PEDAGOGY AND PLACE: UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
The University of Houston was founded in 1927 as a commuter school for the working class student. Its humble beginnings were proliferated at the closing of the Second World War and subsequent GI Bill. The university grew from the original two buildings to a full campus in a matter of a few years and expanded what it offered to the returning veterans. This included architecture. The Department of Architecture was setup in 1945 by Richard Lilliot Jr. Lilliot was a graduate of the Rice Institute in 1935. He had studied architecture at Rice for three years though graduated with an English degree.
In 1950, Lilliot published the first official statement of the department in the university’s course catalogue. He emphasized that the school would not be founded on the histories, but use them as background in the understanding of the architect as a problem solver. “It [the plan of the department] disallows teaching on the basis of copying either plates, drawings or construction methods. It studies history or esthetics as a useful background for current endeavor and improvement of taste. Chronology is relatively unimportant.” This setup the foundation of the school, one which was geared towards pragmatic problems and very real world issues.
The initial years of the department was spread across the campus. The first building dedicated to architecture was constructed in 1953 and designed by one of the department’s first graduates, Edmund Furley Jr. The building, known as “Building X”, was a one-story simple light-steel-framed building using steel roof decking as cladding and reclaimed windows from jobsites around the city. Dean Lilliott called the building a “kind of ground-hugging, poor man’s Crown Hall.” The building was constructed for $160,000 (present value of $1,416,000 ) and was intended as a temporary facility until a more permanent structure could be financed. This was typical at the university in its post-war expansion. The building was primarily open space studios with a cluster of classrooms in the center. There was no auditorium or library in the original design. In 1965, the entrance, a space anchored by a concave orange brick wall, was concerted to the first library and collection dedicated to architecture.
There are two dominant characters throughout the course of the department’s history. Howard Barnstone was a graduate of Yale College in 1944, who served in the Navy for a year before returning to Yale to obtain his Bachelor of Architecture in 1948. The following year he moved to Houston and began a long teaching career at the University of Houston. Burdette Keeland was a student of Barnstone’s first studio and quickly became Barnstone’s protégé. Keeland graduated from Houston in 1950, the first graduating class, and maintained a relationship with Barnstone for years after. It was through Barnstone that Keeland obtained placement at Yale for graduate studies, which commenced in 1960. Keeland would return to Houston the following year and begin to teach and become heavily involved in the university. Both Keeland and Barnstone would become foundations at the University of Houston until their deaths in 1987 (Barnstone) and 2000 (Keeland).
One of the initial problems the new department experienced was getting visiting lecturers to come from the east or west coasts. Through Barnstone and later Keeland, Philip Johnson became one of the first visiting lecturers who would return multiple times to the university. In his first lecture in 1953, Johnson was experiencing difficulties in his voice projecting to the back of the room and made a comment that, “The architect of this room is no doubt not here, but I am going to write to him. For if I should ever design a building so acoustically unsatisfactory… it’s one of those bug-a-boos that follows all of us architects.“ Little did Johnson know that three decades later it would be he himself that would be designing that new space.
The latter half of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s saw a lot of growth and development of the program. In 1955 the department was given autonomy and renamed to the School of Architecture. Six years later in 1961, it was changed to the College of Architecture as the university began to stratify different schools into separate colleges. It was during this transition that Dean Lilliot issued a statement in the course catalogue that “all phases of architectural instruction are presented through four channels: design, construction, aesthetics and graphics with emphasis on the integration of all four to remind students of their interdependence.” In 1963, the university became a state public institution, giving it access to public funds and upgrading its status.
Barnstone continued to be highly influential not only as a professor, but in the pedagogy of the program. In 1960 he called for a new strategy in the school called, “Inspiration Unlimited” which was published in Texas Architect. He proposed that the school focus on more pragmatic studio problems, including real ones that the professor might be simultaneously designing in the professional realm. He emphasized on retaining faculty that are practitioners first and teachers second. He pushed the school away from theoretical approaches, which met a lot of resistance from Dean Lilliot. Barnstone, Keeland, and a handful of other professors began to have a falling out with Dean Lilliot causing them to request a leave of absence in 1962 and a general feeling of unrest in the program.
