Campus Architecture and Planning at The University of Texas

Originally published in , 2008

Cass Gilbert imagined a campus for UT that was grand and monumental. Even before actually receiving the commission, he produced ketches of a campus with powerful scale and clarity. His buildings conspired together to frame dominant vistas and define malls, courts, and plazas, creating memorable exterior spaces. In these images, the rural-feeling green lawns were replaced by rigorously ordered urban rooms defined by arcades and formal plantings as well as the buildings themselves. Four powerful features characterize Gilbert’s plan.

First, it envisioned a grand classical building located at the very center of campus. Over his ten-year term as university architect, three distinctly different architectural approaches were developed for this ”University Hall. ” It was a grand domed node in sketches as early as February 1909 and as late as October 1920. It was a large pedimented temple with a dominant gable-front facing the State Capitol Building to the south in sketches as early as January 1910, also appearing in much later designs, as well. In a sketch from 1920, University Hall was comprised of a single very tall tower rising from a low, flat base. Gilbert was the seminal voice that established the idea of a very large building, one so prominent on the Austin skyline that it would serve as an iconic symbol for the emerging university.

A second powerful feature involved the creation of four axes which led down the hill from University Hall in roughly cardinal directions. The South Mall was the most prominent of the four, forcefully linking the front of University Hall to the Capitol Building at the other end of the axis. A broad Main Plaza, articulated by a pair of double rows of trees flanked by symmetrical buildings and continuous arcades, introduced the South Mall. This grand urban ensemble of University Hall, Main Plaza, South Mall, and Capitol sought to stretch the realm of the campus and make it a dominant player in the larger context of Austin. It established a parallel between the university and state government, allowing the campus to borrow some of the grandeur of the State Capitol. As this plan eventually came to fruition 20 years later, it did indeed establish UT as a powerful physical presence in the city.

The other three axes, though less grand, established important connections and contributed significantly to a sense of clarity and coherence for the campus. The East and West Malls focused on the short ends of University Hall and were terminated by well-defined gateways on Guadalupe and Lampasas Streets. The somewhat shorter North Mall was about as broad as it was long, giving it a less directional character. But its axial walkway with flanking pavilions at the northernter minus focused it clearly back to University Hall. Gilbert’s axes indicated multiple connections to the surrounding city and provided ready options for expansion beyond the original campus site . At the same time they exuded an aura of strength and confidence, of order and stability. They set a tone for the public image of the campus, creating a lasting mark on the character of the university.

A third feature envisioned quadrangles defined by the cardinal axes, creating a more intimate, personal campus scale. Each of these four spaces possessed its own distinct character, but all were loosely contained by an assemblage of carefully aligned, mostly linear buildings.

In these less formal outdoor “rooms,” faculty and students were expected to thrive throughout their everyday academic lives. They, along with the four malls, acknowledged the dual role of UT as both a powerful institution and a nurturing place of learning.

The fourth feature of his plan that appealed to university leaders was its attitude toward consistency versus inclusiveness in the architectural character of campus buildings. His vision embraced existing buildings of diverse styles as well as a range of new architectural expressions designed to fit various functions and sites. Gilbert proposed retaining all existing structures except one. He very cleverly integrated Brackenridge Hall, the Women’s Building, the Engineering Building, and the Law Building – all with very diverse architectural expressions – into his grand scheme. He worked with very different architectural vocabularies in the two buildings he completed, the Library (now

Battle Hall) and the Education Building (now Sutton Hall). In sketches for other projects, including University Hall, a gymnasium, and an outdoor theatre, his range of style was also quite broad . This approach is consistent with his contemporaneous campus work at Oberlin College, where the five structures he designed represent a striking architectural range. Gilbert clearly imagined university campuses, not as a military-style assemblage of uniform buildings, but as a community of diverse structures. He believed buildings should be carefully coordinated with each other while not being restricted by an imposed stylistic code.

In 1922 the Board of Regents decided not to renew Gilbert’s contract. For the next eight years the role of university architect was filled by Dallas architect Herbert M. Greene, whose firm later became Greene, La Roche and Dahl. Throughout the early years of his tenure, Greene worked closely with James M. White of the University of Illinois, who created two new development plans for the UT campus. The first, completed in 1923, envisioned the demolitions of all existing buildings, except the two recently created by Gilbert. Though not iinfluential as a whole, this scheme over the next few years did locate several buildings – most notably, a new stadium and a new gymnasium – off the original 40-acre campus site. Responding to criticism by Dr. William Battle, the head of the Faculty Building Advisory Committee, White revised his plan in 1926, retaining more buildings and creating a stronger sense of formal order. The buildings completed by Greene in the core campus over the next few years did not follow White’s development plan. Greene’s greatest contribution may well have been the series of buildings he built just off the 40 acres, extending the campus domain to the north and east and broadening its functions to include athletic facilities and a women’s residence hall. His Littlefield Dormitory of 1927 staked out a residential precinct to the north of the campus and became seminal in the subsequent development of an entire women’s quadrangle a decade later.

