Naked City

Old School

One of them used to live in the Governor's Mansion, and the other, rumor has it, may be planning to move in. Apparently, both Rita Clements and Tony Sanchez like the place and its classical stylings. That's good, because we may be seeing a lot more columns and capitals at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art.

You may remember that former first lady Clements and leading Dem-for-Bush Sanchez, both University of Texas regents, ran off the Blanton's initial architects, Herzog and de Meuron, after the Swiss firm delivered designs for a flat-roofed, glass-walled, high-modernist home for UT's vast and valuable art collections. Anyone who'd ever seen Herzog and de Meuron's work was completely unsurprised by this result, but Clements and Sanchez dug in their heels, pulled rank, and spawned on-campus demonstrations, loud public mockery, and the resignation-in-protest of UT architecture dean Larry Speck.

It was wisely noted (mostly by the architects themselves) that the two runners-up in that design competition -- Antoine Predock, currently charged with giving design CPR to Austin's City Hall, and (especially) Steven Holl -- would not have made Clements and Sanchez any happier. So back to the river UT went to fish, and even after the publicly shabby treatment of Herzog and de Meuron, the university got some nibbles from some pretty big specimens, including Robert Venturi, Pei Cobb Freed, and Robert A.M. Stern, world-famous one and all.

But as Blanton: The Sequel debuted last week, with UT's announcement of seven semifinalists, the only fish as big as those, or as big as Predock, Holl, and Herzog, was the ubiquitous Michael Graves, who though famed and influential and rich, is about as cutting-edge as anyone else who designs housewares for Target. His six fellow aspirants are all, for the most part, regional powerhouses, the analogs in other cities of Page Southerland Page, Speck's employer and the most white-shoe of Austin firms.

The only local-ish entrant -- that is, a firm that has built projects in Austin -- is San Antonio's Overland Partners, who designed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Riverbend Church, along with seemingly half of the new construction in the Alamo City. Overland's equivalents in Boston (Kallmann McKinnell and Wood), Chicago (Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge), and Washington, D.C. (Hartman-Cox, teamed up with also-ubiquitous Carter-Burgess of Fort Worth) round out the U.S. firms on the list, although the latter two have done a few commissions, mostly at universities, outside their home turf. (Hammond Beeby designed the new home for the James Baker Center at Rice University in Houston.)

The two wild cards are European -- Spain's Juan Navarro Baldeweg, the true modernist of this lineup, and London-based Demetri Porphyrios, one of the leading anti-modernists in contemporary architecture. Porphyrios is most famous, actually, not for his buildings but his book, Classical Architecture in the Living Tradition, a seminal text for the neoclassicist movement championed by design dabbler Charles, Prince of Wales.

But all these guys, excepting Baldeweg but including Graves, have been described, or described themselves, as classicists, keepers of the flame of pre-20th-century architecture, though in Graves' case the columns may be painted purple and the statuary blown up to the size of a Mack truck. (When he's good, he's very good, but when he's bad Graves sets the standard for architectural kitsch. But UT already has a bad Graves knockoff in Moffett Hall, so kitsch apparently does not bother them.) And to the degree that the good architecture at UT -- which is all prewar -- is "classical," and that the much-vaunted UT Campus Master Plan calls for new construction to hew to that aesthetic, and that Clements and Sanchez positioned themselves during the Herzog imbroglio as defenders of the Campus Master Plan ... well, they should be happy regents.

Of course, the point of architecture is not only to conform to a plan but to address the actual surroundings of the actual building, and there is nothing near the Blanton's prospective home at MLK and Speedway that is remotely "classical." Well, the new Bullock History Museum is remotely classical, in that it has columns and a dome, but the Pantheon it is not -- it wears its kitsch and pastiche proudly, whereas the Blanton is too "serious" a project to resort to that kind of self-parody. Other than that, you've got the blank brick wall of the School of Education, the white-limestone whatzit of the Perry-Castaneda Library, and the looming monstrance of Jester Center, which will drown out any Blanton design statement intended to be classically refined. (It's worth noting that the art museums in the portfolios of Graves, Kallmann McKinnell, and Overland are all additions to high-quality turn-of-the-century buildings.) A genuinely great building would either make an all-out assault on this placeless environment (as, say, Frank Gehry does), or ignore it completely, which is what Herzog and de Meuron did.

None of this factored into UT President Larry Faulkner's analysis as he announced the list. Rather, he cited two criteria: that the firms had completed world-class projects (basically true), and that they had experience working on a campus. And, presumably, with regents who don't know architecture but who know what they like. The seven firms will do their presentations for the Blanton committee in mid-August.

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Rita Clements, Tony Sanchez, Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Herzog and de Meuron, Larry Speck, Antoine Predock, Steven Holl, Michael Graves, Overland Partners, Kallmann McKinnell and Wood, Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, Juan Navarro Baldeweg, Demetri

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