Pulling together a survey of the best modern architecture in Texas is a tall order. After all, the state is known for its striking skylines, built by the likes of Philip Johnson and IM Pei, whose gleaming corporate towers were beamed into millions of American homes as the backdrop for the prime-time 1980s soap Dallas. Yet Texas also has its own quiet thread of Frank Lloyd Wright-style Americana, with firms such as MacKie and Kamrath elaborating a Lone Star dialect of the Prairie School idiom. And then there’s O’Neil Ford, in a category all his own, a designer who drew his inspiration from common ranches and homes built by Texans over centuries, a vision that still inspires architects today. Where to even start?

Undaunted by the scope of the task, architectural historian Kathryn E O’Rourke and architect Ben Koush joined forces to produce Home, Heat, Money, God: Texas and Modern Architecture (University of Texas Press, May 7), a new book that tackles the spirit, industry, artistry and swagger of Texas as manifested by its mid-century buildings.

O’Rourke’s detailed history (warts and all) and Koush’s photographs (hundreds of them) weave together disparate threads of Texas design, with an eye toward materials, energy, climate and justice. Spanning buildings from the 1930s through the ’80s, with examples from more than 70 towns and cities, Home, Heat, Money, God is both fittingly wide and surprisingly deep.

O’Rourke and Koush recently sat down with Bloomberg CityLab to talk about how the state became such a hotbed of architectural modernism. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bloomberg CityLab: Could you make this book for any other state? For every state? Or are the examples of modernism in Texas and the state's contributions to modernism so outsized that Texas really merits special consideration all its own?

Kathryn E O’Rourke: One of the things that I found challenging from the very beginning was the act of wrestling with that question. Why frame buildings in state terms? It’s not the most conventional way to do it in architectural history. But the more I worked on it, the more I became convinced that yes, this was an important area within US modernism, in part because of the sheer number of important buildings that were created between the 1930s and the mid-1980s. This is an incredibly important period for the growth of modernism in Texas, because it is ascendant in so many ways — economically, politically, obviously the oil industry, Nasa — all these things that that are unambiguously important to the history of the United States, and arguably to the world, they’re all happening at this moment.

How did you come up with the tentpole themes of Home, Heat, Money, God?

O’Rourke: Ben was very generous in letting me think about how to organise it. I didn’t want to do style, I didn’t want to do a chronology, I didn’t want it to be a guide book. I felt like I was acting like a curator in this role, in terms of having this wonderful body of photographs and knowing that we were only going to be able to use a few of them in the final work. I tried to identify themes, first and foremost, that would allow me to bring out a lot of issues in the history of architecture — but also that give us a chance to think about Texas. You wouldn’t write about heat in Minnesota.

Just looking at the sheer range of range of photos you’ve taken, Ben, I have to ask: What’s the mileage like on your car?

Ben Koush: It’s very high. I was lucky because I was on the State Board of Review for the Texas Historical Commission for six years. We reviewed national registry nominations across the state. The State Historic Preservation Officer liked to go to more out-of-the-way areas, so I was able to see a lot of things that way.

A professor at Rice University, Stephen Fox, has been leading architecture tours of different parts of South Texas and East Texas. Through these things, I realised how many great buildings there were. So I started making a project without really knowing what the final result was gonna be. Texas is the size of France — 930 miles across east and west, and the same north and south — so it was a lot of driving.

When I think about the place where my family lives, San Angelo —

Koush: That was the one town I didn’t get to. I didn’t have enough time. They were fussing at me to stop taking pictures and let Kathryn finish writing the book.

I won’t hold it against you. But I was thinking about the countless examples of vernacular modernism that you find in small cities and towns like San Angelo. When you have just so many examples of gas stations and bank buildings and office parks that are modernist in their character, how do you decide as a photographer what counts?

Koush: Part of it is connoisseurship. I’ve seen so many that I pick them up pretty quickly now, because I’ve been doing this informally for the past 10 years or so. I also have a big help with Stephen Fox and other people at Rice. We’ve been able to make lists of buildings for different places in Texas. So I come with a cheat sheet.

I spend a lot of time on on Google Street View looking at things to see if they look like they’re worth looking at. It’s a lot of background information. There’s Buildings of Texas, volumes one and two. We’ve gone through architecture guides for places like Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, where there’s some documentation of things. The book is really focused on buildings with an architect’s name attached to the design. There’s very few purely vernacular, just a handful. Because I’m an architect, I want to support the work of other architects. I do think those buildings are better.

Something that comes through in the book, Kathryn, is your knowledge of modernism in Mexico. You give the example of Félix Candela, the Spanish-Mexican architect who pioneered these curving, thin-shell concrete forms (the hyperbolic paraboloid roof). Candela worked with O’Neil Ford on the Texas Instruments Superconductor Building in 1958, to give just one example. How significant is Mexico’s influence on Texas modernism?

O’Rourke: Not every architect in Texas was interested in what was happening in Mexico by any means. But Candela is a great example. He becomes internationally famous after he leaves Mexico City and goes to Chicago. What he’s doing with thin-shell concrete construction is getting attention in the US press very widely. It becomes the perfect symbol of the Space Age. O’Neil Ford, famously, works with him.

In San Antonio, we have some great examples, like N Straus Nayfach, who designed the Alameda Theater. He was looking at design in Mexico. It really varies in different parts of the state. Already in the 1920s — a period we don’t really deal with, an era of revivals and eclecticism — we start to see the Spanish Colonial Revival style being popular in some places, certainly in San Antonio, in some neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, certainly in El Paso. It’s this very sort of white version of Mexico, a romantic neocolonial image. That’s there as a current. At the same time, though, there is real research being done by architects and some other people who are trying to document buildings in Mexico. So there’s a set of market forces that’s drawing this influence out, but also then the scholarly side. And then, of course, so many people are coming to Texas from Mexico in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. We didn’t get into this in part because the focus was on professionally trained architects, but there’s all of this knowledge that’s coming, particularly out of northern Mexico, and you see it along the part of the the border regions that have a wonderful border brick tradition.

