The view from the pool terrace was breathtaking, a sweeping vista that took in Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico — all Chihuahuan Desert, as far as the eye was concerned. At its center, but far below our elevation, was Mount Cristo Rey, which seemed to be no place at all. The limestone statue of Christ the King at its peak — which attracted pilgrims from both sides of the national border, and bandits — turned his hands down in benediction on all sinners who approached.
It was Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, who got us into the Franklin Mountain House, and onto its pool terrace. He met the architects, Hazelbaker Rush, while writing about the project for the magazine (TA, May/June 2016). They had connected him with the owners, who were only too glad to invite the entirety of the TxA Publication Committee over for sundowners and to tour the house, which impressed on the level of design as well as craftsmanship. As far as any of us knew, it was the only example of recently completed, Class-A contemporary architecture in El Paso. The neighborhood itself, in spite of its gorgeous site high on the slope of the Franklin Mountains, left much to be desired. Developed primarily with oversized, stucco McMansions, it had no sidewalks; no infrastructure whatsoever for the fostering of community; no public space. The neighbors, the owners confided, were not very friendly, so maybe its not a bad thing that the house turns a blind, stone wall to the development, opening itself up instead to the park preserve to the southeast and the vista.
Downtown El Paso was another matter entirely. Having missed the brunt of the postwar boom that transformed cities like Houston and Dallas into epitomes of urban sprawl, it still has an intact urban core, complete with most of its early 20th century building stock. The city is now reinvesting in its public spaces (page 36) and is even putting in a trolley system. While the inner city still has some way to go before it could properly be called “reinvigorated,” it’s showing real urban ambition. A trap music festival in San Jacinto Plaza while we were there gave an impression of the sort of lively buzz that could exist in the district throughout the week, if all of its dormant buildings were refurbished and filled.
A week later, I found myself on another part of the border, driving across a flat savannah of resacas and mesquite thickets as I traveled from Brownsville to South Padre Island for the Lower Rio Grande Valley AIA’s Building Community Conference. If El Paso is an urban comer, South Padre doesn’t even have that word in its vocabulary. The most built-up part of the Texas Gulf Coast, this agglomeration of hotels and beach condos — each an island unto itself, almost none of which existed before the 1970s — offers little in the way of architectural interest or civic connectivity.
Glimmers of both, however, were to be found in other parts of the Valley. An architectural tour of McAllen led by historian Stephen Fox revealed a wealth of early- and mid-20th century residences by such Texas luminaries as O’Neil Ford, FAIA; Kenneth Bentsen, FAIA; and Richard Colley, AIA, that exhibited creative responses to the geography and climate. We even saw a promising contemporary house by young local firm Orange Made. When I told firm co-founder Erick Diaz, Assoc. AIA, how pleased I was to see such work being done in the Valley, he said, “We’re trying!” (For a full write-up of the tour, go to txamagazine.org.) On another night, I attended an artwalk in downtown Harlingen — a sliver of urban fabric with a lot of charm, and a community set on keeping it alive.
These were by far the exceptions among the examples of the Valley’s built environment we saw, which, especially in its current wave of development, is overwhelmingly banal and suburban. One local architect put the problem to me succinctly: “Most of our clients tell us they don’t want design in their projects. They point to a building and say, ‘give me that.’ We have to sneak design into our buildings.”