R e c o l l e c t i o n
All Architecture, All the Time Thank you, Frank Lloyd Wright and Nellie Mae Hearn and Harwell Hamilton Harris and Philip Johnson and Howard Meyer by Egan Gleason
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!
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
…those first affections, shadowy recollections
t e x a s
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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 continued on page 88
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Photo courtesy Egan Gleason
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
Published on Oct 18, 2011
Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...