What is Texas architecture? Has Texas produced built artifacts that express its rich and colorful history over the last 150 years and even before? Has this culture recorded in its buildings the values and aspirations as well as the circumstances and resources of its populace over time? Are there at least the roots of traditions of Texas architecture which appropriately bespeak the culture of the state and which might merit extension into the future?

This selection of twenty of Texas’ proudest architectural achievements is a tiny sampling of the state’s rich, but little-heralded, architectural heritage. The visual presentation of these buildings in Richard Payne’s insightful photographs is evidence enough to any student of Texas culture that there are deep and meaningful tracks of our civilization in the state’s built environment. In many ways, we are what we build, and in these artifacts can be seen not only the artistic aspirations of the “high” culture of the state but also the footprints of its everyday life. In the stones of the Alamo and the steel and glass of our downtown skyscrapers lie the silent embodiment of who we are and where we have been.

Geographically, historically, and demographically Texas is a rich and diverse place. It ranges from flat, hot, dry, and dusty in West Texas to lush, wet, green, and humid in the Piney Woods. It is tough and rugged in the Big Bend; gentle, fertile, and benign on the southeast prairies. The state has been governed by France, Spain, and Mexico as well as its own Republican government, the Confederacy, and the United States. It has been strongly affected by sizable immigrations of Anglo, German, Spanish, Mexican, French, Alsatian, and Black settlers as well as by “second-generation” immigrants from all over the world whose families came first to other parts of the United States and later gravitated to Texas.

This diversity of place and people has created a great range of architectural responses. Strains of Texas building may be appropriately tough, plain, and direct in one instance while wild, fanciful, and romantic in another. The simple pioneer ranch house in the Hill Country is no more quintessentially Texan than the eclectic turn-of the-century palaces of Galveston. Both locally and statewide, there is seldom the consistency of style or visual character that results from more homogeneous physical and cultural determinants. Texas architecture is polyglot like Texas culture. It is a response to valid influences that range from local and indigenous to broad and universal. Its development has not been tidy, cohesive, or linear, and its environmental results have seldom been equally popular in all camps.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century the noted American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted found the state’s environmental development a study in contrasts. In his book A Journey through Texas, which documents a six-month trek across the state, he admires the simple stone and wood homes, shops, and farm buildings of some communities while judging other environments he encounters to be “disagreeable in the extreme.”

As recently as a decade ago, Olmsted’s fellow New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable, then architecture critic for the New York Times, similarly experienced mixed reactions on a visit to the state. She observed “an exciting and disturbing place, a study in paradoxes.” She christened Houston, perhaps prematurely, “the city of the second half of the 20th century … the American present and future,” but found much to dislike in its “unabashed commercial eclecticism” (New York Times, February 15,1976).

Texas architecture has not been nor is it likely to be in the future an easily digested whole. It is a series of vignettes loosely woven together in place and time. But if it lacks cohesiveness, it more than compensates with vitality. Variations in circumstance and background, coupled with the kind of freedom which heterogeneity breeds, have produced a lively climate for architectural development in Texas – a place where, in the absence of pat answers, interesting questions have been raised. The same freedom which has produced a dearth of cohesion has encouraged exploration and invention. The same disparities which have made tidy categorization of historical movements or periods difficult have led to some evocative hybrids – new and telling syntheses which are genuinely of their place.

At this point, Texas architecture is in its adolescence. The body of building and place making is now filled out enough to see some character emerging which is likely to be lasting. But the state and its environmental qualities are far from mature. Exploration, growth, and change are very much the order of the day. As with an adolescent child, we must be patient and understanding of the youthful excesses and awkwardness of our maturing progeny. But we must also be actively directing and nurturing – not with a vision of transforming this emerging being into some preconceived ideal, but working, with full understanding of its existing character, to bring Texas architecture to its own most productive fruition.