Local Writers‎ > ‎

All Architecture, All the Time

by Egan Gleason
Thank you, Frank Lloyd Wright and Nellie Mae Hearn and Harwell Hamilton Harris and Philip Johnson and Howard Meyer

In the lab, we students are gathered in a tight group around Philip Johnson listening while he tells us of his recent visit to Taliesin West for a meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s almost as if we are walking with him as he describes in vivid detail his approach to the compound and begins making his way through the masterfully orchestrated series of rooms and passages; we take each turn with him, see each vista, revel at every ray of light, and feel in our viscera every quickening, every slowing through space and time. When he finally gets to the holy-of-holies, Wright’s personal studio, and meets the great man—we have forgotten to breathe. Johnson looks slightly upward, a blissful glow on his face, and in an emphatic whisper croons, “It’s the kind of architecture that is so great, it makes you want to weep.” Oh, yes! Yes! This scene is occurring during my sophomore year in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas. It’s 1951. Johnson, already a minor god to us students, is destined to go on to age 96 doing many fine, and some not-so-fine, buildings. But whatever our opinion of him as an architect, we all agree that when it comes to talking about architecture, the man is without peer. He talks a great game!

…those first affections, shadowy recollections
For those of us who came up short when the talents for hitting, throwing and catching a ball were doled out, architecture is our game. As kids, what we lacked on the playing field, we made up by being able to sketch well and build sturdy bookends and birdhouses. I loved to build. By the age of six, I had constructed an entire miniature city in the crawl space under our house. I was fascinated by the new houses being built in the neighborhood and searched their trash piles for every bit of tile or broken brick or scrap of wood that I could retrieve. That construction detritus was gold to me, I could build with it.

For my tenth Christmas, I got an encyclopedia. In the few pages dealing with architecture it had about two dozen pictures of famous buildings. Jefferson’s Monticello and University of Virginia were there, and though I was impressed that our third president had been an architect, I was most impressed by the famous Hedrick-Blessing photograph of Fallingwater. I thought it the most magically stupendous structure to ever come down almost to earth. I still have somewhat that same feeling today. If there is one single thing in my life I can point to as the spark that ignited my life in architecture, it is that photograph.

An only child, I couldn’t get enough of school. Every subject interested me, and having all those brothers and sisters around was fun. In high school, mechanical drawing grabbed my heart and soul. The class was all boys but it was taught by Nellie Mae Hearn, a lady who had wanted to be an architect, but because women had yet to be commonly thought of as architects, had become a teacher—a great one. She was the inspiration for several of us who became architects (Paul Kennon, to mention one). She had us design a house and do working drawings for it, in ink on tracing linen as was the standard for the day. She praised my work, and since she had attended the University of Texas, encouraged me to go and study architecture there. That photo of Fallingwater lit my flame but it was Mrs. Hearn who sent me into orbit.

A trajectory that took me through five years at UT resulting in my BArch in 1955. Simple and direct—not really. The early 1950s at the architecture school were a time of total turmoil. My arrival was concurrent with the arrival of the new dean, Harwell Hamilton Harris; but I can assure you that it was Harris’s arrival, not mine, that blew the school sky high. Harris was a quiet, thoughtful, and creative man who had a vision of how architecture might best be taught. He was a huge inspiration to us students, but was anathema to the old guard in the faculty. Disagreement, factional division, rancor, and flux became the daily norm. I’m now convinced that the big rift that went on for those five years was all for the best for us students. (Probably not for Harris, who resigned the day after we graduated.) We did not get a unified front, a dogma; we got at least two sides to everything. Balance. Maybe most important of all, we were exposed to the real world of bicker and bite we would have to deal with for the rest of our careers. Unbelievable as it might seem, I got a better education because of the upheaval. By graduation, we had learned an approach to design that was clean and honest, what is now called mid-century modern, a word we assiduously avoided. Perhaps just as important, along the way in those long charrettes and all those late night impassioned discussions we had instilled in each other a kind of indelible idealism that is still with us, still supports us.

I had received a deferment to finish my schooling, so in January 1956 my two years of military service were due and payable. I could have been sent to Korea, but instead was stationed on the west coast of France, the Bordeaux/La Rochelle area. Suddenly my history of architecture course came to life right in front of me: those cracked, blurry slides evolved into the full-color 3D of the real thing. My drive to the post each morning was by several Roman signal towers that had been there since the turn from B.C. to A.D. Parts of the town where I lived dated from 100 B.C. In the two years I was in Europe, I was able to study first-hand many of the great buildings of the past—Chartres, Versailles, the Pantheon, Hadrian’s Villa, etc., as well as a lot of the modern structures I had used as cribs for my school designs—Corbu’s Unite d’Habitation, Aalto’s works in Finland, Dudock’s Hilversom Town Hall, etc. I was itching to launch my life as an architect; the delay was bearable only because I was constantly living and breathing great architecture.