In terms of athletic facilities, Greene completed a new stadium in 1926 (now the much expanded Darre ll K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium), a baseball field in 1927 (later Clark Field), a men’s gymnasium in 1930 (later Gregory Gym), and a women’s gymnasium in 1931 (later Anna Hiss Gym). Through these bui ldings he stretched both the architectural and materials vocabulary for the campus, enriching its range of color, texture, and scale. Greene designed a total of 12 buildings for the campus during his tenure as university architect and left an indelible mark on its character. His respect for the planning and architectural acumen of his predecessor, as well as his own creative capabilities, made him an excellent architect for this era of the university ‘s growth. His knowledge of and commitment to the state of Texas generated references to regional characteristics in the ruggedness of structures like Gregory Gym and the erudite detail of buildings like Garrison Hall. By early 1930, with the design of most of his UT buildings complete, Greene’s health began to fail. Although his contract as university architect was not due to expire until 1933, his direct role in the work became greatly curtailed . Greene died in February 1932, leaving his firm to complete the last year of h is contract.

THE PAUL CRET ERA: 1930-1942
In March of 1930 the Board of Regents signed a contract with Paul Phillippe Cret to become consulting architect for the university in order to create a new vision for the next era of campus growth . Initially engaged to conceive only a development plan, Cret was awarded a second contract by the Board of Regents in June 1931 to design ten new buildings. This extraordinary flurry of construction activity was provoked by the creation of the Permanent University Fund by the Texas Legislature in April 1931. This mechanism authorized the university to pledge its income from oil production on lands in West Texas to secure long-term loans. The Regents, fearful that the Legislature might rescind the loan authorization when it met again in 1932, took the architect they had at hand and moved forward quickly.

In these initial ten buildings, Cret established four distinctive architectural vocabularies, which he would extend to all 19 buildings he eventually designed for UT. Like Gilbert and Greene before him, he knew a campus the size that the university would eventually need required diversity. In a report written to the Regents in 1933, he advocated buildings, “related, to be sure, but independent, and requiring a certain variety of treatment, to avoid the monotony and the ‘institutional ‘ character inherent to the repetition of similar units.”

In addition, Cret’s legacy includes the preparation of a comprehensive development plan for the whole campus in 1933. Completed after ten of his buildings were already essentially finished, this plan knit together the work of Gilbert, Greene, and Cret’s own work to date. The scheme was remarkably respectful of Gilbert’s Master Plan of 1914, where malls defined four varied quadrants with long simple building forms defining pleasant outdoor rooms. Cret’s South Mall was about the same width as Gilbert’s and also had similar double rows of trees along each side and buildings connected by colonnades. But Cret’s buildings were arranged perpendicular to the mall, which more resembled Gilbert’s plan for the University of Minnesota than the one created for UT.

Cret’s development plan of 1933 also paid great homage to Greene’s work during the 1920s. Anna Hiss Gymnasium and Littlefield Dormitory became key delineators of an entire women’s quadrangle to the north of the 40 acres. Here, the women’s gym became the focus of a grand symmetrical composition of buildings. Gregory Gym and Greene’s buildings for the Engineering School similarly became centerpieces for formal open spaces masterfully woven around them.

The holistic development of the campus from 1910 to 1942 represents an exemplary balance between contextual considerations and fresh innovation. All three key architects, Cass Gilbert, Herbert W. Greene, and Paul Phillipe Cret – as well as their collaborators who often bridged the transitions between them (including Ayers and Ayers, Greene, La Roche, and Dahl after Herbert Greene’s death, Robert Leon White, John Staub, and Page Brothers) – demonstrated a remarkable commitment to creating a powerful, coherent, and dynamic place. The Board of Regents, the university administrations, and key faculty members like Dr. William Battle, who was Chair of the Faculty Building Advisory Committee through much of this era, had the vision to select extraordinary designers and then support them in the pursuit of both enlightened planning and architectural innovation.

The resulting physical environment has played a prominent role in shaping the best aspects of the University of Texas at Austin today. The power, prestige, and dignity embodied in buildings constructed when the institution was nascent predicted its future. The campus felt big and strong long before it actually was. The environment of the university set a benchmark that the institution grew to achieve over time. The campus has become the crucible in which the ethos of the University of Texas is best contained. For many people, this physical environment is UT: a place they return to over and over to connect to the institutionand its role in transforming their lives.

Thinking about Campus Architecture
Architect: , ,
Originally published in , 2008