Texas Overview

Mr. Speck: I hate being behind a podium, so I'm going to join you down there. Actually, I'm going to do an odd thing, something you're not supposed to do as an architect. I'm going to talk without pictures. What is an overview of Texas architecture? What can we say in general about it? After I answer that, I’ll frame it back in relation to the things we saw this morning.

My qualifications to give this overview are that I am the ultimate architecture junkie. I am completely hooked on architecture; I love to visit it; I love to experience it; I love to talk about it; I love to read about it; I love to look at it; I love to photograph it; I just love to be engaged with architecture. At this stage of my life, I am more than a junkie, now I'm a pusher. I'm trying to share with everyone else the addiction that I have to this amazing and generative meeting.

I want to talk here about what is it that makes architecture so mesmerizing, so wonderful, and so fascinating and how it's tied to culture. Architecture is a physical embodiment of who we are as individuals and who we are collectively as a society.

In terms of what we're talking about today, architecture is a physical embodiment of who we are as a culture in Texas.

Now, at the very smallest scale is my sweet little grandmother's house in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin, where there were two gorgeous pecan trees in the front yard. You went up to a big, generous porch with a swing, through into the living room which had a braided rug on the floor, a nice carved wooden fireplace with colored tiles around it. Her prized possession, a sofa with an embroidered upholstery on it that she had herself embroidered. Her collection of dolls, including her childhood doll with a china head that was in a beautiful shadow box.

Of course, nothing happened in that living room; it was only for show. All the action happened back in the kitchen around her kitchen table. There was an interesting relationship of her master bedroom right off the kitchen, something no architect would do. But in the last decade of her life, when she was a little feeble, it was a wonderful thing to be able to move between those two rooms and live her life in those two rooms of her house and in the little back garden where she still had her vegetable garden. Now, that place was a physical embodiment of who Cora Elliott was as a person. I can't go by that house without feeling a very soft spot in my heart about my grandmother. That's architecture at its best. It's a physical embodiment of who we are as individuals.

But at another scale it's also that wonderful sequence of spaces in Austin where you come down South Congress Avenue, you see Lady Bird Lake there stretching before you, you go over the Congress Avenue Bridge. There is that main street Congress Avenue going up to that big pile of granite that is the state capitol building. It's going up to it, getting close to it, touching that robust, amazing, powerful granite that came right out of the ground a few miles away, a granite that was so tough and so hard to work that they couldn't do all that little filigree carving like they liked to do in that era. Instead they had to leave it kind of tough and raw.

This building that is big enough to hold the landscape of that entire hill in Central Texas much better than the warty little thing they put there in the 1850s. By 1880 they had aspirations. They knew what this state was going to be and they built this amazing, big thing that talked to the aspirations of that culture.

On the next hill up starting at about the same time, they built the University of Texas. By the 1930s they built a second major edifice, this really ballsy tower that they put up there; what some called at the time the phallus of the Southwest. Not what anyone thought of as a university campus building and way out of scale with what that city was. But it was emblematic of a university that grew into that building, that became the kind of major institution that the building foretold; a huge campus that now feels comfortable with that landmark in the middle of it.

That sequence of Congress Avenue, the state capitol building, the campus, the tower, all of that is a physical embodiment of who we are in Texas. It speaks to a confidence, a bravado. It speaks to ambition. It speaks to laying down roots. It speaks to making a mark in that beautiful landscape of what this state would be. And it was built as our Capitol. Now, that is for me what architecture is at its best.

It's not just making buildings but the impact that the buildings have on us. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us.” That's very much true. We make something, it affects who we are, we make it as a reflection of us and then it also has a powerful impact on who we become.

Now, for me, the very most important aspect of architecture is not us looking at a building in a picture, it's not us even looking at a building as we stand there in front of it and look at it. It is in the living inside buildings that the real power comes out.

The real power of architecture is to affect us at an unconscious level so that if we were in a room that had raked seating and was more an auditorium style and I was up on a podium and I was behind the lectern, I would have a different relationship to you than if we're on a flat floor and you're in chairs and I can walk down among you and say, “Mary Margaret, so good to see you.” The difference in those relationships makes huge differences in our lives, how we live, how we relate to each other. It's an unconscious thing. We're not thinking about the physical environment and how it's impacting our interaction here, but it is impacting our interaction. That subliminal impact is what's so important in architecture.

Now, what is the lesson about Texas architecture? How can we make that in a larger frame and especially with what we've been talking about today? We can read our environment to give us messages about who we are as a culture, who we have been in the past. It lasts a long time and it continues to communicate. But also, everything we build projects into the future; who we will be as a culture and how we will affect future generations.

Now, I'm going to lean back on Mary Margaret's presentation this morning and talk about one of the projects she showed us. Mary Margaret and I worked many long hours together on that project; we had an amazing, large team of people. We have to admit this is what we do, cultural manifestation. It's not done by an architect or a landscape architect. It's done by many, many people. In that instance Mary Margaret and I were working with an amazing group of people. Three large foundations in Houston, along with the City of Houston initiated this process. Many people in this room were involved in that. The Houston Endowment, which Jack Blanton is Mr. Houston Endowment to me; Ann Hamilton, also from the Houston Endowment, they were involved in the conception of that project. In the Brown Foundation, not only Maconda, who was recognized earlier, but Izzy and other people in that foundation, as well. Also very, very instrumental, were Rich and Nancy Kender; Nancy in particular, who was a powerhouse through that whole thing. Another instrumental person, Guy Hagstedt, who was a kind of staff person through the whole thing, a phenomenal guy, former student of mine, I might add, who was ramrodding the whole thing.

