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Contributed by:
Evan Beattie

Looking Back at the Blanton Museum Controversy 20 Years Later, An Interview with Larry Speck, FAIA

Larry Speck, FAIA’s principled stand against the University of Texas Board of Regent’s treatment of Herzog and de Meuron through the Blanton Museum design process left a lasting impression on me as a young aspiring architecture student. Architects have an important responsibility to stand up for civic and professional causes that shape the futures of the cities where they practice. Larry led by example resigning in protest as Dean of the UT School of Architecture, which resulted in meaningful improvements in the design culture and built work at the university I love over the course of the next 20 years. Thank you, Larry, for what you have done for UT as a dean, professor, and leader over the course of the last 45 years, and for making the time to discuss what I know was a difficult period for this article.

Interview conducted by Evan Beattie, AIA

Please share a bit about your role at the University of Texas when Herzog + de Meuron (HDM) was hired to design UT’s Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art.

I was dean of the UT School of Architecture beginning in 1992, and shortly after that Bob Berdahl became president of the university. There were several initiatives that Bob was interested in including in a master plan for the campus, which was a fantastic opportunity that I could help with. Bob wanted to make the Blanton Museum a priority for UT, and he asked if I would help conceive a steering committee that would be in charge of initiating that project.

The steering committee included people from the Blanton, people in the art community statewide, and Jessie Otto Hite, who became the Blanton director in 1993 and is a good friend of mine. From the conception of the museum, I was involved with the larger team that Bob put together to make the museum happen.

We formed a committee of incredible people in the arts from around the state, including philanthropist Deedie Rose, who was a committee co-chair, and Jack and Laura Lee Blanton, who at that point were considered prospective donors and certainly were arts leaders in the state. It was a real blue-ribbon committee.

One of the first things the committee looked at was architect selection, and I was part of the subset of the overall committee that wrote an RFQ for that. We made a list of architects from all over the world.

We got phenomenal response to the RFQ, with portfolios received from the best architects in the U.S. and internationally. We narrowed the list to seven or eight firms and invited them to present in Austin. We wanted the selection to be a public process in which the community could participate and get excited about the prospect of the new museum. So when each firm visited, they gave a public lecture and met with the committee separately. The public lecture series was extremely well attended, and tons of people were really excited about getting a new university art museum. Austin didn’t really have much in the way of art museums apart from the university’s museum.

The committee narrowed the list to three finalist architects, and we visited projects by all three firms, as well as talked to their clients for past projects. We traveled to Seattle, the Bay Area in San Francisco, Munich in Germany, and Helsinki, Finland. I went on all the trips along with Deedie Rose, the Blantons and, of course, Jessie Otto Hite.

After HDM was selected, its team came to Austin to visit with Chancellor William Cunningham, a major figure for the entire UT System. They visited again with the president of the university, and everything was vetted thoroughly.

Did the same group of people that guided the selection process for HDM oversee the initial museum design progress, or did a different group do that?

This question gets to the complexity of UT-Austin and the UT system. A project like this is normally the campus’s project to do, so it normally would have been initiated by Bob Berdahl, the president, and directed by Hite, the museum director, and the committee would report to the UT-Austin campus. At a certain point, UT projects must be approved by the UT System and Board of Regents. Day-to-day work is done at the campus level, and then there is an approval process with the regents.

Did HDM share its design progress with the committee, and was any of its work shared publicly as the schematic design moved ahead?

No. Sharing the design publicly is not part of the normal procedure. Typically, architects work with the committee and project staff, university administration and others directly for design approvals. Designs aren’t shared publicly until late design development or the completion of construction documents, when renderings are released as part of a big announcement.

As dean of the UT School of Architecture, did you have much interaction with the regents prior to the Blanton museum project?

I actually did. There was a question about the UT-San Antonio Downtown Campus that had recently been designed and construction completed. There was a regent who was very upset at how the project looked, and they asked me what they might do about it. At that point, the upset regent wanted to strip the skin off all the buildings and redo all their facade. I suggested that was really extreme, and they of course ended up not doing anything about it.

