 1830, and

J.B. Jackson’s house built thirteen years ago in Sante Fe. The house that architect Judith Chafee designed in 1976 for clients living outside of Tucson convincingly occupies its powerful site. It captures the stark textures and quality of light of southern Arizona, taming them for human habitation.

Texture and detail give added dimension to prosaic objects and a palpability to structures, evoking an emotional response. Southwestern architecture appeals to the mind’s power to touch. The basic primal qualities of buildings become most appropriate in this setting, as the direct, simply constructed barn in southeast Arkansas shows. Such structures, whether conceived as shelter in a benign climate or as an assembly of constructed parts, can also become a stark symbol of human presence, exemplified by the Thorncrown Chapel designed by Evine Fay Jones in Arkansas in 1980.

THE TOWN
Even when multiple buildings were needed and towns began to spring up, the southwesterners’s predilection for buildings as single visible objects prevailed. Simple, primal forms, such as the West Eufala Burying Ground in Oklahoma, retained a sense of independence and completeness even when grouped together. At a larger scale, the three houses in Little Rock, built around 1890, similarly maintain an individual identity by their gables, porches and long rectangular “shotgun” plans.

When land was subdivided, the methods chosen were generally as unrestrictive as possible. A loose framework allowed development to take place and still accommodate the desire for independence and individuality among the settlers. While the grid plan characterized development patterns of most nineteenth-century American cities, in towns like Austin, Texas, the grid was especially neutral. Here the square, not the rectangle, formed the geometric basis for the plan. The filling out of blocks with uniform rowhouses seldom occurred in the Southwest. Even when it did, development was not necessarily systematic, as a country store in Nathan, Arkansas, illustrates. When real estate values rose and full land use required close packing of buildings on blocks, individual expression still prevailed. The main street of Houston, dating to the nineteenth century when this metropolis was a town, shows how conformity in material, cornice line or style was rejected in favor of uniqueness and distinction.

Public buildings took the meaning of the phrase “building as object” to a new level of interpretation. The most common town plan for county seats in Texas in the nineteenth century isolated an entire block in the center of town for the courthouse. The need to create a strong identity for maturing settlements is shown by the exuberant Richardsonian Romanesque forms of patterned stone in James Riely Gordon’s Ellis County (Texas) Courthouse, built in 1895.

Just as towns became amalgams of disparate elements, the architectural styles developed for individual buildings similarly acknowledged the society’s historic diversity. The Church of San Felipe de Jesus and its adjacent pueblo built in 1706 demonstrate a synthesis of Indian and Spanish building traditions. Sometimes the building methods of two cultures are juxtaposed, as seen in the typically Indian use of flat roof terraces and the overtly Spanish steeples that were added in 1808. Sometimes traditions are merged: both Indian and Spanish architecture, for instance, employ massive masonry walls with tiny pierced openings.

La Villita in old San Antonio, built around 1790, first restored in 1936 by O’Neil Ford and more recently restored and renovated by Ford, Powell & Carson, demonstrates the same sort of merging of cultural influences. But here the range is even greater, reflecting the fact that the Indian, Spanish, Mexican, German, French and Anglo-Colonial people who settled in San Antonio had not separated into ethnic communities but had intermingled. In the seven small original houses of La Villita, there are combined traces of building traditions from several different cultures: adobe, earth, half-timber, field stone and caliche, a clay-like and stone masonry block. Forms and technologies from widely divergent cultures are mixed into a new composite in response to the uniquely southwestern setting.

Similarly, in the Barrio de Analco in Santa Fe of 1810, restored and renovated in 1968, thick adobe is combined with thin porch rails; fluid earthen shapes mix with precisely milled detail. Not only are Indian, Latin and Anglo cultures merged, but eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century elements are layered on top of each other. In these rich amalgams – such as the Wulff House in San Antonio dating to about 1870, with its plain heavy limestone and delicate Victorian trim-is found a truly American expression. In structures like these, the melting pot is given physical form. Nowhere in the United States was the appropriateness of this new composite architecture more evident than in the Southwest at the turn of the century.

