Texas Architecture: The State of the Art
Originally published in Texas Architect, January/February 1987, Page 30-38
In 1941, the Architectural League of New York published Forty Under Forty, a monograph that identified little-known young architects from around the country considered “rising stars” by the League. Although some 70 percent of those on the list were from New York (no one ever said the League was impartial), architects from 11 states were included, with representation from California, and from Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. No one from Texas appeared on the list.
In 1966, on the 25th anniversary of the first list, the Architectural League produced an updated version, which was edited by Robert A.M. Stern and supervised by Philip Johnson. New Yorkers accounted for just under half the total; more than 20 architects from the rest of the country were included. California was again well represented, as were Chicago and Philadelphia, and, for the first time, Boston. Again, no one from Texas was on the list.
Why mention it? Because the 1966 list was uncannily prophetic. It predicted many of the leading architectural lights of today, including Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, Hugh Hardy, William Pederson, Hugh Jacobson, Richard Meier, Charles Moore, William Turnbull, Donlyn Lyndon, James Pol-shek, Jaquelin Robertson, Der Scutt, Robert Stern, Stanley Tigerman, and Robert Venturi.
TEXAS ON THE VERGE OF LEADERSHIP
In 1986, the Architectural League was at it again. The group discarded the Forty Under Forty moniker—possibly because they had included more than 40 names on each of the previous lists and because the ages of those chosen had often crept a bit past 40. The new publication, Emerging Voices: A New Generation of American Architects documents a lecture series hosted by the League over the last five years. It includes a great many New Yorkers. California and Chicago are still well represented. This time, however, of the 46 architects or firms selected, five are from Texas—as many as have appeared from any single state, aside from New York, on either of the previous lists.*
Nor is the League’s list the only indication. Over the past decade and a half more attention has been paid than ever before to architecture in Texas. The Houston firm Caudill Rowlett and Scott was named AIA Architectural Firm of the Year for 1972. New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1976 called Houston “the American city of the second half of the 20th century.” Shortly thereafter, London’s Architectural Review devoted an entire issue to Texas, co-edited by David Woodcock of Texas A&M. Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth (1972) and Philip Johnson’s Pennzoil Place in Houston (1975) gained recognition as world-class landmarks. Touring groups of Japanese architects “fujichromed” the Kimbell’s serene vaults for Eastern posterity, while international books on high-rise design and late-modern style copped Pennzoil’s sleek lines for cover images. For the first time, buildings that were influential in the world of architecture were being built in Texas.
As the state entered the 1980s, both Texas firms and Texas buildings began to assert a greater presence in national design competitions. Taft Architects in Houston won AIA design Honor Awards in three out of four years between 1982 and 1985 (they were ineligible in 1984 because they were on the jury)—an impressive record, particularly for such a young firm. In the 1986 Honor Awards competition, two of the nine buildings selected were from Texas (a house in Dallas by Edward Larrabee Barnes and Herring Hall at Rice University by Cesar Pelli), matching two each from New York and California in the same competition.
Is this new attention a flash in the pan or can Texas architecture be moving into a new era? Can we imagine a strong national leadership role for Texas architecture in the future? Can this place become a consistently fertile context in which influential forms and ideas in architecture are regularly germinated?
I think so. There are many instances in the 20th century where a particular locale has become the focus for architectural thought and activity, influencing design nation wide. Sometimes only a few architects, sometimes only one, have been seminal in such instances, but in each case the collective energy and architectural discourse of the place of each of these designers contributed fundamentally.
The development of architecture in California in the 1930s and 1940s may provide a useful precedent. Not much attention was paid to California before 1940, but since then California has consistently remained in the national forefront.
California’s rise to national prominence came when sufficient talent and maturity coalesced in the state to create the needed leadership. Architects such as William Wurster, Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, John Funk, Joseph Esherick, John Dinwiddie, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Gregory Ain, and Ralph Soriano became important nationally as well as locally. As appreciation for their work increased, so did the stature of California architecture in general.
American architecture as a whole was the main beneficiary. The greater diversity of perspectives offered by California architects broadened a discipline formerly dominated by models from Chicago and the East Coast. The impact on American building, including building in Texas, was significant.