…the rainbow comes and goes
Life regained orbital stability in January 1958. I was 26 and had landed a plum of a job in Dallas with Harwell Hamilton Harris. He was designing an American embassy for Finland and some big projects for Trammel Crow. A blue-sky future lay ahead. Two years later, the sky fell—the projects were canceled. Harris moved to Chapel Hill and I, now jobless, came face-to face with the downside of construction: it ran in cycles – up and down, boom and bust, feast and famine – thus it has always been and thus it will always be, world without end, amen.

My two years with Harris made me shockingly aware of one thing: my schooling was just that—schooling. As good as it had been, I soon came to see as I worked next to Harris each day, that I knew a little but had a gargantuan amount to learn if I were to become an architect. In school we students looked upon design as some kind of light from heaven that shines down on us causing us to vibrate in sync with the universal rhythm; the design then flows effortlessly from our fingertips. I was sure Harris was a great designer because he had found out just where to sit to get that celestial light beam directly aimed at his head. I came to see that Harris was good because he put massive effort into developing his designs. I was shocked at first how unsure he seemed to be; how every possibility was weighed, judged, and then included or excluded. He was searching, but without a heavenly light, just his own intelligence, experience, and patience. Hard work far outweighed intuition. It became clear why Corbu said creation is a patient search. I took a few steps down the endless path of design. I remain impressed how many steps you can take and still cover only a small part of it.

…the years to bring the inevitable yolk
For the first 30 years of my career, I worked for small offices, less than eight people. (George Dahl was the only large office in Dallas, maybe 30 people.) Most offices were one or two principals with a handful of draftsmen if they had work. Offices bulked up when work came in and, because they were then very busy, they had no time to beat the bushes for new jobs. When the in hand jobs were finished, their hands were empty and the employees had to go out and find an office that had work—which, except for the fallow times when construction lay dormant, was not all that hard. The new office then turned out its job and if things were in your favor, your old office once again needed you. I did that dance three times with some offices

For five years in the late ’60s, Nick Glazbrook and I had our own practice next door to Howard Meyer in a building he had designed. From his reputation I knew him as an architect’s architect, but I also came to know him as a friend and as a great gentleman with a towering intellect. In the late ’70s, Howard called me into his office and asked if I could come to work for him. He was having a renaissance in his career; two new projects and a large addition to his masterpiece, Temple Emanu El, had come in. I was in my early forties; Howard was in his early eighties. I accepted the job with some sense of missed opportunity; too bad I hadn’t had this job 15 years before. I no longer had anything to learn from Howard. Little did I know. Once again, working day by day at a master’s side, my capacity for learning was challenged. I saw that Howard, after some 55 years of experience, approached each design as his first. Like Harris, he arrived at a solution to a design only after many hours of trial and error, endless testing of an endless number of proposals, followed by endless improvements to the best proposal. At his advanced age, Howard’s patience far exceeded mine. We argued every nuance of the design until I would give up. But Howard was having none of that. He told me the one thing he would not tolerate in any associate was capitulation; I must speak my opinions. So I would take a deep breath and put voice to my concerns. At the end of some of our design development harangues, I was totally exhausted; Howard was ebullient. But what I ultimately came to see was that the design was always much improved. For me, he is the best architect I have worked with, the best architect that has ever done work in Texas. I told him one day he had ruined me for ever working for any other architect. When the jobs were done and no new work came in, he told me that he probably had been too insistent on quality, too inflexible to compromise. He had done Raymond Nasher’s house but had been denied his Northpark Center. “But I will go to my grave knowing I have never done a bad building,” he added. A few years later he went to that grave and Texas lost its star.

…the little actor cons another part
In 1960 I became the 2,613th architect registered in the Texas. Forty-four years later I retired that number and can now no longer call myself an architect. But I saw the world with architect’s eyes long before I was registered and will continue to do so for quite some time to come. I don’t spend much time thinking back over the offices where I worked and the buildings that I worked on, so I won’t go into that here. The people and the dynamics between them are more interesting. Perhaps two scenes from those 44 years will best give a feeling for the depth and breath and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of Being and Ideal Grace. Yes, I’m totally overboard by evoking Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s passion in support of my rather spectacularly average career. But, understand, I have always been glad and proud to be an architect. I like the vast spread of interests it demands of me, the sheer number of talents that I must dredge up and hone to remain in the game, the marriage of artist and scientist that might seem bipolar to some but seems in complete harmony with my view of things. I thrive in an atmosphere where no day is a typical day, every day is unique. Cool may be the rule of today, but for me passion is still in fashion.

