Texas History: 12 books about how modern Texas was built
- Six recent books tell the story of modern design in Texas cities.
- Six older books help set the stage for understanding that Texas take on modernism.
- Urban planning takes a backseat to discussions of architecture in most of these Texas books.
A tiny minority of our state’s residents are old enough to recall the era that predated the modern Texas city.
Before towers, freeways and, especially, air conditioning.
Before top-rated universities, hospitals, museums and libraries.
Before up-to-date restaurants, parks, theaters, festivals and concert halls.
And well before all the digital technologies that make these modern things — and others — hang together these days.
It was not until 1950 that the U.S. Census recorded more Texans living in urban areas than in the rural ones, 30 years after America as a whole turned that demographic corner. (Pause to think about that.) So all that urban modernity that we take for granted today came rushing at Texans with great speed, mostly during the past 75 years.
Two points of entry for understanding this rapid change are buildings and urban planning. And just in time, publishers have released several excellent new or newish books that put Texas and its modern urban design into context. I’ve also selected six of those recent publications to spotlight, and have listed six older books on the subject worth checking out.
“The Open-Ended City: David Dillon on Texas Architecture” edited by Kathryn E. Holliday. (University of Texas Press, 2019). A lot of people promised to pay close attention to Texas’ big cities as they boomed periodically during the postwar years. These observers aimed to keep design standards high and to question poor design decisions. Dallas Morning News columnist David Dillon was one of the few among that astute set who did so publicly and persuasively. Repeatedly nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Dillon is also among the few Texas newspaper writers whose columns have been collected in book form. As such, his pieces on social equity, land use, suburban sprawl, downtown redevelopment and historic preservation can be read in any order and enjoyed for their potent opinions and carefully laid out arguments.
“Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil” by William Middleton (Knopf, 2018). If you consider together the fields of art collecting, museum building and social justice, few Texans can match this Houston pair for profound and lasting impact. Dominique and John de Menil, supplied with money from the Schlumberger oil services company, not only put together an astonishing collection of more than 15,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures, they hired top modernist architects — Renzo Piano, Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone — to design their house, museums, chapels and school campuses. This thorough-going and wonderfully written biography should be required reading for anyone interested in the arts in Texas, but also for those concerned with civil rights, which the couple supported in the face of the Houston establishment, as well as those who track broader Houston history. Then treat yourself to a trip to the Menil Collection in Montrose, inarguably one of the two or three best art museums in the state.
“Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone” edited by Barrie Scardino Bradley, Stephen Fox and Michelangelo Sabatino (University of Texas Press, 2020). Brilliant and mercurial, Barnstone was a driving force behind modern design in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, especially in the 1950s. The designer of the iconic Rothko Chapel, recently renovated, Barnstone was outspoken and deliberately provocative. He also was able to translate the precepts of high modernism into buildings that Texans could easily understand and enjoy. The book contains an extremely valuable catalogue raisonné of his works as well as a frank portrayal of his bipolar condition.
“Improbable Metropolis: Houston’s Architectural and Urban History” by Barrie Scardino Bradley (University of Texas Press, 2020). This is a book I’ve been anticipating for a long time. Now completed, it is big, beautiful and comprehensive. I’d argue that its version of urban history takes a distant second place to its architectural insights. Yet starting with the startling book jacket, which shows the downtown skyline from an unexpected angle at night, it is a feast for the eyes. This book does cover Houston’s long premodern years, but it instantly brightens when the story comes to the urban explosion of the mid-20th century. I cannot imagine how much labor went into this magnificent book, especially since physical Houston is so unimaginably spread out.
“Miró Rivera Architects: Building a New Arcadia” by Juan Miró and Miguel Rivera (University of Texas Press, 2020). Modern architects are often their own best storytellers. Austin-based Miró Rivera Architects has been among the most creative design firms working from the capital city for the past few decades. Juan Miró and Miguel Rivera, along with other writers, tell about their ideas and design journeys in page after page that foreground gorgeous photography and helpful floor plans. While I could spend hours paging through this ravishing book, I miss an index as well as the presence of some of the firm’s best-known work.
“Lake Flato: Nature, Place, Craft, Restraint” by Lake Flato Architects (University of Texas Press, 2020). San Antonio-based Lake Flato made a name for itself championing what I’d call, in the best sense of the term, “regional modernism,” which applies an understanding of the land, location, climate and local materials to the rigors of modern design. Rightly, this book opens with their still-new Austin Central Public Library project, which I called “a building of consequence” when it opened in 2019. Much of what you need to know about Lake Flato is embodied in this lakeside building. Even more so than the Miró Rivera volume, this is primarily a picture book. Almost always, one immediately notes the design elements that celebrate indirect natural light while avoiding our state’s extreme heat.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The City in Texas: A History” by David G. McComb
“Lone Star Suburbs: Life on the Texas Metropolitan Frontier” edited by Paul J.P. Sandul and M. Scott Sosebee
“The See-Through Years: Creation and Destruction in Texas Architecture and Real Estate, 1981-1991” by Joel Warren Barna
“No Small Dreams: J. Erick Jonnson, Texas Visionary” by Darwin Payne
“The Architecture of O’Neil Ford: Celebrating Place” by David Dillon
“Philip Johnson & Texas” by Frank D. Welch
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