“Consensus” means “agreement.” Consensus also describes the process of coming to agreement. Additionally, consensus is a term of critical theory about the context in which courses of action are formulated, debated, and promoted. In this respect, the opposite of consensus is “conflict.” Conflict theory describes another method of forging agreement, one that is, well, not agreeable. When Aaron Seward asked me to write an article for the issue on patronage, to follow a lead by Mark Gunderson, AIA, I first thought of all the potentially great Texan buildings that never got built because something went wrong: bad economic timing; the patron died; the bids came in too high. As it turns out, that’s not what TxA Publication Committee members had in mind when they discussed this topic. As Seward explained to me, Houston architect (and frequent Texas Architect contributor) Ben Koush, AIA, proposed the category of “crank” to characterize a kind of anti-patron, a person or group who made it his/her/their mission to challenge consensus and prevent a course of action from being taken. Koush suggested several examples.
One was the occasion, 20 years ago, when Herzog & de Meuron walked the Blanton Museum of Art job at The University of Texas at Austin after regents A. R. Sánchez, Jr., and Rita Crocker Clements refused to approve their design because it did not comply with the architectural guidelines incorporated in the campus master plan by César Pelli & Associates.
Another was the opposition by affected property owners to construction of a light-rail public transit line along Richmond Avenue in Houston that would have linked the main north-south line to the Post Oak-Galleria district on the west.
A third was recurring opposition to rewriting Austin’s zoning and housing codes to permit construction of multi-unit housing in center-city neighborhoods presently zoned for single-family housing.
The most evident connection between my first take and Koush’s proposal was the word “not”: buildings that did not happen, and buildings and infrastructure projects around which opponents rallied to ensure they would not happen. This is what led me to focus on “consensus” as the process through which decisions are made about what needs to be done, and that legitimizes that decision-making process in order to justify the desired outcome. And the best place in Texas to start to examine the consensus/conflict dynamic is…? Well, of course: the Alamo!
In the 19th century, contending armies fought with swords, guns, and cannons at the Alamo. In the 20th and 21st centuries, historic preservation advocates have fought to determine how its history should be interpreted, and the spatial consequences the chosen interpretation would have for surrounding buildings and real estate — a debate that, in 1913, led the State of Texas to sanction partial demolition of the Alamo’s convento wing because demolition proponents contended it had not figured in the March 1836 battle. At issue since 2015 has been the effort — by George P. Bush, commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas, which has legal custody of the Alamo; the City of San Antonio; and the Alamo Trust, which describes itself as a private, nonprofit corporation that the General Land Office has contracted with to operate the Alamo — to enclose eight acres of downtown San Antonio, barricade streets to traffic, and systematically suburbanize Alamo Plaza by turning it into a fenced and gated tourist destination. This could even entail demolition of three late-19th- and early-20th-century landmarked buildings facing the plaza in order to enhance the site’s historic “authenticity” and ensure consistent management of a cultural narrative. A plan from 2015-17 by Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) has been superseded by an interpretive and marketing plan by thematic designers PGAV Destinations of St. Louis and London-based Cultural Innovations, with urban and landscape design by Cambridge, Massachusetts landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand, a plan adopted by all parties in the fall of 2018. The question is not so much one of design quality — both PDP’s and Reed Hilderbrand’s designs are quite commendable (even though PDP advocated for no trees, which Reed Hilderbrand countered by proposing that Alamo Plaza be turned into a virtual forest) — but of messages and motives. Is it too cranky to see this as a strategy for eventually turning the Alamo, and all of Alamo Plaza (or Plaza de Valero, as PGAV rebrands it), over to a corporate management team to monetize the rewards produced by the nearly half-billion dollars being invested in the project? What stands out is how skillfully the plan’s proponents have formulated a consensus that appears totally resistant to opposition, even from such normally influential groups as the San Antonio Conservation Society. (Check out architectural historian Kathryn E. O’Rourke’s eloquent critique of February 2020, “Civic Plaza as Civil Rights Space,” at https://bexarcountytx.swagit.com/play/01312020-599.) Conflict exists. But by consistently sticking to their liberal-sounding inclusivity and diversity narrative, proponents of the Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan have evaded any substantive political challenge.
