Are you old enough to remember when people cared about Newsweek? If so, you might also recall January 1986, when the magazine’s late arts and architecture critic Douglas Davis called Austin’s newly-booming skyline part of a “riot of wretched excess” breaking out across cities worldwide. The culprit? Postmodern architecture, with all its playfully goofy ornamentation and pastiche of historical styles.
“By common consent, the old glass boxes were boring. But they were at least reticent. Their successors, in contrast, are often aggressively ugly, as unforgettable as bad dreams,” he writes, in a paragraph seemingly designed to make me Google the definition of “reticent” because it’s been a decade since I took the SAT.
“Thanks to the reviving economy, which surged just as the winds of architectural fashion changed, postmodern monsters are rising everywhere,” Davis continues. “They are particularly noticeable in smaller cities like Austin, Texas, which have boomed since 1980. Austin’s genteel, low-lying skyline is now dominated by a baroque, three-towered, 32-story presence known as One American Center.”
Yep, he’s upset about One American Center — the iconic ’80s skyscraper in the heart of downtown recently rebranded as 600 Congress:
The building is clad in granite, limestone, and bronze-tinted glass and strung like a Christmas tree with picturesque conceits. Down near the street, three barrel vaults swell above an arched entrance. Inside, the atrium is a jumble of columns, gold deco lamps, and a two-story fountain that cascades down a massive set of granite steps.
A single One American Center in a city like Austin is tolerable. Surrounded by its equally pompous neighbors, however, its punch lines will fall flat. On Congress Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, there is now one gaping hole after another, all future sites of “PM” buildings.
— Douglas Davis, Newsweek, 1986
The “pompous neighbors” Davis calls out here, judging by the year of his article’s publication, would be prominent 1980s tower developments like 100 Congress, 301 Congress, One Eleven Congress, and San Jacinto Center — in other words, buildings that constitute much of the classic “Old Austin” skyline as I think it’s imagined by quite a few locals under the age of 50 or thereabouts.
To Austinites in this age range, myself included, such a grim assessment of the city’s architecture doesn’t come naturally. Despite their slightly dull tones of beige and brown, the skyline Davis claims these ’80s-era buildings garishly dominate represents the “before” image of Austin, to be compared against its future growth forever:
This just reinforces the lesson we learned while evaluating the initial criticism of the Frost Bank Tower at the time of its completion in 2004 versus the building’s modern status as one of Austin’s most beloved works of architecture — if it seems like people hate something new on the skyline, just give it 10 or 15 years and they’ll probably tell you it’s part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage.
If you were listening closely, this was really the big takeaway from KUT Austin editor Matt Largey’s ATXplained story last week (featuring a cameo from yours truly) about recent criticism of the Independent condo tower’s “unfinished” crown — Largey said the idea of anyone not liking the Frost Bank Tower blew his mind, since to him it’s probably still the most iconic building on our skyline.
In turn, it’s just as strange for me to imagine someone thinking there’s anything obnoxious or pompous about One American Center, since it’s probably my favorite single piece of architecture from our original 1980s boom and makes me feel like I’m home whenever I see it. Buildings mean different things to different people.
To be fair, the local media didn’t take this criticism lying down. Statesman real estate writer Kim Tyson actually tracked down a response from a partner at Morris/Aubrey Associates, the Houston architecture firm behind One American Center’s design:
Despite the local cameo, Davis’ article is really a broader criticism of postmodern design’s tendency to mine its inspiration from historical architecture, creating buildings with arches and Greek columns and elaborately decorated facades that, to Davis at least, paid homage to the past without expressing the values of the present — in his words, “a string of architectural Disneylands stretching from coast to coast.”
I don’t think Davis is a bad critic — no joke, I really get a kick out of his thoughtful consideration of fast food restaurant design as it relates to the postmodern inclination towards deconstructing generic retail architecture, and his body of work seems to indicate his concerns about certain aspects of postmodernism’s design influences aren’t ignorant or reactionary. To be fair, some of his general points were probably valid at the time — not every postmodern building looks as good as One American Center — but 33 years later, Austin appears to have bounced back pretty well.
Anyway, architecture is about much more than winning the unanimous approval of fussy critics or the public, particularly since the priorities of each group vary so wildly that a project one likes will generally horrify the other — but it’s hard not to wonder if we’ll ever get a building Austinites love from the get-go. Is this city doomed to repeat its cycle of criticism, acceptance, and finally outright praise for anything interesting we build here? In other words, must time be a flat circle?
In the end, our intrepid critic himself inadvertently foreshadowed Austin’s best chance for a tower that would finally bring us all together. In another 1986 Newsweek article, Davis praised the designs of architect César Pelli, calling his creations “…lyrical, technically sophisticated buildings that are neither ‘modern’ nor ‘postmodern.’” Each of Pelli’s works, he said, “attempts to please on many levels at once, captivating clients and public but frustrating critics.”
Pelli, who died last week at the age of 92, built a generation of iconic skyscapers with his firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects — and one of its last projects revealed before his death was Block 185, a 35-story office tower already in the early stages of construction in downtown Austin. I think Davis would have liked it.