The 10 Best Buildings in Texas

An architectural tour.
The 10 Best Buildings in Texas
Mission San Antonio de Valero, San Antonio
Photograph by

In the long war to convince the rest of the world that our taste rises above the level of provincial, we Texans have achieved one notable victory: Even our most grudging critics now concede that we have somehow acquired remarkably commendable taste in architecture. Several of the twentieth century’s most prominent architects built some of their very best buildings here, beginning with Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, which was anointed an instant classic upon its completion, in 1972. Since then, a succession of not-to-be-missed landmarks by superstars like Philip Johnson, Renzo Piano, and Tadao Ando has transformed Texas into a destination for design cognoscenti.

But this success story simply plays to the enduring prejudice that we are forever destined to remain mere importers of high art, deep-pocketed consumers with an eye for quality merchandise that we’re utterly incapable of creating ourselves. A closer look at Texas’s ten best buildings (according to me) offers a different narrative, a surprising saga of rebirth, revolution, and a long journey toward cultural self-determination. It begins back in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the Spanish brought Europe’s latest trends to the New World. Like the variegated bunch that followed them—Germans, Alsatians, Chicagoans, New Yorkers, Italians, Asians—these builders didn’t conquer Texas. Instead they were humbled by its daunting vastness, brutal heat, surrealistic light, and the epic collision of cultures and faiths that has always defined our state far more than any Anglo American template.

The real story of Texas architecture is this: For centuries the Old World has come here to be born again, to evolve on our Darwinian frontier. Even the superstars reinvented themselves here; in Fort Worth, Kahn finally reached the apotheosis of his hugely influential career, while in Houston, Johnson and Piano made dramatic about-faces that quickly transformed cities all over the world. So from the ten buildings that follow we can begin to construct a liberating vision of what “Texas style” can and should be: neither a clumsy collection of homemade clichés—local color pursued ad nauseam—nor a sophisticated but slavish pursuit of international designer labels. The best Texas architecture has historically shown us the third way, arrived at via a centuries-long conversation between this land, its people, and a global culture from which we have borrowed much, yet to which we have richly contributed in return.

1) Mission San Antonio de Valero

San Antonio, after 1756 * unknown

The oft-told tale of anglo american ascendance in Texas usually begins at the Alamo in 1836, but this is also the site of a more venerable story that began some eighty years earlier. The mission known as San Antonio de Valero—one of five founded by Franciscan friars in the San Antonio area—had been established for almost forty years when work on the famous church started, in 1756. Never finished (the trademark arched gable was added by the U.S. Army in 1850), the building remains a remarkable emblem of the power and cultural ambition of imperial Spain. The architect was probably a mestizo or native master mason, guided by engravings and treatises that provided a catalog of Spanish cosmopolitanism. The facade was almost certainly intended to be three stories, in a style known as retablo, after the towering, multistory altarpieces in the great Spanish cathedrals. The Spanish put their own twist on the baroque style they borrowed from Italy, seen literally in the two sets of paired columns on the Alamo’s first story; these odd, bipartite columns are plain-vanilla Corinthian on the bottom, but on top they’re a corkscrewing, flamboyant style the Spanish called salomónica (“Solomonic” because it was thought to have originated in Solomon’s Temple).

Yet the Alamo also gives us a sense of the ingenuity and adaptability of Spain’s New World surrogates. Awed by the spectacle of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, the Spanish conquerors enlisted the heirs of the native craftsmen who had built it to construct their Christian cathedrals; over the next several centuries these artisans developed their own hybrid, Euro-Aztec decorative style known as tequitqui. This flat, somewhat astract stone-carving technique is still visible in the vine tendrils and fleurs-de-lis that frame the niches and the entrance portal of the Alamo, a visual expression of the Old World—New World dialogue that remains the bedrock of Texas style.

2) Marienkirche

FREDERICKSBURG, 1863 * unknown

Freed from Mexico, Texas became a slaveholding state (with little appreciation for the irony), and its booming cotton economy financed a taste for the Greek Revival style popular in the antebellum South. (Until the recent fire, our Governor’s Mansion, built in 1856, was a nearly pristine example of the genre.) But far more important to the evolution of a distinctly Texan architecture was the mid-century influx of thousands of German immigrants, many of them intellectuals and political dissidents. These hardscrabble newcomers took pride in the simple houses, barns, and churches they built with a combination of Old World techniques like fachwerk (walls crosshatched with timbers and filled in with stone, brick, clay, or plaster) and New World climate-control conventions such as the dogtrot, a broad passageway through the center of the house intended to channel cooling breezes.

Fredericksburg’s Marienkirche raises this pragmatic German-Texan vernacular to its literal and aesthetic heights. According to local lore, parishioners were exhorted to build the church by a Jesuit missionary named Francis Xavier Weninger, a celebrated motivational speaker who roamed the country preaching to German Catholics. Under the supervision of their priest, Father Peter Baunach, St. Mary’s parishioners designed and constructed the building themselves in about two and a half years, using the same local limestone and cypress they employed for their barns and homes. The unknown architect (or architects), who certainly was not a professional, nevertheless showed enormous intuitive skill in cramming all the basic features of a cruciform Catholic cathedral into a compact, reserved, almost minimalist package—along with demonstrating an independent streak in the atypical, convex-sided “helmet” steeple.

The Marienkirche was ahead of a trend, as Gothic Revival churches sprouted in towns and cities all across nineteenth-century

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