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Texas Architecture

Choose a dozen buildings. This is hard to do because Texas architecture in this century is so rich. Although it means passing over many deserving buildings, let's look at these 12 to see how they have "spatialized" life during the 20th Century.

Let's start with the Kraigher House of 1937, the first International Style house in Texas. Its flat roofs, terrace decks, and strip windows still give it a sleek, new look. George Kraigher, an official of Pan American Airways in Brownsville, hired one of the first and most famous modern architects in the United States, Richard Neutra of Los Angeles, to design his house. Kraigher worked in a high-tech industry, and his house expressed his affinity for the future. Today, palm trees shroud the Kraigher House in a protective mantle as it awaits a sympathetic buyer and well-deserved restoration.

Allen Parkway Village in Houston, built in two phases between 1940 and 1944, was the largest public housing complex constructed in the South during the New Deal era. Houston's housing authority retained that city's first modern architects, MacKie & Kamrath, to design the colorful, horizontally-banded, brick and tile-faced housing blocks and community buildings. The residents of Allen Parkway Village recognized the significance of and loved their community so much that they were able to get it designated a National Register Historic District in 1987. Unfortunately, as too often happens with buildings deserving preservation, this failed to prevent the demolition of 70 percent of the complex by the city's housing authority in 1995. Public officials found the community history of low-income people expendable.

In the decade following World War II, the public school emerged as the building type in Texas. Hard-pressed school districts had to build cheaply to keep up with the demand for space. Texas' postwar generation of modern architects met this challenge with enthusiasm. The West Columbia Elementary School in West Columbia, completed in 1952, brilliantly responded to the problem of making architecture out of common materials. The design for the school was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the São Paulo Biennale in Brazil, bringing international fame to its architect, Donald Barthelme of Houston. Kids loved it, especially the entrance canopy of thin concrete vaults, which beckoned daring bicyclists and roller skaters until barriers were installed along its bottom edges.

Suburbanization affected cities and towns of all sizes in Texas during the 1950s. Harlingen architect John G. York found his calling designing new building types to fit the suburban landscape. At Klee Square, a small shopping and office complex built in 1952-53 on the edge of downtown Corpus Christi, York lyrically evoked the patios and arcades of South Texas' traditional Mexican architecture with steel-pipe columns, steel-bar joists, and a screened breezeway surrounding a central garden court. York used industrial materials to make modern architecture that was democratically accessible, friendly, and spatially evocative of the region's indigenous traditions.

Set quietly apart from the historic buildings and quadrangles near the heart of the Texas A&M University campus in College Station is All Faiths Chapel, built in 1957. Richard E. Vrooman, now professor emeritus of architecture at A&M, designed All Faiths Chapel as a place for individual reflection and communal assembly. He shaped the chapel so that its roof provides a sense of shelter, yet the seating area is opened by means of glass walls to a walled garden, thus connecting worshippers to nature and suffusing the interior with a sense of spiritual liberation. The chapel challenged tradition in the 1950s and introduced Texans to new kinds of spatial experience.

The extraordinary openness and transparency of modern architecture was monumentalized after 1960 in such public buildings as the First City National Bank of Houston, completed in 1961.

Its glass-walled banking pavilion was 30 feet high and clear-spanned by giant steel girders, so that no interior columns, except along the edges of the pavilion, cluttered the space. The renowned architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of New York designed every detail–down to the letters of the word "Pull" on the door handles. Such exacting attention to detail underscored the authority and precision that modern architecture could embody. But modern spatial grandeur was not enough to save the First City pavilion. In April 1998, it was demolished so that a parking garage could be constructed on the site.

In the 1960s, legendary Dallas merchant Stanley Marcus emerged nationally as a patron of high-style modern commercial architecture. The white-on-white Neiman-Marcus Northpark store of 1965, by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo Associates of New Haven, reflected the refinement, subtlety, and sophistication for which the store is known. It also set the stage for the design of Raymond Nasher's adjoining Northpark Center, by Harrell & Hamilton of Dallas, the largest shopping mall in the nation at the time of its completion in 1965. Marcus, Nasher, and their architects demonstrated at Northpark that being the best was now just as important in Texas as being the biggest.

