A “Natural” Selection:

Cass Gilbert’s Vision for the University of Texas’s Campus [1]


Cass GilbertI believe that as the modern man lives and thrives on Earth, he cannot look with anticipation into the future alone, but he has to integrate his every action with the past.  Maintaining this delicate balance between the past and the future is the major struggle and responsibility for mankind.  This also is the case for architecture, for it is one of the elemental ties to our past and to our future because the buildings are the result of history.  The presence of architecture is most apparent on the University of Texas’s campus, where a variety of buildings cover a substantial amount of the university’s forty acres.  To make the campus more attuned to its natural environment, I believe the campus should join the movement toward antimodernistic architecture.  Opposed to modernistic architecture, antimodernism refers to the return of historical elements of design in which architects and designers both seek “the past for inspiration for the direction Text Box: Figure 1:  Cass Gilbert. of the future.”[2]  These designs have a sense of timeless wonder and splendor that is universal, which can merge both past heritage and tradition with the prospect of the future generations’ appreciation.  This movement toward historical restoration will unify and solidify the University of Texas as one of the prominent universities in the nation.


The stylistic choices of traditional and modern architecture are vastly different from one another.  Tradition welcomes nature as a major component to its design whereas modernism designs the structure without regard to nature.  The sleek and sterile disposition of modernism exemplifies the movement of the present-day generation, who only consider the future in their plans.  Modernism aims to “deliberate[ly] break with classical and traditional forms or methods of expression.”[3]  It severs its ties with the past completely so that there is no core to modern design.  The modern structures become eyesores to the skyline because they have no natural elements in their construction.  They lack the free-flowing lines found in the mountains, trees, and rivers.  Newly erected buildings on the UT campus such as the Perry-Castaneda Library and the McCombs School of Business starkly contrast with their environment because of their perfectly formed lines and man-made materials.  I understand that modernism plays upon the creative facet of the mind, but the creator himself can only understand the design.  The impact of the work is inevitably lost upon the viewer, who never really understands the meaning or reason behind the creation.  Without links to the past, modernism makes it difficult to establish a connection with the viewer because there is no prior knowledge of such a design.  On the other hand, there are historical and natural connections to traditional architecture. 


Unlike modernism, antimodernism embraces the past and nature wholeheartedly.  In 1922, Yanagi Muneyoshi wrote that “nature protects architecture, and architecture ornaments nature.”[4]  This simple statement, I believe, is still prevalent today, for it presents to us the balancing act that we must perform in order to harmonize with nature.  Though we may not consider nature as a guardian, it provides us with a means for protection and survival.  For instance, trees planted strategically around a house can ward off heavy winds during a windstorm, and without them, the houses would be structurally damaged.  Nature, not only shelters us from the natural elements, it provides us with a way to obtain food and sustenance.  Furthermore, we construct buildings to reflect or frame our surroundings and in doing this, we are establishing the basis for antimodernistic design.  Its design incorporates instinctive lines and shapes that are indicative of nature, and it utilizes stones and woods as building materials while imitating the environment’s imperfections and asymmetry in its doorways and windows.  Because nature surrounds us at all times, historically designed structures are easy to recognize and are more personal to the everyday viewer than buildings made of oppressive concrete.  These traditional buildings invite people into the very confines of their walls because they, like people, also have a past, a present, and a future. 


The main objective of the university is to find a path to the future through the cultivation of ideas; however, Text Box: Figure 2:  Cass Gilbert’s sketch of Battle Hall.the past inevitably plays a key role.  Without the knowledge of our past, mistakes would be continuously made and the solutions would never be known.  Cultural evolution, historical events, and people shape the very society that we affect with our daily actions, yet to forgo the act of acknowledging the past rejects history as a mere and simple occurrence.  For example, the Blanton Dormitory was named for Annie Webb Blanton, who was “a teacher, women's suffragist, state superintendent of public instruction, tireless crusader for Texas public school financing, and UT educator until her death in 1945.”[5]  Another building on the campus which has historical ties is the T.S. Painter Hall.  It was named for Theophilus S. Painter, who was a geneticist and UT president from 1944 to 1952.  In U.S. history, Painter was famously known for being “the respondent in the landmark Sweatt v. Painter civil rights case.[6]  Their names and the many other names dedicated to each building are not merely words plastered onto its façade for aestheticism.  These people have contributed to campus life by making the students view the world and ideas in a different light.  Looking upon the movement toward modernism, I see a society going against the grain of cultural history instead of honing historical architecture to the needs of the people.  The classical appearances of some of these buildings seem stagnant and ill-utilized because of their valued history.   However, the buildings can still be tailored-made with all the amenities of the most technological modern spaces. 