“Really extreme” is a modest way of describing the strip and reskin approach. Please forgive my ignorance, but it seems accurate to describe the Board of Regents in the early 1990s as being very interested in controlling campus architecture. That hasn’t always been the case on UT’s campuses, right?

In general, it is left to the campus. I don’t know of any other period when the regents overruled a campus. There may have been more or less involvement through the years, so it is fair to say it has varied over time.

Did HDM have any interaction with the regents before starting on the design of the Blanton?

Before HDM did any design work, there was a meeting to introduce HDM to the regents because they had been taking such an interest in architecture. The introduction was done at a normal meeting of the building committee of the regents, and Harry Gugger, HDM’s third in command at the time (below Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron) came to Austin. Harry was asked to show their work to familiarize the regents with the new architect hired to design this significant project.

As Harry was presenting HDM’s work, I was pulled aside by a regent who had heard that Jack Blanton had pushed for HDM’s hiring. We were whispering back and forth in the corner as Harry presented, and I tried to assure him that there was a formal process and a committee with many involved.

Jack Blanton had been a chair of the regents before and I don’t know if he was in the room at the time, but it was clear that the current regents knew that he had been involved, and this regent from the beginning was not interested in this architect. During the presentation, he wasn’t listening, he’s talking to me, and that was the first sign that we may have a bit of trouble here. And this all happened before any design work had been done.

Was HDM’s design for the Blanton at a 50% schematic level of completion when it was first presented to the Board of Regents?

When the design was first presented, it was very preliminary. There was a scheme with floor plans, sections and not very much in the way of renderings. It was all very conceptual, and at that point the feedback HDM received from the regents was that the building needed to fit the tradition of a red tile roof. There was a bit of awkward dialogue about that, and so HDM went back to redesign.

I remember seeing a headline or a big quote in a news story of Rita Clements, one of the regents, exclaiming, “I have a flat roof on my house; I wouldn’t want a flat roof!” Wasn’t it rare for regents to comment publicly like this?

The regents’ meetings are public, and anyone can attend when they have a quorum. These were building committee meetings, so the full board of regents wasn’t participating. I don’t remember hearing that flat roof quote in a meeting, so it may have been a comment to the press in response to questions. The comment that “it needs to have a red tile roof” forced HDM to go back and create a second scheme that was substantially different from the first, with a long, low-pitched red tile roof. There was even an idea of having some of the tiles be transparent or translucent to contribute to the light quality inside.

HDM’s rendering of the second option was a graceful and elegant solution.

Right, and yet that was also rejected by the regents. It wasn’t what they had in mind. At some point, a picture of Waggoner Hall on the campus was held up by a regent, who said, “This is what the Blanton should look like.” Waggoner Hall is the old business school. It was done by Herbert Green in 1931. It isn’t one of the more iconic buildings from that vintage on the campus like Battle Hall, it was more of a fabric kind of building.

After the meeting in which the regents demanded a Waggoner Hall copy, HDM did eight or 12 additional design schemes that tried to incorporate something of Waggoner Hall with a red tile roof. It was a sincere effort to parse out if could we do something really good that had some of these characteristics in it. Again they were all rejected by the regents.

There were three separate times that design options were rejected, and HDM made a sincere effort to do a great building while listening to all the constituents (building committee, museum director, regents). After the third round of options was rejected, HDM said it needed to walk away from this project.

I give them huge credit. I can’t imagine better professional behavior than what they did. They were solid as a rock, and the notion that they were these flighty, egotistical European architects wanting to have their way couldn’t be further from the truth. They were very responsive and sincere, and you can see that in HDM’s portfolio of work. Their designs are varied, based on their clients and the conditions they find where their projects are located.

What do you think would have resulted if one of HDM’s design options were approved and they had gone beyond schematic design for the Blanton, which would have been their first project designed in the U.S.?

