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The Blanton That Could Have Been Photo by Charles Davis Smith, AIA; Illustration by Richard Carman, courtesy Herzog & de Meuron and UT Austin

b y J . B r a n t l e y H i g h t o w e r , AIA

(above) Herzog & de Meuron’s concept was far different from most buildings on the UT Austin campus. (below) The final phase of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architect’s Blanton Museum of Art was completed in November.

While studying at UT Austin in the spring of 1998, my classmates and I had the opportunity to attend a series of public lectures given by the seven short-listed architects for the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. The list was impressive and when Herzog & de Meuron was ultimately chosen we were thrilled by the prospect of what the Swiss firm would design. The insertion of a thoughtful work within the Spanish Mediterranean-style campus was certainly something to be eagerly anticipated. But things did not go as planned. There is little point in retelling what happened next other than to say that by the following year Herzog & de Meuron had walked away from the commission. The events leading up to the firm’s resignation taught my friends and me that architecture is not just about design. For something different to become real, we learned, a Herculean effort is often necessary to overcome the gravitational pull of the status quo. This cynical truth was an important lesson for a naive student to learn before jumping headfirst into the realities of the professional world. In the years that followed Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s departure from Austin, the price of their architectural stock soared. In 2001 they were awarded the Pritzker Prize. They designed the cultural landmarks of the H.M. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco and the Walker Art Center expansion in Minneapolis. Perhaps their widest exposure occurred this past August when the world’s attention was focused on the XXIX Olympiad. The iconic bird’s nest form of their Beijing National Stadium will no doubt be forever associated with that time and that event, and may very well have changed the public’s view on what architecture can be. Although some may criticize their projects as self-conscious explorations of surface effect, that effect is always deployed as a means of integrating the building with its surrounding context. That is not to say Herzog & de Meuron’s buildings are contextual – certainly not in the traditional sense – but they do respond to their surroundings in subtle and compelling ways. While it is impossible to say exactly what a Herzog & de Meuron Blanton would have been (their early schemes were more evocative than explicit), it most likely would have created an entirely new type of architectural experience while engaging the historic campus without overtly mimicking its limestone walls and red tile roofs. As lamentable as it was to lose the Blanton that could have been, perhaps the more unfortunate result was the chilling effect the episode had on other projects at UT Austin. The Blanton was one of the first projects designed under Cesar Pelli’s campus master plan in which existing campus buildings were designated as stylistic “points of departure.” However, the Blanton project proved that adherence to the specifics of those precedents would be rigidly enforced. In the decade since the Blanton debacle, a host of talented and award-winning firms have done work on campus that has been limited by strict aesthetic dictates. Those projects are interesting variations on a common theme but certainly do not represent the full potential of the firms that designed them. Innovation is by definition continued on page 85

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Texas Architect Jan/ Feb 2009: Campus Communities  
Texas Architect Jan/ Feb 2009: Campus Communities  

Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...