Classical Revival at the Blanton

The Art of the Deal

Classical Revival at the Blanton
By Doug Potter

So what's all this about the University of Texas being a slow, confused bureaucracy? When UT sets its mind to a task, and applies the proper power and grease, things happen. And so it is with "Blanton: The Sequel." A mere three days after presentations by six architects competing to design a new world-class art museum, the University's blue-ribbon committee on August 21 announced its two finalists: Princeton powerhouse Michael Graves, one of the world's most visible design stars, and Harvard eminence Michael McKinnell (of the Boston firm of Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood), an architect's architect specializing in big-deal public buildings dripping with class.

Surprised? Of course not. The very presence of Michael Graves on the long list guaranteed his presence on the short list, and there may be no American architect who outdoes McKinnell at satisfying university regents and donors. But even though UT could have cut to this chase back in May, last week's parade of architects did provide a brief glimpse into the minds of the arbiters of architectural design on campus.

Most notably, each one of the six presenting firms was well-prepared and, by extension, well-versed in the sordid story that made "Blanton: The Sequel" necessary. In December 1998, the university, with much fanfare, awarded the commission to design a proper home for the university's dispersed and improbably grand collections to the Swiss duo of Jacques Herzog and Dominique de Meuron, international buzz magnets who have yet to do a museum project in the U.S. That happy marriage went awry as soon as Herzog and de Meuron presented a concept drawing of a high-modernist museum of tomorrow, with glass walls and a flat roof.

Cretins vs. Po Mo Princes

Of course, everyone in the first Blanton selection round knew this is what Herzog would present, but the flat roof raised the roof over aesthetic flat-earthers Rita Clements and Tony Sanchez, the key players on such matters within the UT System Board of Regents. They, of course, had not been part of the selection process, and unhappy about that they were, you betcha. Nor did they have any truck with this fancy mod crap, especially since they had in 1996 approved a new UT-Austin Campus Master Plan which preached the gospel of the "Cret aesthetic" -- the red tile-and-limestone look developed by pre-war master Paul Phillippe Cret for the original Forty Acres.

To tell more would be tedious, except that Herzog and de Meuron threw in the towel last November, feeling (in the university's words) "that it would not be practical to bridge differences over the interpretation of the project in the context of the Campus Master Plan." The resulting blowout led to the resignation-of-sorts-in-protest of UT architecture dean Larry Speck, anti-Rita-and-Tony demonstrations on campus, and the fast tent-folding of Herzog's two runners-up, Steven Holl (now designing the new Zach Scott) and Antoine Predock (now designing the new Austin City Hall).

Michael Graves' best building may be a university art museum :  the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta.
Michael Graves' best building may be a university art museum : the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta.

Given all that, it was no surprise that, when he did his public standup, nearly the first words out of Michael Graves' mouth were "Context is what matters at UT." One after one, architects wore out their knees genuflecting in the direction of the Tower, the Plan, and Paul Cret. (The master plan itself was created by the firm of Cesar Pelli, most famous for designing the world's tallest building in Kuala Lumpur.) Architects like Herzog, who on balance couldn't give a rip about the existing UT style, were not present and, for the most part, did not apply.

"There's more than one way to solve a creative problem," Blanton Museum of Art director Jessie Hite said of the traditional tilt of the second round of applicants. Hite, who served on both selection committees, observed that "we had looked at it from one dimension [when selecting Herzog], and now we looked at it from another."

Anti-Modern Aesthetes

And so Blanton-watchers were treated to a useful precis on the influence of classical style in modern architecture. Some of the presenters did this better than others, and some were frankly a little silly. London-based Dr. Demetri Porphyrios, who could not use the word "modern" without joining it to epithets like "hideous," "monstrous," "ephemeral," and "incomprehensible," laid on a hideous, monstrous, et cetera slab of Eurosnobbery mixed with a tight-ass architectural convention that went out of practice when the French beheaded Marie Antoinette. But he coulda been a contender, according to UT's wisdom.

Likewise, Tom Beeby of the Chicago firm of Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge -- who owns the big-ticket market in the Windy City much as McKinnell does in Beantown and Larry Speck does here -- did a good job of skipping over the last century of urban design, instead showing off his firm's Richard Morris Hunt-styled letter-perfect re-creations of something that looked better somewhere else. Beeby's buildings -- including recent additions to the Rice and SMU campuses -- are so formalist, so laden with symbolic ornament and just-the-right cornices and windows with their own subtext, that after his presentation one felt the urge to roll around in the mud as an antidote.

But they are gone now. Also gone, and much more sadly so, is San Antonio-based Overland Partners, who gave us the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and Riverbend Church, and whose principals are all young-ish UT School of Architecture grads who actually know the campus (what a thought!) and do not need to be guided by the cake recipe of the Master Plan. (McKinnell simply went point-by-point through the plan, and the already completed architectural program for the Blanton, and said "We can do that.") But one suspects that Overland, even though their reputation is growing, and even though the firm is already building new projects on the campus, is simply not a big enough name for a project that has become as important as the Blanton.