I have no doubt that this was a huge missed opportunity for UT. In 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, HDM designed the Bird’s Nest Stadium featured prominently in the TV coverage. I ran across a prominent professor from the business school in the parking lot, and he asked if the Bird’s Nest was designed by the firm originally hired for the Blanton. When I confirmed it, he exclaimed, “Gosh darn it!” He didn’t understand architecture at all, but he could understand that this was a world-class architect … and a university with the aspirations of UT needs to be involved in world-class things. He was furious that this university he loved had missed an incredible opportunity.

Beijing National Stadium, AKA The Bird’s Nest, designed by Herzog & de Meuron / Photo Credit: Peter23, CC BY-SA 3.0

After HDM resigned from the Blanton, they almost immediately won the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. San Francisco is an incredibly difficult context to do progressive architecture in, but they did it. And it wasn’t without controversy either, but they pulled it off. The project was reviewed in Time magazine shortly after completion and described as the best building in America of the 21st century.

The de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park by Herzog & de Meuron / Photo: Checubus

The Blanton Museum, which completed construction a year or two after the de Young, got virtually no notice anywhere. I don’t recall ever seeing it covered in an architectural publication and certainly not in a publication like Time. In fact, there was a big article done shortly after the Blanton was completed that covered 12 to 15 recently built museums; the de Young was covered prominently, and the Blanton wasn’t even mentioned.

Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects, Photo Credit: Emery Photography

The regents just missed the boat to take a leadership position, to be prominent in the arts, to have their museum — which houses an incredible collection — get some visibility, so people would see it as the caliber of museum it is. And everyone was aware of what was missed. The president of the university, the museum director — they all knew the significance of what was lost.

As a student of the School of Architecture during the Blanton Museum controversy, I took incredible pride in your principled stand against the treatment of HDM by the board of regents, and I know that most of my fellow students did as well. Would you mind sharing a bit about your decision-making process prior to stepping down and what you risked in stepping down?

Larry: It was a really hard decision for me because I loved being dean. I was involved across the university on many things outside the School of Architecture. President Berdahl and his successor made a point to involve me in many important university-wide decisions, and stepping away from that was a big personal loss for me.

I also understood that there could be ramifications. The regents are powerful people, so I realized I might have personal difficulties from doing this. I went so far as to discuss that I was contemplating stepping down as dean with my partners at Page and that there could be consequences to our firm and my own ability to do work in the future. They were like bricks. With no hesitation, they said if you feel like you need to do this, just do it. We are behind you.

I made the decision to step down and communicated my intent to Larry Faulkner, who had recently been installed as university president. Larry asked to meet with me, and quite remarkably at that meeting were the president, the provost, the chancellor, the chair of the Board of Regents — all in the president’s office. They all assembled to share that they understood how I felt and what I felt I had to do, and they respected it, but they didn’t want me to do it. They asked if it was possible to persuade me not to do it.

But I told them I had put a lot of thought into it and discussed it with a lot of people — that if word got out that HDM was pushed out of this project and we didn’t take a strong position on this, we would look spineless. The architecture community would see this horrible thing happened at UT and the School of Architecture was just silent. I told them that they don’t have a window into my profession, and we will lose a lot of respect in the architecture community if we don’t stand up for professional integrity, respect and fair treatment of architects. They totally got it and were all very understanding. I walked out of the room and they were all shaking my hand and patting me on the back. There was no anger. They asked me not to resign, but they respected my decision and didn’t pressure me or threaten me.

Then after it made the newspapers and got a bit ugly, something truly remarkable happened three or four months later. Larry began reorganizing the upper-level administration, asking me to chair the search committee for a prime vice president position.

By doing this, Larry sent the message: “See this guy that kind of made a stink here? He’s still on the team, he’s still a part of this university, and I still respect him and want his help and advice in this important endeavor I am doing.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

I was treated remarkably well personally by UT. They just could not have been better or more respectful to me, and I didn’t know that would happen.

Did positive changes result from the Blanton controversy that improved the approach to architects  and how the design approval process is managed at UT?