Can you describe some of the photographic influences on this project?

Koush: In the 1960s, there was this really heightened awareness of photographic culture in Texas. The Galveston That Was — that book was photographed in 1966 by Ezra Stoller and Henri Cartier-Bresson. They were brought to Galveston by the Menils and the director of the Museum of Fine Arts to make the photographs for that book. There’s Texas Homes of the 19th Century and Texas Public Buildings of the 19th Century, which were done by Todd Webb, who is like a Robert Frank-type documentary photographer from from the East Coast who came to Texas in 1962. Then there’s Clovis Heimsath’s Pioneer Texas Buildings in 1968, where he took photographs of buildings in the Hill Country, vernacular buildings. They’re all documenting the buildings that then were 60 to 70 years old — kind of like what what I’m doing today, the buildings that are not considered fashionable by the communities where those buildings are standing.

In the book you also mention Paul Hester as an influence. Can you elaborate on what you took away from his work?

Koush: Paul Hester is the second generation of this work. What he does that I really appreciate is he frames the city. That’s what I’ve also taken from these other photographers, because what they were taking pictures of were not considered the regular subject of photography. The buildings were beat up. There were cars parked in front of them. They just didn’t look as good as they did when they were new. I try to look at them in a gentle and sensitive way and try to pick out the best attributes of what the building has to offer. Sometimes I think of myself as a fortune-teller at the carnival. You look at someone and try to size them up and understand what they want to be told about themselves.

Philip Johnson’s footprint is enormous in Texas. He’s responsible for major projects such as the JFK Memorial in Dallas and several Reagan-era skyscrapers in Houston. Today it’s well understood that he held antisemitic beliefs and engaged in fascist organising in the 1930s. Does the shadow that lingers over Johnson’s work also linger over Texas modernism?

O’Rourke: Yes. There are a lot of shadows over Texas modernism, not just Philip Johnson. Would it be nice if in Texas, in Houston and Dallas in particular, there was more acknowledgement of how Johnson is a complicated figure? I think so. To me, equally problematic is how so many of these buildings that we’re talking about are built with huge oil profits, incredibly unequal conditions of labour and work, and environmental destruction, and how uncritical we still are about those relationships between wealth and the expression of wealth in architectural terms, and the human consequences of it.

That’s not in any way to excuse Philip Johnson’s antisemitism or any of the other nasty things that he may have done or said. He’s such a fascinating case study in patronage. I hesitate to condemn one person too much, even though obviously we have to condemn some of the things that he said and stood for at one point in his life. There are skeletons in an awful lot of closets.

As I was reading this book, I was thinking about a very Frank Lloyd Wrightian MacKie and Kamrath bank tower in Pasadena, Texas, that was demolished back in 2019. How many of the buildings pictured in this book have been torn down?

Koush: The buildings that we picked, some of them are more safe from demolition, like museums. It’s not a regular sampling of modern buildings. There’s been the American Bank, and there’s another bank in Corpus Christi that was scheduled to be demolished. Maybe there’s a house or two in the book that have been demolished. But overall? When I look at my hard drive, I’ve got about 40,000 photos. I’d say probably half are gone or threatened to be demolished.

O’Rourke: One of the underground goals of the book was to draw attention to demolition and to make a case for the preservation of modern buildings. Precisely because it seems so easy for some people to tear them down.
Koush: Going back to those 19th-century books in the 1960s, they lament the destruction of the Victorian buildings. It is a perennial thing, to find buildings that are in this stage of their life where they’re obsolete and try to do something to help keep them from being completely taken away. It’s frustrating. You have be able to let go. You’re one of the documentary people making a video about things in the savanna and you have to be okay with the lion eating the antelopes.

How do demolitions frustrate your ability to weave a story about the narrative of Texas modernism? What are the breaks in history from your perspective?

O’Rourke: What I have come to appreciate from doing this project is how much the fight for preservation is part of the story of modernism in Texas. It’s been a very long path in my own career to understand how much preservation is part of architectural history. What’s very exciting is how much renovation and reuse is happening in Texas, thanks to the tax credit programs at the state and federal level. I’m more optimistic than I might have been a few years ago. In a way, that’s the next chapter. Some of the most exciting things that are happening right now are in these adaptive reuse projects, nurturing what’s here already, rather than this sort of wholesale clearing.

Koush: That’s part of the new frontier in preservation is being a specialist in these tax credits. You have to be like an accountant now, rather than someone who knows so much about fixing the buildings.

With a subject as large as Texas and modernism, I imagine that it was really difficult to tackle this from an editing level. Could you describe some of the key challenges? Things that you had to put aside in order to make this a feasible book?

O’Rourke: I felt like I was always trying to elbow Houston aside a little bit, because I didn’t want to just have this super heavy Houston book. I was very conscious of the bias, because Ben lives and works in Houston, and I grew up in Houston. We know it better than any other city. We had more photographs from it. If there were more time and more space, I would want more small towns, I would want more Panhandle. Ben referred to extending the project, which was fabulous, because we now have East Texas represented. At the beginning we didn’t; that was a big hole. Ben went and took all these great photographs, and I was able to open my mind to East Texas a little bit more. It was always about trying to have a balance, working from my own bias very much as a city person, and realising like how little I knew about these small towns. It seems super important on many, many levels, that we try to have more conversation across the state.

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