Even as doctrinaire a stylist as Ralph Adams Cram noted of his commission to execute the Rice University campus in Houston (1909): “On abstract principles, we were convinced that our own type of transmuted Gothic was the right thing; but in this particular case it was manifestly out of place … as were all other styles.”

Cram and his contemporary Cass Gilbert, who designed Battle Hall at the University of Texas in Austin in 1912, strained to “regionalize” their sophisticated northeastern academic style when working in the Southwest. They found new freedom to bring together Byzantine elements with those firom other sources, including early medieval Italy, southern France and northern Spain, resulting in work that was more original if less refined than similar commissions they executed elsewhere.

THE METROPOLIS
The Southwest is today the most rapidly growing region of the United States. Eighty percent of the population lives in Cities, much of it in the vast sprawling metropolises that now typify the region. These new gargantuan urban forms also reflect the character and tradition of the Southwest. The sense of isolation and the perception of great distance between places are still dominant impressions: where once the cowboys spent long days in the saddle, urban commuters spend long hours behind the wheel.

The discrete nodes of houses, barns and churches in the country, or courthouses, schools and grange halls in the town, have their correlative in urban centers linked by freeway arteries. In Houston there are four such satellite centers that compete with the original downtown center. Individual buildings, such as Caudill Rowlett Scott’s US Homes Building of 1978, assert the independence of their small town predecessors. Isolated forms, like the Post Oak Towers in Houston designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, assert their autonomy as singular, precious objects.

The southwestern metropolis as an emerging form can be seen clearly on Louisiana Street in downtown Houston. Towering behemoths line a canyon that was once a broad open street. As the Pennzoil Building by Philip Johnson and John Burgee shows so well, the gigantic objects retain their own identities where other buildings by well-known architects also vie for attention. The Pennzoil in particular expresses that glamorous flashy Houston style, in which simple obvious forms can be seen at a great distance-even from the highway-until new buildings come along to block the view.

The deep urban canyon-like streets of the burgeoning southwestern cities are matched by vast urban caves inside buildings-enormous interior spaces that maintain the scale of the outdoors in perfect climate-controlled comfort. Harwell Hamilton Harris’s pioneering Trade Mart in Dallas of 1960 created a “prePortman” urban outdoor room. But the Astrodome of 1965 and the Galleria of 1973, both in Houston, took the giant step toward creating complete interior worlds. Football fields, baseball fields, nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, department stores, recreational facilities and parking are all connected under one roof or series of roofs.

The recent dynamic growth of southwestern cities has over shadowed another side of the urban environmental character of the region, which is equally compelling. Beyond the towers and highways, beyond the shops and parking lots, lie gentle enclaves of gracious urban and suburban life.

This grace is evident in the lavish suburbs of Houston of which Bayou Bend, designed by John Staub m the 1920s, is a prime example. It is also in evidence in San Antonio, Phoenix, Oklahoma City or Fort Worth, where grand houses assert the same need for individual identity that pioneer homesteads, such as the Kellum-Noble House of 1847, once displayed. The longstanding emphasis on the home is seen in all levels of the economic spectrum, as the modest but stately architecture of Frank Welch’s O’Donnell House built in Dallas in 1979 indicates.

The pleasant urban graciousness of southwestern residential sections can also be found in public places, such as San Antonio’s Pasco del Rio. This riverwalk, located on a level below the city’s grid of streets, was first designed in 1936 as a landscaped quai as part of the WPA program. Its garden-like quality has remained, but shops and cafes have been added, many since the 1960s. Today the timeless quality and captivating charm of its architectural street lamps, bridges, stairs and amphitheater make it truly unique, but still very much of its region. Shopping districts such as Dallas’s Quadrangle, designed in 1969, also create a special blend of  architecture, nature and human activity.

Institutions like Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1972 also create an extraordinary architectural environment. The Kimbell Museum may have an international reputation as one of Louis Kahn’s finest works, but it is also a building in harmony with its place. Its parched flatness and tawny naturalness of surface and color, as well as its response to the brutal Texas sun, all tie it strongly to the Southwest tradition.

Whole communities for living and working, such as Trinity University in San Antonio, merge simple, finely crafted buildings and sensitively scaled outdoor spaces with rugged natural terrain.

Thinking about Cultural Identity, Texas Architecture
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Originally published in , 1986