Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building

By the mid-1950s, as evidenced by his early work at Trinity University, O’Neil Ford had reached his stride as a designer and was distinguishing himself as a leader among architects in the state. He had blended his deep-rooted appreciation of tradition with a hardheaded search for innovation and invention. Like others of the era, he was particularly interested in tinkering with structure and the construction process. He admired the bicycle-wheel roof which Edward Durrell Stone had used in the U.S. Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair and later used it himself in La Villita Assembly Hall in San Antonio. He also watched with interest the work of Felix Candela and others in Mexico who were experimenting with thin shell concrete and particularly with structurally superior shapes like hyperbolic paraboloids. He used the

Mexican architects as consultants, making very limited applications of their inventive work.

But Ford’s real tour de force of invention in this period was the Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building in Dallas of 1956-1958. Here Ford, working with Richard Colley, Sam Zisman, and Arch Swank, produced probably his single most original building. He was challenged by a truly new set of environmental requirements demanded by the embryonic, but rapidly developing, semiconductor industry. At virtually every point in the building, conventions were re-examined with the goal of creating a pure response to the problem. Like the innovation-oriented engineers who were his clients, Ford took risks and broke new ground.

The Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building marked a far more extensive use of hyperbolic paraboloid roof shapes than Ford had ever attempted before. With a minimum of structural depth, the long-span system provided sixty-three foot-square bays, while at the same time giving a modular identity to individual places within the vast structure.

Even more inventive than the roof system was the spanning system for the interstitial floor at TI. A nine-foot-high space-frame made of precast concrete tetrapods separated the lower floor, which housed offices and laboratories, from the soaring spaces on the upper floor, headquarters of manufacturing operations. The deep three-dimensional truss provided a floor-between-floors for the complicated servicing and mechanical equipment that TI required. Several years prior to Louis Kahn’s more celebrated application of the same notion at Salk Institute, Ford and his colleagues had invented a fresh prototype for organizing the intricate new demands of a mid-twentieth-century research/manufacturing facility.

But innovation in the Semiconductor Building did not stop with its organizational diagram, its structural system, or its mechanical servicing. In detail the building is inventive too. Its marble cladding is attached by straightforward, but novel, X-shaped hangers at the corners of each slab, thus avoiding more conventional concealed connectors. The lighting in the upper floor spaces is an early application of high-intensity mercury vapor lamps. By bouncing the strong light off the interior of the warped hyperbolic paraboloid surfaces, an even, high foot-candle distribution is achieved in spaces where intricate manufacturing operations take place.

Such invention, however, did not overpower Ford’s strong appreciation for what is common and traditional. The fresh new hyperbolic paraboloid forms, he found, could be combined to produce familiar, almost houselike shapes in composite. The repetitive system of work bays could be broken occasionally to create gracious, traditional internal patio courts. The materials used at TI are both ancient and new. A soft, buff-colored St. Joe brick is used in the courtyards against elegantly detailed three-story glass curtain walls. Pearl grey Georgia marble is hung against a frame of sleek, matte-finished stainless steel to produce both compatibility and contrast on the exterior.

This is gentle high-tech. The building eloquently expresses the nature and philosophy of its corporate client as well as, to some extent, the computer industry as a whole. The products manufactured here are innovative and futuristic, but the people who produce them place a premium on traditional values and a gentle, humane lifestyle. Plastic-clad workers assembling tiny transistors in dust-free workboxes under sweeping hyperbolic paraboloid roofs are certainly an appropriate TI image. But no less appropriate are the lushly planted courtyards with rich, varied paving patterns, lively ceramic murals, and dappled natural-light.

The most impressive characteristic of the Texas Instruments Semiconductor Building is not its innovative structural system or its novel mechanical servicing. Nor, on the other hand, is the building’s magic concentrated in the warm, crafty lobby spaces or in the congenial patio courts. The building’s greatest virtue is in the whole – the fact that it is at once both new and old, fresh and common, challenging and familiar.