Instead we get Graves, who's at this point most famous for designing housewares for Target that are knock-offs of his own earlier and better designs for the high end, and for building projects that scream "Landmark!" even before you know what they are -- like Portland's municipal building, the Denver Central Library, the Disney corporate headquarters (a job that likewise passed through other architects' hands), and the headquarters of the World Bank. Graves has for 30 years walked a tightrope between his best and worst impulses, trying to synthesize a commendable command of mass, shape, and form with an annoying penchant for cartoon colors, over-the-top decoration, and theatrical effects.

Dr. Demetri Porphyrios, who is out of the running, laid on a slab of Eurosnobbery mixed with a tight-ass architectural convention that went out of practice when the French beheaded  Marie Antoinette. Pictured here, his Three Brindley Place, Birmingham, England
Dr. Demetri Porphyrios, who is out of the running, laid on a slab of Eurosnobbery mixed with a tight-ass architectural convention that went out of practice when the French beheaded Marie Antoinette. Pictured here, his Three Brindley Place, Birmingham, England

Luckily for UT, perhaps Graves' best building is a university art museum -- the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, which in the modern era has become the gold standard of such structures. (UT's Moffett Hall is in many ways a bad, blurry Xerox of the Carlos.) Also luckily, Emory's own aesthetic is very similar to UT's -- white limestone, red tile roofs, buildings wider than they are tall.

And the English-born McKinnell has also built major projects at Emory, so it's pretty clear where the select committee of the selection committee will be going on their junket to get a hands-on look at their finalists' work. McKinnell's best buildings are mostly in the Bay State, including the celebrated Boston City Hall -- his firm's first project -- the city's Hynes Convention Center, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences headquarters and other works at Harvard, and two small but tres-cool museums. Solely on the basis of the presentations, McKinnell might have an edge over Graves, because he alone addressed the need for the Blanton building to respond to the artwork inside, even though Graves has a more comparable museum in his portfolio.

Grave and Graver

Unluckily for UT, though, Graves' Carlos is actually a modern addition (though larger than its parent structure) to a turn-of-the-century building situated right on Emory's central quad. And the central quad is not where the Blanton is going at UT -- rather, it's being set down at MLK and Speedway, adjacent to such crowd-pleasers as the Sanchez Education Building (not named after Tony), the Perry-Castañeda Library, Jester Center, and the new Bullock Museum across the street. Woof, woof, woof, and woof.

At least the university has gotten comfortable with admitting its past sins. "We all had a lot of laughs about Jester," says Jessie Hite. "One of the candidates, when asked what they should do about Jester, replied 'I'm not a ballistics expert.' But with a careful approach to the site, a good architect will not be able to hide Jester, but instead draw attention away from it with a good building, appropriately landscaped and oriented."

Yet it's hard to imagine anything worse to build on this site than a faithful re-creation of Battle Hall or the Texas Union, which seems to be what the UT powers were looking for. It's doubtful that either Graves or McKinnell would actually build such a thing -- but that, and not Herzog's floating glass palace, is the benchmark. However, in the official voice of UT president Larry Faulkner, Graves and McKinnell and their respective teams (who have overlapping members) "distinguished themselves by their imagination, experience, and commitment to this project and its possibilities." We will be learning what "possibilities" the U is willing to consider.

Faulkner chaired the selection committee for The Sequel, and his office -- not the Blanton -- was responsible for the public parade of the architectural dogs and ponies, which tells you about all you need to know about the Blanton's shifting fate. The committee that chose Herzog included Hite; Larry Speck and his predecessor as architecture dean, Hal Box; Reed Kroloff, editor of Architecture magazine and Texas-Ex; UT facilities honcho John Rishling and his then-UT System counterpart James Broaddus; Faculty Building Advisory Committee chair Austin Gleeson, prime mover behind the Campus Master Plan; and five major donors, including Jack Blanton himself. (While former UT regent Blanton and his wife have given generously to the museum, the donation that gave the place his name actually came, in his honor, from the Houston Endowment, which he chairs.)

That is, no regents, no president, no nothing like that. On this new committee, Hite, Box, Rishling, Gleeson, and Blanton were joined by Faulkner; Rita Clements and Tony Sanchez; UT VP Bill Livingston; former UT president and System chancellor Bill Cunningham; Broaddus' successor Sid Sanders, former chair of the city of Austin Planning Commission; "noted arts patron" Joe Long; and UT student Eileen Costello. A quite different mix, with power players replacing the donors and architects, presumably designed by Faulkner -- who was tied up for weeks of shuttle diplomacy missions to meet with Herzog and de Meuron in Switzerland -- to be as finite as possible.

However, Hite says, "the committee worked pretty well together -- everyone was really present at the table, and there were good, open discussions. The functioning of the committee actually exceeded my expectations." The posse looked at their semifinalists, and especially Graves and McKinnell, through both aesthetic and practical eyes: Would the firm be available and actually committed to this project? Do they know how to get things done in the Kafkaesque contours of UT?

Both Graves and McKinnell "made it clear that they were available and interested and would give this project priority," says Hite. "I think we felt they had worked in a way that would produce a landmark building that was still compatible with the campus. And it was obvious that these were architects of national reputation." end story

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