Perhaps the same kind of contribution could be made by Texas architecture in the future. Life in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, or Kerrville is significantly different from life in New York, Boston, or Ithaca, as it is different from life in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Santa Cruz. A physical expression of that difference would enrich the vocabulary of American building. Our national culture needs a broad palette of expression in order to reflect the real range of history, landscape, climate, lifestyle, and attitudes found across the country. When distinguished innovation emanates from a particular part of the country, it enriches the palette for all of us.
Such an influential role for Texas architecture seems, at this point, potential but not assured. Great advances have been made in the last decade and a half, but true leadership takes time to develop. The bright spots in the profession in Texas are still scattered. Attitudes of dependency and inferiority are still prevalent.
HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
What can be done in the next decade and half to nurture the development of architecture in Texas—to help Texas practitioners achieve their potential as we move into the next century? Drawing on the experience of California and other places, six points emerge as areas to focus on.
• We need to develop greater cooperation among architects in the state. California’s experience demonstrates the power of multiple talents working synergistically. Neutra and Schindler pushed each other, and together they stimulated (as well as learned from) Harris, Ain, and Soriano. In the era of Case-Study houses, many architects worked together to create a significant design leap. The individual talents involved were notable, but their combination gave the movement its impact. This is also reminiscent of Chicago’s emergence as an architectural center in the late 19th century, when Daniel Burnham, William Le Baron Jenny, Dankmar Adler, Elihu Root, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright, all important figures, often worked together.
It is important to get the strongest talents in Texas communicating with each other about architecture. I was impressed on a recent visit to Minneapolis to hear of a group of weekend cottages designed and built by the principals of four of the leading firms for their own use. The architects involved are strong competitors during the week, but on weekends they fish together and talk about architecture, looking beyond their individual offices. To truly advance the discipline, architects must be concerned about architecture beyond their own work.
• We must continue to welcome talent from outside the state. Bostonian H.H. Richardson, with such landmarks as the Marshall Field warehouse and the Glessner House, helped spark Chicago’s architectural emergence. It took Richardson’s gimlet-eyed, outsider’s perceptions to crystallize the essentials of the Chicago environment. Likewise, it was New Yorker Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, in the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego of 1915, who awoke Southern California to the potential of its own Mediterranean roots.
In Texas we have already benefited from perceptive works by several such talented outsiders. It is notable that these have often come not from designers who jet in and out, leaving a signature “jewel” behind, but from architects who have invested significant energy in Texas. Philip Johnson’s best buildings in Houston came after he had gained a long-standing sense of the city and its vitality. For the future, we especially need the kind of imported talent that is interested in laying down roots here. Sometimes outsiders, with their fresh perspectives and broader viewpoints, can see the special potential of a place most clearly.
• We need to increase our activity in the national and international community of architecture, exporting as well as importing capabilities. It is notable that in the very same era when Neutra, Schindler, and Harris were developing a cogent sense of architecture for southern California, they were also very active members of the European-based CIAM, entering CIAM competitions and regularly exchanging proposals with colleagues abroad. William Wurster left California at the peak of his career to become Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, extending Californian influence nationally.
Texas architects must become more visible and assertive outside the state. Although advances have been made in this regard, more Texas projects deserve attention in national and international publications. Texas architects should feel confident about discussing and writing on architectural issues that reach beyond our borders. They should enter competitions and be on juries outside the state. They should aggressively seek commissions elsewhere.
Many architects have found the recent economic downtown to be the mother of invention in this regard, and the result has been positive. For too long Texas architects had been comfortable focusing solely within the state. We needed a kick in the pants to move us into potentially larger spheres of influence.
• We need a concerted reappraisal and reappreciation of the history of Texas architecture. Significant architectural developments do not emerge from a vacuum. California’s architectural awakening at mid-century followed the profession’s discovery that there was a distinguished resource for inspiration right under its nose.
Texas has a stronger architectural history than we have acknowledged. The appreciation of central Texas immigrant vernacular that David Williams and O’Neil Ford voiced in the 1930s only scratched the surface. The exuberant fantasies of James Wahrenburger and Nicholas Clayton—which Williams and Ford would have hated—are equally evocative. When I have shown knowledgeable architects from out of state the central Texas work of James Riely Gordon and Alfred Giles, they have been dismayed by the fact that it is so little known and so inadequately studied and published. The Texas work of Ralph Adams Cram, Cass Gilbert, and Paul Cret is little understood within the context of their larger, very distinguished careers. Much remains to be learned from Atlee Ayres, Charles Dilbeck, David Williams, George Dahl, Howard Meyer, and O’Neil Ford. These valuable resources need to be tapped.
