Constructive Criticism

We return again to Texas buildings — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

June 1974By Comments

Taking the full measure of Texas architecture is an unending task, since buildings seen every day can reveal a fresh character, and serendipity can be around every urban corner or down every country road. Quality is always being found where quality is unexpected, but the horrific also is generally close by.

We Texans are as prone as any other breed to self-delusion and immense aesthetic errors, and must suffer plenty of bland or blatantly bad architectural examples. We can also boast of many of the best primitive-pioneer structures, some of the best mansions of the cotton and cattle eras, and certainly some of the best Bad Modern ever assembled. It is a mixed bag, but it is ours.

A uniform mediocrity is the main ingredient in our uninformed development, a progression chock-full of wide, sometimes crazy, variety. While many of our buildings can hold their own as pure enough creations, a general pattern of intentional inappropriateness on the part of architects, builders, and designers appears. The old courthouse with real wooden windows has been replaced by a boxy stone Bauhaus glass clinic; the turn-of-the-century brick Auto Store has a new blue metal facade; the handsome small jail is either maligned with electrical gear and disrespect or carefully repainted with a sash and door trim in uninspired hue; the banks all sport a newish front easily dated by the changing generation of harsh restyling coming from the architectural schools; and the town’s fine old train depot has been moved to the city park where it sits uncomfortably over­ restored as a toilet. But, if we look carefully, we can still spot the remaining “good old ones” and the fewer new bold ones, both forced to hide out amid the garish clutter.

Wise County Courthouse, Decatur (granite masonry). Architect: unknown. On the railroad northwest of Fort Worth the third Wise County courthouse was built in 1896 for $10,000 of custom-quarried granite from Marble Falls. The more colossal and ponderous courthouse at Waxahachie was built in the same year for $175,000. They have nearly identical clock towers. The scale of the better Decatur building is extremely precise and petite for so High Victorian a design. The relationship between its tower and the lower mass, best seen a few blocks away, is probably the state’s best example of architectural harmony.

The State Capitol, Austin. Architect: Elijah Meyers. A much misunderstood building, improperly appreciated by the experts, the gawkers, and the people who use it every day or every two years: the “Pink Capitol” is actually a cold, rough place, topped with hidden cast iron, and only the Rotunda being free of spacial awkwardness. Nevertheless, it is a better temple-forum than the one in Washington. Regardless of its south and north exterior pediments which pooch, and which were capable of initial refinement to the whole, its massive symmetry is that of a chipped-skinned colossus, a gigantic classic statue of the adolescent show-off state itself. Well tended-to, it has been demented by the addition of air-conditioning, the compartmentalization of salon spaces, and new fluorescent lights which would look fine in Durham’s Business College.

Parking Garage, Elm Street, Dallas. Architect: unknown. This is what a little invention can do for the most perfunctory of structures, especially when the primary materials are water, sand, gravel, powdered natural glue (Portland cement) reinforced with steel. But it is best never to forget concrete’s weight and cold massivity. After all, freeways spring from it. As a material, concrete is deadening and inviolate, yet plastic. Pound for pound, it is ridiculous. Its increasing use may never be diminished, but hopefully concrete could be applied more wisely, and, more occasionally, informs and shapes like this playful honeycomb.

The Battleship USS Texas. Newport News Shipyards. The painted steel beauty is like a formidable matron in beam. No special purpose building in the state is in the same class with it. The tiring old lady bought by the school children meets and exceeds standards of architectural excellence: power, human scale, utility, form- function, variety, and the lingering spaces missing in land buildings. It evens smells good, and has the world’s best mini-museum.

John F. Kennedy Memorial, Dallas. Architect: Philip Johnson. There has never been made a more pithy, concise, and appropriate structure dedicated to a fallen leader. Johnson, a clever and forceful designer, placed a plain, marked slab in the middle of an unadorned square, concrete curtain. Dallas and guilt are absent from this well-scaled enclosure. Those who enter might expect a bust, a flame, or a carved message; instead there is the name, the spirit, and the subliminal suggestion that you should stop here and think.

Volkswagen Agency, San Antonio. Architect: O’Neil Ford. A simple intelligence about glass (lots of it, but not with monotony) and about trees (keep them, of course, but place the building close to them) makes what could have been the usual car dealership into a model for business establishments everywhere.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Architect: Mies van der Rohe and Associates. From the people who are supposed to know better has come one of the worst travesties in the state. The late Mies, sacred cow of the machine and master of the glass facade, has been permitted to update the existing Ionic columns, wall up the windows, and tack on what appears to be a bungalow version of the Seagram Building. Admittedly a difficult commission once it was decided to keep the older museum, the solution which ensued is 1960 airport terminal. There is no excuse for building a Walgreen’s drugstore on the front of a Williamsburg Ale House.

Tract Houses, North Houston. Architect: unknown. In the search for wrinkles on a standard product which is “moving” well, there is no more unrelenting improviser than the designer of Builder Homes. Shameless repetitive eclecticism is the name of the game: Custom Homes is the euphemism for the same old sheet rock and Formica 3-2. A world unto his own, this peddler has so long ago sold his soul to the dollar and to an unenlightened market that he will build anything, buy anything, move anything, pave anything, if it sells houses.

Federal Building, Houston. Architects: Harvin Moore, Staub, Rather & Houze, and Rustay & Martin. The famous Pig-Eye building with its easy-to-wash square fenestration was once called a cross between windowless modern and federal penitentiary. It has long been suspected that big government does not know what design is. This building proves it. It is a monster, it uses too many varied materials, and it induces citizen paranoia.

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