In the early part of the twentieth century, I had the privilege to design buildings for the University of Texas’s growing campus during a period of time when there was a need to connect with the past.  I designed the buildings, Battle Hall and Sutton Hall, to reflect this desire, and at that time, I did not realize the considerable impact that my designs would have upon the university.  I believe that Battle Hall and Sutton Hall are prime examples for what buildings on the campus should appear and feel like to the students and faculty.  For their designs, I looked to the past and nature for inspiration.  From their building materials of brick, limestone, and wood to the smallest Text Box: Figure 3:  Battle Hall.embellishments of leaves and flowers on their walls, both halls exhibit a high regard for nature and history in their designs.  The design for Battle Hall invokes the spirit of the Old Spanish heritage of Texas with its “wide projecting eaves, ornate coffers with penules (sic) and a terra-cotta frieze”[7] that decoratively enhance the limestone exterior of the building.  Originally, I designed the building to house the main library on the relatively new campus, but as the university’s campus has grown, the function of the building has changed along with it.  It went from being UT’s main library to becoming what is now a library for the School of Architecture.  In addition to Battle Hall, Sutton Hall demonstrates its own style of versatility.  While Sutton Hall’s box-like construction is a compromise to the changing architecture of that time, it still preserves design elements that Text Box: Figure 4:  Sutton Hall.demonstrate its natural inspiration.  The hall’s exterior Sutton Halldisplays “winged lions and laurel crown insignia [which] are near windows flanked by pillars.”[8]  Though these are small touches of nature, it contributes to character of the hall.  When Sutton Hall was first designed, it was intended to be the site for the Education Building; however, it now plays an integral part of the School of Architecture.   Battle Hall and Sutton Hall, like many other buildings on campus, demonstrate their contemporary edge through their versatile transformation into the needs of the university instead of submitting to modernistic ideals. Because of the adaptability of these historical buildings, the campus is able to retain the more cohesive and personable atmosphere that only buildings like Battle Hall and Sutton Hall generate through their designs. 


Being a major university, the University of Texas has to be continually moving forward in its ideas in order to keep up with the changing face of America.  Even though antimodernistic architecture and designs look to the past for inspiration, they are still touchstones to the future.  The movement toward antimodernistic architecture best realizes UT’s vision to progress from only being known as a liberal university to being one of the most highly respected universities in the Southwest.  Furthermore, the campus should reflect the student body and the faculty’s commitment to continue learning and exploring through a more unified historical aesthetic.  A unified atmosphere will allow the students and the faculty to “become a part of their places on earth.”[9]  Establishing this relationship creates a more personable environment in which students and faculty can feel at ease to pursue exploration.  Even today, prestigious universities across the world such as Oxford, Harvard, and Yale emulate the traditional architecture from centuries past.  Their campuses hearken back to the time of great teachers and thinkers such as in the ancient Greek times in which gymnasiums were dedicated to education and medicine.[10]   The universities continuously seek after and recruit distinguished professors and talented students to play a vital role in campus life.  These people will help shape the future of America and the world with their innovative ideas.  However as the years progress, it becomes more difficult for students to establish a link to the past.  The ideas that allow us to move forward onto the next level of learning are left behind due to their outdated nature.   In order to prevent the loss of this connection, the university’s campus master plan involves the academic community, the extension of the core campus, the relation of the campus to adjacent environments, the visual character of the campus, the historical importance of the campus, and various other goals.[11]  The plan intends to build the bridge between history and the future, and with its success, the campus master plan will lead the way to a more secure relationship with the past.