Scene One: Late on a Friday afternoon, I am making the final presentation of an immunology lab building to the CEO (my ultimate boss) of one of Dallas’s largest corporations. The lab is to be built for Dr. Jacques, a French biologist who is moving here to head the research. The planning phase has gone on for almost two years and Jacques has proved to be all I could want in a client. When he first saw my sketches for the final design, he said he had dreamed for years of having his own laboratory facility and my sketches were of the building in his dreams. The CEO is not even faking interest in my presentation: my salient points are not registering with him. Finally he asks a question, what style is the building? Alvar Aalto had been my inspiration, but I know better than to say that, so I give him the standard song about the building not being a style, but having style—timeless style, I add. His right hand flunky asks me what that means, and before I can reply, the CEO says, “Oh, that’s just something architects say.” With that, he recommends approval of the design, the flunkies dutifully agree, and I am elated that we have escaped with the design intact.

Scene One-and-a-half: Early Monday morning, I get a call that we are to be in the CEO ’s office ASAP . Once there he tells us that he took the rendering of the lab home over the weekend (Damn! I knew we shouldn’t have left it), and his wife decided it was “contemporary,” a word I instantly recognize as ultimate damnation. She is sure we’d agree that some columns and arches and “pretty” moldings would dress it up. I stand stunned. Jacques, whose English is flawless, is muttering something in French in the background that sounds more like de Gaulle than Proust. That scene in The Fountainhead flashes before me, the one where Howard Roark has just received approval from the board to go ahead with his first major project, whereupon the chairman reveals the approval is contingent on some “minor” revisions. He whips out some Greek pediments and colonnades and sticks them on to Roark’s model. “Now that’s what it should look like.” My brain is spinning. While my mouth is saying in Gary Cooper’s voice, “We’ll make some new sketches of the exterior,” I’m thinking, I learned how to use dynamite while in the Corps of Engineers, but where am I going to find enough of it to blow up this hideous, mutant bastard!

Scene Two (two years later): I’m in Austin attending an awards banquet at the TSA annual convention. I’m there to accept an award our office has won for the interiors of the immunology lab building. After the exterior was nixed by Mrs. CEO , Jacques’s temper had flared. Even more animated than usual, he growled, “The outside can be traditional if it has to be, but it will stop at the front door. The interior will be cutting-edge modern. Absolutement!” In order to keep the building from complete schizophrenia, I redesigned the exterior in a very simple granite cladding and tempered the public spaces inside with the use of lots of wood which pleased Jacques immensely as he had always insisted the laboratory casework must be all wood. Apparently it had equally pleased the awards jury. I get a good feeling as I go up and shake hands with the presenter and walk back to my seat with the certificate in my hands and the sound of applause in my ears. But no outside award can ever replace the genuine feeling that comes from a fine design, flawlessly constructed for a satisfied client. I will always have that Aaltoesque design filed away in a mental folder labeled: “Close, but no cigar.”

…where is it now, the visionary gleam?
To grasp what Renzo Piano is getting at when he says, “This separation between thinking and doing appears in all the artistic disciplines, but in our field it is a catastrophe,” all you need do is build some things by hand yourself, which is what I’ve been doing since 2004. I design a thing and then as I build it, it evolves, becomes better. We used to talk of “paper architecture” to describe designs that were all theory and no craft. My last job was with a man who hid behind a computer in his office all day never leaving to visit the construction site. Our profession grew out of the master builders who were ever present conducting work on building sites in ancient Egypt and Greece. Those times are gone. Gone too are the medieval craft guilds that worked together under the master craftsman. But to some extent some version of this architect/craftsman alliance went on until the late 1800s when Daniel Burnham surrendered the architect’s ability and knowledge to the client. Over the last century we’ve gradually retreated, many times voluntarily conceding to others details that no longer interest us, but should. Into the void stepped the contractors, engineers, banks, developers, and building codes. I see remarkably fine work done by prescient architects, but a lot of the stuff ballyhooed in the press is superficial and silly. Much is made of celebrity “form givers.” The last form giver I can think of was Louis Sullivan who realized that architects do not give form to anything. Form comes on its own when a complete understanding of the true form givers (gravity, sun, rain, aging, and available materials) is put into play with the project’s proposed function. Function then shows form the way. The designer allows these elements to do their work by initiating that immemorial circular process that Harris, Meyer, and Piano understand so well—design, test, design again. In no other profession have things gone so far astray; composers still play musical instruments and physicians still wield knives and take pride in their suturing ability.

…years that bring the philosophic mind
The life we live is only one-tenth the life we plan, the life we dream maybe one-one-hundredth. Our hour is played out on a stage littered with unrealized plans and roads not taken, shadowed by the mist of dreams, most of them forgotten only minutes after we wake—the bad ones for sure. I think I chose to be an architect, but even that is a deception: architecture chose me. For which I am grateful even though it is a profession that is too wonderful when it goes right and too hurtful and crushing when it goes wrong. I have felt my most self actuated when a project that I was a part of has ascended to that ideal of being well designed, well detailed, well built, with a well satisfied client. But in a life in architecture of half a century, it hasn’t happened all that much. But it does happen. And when it does, I am exalted. For a moment I live the the kind of life that is so great it makes me want to weep, but not just now

--Egan Gleason lives in Castroville.