The late 1960s proved to be a troublesome time for the program. As riots ensued at Columbia, Yale and across the country, Houston was not left out. In 1966 the program lost accreditation. The NAAB declared that the college lacked proper facilities and was compromised by Dean Lilliott’s lack of professional credentials as well as the tendency of retaining many of its own graduates as faculty. Not long after losing accreditation, Lilliott stepped down.
Walter Eugene George Jr. (U.Texas ’49, Harvard ’50) was pulled from Kansas and appointed the new dean and given the task at bringing the program up to NAAB standards. Dean George reformatted the education to bring an even further pragmatic approach to the school. His rigorous reform, while strict, gained the college accreditation once again by 1968. The students however were not in favor of this restructuring. He discouraged students from working while attending and allowed them less access to classes outside of the architecture curriculum. He was seen by students as bringing too much of an engineering approach to architecture and less of an artistic one. He refused to renew contracts on specific faculty members who were outspoken for alternative approaches to architectural education. Within a few months the students began to riot and closed down the college. Dean George subsequently resigned as Dean, lasting only three semesters at Houston.
In 1969 the university brought in William Jenkins (Rice, ‘51) as the new dean. Jenkins’ largest influence to the program was the people he brought in who would set the tone for the decades to come. This began with the reinstatement of Barnstone and Keeland. While trying to address the desire for students to study alternative approaches to architectural education, Jenkins brought in a few new key figures to address the counterculture movement of the time.
The biggest character that Jenkins brought was Doug Michels (Yale, ’67). Known for his later work with Ant Farm, Michels had recently graduated from Yale and was looking to find a new path in educating young students. His methods for teaching students the history of Mies van der Rohe was to take them out to a parking lot and place them into a grid on 10’ centers while running zig-zags between them as if he were skiing a slalom course while whispering, “Meis van der Rohe, Meise van der Rohe.” When he arrived to the airport in Houston, he was greeted by a counterculture student architectural group South Coast. They arrived with a hearse and motorcycle escort. They asked him to get into a coffin, which was left slightly ajar. The students carried the coffin into the architecture building where Dean Jenkins and the entire student body awaited. Jenkins announced that the students were about to witness “the rebirth of American architecture” as Michels emerged.
Jenkins spent the 1970s bringing in young faculty who would set a new tone to each year of the program for decades to come. Arthur Hacker (Yale, 71), Robert Griffin (Auburn, ’70) and Robert Timme (Rice, ’70) would come in and lead a new direction for the first year, second year and advance year’s studio sequence respectively. Hacker worked closely with fellow Yale alum at Rice, Elinor Evans (Yale MFA, ’54) on developing a foundation for the first year at both Rice and Houston based off neo-Bauhaus 2D explorations. Evans, who had studied under Josef Alber, proposed a much more artistic approach to the first year of education, where buildings were rarely discussed in the architecture curriculum. Griffin would continue this in the second year program by bringing this artistic approach into the third dimension into design exercises based off exploring special ideas. It wouldn’t be until the third year that students really began to explore pragmatic architectural design.
For many years, Barnstone and Keeland had advocated for a visiting critics studio similar to what they had experienced at Yale. With relations between faculty and the Deans office restored, Barnstone was finally able to bring to fruition this idea in 1974 with Robert AM Stern as the college’s first visiting critic. This tradition continued throughout the history of the program to include many critics closely related to Barnstone or Keeland such as Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Charles Gwathmey, Charles Moore and Stanley Tigerman.
By the late 1970s, the NAAB had commented once again that the college’s space was inadequate. The “temporary facility” built in 1953 was far beyond its use. In 1980, the Chancellor of the University, Barry Munitz, approached the state legislature with a proposition for a new architecture building for the campus. $20 million was allocated to build a 153,000 sq ft new building to accommodate up to 640 students. The university planned to hold a competition for the project, but this was cancelled when the campus architect, Ted Montz, began to hear horror stories from other universities of the time. He advised against a competition, and Burdette Keeland began lobbying the Board of Regents for long-time friend Philip Johnson (who would be joined with John Burgee) to design the new building. A university master plan done in 1977 set out a framework for a new academic building to act as a gateway between the vast amounts of parking on the north side of campus to its core. With finances for a new architecture building secured, it was decided that it should act as the gateway.
In May of 1983, Johnson and Burgee produced preliminary plans of the new building to the Board of Regents. Johnson proposed a near replica of the House of Education by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux as the design base for the school. The House of Education was part of a larger utopian plan by Ledoux between 1775-1778 for the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans. The building had never been realized until its opportunity in Houston with Johnson.