In El Paso, architectural historian Max Grossman has pursued conflict in the face of consensus to get the City of El Paso to back down on a plan it has entertained since 2001 to build a 15,000-seat multipurpose cultural and performing arts arena, for which $180 million in bond funding was approved in 2012, on a two-block site between W. Overland Avenue and Paisano Drive bisected by Chihuahua Street. The site lies in the larger, mixed-use, working-class, historic Mexican immigrant neighborhood of Duranguito, south of the El Paso Civic Center. In the past two decades, the city has sought to concentrate such public facilities as the El Paso Museum of History, the proposed El Paso Children’s Museum (in design now by Snøhetta), and the 7,500-seat Southwest University Park baseball stadium (completed in 2014 on the site of the 11-story city hall of 1978, which was imploded in 2013 to facilitate construction of the stadium) along Santa Fe Street, adjacent to the civic center and the El Paso Museum of Art. While an alternative site south of Paisano could contain an arena of this size, the city wants to construct it within 1,000 feet of the 1972 civic center to make use of revenues from state sales tax and mixed-beverage tax to “enhance” the arena project. El Paso’s mayor, Dee Margo, does not conceal his ire at Grossman. Historians David Dorado Romo and University of Texas at El Paso associate professor Yolanda Chávez Leyva, as well as music and video producer Tony Duenez, have raised their voices to decry the destruction of the one- and two-story residential and commercial buildings that remain in Duranguito, most of which the city has already acquired. Here, a goal in the conflict is to construct a counter-consensus and sway public opinion on how Duranguito, like the larger Segundo Barrio sector of downtown to the east, comprises an extraordinary cultural landscape of early-20th-century El Paso building types. This cultural landscape spatializes El Paso’s distinctive history during the tumultuous period of the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the 20th century. In late February, during TxA’s 2020 Design Conference in El Paso, architect and historian William J. Palmore not only spoke about this cultural legacy but also led a conference tour examining the architecture associated with it. Who are the “cranks” in the Duranguito debate? Those who see Duranguito’s fragmented survivors as materializing an exceptional historical moment? Or those who see these blocks as blighted, pockmarked with parking lots and nondescript warehouses that can easily give way to a public arena that would reinforce downtown’s people- and tax-attracting activities and ensure a continued role for the city’s historic center?
Houston appears to be the site of an unlikely, if still tenuous, rapprochement between an array of neighborhood activists, the city government, such entities as the Houston Downtown Management District, and the Texas Department of Transportation in deciding how TxDOT’s North Houston Highway Improvement Project for reconstructing Interstate 45 through downtown Houston will be configured. In this case, perhaps because Mayor Sylvester Turner has been sensitive to neighborhood objections to condemning property adjacent to the existing freeway right-of-way to expand the number of lanes, the “cranks” seem to have been transformed into well-informed citizen activists with legitimate concerns that should be taken into account.
Cranks cease to be cranks when they win: when they demonstrate their political power and cultural authority by changing outcomes and legitimizing a new consensus on what is desirable and good. In 1984, I-CARE, a citizen’s group advocating reconstruction of Interstate 30 through downtown Fort Worth, overcame failed negotiations and an adverse court judgment to win on appeal and get I-30 rerouted. As a result, the architectural grandeur of the Art Deco Texas and Pacific buildings and the U.S. Post Office was preserved and restored. I-CARE was the platform that launched Fort Worth businessman Robert Bass to preservation prominence as chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 1987 to 1994, and set the stage for a historic preservation-affirming U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1997 involving the City of Boerne, Texas, and the Archdiocese of San Antonio that, like the I-CARE case, was argued by Fort Worth lawyer David Bonderman.
Cranks remain cranks as long as they threaten consensus positions and yet do not succeed in changing the consensus. Lenwood E. Johnson, a Houston public housing resident, advocate, and defender, drew laudatory tributes from Houston news media upon his death in 2018. But from 1980 to 1996, when Johnson led a bitter, ultimately semi-successful campaign to preserve Houston’s most prominently sited public housing community, Allen Parkway Village, he was consistently portrayed as an obstructionist and a malcontent. As historian Willa Granger writes in the journal “Buildings and Landscapes,” Johnson got the complex listed in the National Register as a historic district of exceptional architectural significance in 1988. Today, Allen Parkway Village is still public housing, although only 25 percent of its historic buildings remain. Johnson would never back down. Therefore, the consensus that he was a crank was unyielding. Only death absolved him. Lenwood Johnson now has a Wikipedia entry.
