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Paul Cret at Texas

Reflections on Cret’s role in the creation of an identity for the University of Texas

Probably no other man determines more moms in the everyday course of events at the University than architect Paul Cret has. His influence is neither abstract nor indefinite. It resides in the distance one must travel to the bathroom; in the corridors one walks to find the proper administrator; in the bench one sits on to eat lunch. To whatever extent the University possesses an identity beyond that of a large clearinghouse for paperwork, Paul Cret is in no small way responsible; as consulting architect to the University from 1930 to 1945 he established much of what remains admirable about the present campus’ character.

For the first time, Cret (pronounced "cray") is being given his due through a thematically coherent exhibition of his drawing for University projects. Compiled by fine arts doctoral candidate Carol McMichael over a period of a year and a half, "Paul Cret at Texas and its attendant catalog conscientiously Cret’s long-range plan for the campus, discussing several of the 19 buildings he subsequently built for UT a the process of design that yielded his most dramatic contribution to the campus, the Main Building.

Cret’s office’s drawings are not the lifeless schematics one might expect of architectural depictions. Schooled in Paris’ then-influential Ecole de Beaux-Arts, Cret (1876 — 1945) came from a tradition which emphasized the beauty of drawings as work of art in themselves. The drawings which comprise the exhibition occupy the walls of the Harry Ransom Center dramatically, with — depending on their particular authors — vibrant stylization or uncanny realism. Gathered from disparate sources — fewer than 10 percent of the drawings belong to the University — the show affords a unique opportunity to follow the genesis of ideas immanent around campus in several thousand tons of stone and iron.

If one were faced with the task of writing a conceptual history of the UT campus, one would be tempted to cast its principal totem — the Main Building and its Tower — as its first, prefiguring building. In fact, the Main Building was relative late-comer to the campus, a structure that had to be fit between already existing buildings while favorably assuming the center of school’s attention.

Campus Plan

Cret's 1933 plan for the University proposed a complex of buildings whose studied dignity would grow mellower as the campus' trees filled out. The trees grew, but the plan was stunted in the later course of campus history.

Late 1931 Version of Future Main

A late 1931 version of the future main Building still anticipated library reading rooms occupying the fron of the structure.

As it stands today, the Main Building succeeds in doing four important things, with aplomb. It rides the campus’ central hillcrest; it provides a ting termination for all three malls; its Tower stands as an unequivocal marker of the heart of the campus. And finally, it seizes upon the architectural motifs of its most worthy antecedent, Battle Hall, strengthening and formalizing the old library’s Renaissance palazzo motifs and at the same time setting the architectural themes upon which a number of Cret’s later campus buildings would play variations.

But compositional intrigues weren’t the only challenges to the Main Building’s realization. The design had to negotiate the political intricacies of that ultimate court of UT aesthetic disputation, the Board of Regents. Truth be told the University of Texas in 1930 already had a Main Building occupying the same site as the present one. This did not deter William Battle, then chairman of the Faculty Building Committee, from insisting — and persuading the regents — that the University deserved a larger, nobler building to accommodate the campus’ growth, a desire rendered backdrop of Depression public works programs.

Battle wanted the literal and symbolic heart of the campus to be a grand new library, and in 1930 he engaged Cret, a Philadelphia architect of national reputation, to draw up plans that became instantly feasible when the state created the Permanent University Fund in 1931.

Cret’s construction strategy — an exigency both of finances and public relations — was to rob center stage from the admittedly inferior Old Main as discreetly as possible. The back side of the old building was to be demolished to make room for a nucleus section, conceived as a self-contained, operating library. Only after he nucleus completion was the rest of Old Main to be torn down to allow for the front section of the new building, which Cret and Battle intended to house more reading rooms and special collections. Unexpected funding by the Public Works Administration, however, allowed the start of construction of both stages nearly simultaneously.

By 1933, the regents had decided that it was the administration that merited offices at the campus center, and the new section of the building, with minor changes became essentially the bureaucratic center it is today — dispelling the building’s original, scholarly sentiment.

Battle kept his two-story paneled study at the top of the Tower — not too bad for a professor of classics.Cret’s most substantial contribution to the University, however, does not lie in the symbolic center her created for it, however effective its expression. Good architecture may strike its users by its immediately evident dramas. Great architecture resides in the moments between clever articulations, in the vague and fundamental pleasures that under usual circumstances affect one only subconsciously. At the University, Cret succeeded in establishing with the campus’ common buildings, a definite, unique ambience.

Main Stairwell

Cret's Main Building exemplifies the expressive massing that lend his campus structures compositional logic and scale.

The creation of that ambience depended far more on Cret’s fundamental strategies for design than on the particular style he assumed for his facades. In this respect, Cret was faithful to the practices of his alma mater, which emphasized, above all, the plan and building mass, and then outfitted it with whatever fa┴ade artistic and fiduciary propriety dictated.

First, Cret designed buildings which, when seen from the outside, seem the result of a logical combination of constituent subsections. This kept the campus from becoming a series of uneventfully regular masses. Second, Cret allowed major campus pathways and the circulation of individual buildings to coincide occasionally — as anyone who has traveled the length of the Union Building can attest. Instead of becoming obstructions, his building thereby became locks between different areas of the campus. Third, Cret placed his buildings at careful intervals, ensuing that the malls between them would feel uncrowded but not overwhelming.

Cret’s subtlety at designing backdrops for specific effect is well exemplified by the termination the West Mall, where he established a entrance to the campus from Guadalupe Street without resorting to an explicit gateway, using instead tow low towers — the Texas Union Building’s and Goldsmith Hall’s — to mark one’s arrival.

With his design, Cret created a campus whose image was neither explicitly urban nor, in the tradition of much successful collegiate architecture, wholly monastic or rural. Rather, it was a meld of city grandeur and country grace that could only be call — in its best sense — suburban.

In the more perfect world of Cret’s drawings, the university was intended to grow as four quadrangles whose common edges were the malls meeting at the main Building. Despite the plan’s imperfect implementation, the campus still evinces Cret’s envisioned harmony between dignified buildings and treed malls. His best designs for the campus emerge as compositions that, like the works of the great eclectic architects Edwin Lutyens and john Soane, confound attempts to fix them specifically with any point in history, lending them an air of unprejudiced timelessness. At their best, they form a complex that fulfills their inhabitants’ demands for flexibility, comfort, beauty and niceties of status — accomplishments that, taken together, ought to qualify them as rare and dear cultural artifacts.

Daily Texan. April 4, 1983.
Article by: Michael Saenz

New Main Building

Gracious, generous circulation routes through the Main Building root the structure with larger flows of campus traffic.

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3 May 1999
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