The Houston art collectors Dominique and John de Menil also emerged in the 1960s as architectural patrons of world caliber. At the Media Center, one of a pair of temporary buildings they had the firm of Barnstone and Aubry of Houston design on the campus of Rice University in 1969, the couple brought luminaries from the worlds of photography and film to interact with students. These exalted exchanges occurred in a building that looked, on the outside, like a Texas country barn or shed. To represent the "temporary" status of the Media Center building (the good news: it's still in use), architect Eugene Aubry humorously surfaced the exterior with galvanized sheet iron. Dominique and John de Menil not only brought great art and artists to Texas, they confronted Texans with aspects of their own culture, such as the rural tradition of corrugated iron construction. They imaginatively used modern architecture to elevate these humble expressions of indigenous Texas culture to a new level of visibility and dignity.

The 1970s saw the opening of one of the greatest buildings of the 20th Century, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, dedicated in 1972. Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn looked for inspiration locally–cattle sheds in the Stockyards District–when he designed the Kimbell. He transformed his humble sources by joining common materials, like reinforced concrete, with noble materials, such as travertine, and using running water as an architectural medium to complement the stillness and repose of the solidly planted building. Yet the glory of the Kimbell Museum lies inside: A nimbus of silver skylight floats like a cloud above the vaulted galleries. This rare natural light animates and inspires visitors and compliments the artworks shown here. The Kimbell is a great work of architecture, not because it is big (it isn't) or calls attention to itself (it doesn't), but because it emotionally touches those who visit it.

As the Kimbell illustrates, Texas near the end of the 20th Century has become a place that people visit to experience architecture with a spiritual dimension. An extraordinary example in an at-first-glance-unlikely locale is the former Fort D.A. Russell outside Marfa. Here, the artist Donald Judd rehabilitated abandoned military structures in the 1980s and early '90s to install works of art by himself and others. Judd remodeled two parking garages for trucks into what he called the Artillery Sheds in 1984. In each shed, he installed 50 milled aluminum boxes, fabricated to his designs. The milled boxes are not so much art to be looked at (although their geometric variations are intriguing) as to be present with, especially as their serene precision expands to encompass the landscape of the Marfa Plateau, visible through the sheds' giant windows. Here, architecture and art enter into a dialogue with nature. The sensations of purity and emptiness within these buildings echo the elements of the boundless Trans-Pecos landscape that first attracted Judd to the region.

Architecture can not only induce personal contemplation, it can also energize a community. That's just what the San Antonio Central Library has done since its opening in 1995. Situated at one of those San Antonio intersections where streets seem to run every which way, the library radiates an exhilarating presence. Mexico's most famous architect, Ricardo Legorreta, celebrated the vibrant intensity of downtown San Antonio in this earthy, red-colored building, which ascends to a broad sky-terrace. Legorreta's design taps the emotional depth of this most colorful of cities by leading visitors through the interior as through a winding labyrinth. This vivid modern building possesses the kind of spatial mystery and revelation normally felt only in very old buildings.

Now, at the end of the century, Texans have begun to come to terms with a past that, though heroic for some, has been painful for others. Thus, the exceptional importance of Project Row Houses in Houston, which opened in 1995. Artist Rick Lowe and administrator Deborah Grotfeldt had a vision for reusing two blocks of small wood cottages, built as rental housing for African-American families in the 1930s. In just a few years, Project Row Houses has become a national model for combining historic preservation, the exhibition of art, community education, and the provision of social services. Artists from across the country install temporary exhibitions in many of the tiny cottages. Several are used for after-school programs for neighborhood children. Some of the houses provide transitional housing for young mothers. A new, low-cost house, designed and built by Rice University architecture students in 1998, is the latest addition to the complex. Project Row Houses architecturally celebrates the most humble stratum of Texas' 20th-Century landscape, not nostalgically, but prophetically, as it charts a course toward–and a vision for–the 21st Century.

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From the September 1998 issue.

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