Like the deus ex machina of classical Greek drama, the financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may prove the biggest crank of all. How massive loss of revenue by federal, state, and local governments will affect many pending public infrastructure projects remains to be seen. It is the consequences of unforeseen circumstances that now link the future of the Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan, El Paso’s multipurpose cultural and performing arts center, and the North Houston Highway Improvement Project to unbuilt projects that might have been, but never were.
Frank Lloyd Wright did not have it easy in Texas. Although he got two major projects constructed in Dallas in the 1950s, Wright’s other completed Texan projects were two small Usonian houses, in the Houston suburb of Bunker Hill Village (1954) and in Amarillo (1960). Wright’s most ambitious Texan design, the 47-story Rogers Lacy hotel in downtown Dallas (1946), seems to have been mostly a fantasy project, promoted by John Rosenfield, culture critic for the Dallas Morning News and a profound admirer of Wright’s. Dallas lawyer and historian Charles T. Marshall documented the course of the hotel project in the Spring 2009 issue of the Dallas historical journal “Legacies.” The project ended with the abrupt death of Lacy, the Longview oilman who owned the downtown block for which Wright had designed the hotel, a year and nine months after the project began. In 1935, Wright had designed a house in Dallas for Billie and Stanley Marcus that did not get built either. In his autobiography, “Minding the Store,” Stanley Marcus presented his version of the rocky relationship he had with Wright. Because Wright’s widow withheld permission to publish the letters Wright wrote to Marcus, only Marcus’s portion of the correspondence was reproduced. In 2001, Anthony Alofsin, FAIA, organized an exhibition on the unbuilt Marcus House that included Wright’s portion of the correspondence. What Wright’s letters demonstrate was not his legendary arrogance, but his continuing efforts to satisfy an uncertain client prone to changing his mind, and the program.
Wright’s earliest Texan design, probably from 1912, was for a school in Crosbyton, Texas, of which only a plan drawing survives. Crosbyton was developed in 1908 by the Chicago businessman Avery Coonley, his three brothers, and their resident partner Julian M. Bassett. Between 1908 and 1912, Avery Coonley and his wife, Queene Ferry, built one of Wright’s greatest Prairie houses in Riverside, Illinois, as well as a small building for Queene Coonley’s school (1912). Had the Crosbyton school been constructed, it would have translated the Coonleys’ and Wright’s progressive vision to Texas’ South Plains. Wright’s next-known Texan commission was from the Fort Worth adoption agency founder Edna Jones Gladney, who, through her mother, seems to have been related to Wright. Wright’s unbuilt Gladney House was designed in 1924 for a sloping site west of Texas Christian University.
Judging from bits of information pieced together, it seems to have been the brevity of Lloyd Burlingham’s marriage that doomed construction of the courtyard-centered, adobe, solar hemicycle house Wright designed for him in 1942. Although the inscription on Wright’s perspective of the house is labeled El Paso, references in various sources suggest that the site was actually across the state line in New Mexico. Why Wright’s 1947 design for an office building for the San Antonio Transit Company on N. Flores Avenue near San Pedro Park was not built is not known. In 1949, Wright designed a spectacular, but also unbuilt, house for Anne Burnett and Robert Windfohr in Fort Worth.
It was John Rosenfield who rounded up the clients — John A. Gillin and the Dallas Theater Center — for Wright’s built designs in Dallas. In addition to the Houston and Amarillo houses, Wright also designed a small house in Austin for the restaurateur Ralph Moreland in 1956-57. Conversing with Moreland 50 years later about the experience, historian Bernard Pyron learned that the bids came in at twice what the house was supposed to cost, which is why it remained a paper project. Constituting a kind of after-the-fact patron, Dallas architect Diane Abernathy, AIA, has been a passionate advocate for documenting, preserving, and restoring the Dallas Theater Center.
The death of Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn in 1974 foreclosed the possibility of carrying out his very schematic design for an art storage building for the Menil Foundation in Houston, next to the Rothko Chapel. Four years earlier, it was Kahn’s impulsive tendency to expand the bounds of his clients’ commissions that scared the board of governors of Rice University into not following through with Kahn’s design for an architecture, art, music, and drama building, about which Stephen James has written in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.
