Excitement surrounds most buildings when they are new. But after the ribbons have been cut and the photographs have been taken, that shine can sometimes wear off.
But not always.
Some buildings develop a lovely patina over the years. Some buildings improve with age, and their influence can only be understood in retrospect. It is for this reason that the Texas Society of Architects established the 25-Year Award. As its name implies, it honors an architecturally significant building completed between a quarter- and a half-century ago.
Of course, there are buildings that have been around even longer and have achieved what can only be called a “landmark” status within the canon of Texas architecture. To recognize these, TxA created the Architectural Landmark Award.
On the one hand, the recipients of this year’s 25-Year Award and Architectural Landmark Award are quite different. One is a house built on a ranch using a repurposed industrial building, while the other is a small religious building built by students on a college campus. On the other hand, these two projects are part of the same architectural continuum. They tell the story of the development of Texas regionalism over the course of the 20th century.
Despite its diminutive size, the Little Chapel in the Woods looms large in the consciousness of Texas architects. Designed by O’Neil Ford, FAIA, in partnership with Arch Swank, FAIA, the nondenominational chapel was completed in 1939 on the campus of the Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University) in Denton. Its exterior places it firmly within the historical tradition of small-scale religious architecture, but its interior reveals a series of load-bearing parabolic arches. Though modern in form, their construction echoes an ancient Roman building technique in which a brick exterior acts as permanent formwork for a concrete core. This blending of the ancient and vernacular with the modern and the unexpected would come to define Ford’s work as he matured from an upstart young designer into the father of Texas regional modernism. The chapel was built with help from the National Youth Administration, a Depression-era program that provided the labor responsible for creating the chapel’s handcrafted details.
As the construction of the Little Chapel ended, Ford moved his practice to San Antonio, where it would continue to flourish. He would eventually take on partners to establish Ford, Powell & Carson, the firm where two young architects by the name of David Lake and Ted Flato (both now FAIA) would meet in 1979. A few years later, the two would create a firm of their own called Lake|Flato Architects.
After working on projects more in the style of their mentor, a client presented Lake and Flato with a classic design problem: a project with big ambitions but a small budget. As is so often the case, these constraints forced innovation. Lake and Flato moved away from the handcrafted details of Ford and toward a more industrialized way of building that referenced contemporary agricultural buildings found throughout the Texas landscape. In the case of the Carraro Residence, that connection was literal: The home’s superstructure makes use of a relocated industrial warehouse. The structural bays were reconfigured into a Z-shaped plan to accommodate existing oak trees. A narrow central building, clad in corrugated metal, contains the master bedroom, library, and a dog-run entry. It connects to an open-air pavilion to the south (now shading a swimming pool) and a screened-in pavilion to the north that also contains the house’s living, dining, and kitchen facilities within a conditioned masonry mass.
Both the Little Chapel in the Woods and the Carraro Residence are still in use today and are more accessible than ever. Ford’s chapel has become a popular destination for weddings, while the Lake|Flato house is available to the public for vacation or event rentals.
The line connecting these two projects is as direct as is the lineage of their architects. These two projects also represent important early inflection points in the careers of those architects. Ford was in his 30s when he designed the Little Chapel in the Woods, just as both Lake and Flato were in their 30s when they designed the Carraro Residence. These projects provided a hint of the body of work that Ford and Lake|Flato would produce in the decades that followed: two bodies of work that have changed the face of architecture in Texas.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the interim editor of Texas Architect. He worked for Lake|Flato Architects and contributed an essay to the monograph “O’NFM_8: The Little Chapel in the Woods: O’Neil Ford & Arch Swank,” published by Wasmuth & Zohlen Verlag and edited by Wilfried Wang.