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The Texas Book – Featured Essays

From "Campus Architecture: The Heroic Decades"
by Lawrence Speck

From 1910 to 1942 the University of Texas at Austin built an extraordinary ensemble of buildings which demonstrated palpably to its public the ambitions of an emerging institution. In a relatively short

Paul Cret's unfinished pencil sketch of plans for development of the University of Texas campus, 1933.

Paul Cret's unfinished pencil sketch of plans for development of the University of Texas campus, 1933. Paul Philippe Cret Collection, Comm. 241, sk.35, Alexander Architectural Archive, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

period of time, the image of the University was transformed from a sleepy, small-town college housed in a hodgepodge of mismatched buildings into a powerful, sophisticated institution whose campus exuded confidence and a memorable identity. During this period, a core of 33 buildings were constructed by three different architects of significant distinction (Cass Gilbert, 1910-1922; Herbert M. Greene, 1922-1930; Paul Cret, 1930-1942). It is remarkable both that all work done through this era was directed by architects with very strong credentials and that the architects used were firmly committed to building a real campus and not just a collection of individual buildings. In planning, massing, character, material selection, and detail this core campus and its components offer an instructive model for how to create a rich, lively, yet coherent urban place. [. . .]

The holistic development of the campus from 1910 to 1942 represents an exemplary balance between contextual considerations and fresh, new innovation. All three key architects—Cass Gilbert, Herbert W. Greene, and Paul Phillipe Cret—as well as their collaborators who often bridged the transitions between them (including Ayers and Ayers; Greene, La Roche and Dahl after Herbert Greene's death; Robert Leon White; John Staub; and Page Brothers) demonstrated a remarkable commitment to creating a powerful, coherent, and dynamic place. The Board of Regents, the University administrations, and key faculty members like Dr. William Battle, who was chair of the Faculty Building Committee through much of this era, had the vision to select extraordinary designers and then to support them in the pursuit of both enlightened planning and architectural innovation.

Photograph of the Main Building and Library under construction, December 28, 1935.

Photograph of the Main Building and Library under construction, December 28, 1935. University of Texas Buildings Collections, Alexander Architectural Archive, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

The resulting physical environment has played a prominent role in shaping the best aspects of the University of Texas at Austin today. Winston Churchill's often-quoted

dictum, "We shape our buildings; hereafter our buildings shape us," is certainly applicable in this instance. The power, prestige, and dignity embodied in UT buildings when the institution was still fledgling predicted its future. The campus felt big and strong long before it actually was. The environment of the University set a benchmark that the institution grew to achieve over time. Generations of prospective students have looked up the South Mall toward the Main Building and

Various elevations of Paul Cret's Union group of buildings.

Various elevations of Paul Cret's Union group of buildings, including the Union, the Auditorium (now Hogg Memorial Auditorium), the Architecture Building (now Goldsmith Hall), the Education Building (now Sutton Hall), and the to-be-demolished Women's Building, 1931. Paul Philippe Cret Collection, Comm. 261-C, sk. 5, Alexander Architectural Archive, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

have sensed an ambition and aspiration that matched their own. Thousands of freshmen over seven decades have discovered the intimate courtyards and warm interiors of buildings like the Union or Goldsmith Hall and have felt welcome and "at home." Faculty, staff, and students from all over the globe and with diverse and conflicting values have mingled and engaged in meaningful dialogue amidst the civility and graciousness of the West Mall. The campus has become the crucible in which the ethos of the University of Texas is best contained. For many people this physical environment is UT and is a place they return to over and over to connect to the institution and to its role in transforming their lives.

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