I absolutely do think the Blanton controversy resulted in enormous change. I believe people in leadership roles at the university started thinking more critically about how things were being run, and luckily regents come and go. The next round of regents likely saw what happened with the Blanton and realized they don’t want to get involved in something like that again.

After I resigned as dean, the new director of the Office of Facilities Planning and Construction (OFPC), the arm that oversees campus buildings systemwide, mandated that design decisions be made by the campus and that the OFPC wouldn’t dictate design decisions to the campuses. For several years after the Blanton controversy, the feeling persisted that the only way to get regents to approve a project was to put a red tile hat on it, so we got lots of red tile hat buildings on the campus.

A few years later, CO Architects was designing for a site on 24th Street that wasn’t large enough for the building’s program, where the modest-sized Paul Cret-designed Experimental Science building was torn down to make room for expansion. CO Architects was doing a very good job on the design, but the building was crowding the site, and a big ol’ red tile roof on top was making the scale issue even worse. It was overwhelming adjacent buildings from the 1920s and ’30s that, at two or three stories, had appropriately scaled red tiled roofs.

We discussed the scale issue at a Faculty Building Advisory Committee meeting, asking, “Could we skip the red tile roof here?” The people from OFPC said, “The regents won’t approve that. We need a red tile roof.” But CO Architects was willing to go to the regents with two schemes, one with a flat roof and one with the red tile roof, to see if they really were that adamant about the tradition. Going to the regents with two schemes was very unusual, but that is what we decided in our meeting. Shortly afterward, CO Architects called me and said the OFPC told them to just present the red tile roof scheme.

A few days later I crossed paths with an OFPC member and told him I’ d heard that you are just showing the red tile roof option, which he acknowledged. I reminded him that your director said, “We aren’t making design decisions for the campus,” and now you’ve just made a design decision for the campus. That isn’t what your director said was going to be the policy. They ended up showing both options to the regents, who chose the flat roof option because it was more in scale with that part of the campus.

That was the first moment that we broke through and realized, “OK, we don’t have to have a red tile hat on every building.” Soon thereafter, Pelli Clark Pelli’s office was doing the Gates Dell Building and came in again with a red tile roof on top of that building, but it was going to cost an extra million dollars for the red tile roof compared to a flat roof option. The Faculty Building Advisory Committee urged showing the regents the proposed design with no red tile roof because it made the building scale wrong, and $1 million is a lot of money to invest in something that doesn’t make a project better. To which the stakeholders in Computer Science exclaimed, “Yay! Yay! We never wanted to pay a million dollars for that.”

So Pelli Clark Pelli presented it to the Board of Regents with a flat roof and the project sailed through the regents’ approval process. The science building described earlier and Pelli Clark Pelli’s Gates/Dell building, those two projects broke the dam and we no longer had to design historicist buildings on UT’s campus.

We are getting some really good buildings on the campus these days. I would point to the Liberal Arts building by Overland Partners. Gates/Dell is a really, really good building. I would say the Medical School that Page did is a really good building, and I think there are six or eight really fine recent buildings on the campus that I don’t think would have been approved if we hadn’t broken that dictum of “new buildings on this campus must replicate historical buildings.” I think the Blanton controversary was an element in breaking that and letting everyone see we can be progressive and at the same time we can do buildings that are extremely comfortable and supportive of the larger campus environment.

Dell Medical School Health Learning Building, designed by Page / Photo: Albert Vecerka / ESTO Photographics

I also want to stress that Texas architects can and have done excellent architecture on the campus. It doesn’t have to be someone from Switzerland or someone from New York.

Do you have any advice for architects who are considering standing up for a strong personal or professional belief that may be met with controversy?

Architects can and should be thought leaders in their community, and typically there are no negative consequences for taking a strong stand for what you believe in because people understand that architecture is a value-based discipline. Architects are expected to stand up and be vocal leaders in their communities.

Interview conducted by Evan Beattie, AIA, chairman and CEO at GFF.