External events can have adverse consequences. The nationwide Panic of 1893 is the reason that the design for St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, won in competition by the rising young Boston architect Bertram G. Goodhue in 1891, was not built. The imposition of construction controls at the beginning of the Korean conflict led to postponement of the never-to-be built Montclair Center in Houston of 1950. Designed by the Los Angeles architect Victor Gruen, Montclair Center would have been the first enclosed, air-conditioned shopping mall built in the U.S., as journalist Erik Morse recently documented in Houstonia magazine. The collapse of Texas’ oil economy in the early 1980s led to the cancellation of Murphy/Jahn’s 82-story Southwest Center in Houston (1982; Helmut Jahn did get to build a 61-story version, One Liberty Place, in Philadelphia, in 1987) and what would have been the distinctively profiled 35-story MGF Center in Midland (1982) by Harold Fredenburgh of I. M. Pei & Partners. As a consequence of the 1980s’ oil-real estate-banking collapse, Michael Graves’ totemic Grand Beach condominium complex on Galveston’s East Beach (1984) remained a paper project. The anemic economy of the 1980s dashed hopes for constructing Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates’ 1985 design for the downtown Laguna Gloria art museum in Austin. Then the dot-com bust of 2000 thwarted realization of Gluckman Mayner’s proposal for the by-then-renamed Austin Museum of Art.
Some projects required too much commitment over too long a time. In 1925, the Kansas City landscape architects and city planners Hare & Hare proposed a Spanish Renaissance-style Civic Center for Houston. Only one building adhering to the master plan, what is now the Julia Ideson Library by Boston architects Cram & Ferguson, was built. Rockefeller Center-inspired mixed-use complexes are visually compelling, but require too much commitment over too many market cycles. Welton Becket & Associates’ Southland Center of 1955 in Dallas; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Main Place of 1964 in Dallas; and William Pereira Associates’ Houston Center of 1970 were destined to be carried out in an architecturally piecemeal fashion, if at all, once the initial phase was completed.
There are sometimes no readily available records to explain why projects didn’t get built. It’s intriguing to scan the lists of buildings and projects in monographs on well-known American architects to see who received Texan commissions. The El Paso real estate developer O.C. Coles had George Washington Smith of Santa Barbara, the great master of the Spanish Colonial revival, design a house in El Paso in 1922 that Coles never built. You discover that, on occasion, even small-town clients had big ambitions. That must have been what impelled the Church of the Epiphany in Kingsville to commission Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram in 1924. Whatever Cram designed did not get built (the parish did build an impressive modern church by Cy Wagner in 1965). Likewise, in about 1925, the First Baptist Church of Lubbock commissioned John Russell Pope of New York, architect of the National Gallery and the Jefferson Memorial. Again: Whatever Pope designed was not built. But the congregation did hire his successors, Eggers & Higgins, to consult on the church completed by local architects Butler-Brasher in 1951. It’s amazing to find that Paul R. Williams, the prolific Los Angeles architect who was African American, got three jobs in still very segregated Texas: a 1946 commission from Goodfriend’s Women’s Wear in Austin and a pair of houses in El Paso for T.W. Hansen and A. Milton Feinberg in 1953.
Sometimes, it’s through publication in architectural magazines that unbuilt projects are preserved. A 1909 issue of the Boston-based Architectural Review illustrated Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson’s imposing neo-Gothic design for St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Boerne, Texas. (If it seems like the Cram-Goodhue firm fell short on their Texan commissions, they did design the campus of Rice University.) The January 1960 issue of Progressive Architecture contained a pair of aerial perspectives illustrating Rio de Janeiro architect Lúcio Costa’s sweeping vision of the new town of Horizon City on the east edge of El Paso, projected at the same bold scale of Costa’s recently inaugurated Brasília. Exit 37 on Interstate 10 leads to Horizon Boulevard, the only, and definitely anticlimactic, trace of Costa’s ambitious master plan.
Patrons shape consensus on civic good when they build works of architecture that redound to their communities’ reputation and distinction. Therefore, there’s disappointment when potentially great works of architecture never make it beyond the drawing stage. Cranks try to prevent undertakings that, they are convinced, will harm their community. Contending for control of the apparatus of consensus formation is a crucial task in building public support for alternative actions, which, if successful, have the capacity to transform cranks into civic heroes. “Not” figures in this dynamic despite the fact that, intuitively, it feels so contrary to the urge to act, which in architecture can mean to build, but also to protect from destruction by preserving. Patronage entails advocating for and defending. Cranking entails turning or twisting to generate a reaction. Each seeks to work the consensus-conflict duality to persuade that its favored action best serves its community and that the architecture involved will enhance our experience of that community.
Stephen Fox is an architectural historian and a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas. He is a lecturer in architecture at Rice University and the University of Houston.