At a time when the majority of Houston’s campus lacked character, size or permanence, the new College of Architecture building became an instant icon and identity for the university. The building was highly visible from Houston’s downtown district as well as the adjacent Gulf Freeway. The strategic positioning acted precisely as the 1974 master plan called for and created a new major axis on the campus which was later emphasized as new buildings were added in the 1980s and 1990s with the College of Architecture at the helm.
Ledoux had never designed the interior of the House of Education, leaving Johnson and Burgee to fit into the project any program required. The building was fixed on a central court measuring forty feet square and eighty feet high. The court is sky-lit from above and acts as the central life to those in the college, and as the entry sequence of the university for those who are not. The three upper levels of studios are clustered around the court, which is used as a way to connect all of the studios together both visually and audibly. The court has been used over the years to hold exhibitions, balls, impromptu sporting events, and most notably graduation ceremonies. Stairs at both opposite ends of the court are used to progress students between floors, further stimulating the courts use and students’ interaction. Johnson was careful to keep the elevators hidden to encourage stair use by the students.
Atop the court, outside of the skylight, sits a square temple. In his presentation to the Board of Regents, Johnson said, “Gentlemen, I understand that a percent of the budget here at UH goes to Art in the way of a piece of sculpture… but you don’t have to spend that!” He proceeded to open a Bloomingdale’s bag and pulled out a little temple and sat it on top of the model. When confronted by one of the regents who exclaimed that the temple looked expensive and unnecessary, Johnson argued that it was a “diverter to screen the hot sun from the skylight that lights the rotunda of the building.” This response pleased the board and the temple was included.
The realization of the building saw a $3 million budget cut from the initial commitment from the State of Texas. To adjust for this, a paper thin coating of brick veneer was substituted what was originally intended to be a limestone façade. This has undoubtedly altered the characteristic of the building especially it’s massing. The design by Johnson and Burgee took the liberty of several visual alterations from that of Ledoux. The most obvious of which is the lack of a large plinth. The window placement however was not changed to reflect studio spaces behind. This causes a vast diversity between the available natural light on the second floor compared to that of the third floor. This became the central criticism by Mark Hewitt in an article published prior to the building’s commencement.
Johnson had designed many buildings in Houston for Gerald D Hines of Hines Real Estate. His affiliation with Hines was connected to Keeland, who was initially introduced to Hines by Paul Rudolph in 1970. These connections along with a little push from Johnson eventually brought the largest endowment in the school’s history, $7 million, and the college was subsequently renamed to the Gerald D Hines, College of Architecture.
By the new millennium, the college’s focus on model building and full-scale fabrication had evolved to outgrow its facilities located in the Johnson building. An abandoned structure next to the architecture building became the center of interest in expansion and the university was able to raise $1.4 million in an effort to restore the building as a state-of-the-art shop. Originally built for the US Army at Camp Wallace military base in Galveston, the structure was moved along with many others to the university in 1947. The University used this structure initially to house the Automobile Paint and Body Shop and later by the university band before sitting derelict for well over a decade. Long-time faculty member Geoffrey Brune (Houston ‘73, Texas A&M, ‘96) designed the restoration of the shop, which opened in 2007 and was dedicated under the name Burdette Keeland Design Exploration Center (Keeland had passed in 2000). The building contains two large spaces, one for metal works and one for wood works with the administrative functions between the two. The new facilities have allowed for more fabrication based studios and courses to take place, and has spawned off a number of faculty-initiated projects.
With the new shop facility in honor of Keeland and a visiting lecturer endowment in honor of Barnstone (funded by Dominique de Menil) , these two gentlemen have created a legacy at the University of Houston from its foundation until the modern era. Through their connections, they have influenced the program of the college, the people who have taught there, and the architect who would eventually create their new space.
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Diehl, Tom. “Ant Farm in Houston, 1969-1972.” Cite 31, Spring 1994.
Gray, Lisa. “For Doug Michels, Buildings Were a Byproduct.” Cite 59, Winter 2004.
Hewitt, Mark A. “Much Ledoux About Nothing?” Cite 4, Fall 1983.
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Keeland, Burdette. Architectural Papers. Architecture and Planning Archives, University of Houston Libraries, Series 7, Box 9, Sub-Series 1.
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