The Austin Chronicle

Blanton: The Sequel: The Sequel

In the Latest Chapter of UT's Tortured, Tortuous Efforts to Erect a New Museum, Architects Unveil a New Design That's Old

By Mike Clark-Madison, October 12, 2001, Arts

Oh, the games architects play. In the rendering of the latest (preliminary) design for UT's Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art -- unveiled last week at a meeting of the facilities planning and construction committee of the UT System Board of Regents -- we see a monumental plaza about the size of Monaco, leading up to and then between the two museum buildings (classrooms on the left, galleries on the right), with their artfully appropriated Florentine arcades and trees positioned just-so. In the background, the nearest existing building rises hazily, like a mountain in the mist.

That building would be Jester Center, which in real life will loom like a haz-mat cloud over the Blanton, to be built at the Speedway entrance to campus, across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History. That faint gray space at the foot of the rendering, by the white-shoe Boston firm of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, is actually MLK. As Antoine Predock has done with Austin's new City Hall, KMW has apparently wished away the design challenges of putting a big public plaza right along the edge of a heavily trafficked boulevard, facing south into the Austin summer sun. (The design would appear to call for the removal of existing trees at the Blanton site.)

But while City Hall has a history of political trouble, in aesthetic terms Predock has been given a pretty free hand within the constraints of the site. For the Blanton, KMW contends not only with politics and an even more horridly constrained site -- hemmed in by such architectural turkeys as Jester, the Perry-Castaneda Library, and the Sanchez Education Building -- but with a Board of Regents reviled as yokels and philistines. If you don't remember, the first design for the Blanton, executed by Swiss modernist superstars Herzog & de Meuron and praised and approved by most of the people who matter, was shot down by regents Rita Clements, wife of the former governor, and Tony Sanchez, who wants to be the next governor.

This led to mockery, campus protests, the resignation of the dean of the UT architecture school, and great harm to UT's pretensions of world-class-ness, and the subsequent competition for Blanton: The Sequel was held under intense public scrutiny with the delicacy of negotiations for a royal marriage. Modernist architects needed not apply. In picking KMW, the regents found a firm whose works, largely on college campuses, are uniformly tasteful, expensive, well-crafted, pleasant to the senses, and devoid of troublesome personality.

For the Blanton, KMW was urged to hew to the dicta of UT's Campus Master Plan, adopted in the mid-90s but heretofore honored by the Board of Regents, which has presided over a campus building boom, mostly in the breach. The CMP encourages new construction to harmonize with and honor the "Cret aesthetic," meaning the Mediterranean/Art Moderne look that Paul Philippe Cret (pronounced "cray") gave to the UT Tower and most of the original Forty Acres.

There's nothing Cret-esque about Jester, PCL, the Sanchez Building (not, by the way, named after Tony), or anything else near the Blanton site, including the Bullock Museum, so harmony would be hard to achieve. But if the Blanton will be a public gateway to campus -- which the MLK/Speedway entrance is not supposed to be in the Campus Master Plan -- then it makes sense for it to look like whatever the Regents want to pretend UT looks like. Unfortunately, KMW's design doesn't.

Oh, those arcades on the ground floor sure look "Mediterranean," but they more specifically look Italian, more so than the Spanish stylings you find elsewhere on campus. If historicism is the thing, the upper floors of the Blanton buildings should have the dreaded flat (or nearly so) roof, perhaps topped with crenellated towers like the Palazzo Vecchio, since if you have an arcade to shield passersby from sun and rain you don't need eaves for the same purpose. But the CMP is quite fond of Cret's overhanging red-tile roofs, and so there they are, in a somewhat bloated fashion that looks more Asian (like the Himalayan buildings at UT-El Paso) than Mediterranean. On the scale models, the roofs look as steep as ski slopes.

There's a big difference in proportion between the lower and upper floors, giving the effect of a building balancing on stilts, made more pronounced by the dark terra-cotta trim on the arches of the arcades, which makes them look smaller than they really are. Now, since the plaza isn't really as vast as it's rendered, this might not be so jarring. But why do we need a big hot plate of white limestone in front of these buildings if (again) they already have arcades to carry foot traffic?

Closing Speedway to auto traffic is a noble goal, but that shouldn't require replacing the street (and its trees) itself, and an arcaded building should be able to sit right against the street without the buffer of architectural white space. This is made sadder by the fact that Speedway, despite the ugliness of some of its buildings, is about the only functional street -- with facades that come up to it and interact with it -- on campus, and it continues as North Congress Avenue all the way to the Capitol. To break that up for an unnecessary plaza seems more arrogant than stylish.

But very few people would have the intestinal fortitude to throw back yet another Blanton design. And for us townies, struggling through a recession that's once again thrown sugar in the gas tank of our own civic art museum, the Blanton will likely be the first (one hopes not the only) real art museum we have -- and a darn good one, considering the strength of its collection. If it were up to Austinites, we might be tempted to put up a Quonset hut so the Blanton could actually show its treasures, and worry later about creating a building that's up to the same standard. end story

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