• Related to that effort, both the quantity and quality of writing, analysis, and criticism of architecture in Texas must be increased. We need to nurture the cadre of writers interested in architecture in the state. California, overtime, built an impressive collection of analysts, from John Entenza, Esther McCoy, Sally Wood-bridge, David Gebhard, Norma Evanson, and John Woodbridge in the early days, to Barbara Goldstein, Reyner Banham, and John Pastier more recently.
In many ways, the California writers have been advocates—even promoters—of the state’s architecture, in a way that Texas writers have not. They have been activists, pointing and reinforcing directions rather than simply appraising with a cool, critical detachment. McCoy, for example, maintained close relationships with Neutra and Schindler. She believed in what they were doing and was instrumental in the eventual influence of their work.
Texas writers must also seek a larger audience, in non-professional as well as professional publications, to generate further interest among a broader public.
• We must bolster the strength of our architectural institutions. Knowing that, in order to develop architecturally. California needed a first-class school of architecture, Maybcck helped establish what later became the College of Environmental Design at the University of California at Berkeley. That institution and others that followed focused leadership in the profession in California. Berkeley alone has housed or developed the likes of Wurster, Esherick, Moore, Gerald McCuc, Daniel Solomon, Donlyn Lyndon, Christopher Alexander, Norma Evanson, and Spiro Kostof.
We need strong schools of architecture in Texas, not only to educate young professionals, but to maintain libraries and drawings collections, to organize lectures, symposia, and exhibitions, and to participate in rinsing the consciousness of both profession and public. One can’t imagine the development of the Texas Medical Center in Houston without the contributions of the University of Texas and Baylor medical schools. The growth of Silicon Valley and the high-tech belt around Boston has everything to do with conncetions to Stanford, MIT, and Harvard.
DOWNTURN AS OPPORTUNITY
One of the great attractions of Texas for me has always been its boisterous can-do attitude. The tough, hardscrabble character of the place has seemed to attract a populace with ambition and resolve. How strong is our ambition and resolve in the profession today? Do we aspire to greater responsibility, or are we content to demur?
When I proffered these questions on a recent panel in Dallas, I heard two objections from colleagues that surprised me.
The first objection raised was this; Texas architecture is too young to take a leadership role. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, it was said, have simply been building longer and therefore naturally assume a leadership position. This point of view, however, fails to acknowledge the leadership of our cohort-in-time, California. Chicago, founded in 1833, was already beginning to vie with New York for architectural preeminence after a scant 50 years of existence. Dallas, Austin, and Houston are roughly as old as Chicago; San Antonio is more than a century older. The time argument doesn’t seem to me to hold up.
The other argument against Texas’ potential for leadership was based on the current economic downtown, which, it was said, would take Texans out of the running nationally. Wouldn’t leadership gravitate where the work is? Again, examples dispel the strength of such an argument. The Weimar Republic of Germany after World War I was one of the most productive incubators of architectural leadership of the century, even though the Weimar Republic has become an exemplar of economic desperation.
The Californians of the early part of the century were never beneficiaries of great building booms. In fact, their workloads were often spotty. The message for us is that idea booms are often countercyclical with business booms, and that quantity of building is not a prerequisite for quality of building. We have benefited from an unprecedented building boom in the past decade, but its subsidence need not reverse our course. Continuing toward greater leadership could significantly contribute to creating a broader base for architectural practice in the state and thereby act to ameliorate radical fluctuations in the future. Architects in New York, Boston, Chicago, and California are less dependent on local economic conditions than firms in Texas, because they tap a broader base.
The advances of architecture in Texas over the past 15 years are impressive, but they have raised the ante for practice of architecture in the state. Clearly, fine and influential buildings can spring from this soil. If they fail to, our commitment and resolve must be brought into question.
* Editorial note: The five Texas firms included in Emerging Voices are: James Coote, Architect, Austin; Peter Papademetriou, Lonnecker & Papademetriou, Houston; Lawrence W. Speck Associates, Austin; Taft Architects, Houston; and Peter Waldman, Houston.