Perched atop a high hill, Texas State University's Old Main overlooks the growing campus, construction cranes looming in the near distance.
With its steeply pitched roof, accentuated gables and prominent finials, Old Main, built in 1903 as the university's first structure, is the quintessence of Gothic Revival style. And yet its red tile roof and Texas limestone exterior provide it with a nod to the kind of Mediterranean Revival style that's synonymous (for better or worse) with a certain kind of Texas architectural regionalism.
Just steps down the hill next to Old Main is the Lampasas building. The 1912 structure, which houses offices, bears the familiar red-roof and limestone facade though its exterior and has been awkwardly renovated over the years.
Elsewhere on campus, a $43 million performing arts center is under construction on a prominent site, and a $46 million student housing complex is set to open. Also, the university's Bobcat Stadium is getting a $33 million addition.
In perfunctory fashion, all sport some design elements that mimic those of Mediterranean Revival academic architecture.
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And yet, in a relatively modest $1.2 million renovation to several out-of-the-way office suites inside the Lampasas building, Specht Harpman Architects is providing a refreshing approach to rethinking architectural context on a university campus.
The architects, who maintain offices in Austin and New York City, took the archetypal material from the Mediterranean Revival palette — the terra-cotta clay tile — off the roof and put the tiles inside, transforming it into a delightful design element.
Hexagonal, hollow, tube-like, unglazed terra cotta tiles (actually the kind traditionally used for underground drainage) line up in neat modern arrays along several walls in renovated office suites. The tidy geometric arrangement of the tiles is softened by the imperfections of the industrial-grade tiles and the subtle variations in shade of the unglazed clay.
The earthy texture of the tile arrays provides a warmth to sleek yet budget-minded renovation of a common institutional space.
The walls offer something else institutional architecture lacks: delightful surprise.
(Actually, Specht Harpman's repurposing of the tubelike tiles is a re-repurposing: Nowadays, the hollow clay forms are marketed and sold as much for rustic wine bottle storage as they are for underground drainage.)
As architect Scott Specht explained, the firm took seriously the design guidelines set forth in Texas State's master plan. It's just that — like other progressively minded architects and designers who take a sophisticated approach to context — they understood that context needn't be synonymous with style.
"Ours is a regional-oriented approach in that we like finding unique local materials that can be deployed in a number of ways," Specht said. "It's a means of connecting to a particular setting without having to replicate historic forms."
That urge to replicate historical campus architecture comes from a certain nostalgia, Specht suggests.
Postwar expansion on American campuses produced a certain amount of generic institutional modernism — a modernism that became more muscular and utilitarian by the 1970s. "I think a lot of people came to see that (kind of campus building) as bland and not very friendly," said Specht.
As a result, campuses began sprouting historically imitative design, and university master plans were rewritten to include historically minded design mandates.
But what appeals on paper doesn't always work in brick and mortar.
"That kind of (historically imitative) design can very look appealing to many people in a rendering," said Specht. "But in reality, the scale is out of proportion, and materials look bad."
In Austin, the University of Texas has had its fair share of architectural context wars, none more infamous — even internationally — than the very public tussle over the design of the Blanton Museum of Art.
When Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron presented their design for the Blanton to UT regents in 1999, the regents balked over the sleek, mimimalist building with an innovative undulating roof. The regents wanted a pitched red-tile roof.
The design debate raged publicly, and after Herzog & de Meuron, the regents hired Boston architects Kallman McKinnell and Wood, who gave them what they wanted. UT got a hulking, over-scaled, undistinguished building that's a mishmash of vague historical design elements.
On another university campus in Austin, Specht Harpman has applied their urbane approach context in two projects at St. Edward's University.
For a renovation and addition to the 1950s-era Doyle Hall, the architects used the decorative pattern found in outdoor wall screens across campus as a pattern for a textured wall relief in a prominent interior hallway. And for the St. Edward's renovated marketing department suite, the architects decorated the entry foyer with a wall array of more than 8,000 No. 2 pencils.
Such design dexterity with common material was seen in a 2007 exhibit of Specht Harpman's work on view the UT School of Architecture (partner Louise Harpman was on the UT faculty for several years). For that show, architects constructed walls out of Coca-Cola crates, Styrofoam computer packing forms, cardboard coffee cup carriers and other ephemeral materials.
And over the years, Specht and Harpman have personally amassed what is arguably the country's largest collection of independently patented plastic coffee lids — the quotidian machine-produced molded white covers that keep lattes and cappuccinos warm.
If that sounds like quirky design obsession taken too far, consider this: In May, the Smithonsonian's National Museum of American History added more than 50 of Specht Harpman's collected lids to its permanent collection of industrial design items.
Perched on the edge of a hill, the Lampasas building descends at its back half with several lower floors tucked below grade from the building's main front entrance.
The faculty offices Specht Harpman were charged with renovating are tucked in that lower portion. It's a remarkably hidden little corner of the rapidly changing Texas State campus, making Specht Harpman's inventive tile-covered walls a design feature most university regulars and visitors will never see.
Nevertheless, the otherwise quotidian tiles offer an important architectural lesson: Context is not synonymous with buildings looking alike.
Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at jvanryzin @statesman.com or 445-3699