It is my belief that it is important to continue to preserve and construct architecture possessing the antimodernistic ideals as a symbol of the past.  By accepting antimodernistic architecture, the University of Texas is not trying to remain within the confines of tradition, but is molding a society which will look onto the past as a stepping stone to the future.  Without the past, we would have never learned how to grow and build on mistakes and accomplishments to advance society.  Though the university can approach the past through many different ways, the simplest memorial for past achievements is the erection of buildings, which are functional lasting legacies.  In Text Box: Figure 5:  Inside Battle Hall.years to come, the architectural monuments will again expose history through every stone and carving to the next generation.  In conclusion, I would like to bring to mind the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The American who would serve his country must learn the beauty and honor of perseverance, he must reinforce himself by the power of character, and revisit the margin of that well from which his fathers drew waters of life and enthusiasm, the fountain I mean of the moral sentiments.[12]

The future, I believe, reaches into the fantasy of every person, but the past continually plays into our every move and action.  With the absence of one or the other, the past and the future can be never complete.

(1,859 words + Gilbert’s introduction; 12 deleted words)









Index of Images

Figure 1:

Craven, Jackie. “Cass Gilbert.” Master Architects. http://architecture.about.com/library/bl-gilbert.htm.


Figure 2:

Irish, Sharon. Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1999. 106.


Figure 3:

A personal picture.


Figure 4:

Sutton Hall. http://www.utexas.edu/physicalplant/antiquities/imagesfullpage/2page/xsuttonhall.html.


Figure 5:

A personal picture.


[1] Cass Gilbert, who lived from 1859-1934, was a highly prized architect.  He famously executed the design for the Woolworth Building in New York.  “He made stylistic choices contingent upon the site, the client needs and wishes and the building type guided by precedents.”   In 1911, he single-handedly changed the face of the University of Texas through his Spanish-style design for Battle Hall, which later became the model for many of the buildings on the campus.  He also created a master plan for UT in which it called for a return to antimodernistic design and ideals.  Currently, along with Paul Cret’s master plan, the university will try to complete what Gilbert began in the early twentieth century.

Sharon Irish, Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist, (New York City, NY: The Monacelli Press, 1999),13.         

[2] Jerome Bump, “Antimodernism,” 19th Century Literature, Architecture, and Art, vol. 2. (Austin, TX: Jenn’s Copy and Binding, 2006), 710.

[3] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “Modernism,” http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00313103?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=modernism&first=1&max_to_show=10.

[4] Haruhiko Fujita, Architecture and Nature: An Aspect of Asian Landscape Aesthetics, http://www3.unibo.it/parol/articles/fujita.htm.

[5] The Center of American History, Halls of Renown: The Names Behind the UT Campus Buildings, http://www.cah.utexas.edu/exhibits/BuildingsNamesExhibit/page2.html.

[6] The Center of American History, Halls of Renown: The Names Behind the UT Campus Buildings, http://www.cah.utexas.edu/exhibits/BuildingsNamesExhibit/page4.html.

[7] Margaret C. Berry, Brick by Golden Brick, A History of Campus Buildings at the University of Texas at Austin: 1883-1993. (Austin, TX: LBCo. Publishing, 1993), 19.

[8] Margaret C. Berry, Brick by Golden Brick, A History of Campus Buildings at the University of Texas at Austin: 1883-1993. (Austin, TX: LBCo. Publishing, 1993), 22.

[9] Norman Crowe, Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World, (M.I.T. Press, 1995), 75.

[10] Wikipedia contributors, "Gymnasium (ancient Greece)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gymnasium_(ancient_Greece)&oldid=40345817 (accessed February 21, 2006).

[11] The Campus Master Plan, https://www.utexas.edu/administration/strategicplan/AppendixI.html#The%20Campus%20Master.

[12] Sharon Irish, Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist,. (New York City, NY: The Monacelli Press, 1999), 165.