So this was a cultural thing we were doing. We were going to say something about the culture of Houston, Texas in our own generation. Just like somebody else said something about the culture of Texas in building the state capitol or the culture of Texas in building the tower at the University of Texas. This was a cultural enterprise. It was about conversations with the community, it was about conversations with our clients. Out of that comes an artifact. You saw Discovery Green earlier and I couldn't show you any better photographs than those beautiful ones that Mary Margaret had.

I want to talk for a moment about what does that mean, Texas culture? What does it mean about us today? What is it when a city like Houston decides instead of building another big monument of an art museum or another big, spectacular spectacle of a performing arts center, instead they build a park. Not a home for the elite but a place for everyone, every member of that community to participate in.

If you go there today - and it's a gorgeous day in Houston and I'm sure it's full of all of these people right now - you'll find some people out on the terrace of The Grove, the restaurant we designed. They'll be affluent people because it takes a little cash to go into The Grove. Then maybe sitting on that terrace out there having their drinks and maybe a young couple with their kids and they're playing out under those live oak tress down there. It's a wonderful thing to be able to have a place where the kids feel wonderfully at home and the adults feel great and at home, too.

At that very same time there may be a Hispanic family from a poor neighborhood, some of the demographics we were talking about this morning, who brought their cooler. They've got lunch in their cooler and a few cokes. They've spread out under those same live oaks trees. Their kids are playing in that park, too. The little rich kids and the little poor kids, they don't know any different; they're playing together.

That's really the story of that park. It's an amazing confluence of this rich, cosmopolitan city that has people from all over the world. It's the United Nations in Houston these days. They are Vietnamese and they are Pakistani, Arab, Anglo, Hispanic - everybody. In that park you see that confluence of people really making a city together. One huge cultural message is who are we, as Texas. You can go into that park and you can feel who we are; we're being a community together in that park.

There are other messages about that, too. We're talking about the oil and gas capital of the country, maybe of the world, Houston, Texas. But here was a group of people who said they had a commitment to these environmental issues that we were talking about this morning. They decided that they were not only going to do a park that respects the landscape and respects nature and injects nature back into the downtown of a city and relieves that kind of heat sink that downtowns are so much by some relief of green space. They were not only going to do that but they were going to at every step do what is environmentally correct. They are going to get a Gold-LEED certification, which is checking all the boxes and making sure that you're covering those bases. Also, in a very sincere way just making something that is environmentally friendly.

All of the buildings - Mary Margaret was talking about how it works and how it is a social phenomenal; how it brings people together, those two axes. Those north-south and east-west axis also allowed us to put all of the buildings long and thin on the north-south face and short on the east-west face. Then we could take advantage of the sun to get the sun when we want it and keep the sun out where we don't want it. We also oriented all of the glass in the buildings to the north, not to the south or the west so that we get good, soft, and even light into the buildings. We could tuck those buildings up against the live oak trees so that we get the soft, dappled light through them instead of the harsh, glaring light that we sometimes have in Texas. We made the buildings respond to nature, climate, sun, breeze as optimally as they could.

Then even beyond that, we have to have some energy. It is, after all, Houston. We have to air condition, so we did put a huge photoble tank array there, sponsored by BP Solar, who kicked in a million dollars for photoble tanks. All of those roofs are aligned so that they catch the optimal angle of the sun to mount those photoble tanks. In addition, we added solar hot water heaters; all the hot water is by solar energy. Many different energy-conserving things go on from the parking garage underneath to all of the buildings in the park.

In addition to that, every material in that building was thought through, in terms of where it came from, what kind of environmental impact it had, what kind of life it had, what kind of recyclability it had, as Stephen was talking about this morning. We basically have three materials in the park that we use in the buildings. We use sustainably grown wood which means that it's certified to have been grown and farmed so that it didn't cut down any old growth forest or anything like that. We have steel that is all recycled steel, which is extremely easy to recycle. The third major material is a wonderful gulf coast brick. You know, we don't make much brick on the gulf coast anymore, but we found one stalwart brick maker who makes that wonderful soft gulf coast brick that you see all over in downtown Houston. We didn't have to ship it from a long way away. It's a local material. We didn't have to pay for all that transportation and all that heavy material coming from somewhere else. It also supports a local economy, an economy that had been hit by Hurricane Katrina. This guy was just getting started again and it was heartwarming to be able to work with him.

This is an attitude that culture espouses. It's a set of priorities that the client group promoted. That's how architecture becomes a physical embodiment of who we are as a culture. I want to leave us thinking about architecture in this context, not as buildings, not as monuments, not even as beautiful things, but as supporters of a life, influencers of a culture and expressions of who we are.


speaker  new mem larry speck New member and speaker Lawrence W. Speck, Principal, PageSoutherlandPage, Austin. Photo by member John Gullett.