Handsome, passionate, and as smart as a whip, my friend and colleague Larry Doll died too young. He was 69. Being treated for lung cancer — which he almost had beat — he died of a heart attack at his home in the Brown Building in downtown Austin on July 21, 2018, with his wife of 47 years, Laura, at his side.
Larry had been teaching architecture at UT Austin since 1975, the same year Michael Garrison, Larry Speck, and I were hired by then-dean Charles (Chuck) Burnette, soon to be followed by Hal Box. It was under Hal Box that Larry became the associate dean for undergraduate programs. He also started the school’s European Study Abroad program (more about which below) and its Summer Academy program. He served on at least a dozen university-level committees in addition to at least twice as many School of Architecture committees (faculty search, lectures and exhibitions, curriculum, executive — you name it). Larry was a committed faculty member and great ambassador for UT.
Larry taught seminars, drawing, and design studio for 43 years. That’s a long time to teach. But he never tired of it, as his hundreds of students now working in Texas and around the world will attest. Larry was uniquely able to raise questions that no one else thought to ask about what makes a building “tick.” He knew a lot of the answers, too, but rarely just told them to you. His studio exercises were deceptively simple. For example, he would ask students to make a two-dimensional shape (I forget the criteria, exactly), then ask them to create the three-dimensional object of which that shape was the shadow. Or he would have students start with a four-inch cube, which, sliced once and shifted in the X, then Y, then Z dimensions, yielded an infinite variety of architectonic forms. The lesson? Simple operations can yield complex results. When teaching higher-level studios, his programs were compassionate and multifaceted. A site that he used frequently was under the MoPac flyovers just north of Lady Bird Lake in Austin. There, he would assign the design of a recuperative shelter for injured birds of prey, or a home for runaway children, or a police training shooting range. Yes: These programs are laden with attitude, and put in an overlooked, problematic setting more sublime than beautiful. Did this “say something” about Larry? Yes, but he also assigned residential live-work towers in downtown, and houses, and much else, besides. He loved cities and saw the potential everywhere for unique solutions. At his own student reviews, Larry was reserved and protective. At other teachers’ reviews, he was incisive, suprising, funny, and sometimes explosive — especially when I was there. And he always had a better fountain pen than I had.
This hardly begins to describe Larry’s presence around the school. He also taught classes on modern architecture since 1945. This was a subject Larry knew uniquely well, having invented and led the school’s European Study Abroad program for 30 years without a break. Each fall, he would spend 12 weeks taking as many as 20 students all over the continent to view the best and latest work of prominent firms, visiting their offices, and older landmarks, too. He would lecture and draw nonstop; his students would draw, too, coming back with a treasure trove of experiences as well as precedents they could draw on for a lifetime. Larry had it down. He knew his modern art, and he walked faster than humanly possible.
Few people followed Larry’s research as I did. In the early years of our friendship, it’s what we shared most passionately over lunch, coffee, dinner, just walking, or co-teaching: the idea that architecture could be approached formally and rationally. Larry called his studies morphologies, and he produced some of the most wonderful analyses of the logical foundations of iconic works by Le Corbusier, Wright, Aalto, and others. It was like seeing their DNA laid out, not in a helical string, but as a matrix of overlaid and usually very simple ideas, which Larry knew how to tease out and then draw. Every now and again, one sees his methods used in practice, as I did recently at a lecture by Tatiana Bilbao. And of course his research informed his own teaching and practice richly. Larry filled dozens of notebooks with abstract line drawings, many watercolored. One such was published as a book called “Drawing on Uncertainty” (2009, available on Amazon and at the Center for American Architecture and Design at UT). It’s only a matter of time, I believe, before we see a gallery exhibit of his larger watercolors.
Larry also practiced architecture as a sole practitioner (although he associated on and off with Sinclair Black, James Coote, Richard Dodge, and Ed Wallace). Several of his houses are in the Austin area; one is in Fort Davis, and one is in Maryland. Larry’s houses are all wonderfully clear at a diagrammatic level and yet utterly comfortable and livable, just-right in every dimension, simply detailed, lit from every direction, and friendly to their neighbors. Together with his and Laura’s house in Austin, the house he was most proud of was their house in Marfa. Built of local adobe block leavened with cement and tied with concrete bond beams, this house and guest house (“casita”) was actually designed digitally, as Larry would tell anyone who would listen, using Boolean operations in Form-Z. Subtle features abound. For example, all windows (in handmade steel) go to the polished concrete floor, but their header heights are at six feet, which is rather low. The effect is marvelous. Marfa is a place of big skies, but to enter Larry and Laura’s house is to enter an old, cool, high- and dark-ceilinged fort. One looks out and down to the grasses, which now themselves seem protected. Cabinetry is plywood, and the furniture is comfortable, and yet one feels ensconced in a place of great strength and orderliness.
The house in Marfa defies definitions of elegance, at least those definitions that depend on standard, modernist moves. I’d say it flirts with ugliness. But I’d also say it speaks well of Larry’s courage as a designer: to let logic, use, climate, comfort, and durability produce what they must. It is we who should redefine what counts as “beautiful” in architecture. New beauty is always surprising. It brings you around. Larry always did that, too. Teacher, artist, architect, magician, logician, connoisseur, and bon vivant, he will be missed.
Michael Benedikt holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism at the School of Architecture at UT Austin.