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Texas’s 12 essential architectural sites

From Louis Kahn to Renzo Piano

The Modern Art Museum in Texas which has glass walls and sits on a base which holds a reflecting pool. It is evening and the lights in the building are illuminated. The reflecting pool is reflecting the blue of the sky.
The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, a contemporary museum designed by Pritzker winner Tadao Ando.
Alamy

The state of Texas has an astonishing array of architecture: City skylines boast some of the tallest skyscrapers in the country and the state’s top-notch art scene has inspired world-class architects to leave their marks on museums, parks, chapels, fountains, and private homes.

In addition to significant contemporary buildings, Texas also has a rich history that’s shaped the built landscape. Visit the surviving 18th-century missions and you’ll find buildings that show the cultural influences of American Indians and Spanish friars; take a tour near Fredericksburg to see how 19th-century German immigrants built a church inspired by both European heritage and a Texas vernacular. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, a philanthropy-minded class of wealthy patrons have in turn made their mark on the architectural spirit of the state’s commercial centers.

To appreciate the breadth and diversity in Texas architecture, we’ve rounded up the state’s 12 most significant buildings. They range from historic structures to modern masterpieces, but all provide a glimpse into the culture, community, and built environment of the Lone Star State.

Menil Collection by Renzo Piano

The exterior of the Menil Collection in Texas. The building is rectangular with steel support beams. In the foreground is a lawn with a round steel cut out design in the center. Alamy

Located in a 30-acre “neighborhood of art” in Houston, Texas, the Menil Collection is just down the street from the Philip Johnson- and Mark Rothko-designed Rothko Chapel. And while we’d be remiss to ignore the nondenominational chapel’s octagonal design and artistic significance, it’s the larger Menil Collection that placed it on this list.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano—who rose to international prominence in the 1980s for his collaboration with Richard Rogers on the Pompidou Center in Paris—the Menil Collection was Piano’s first building in the United States. Patron Dominique de Menil requested a subtle building that “seemed small on the outside but large inside.”

In 1987, Piano delivered a structure made with cypress siding, steel, and glass that let the art inside take center stage. Piano wanted changing natural light to bring life to the art, so a system of ferrocement leaves illuminate 30,000 square feet of galleries. In the end, the all-white, one-story, understated building has become a staple in the Houston art and architecture community.

Dallas City Hall by I.M. Pei

The Dallas City Hall building. The facade is sloped and there are many windows. The entrance is flanked by two large columns. In the foreground are concrete steps leading up to the entrance to the building. Shutterstock

The fifth iteration of the Dallas City Hall had been in the works since the 1940s, but plans didn’t come to fruition until after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In an effort to revitalize Dallas’s reputation after the tragedy, the new mayor, J. Erik Jonsson, launched a community-sourced plan called Goals for Dallas. High on the list were new city and federal offices.

The city hired renowned modern architect I.M. Pei in 1978; his end design was a buff-colored concrete and angled structure that’s monumental in appearance. Giant oval columns support an inverted pyramid of concrete and glass, and the building shades a public plaza during the hot summer months.

Critics have not been shy in their dislike of the building’s austere concrete aesthetic, a common complaint about Brutalist architecture. But as in many of his designs, Pei creatively accommodated the building’s space requirements—small for the public offices on the ground floor, large for the administrative offices above—with his inverted pyramid, and the glassy windows serve to reflect the city and the people as they enter the seat of government. It’s a modern and thoughtful take in a sea of cookie-cutter city halls.

The Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn

The Kimbell Art Museum building. The building consists of several barrel vaults with skylights. There is a lawn in the foreground. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Like so many other Texas museums on this list, the Kimbell Art Museum uses light as its guiding architectural theme. Designed by American architect Louis Kahn—perhaps most famous for the Salk Institute in San Diego—in 1972, the building’s original concept was a room with a vaulted ceiling that would allow natural light to enter from the space above.

The end result is a classically inspired design of cycloid barrel vaults that contrast daylighting with solid, handsome materials (mainly travertine, with concrete and white oak, for good measure). Narrow plexiglass skylights and wing-shaped pierced-aluminum reflectors hang below to illuminate the works of art.

For the building’s main facade, Kahn created three 100-foot bays that each have an open, barrel-vaulted portico, and three interior courtyards. Kahn’s design is now viewed as an outstanding work of modernist architecture, and the Kimbell Art Museum’s recently built Piano Pavilion—designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano—pays homage to Kahn with its almost-identical dimensions and abundance of diffuse natural light.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth by Tadao Ando

The exterior of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The facade is glass and the building sits on a base with a reflecting pool. It is evening and the lights in the building are illuminated. Alamy

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando in 2002, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth sits opposite Louis Kahn’s Kimbell and consists of five long, flat-roofed pavilions situated on top of a 1.5-acre pond.

Ando’s design uses immense cantilevered cast-concrete roofs to shade the building’s exterior. Transparent glass walls rise 40 feet high above the reflecting pool. The roof slabs are supported by concrete Y-shaped columns, while linear skylights and clerestory windows in the interior galleries continue the airy feel.

The steel and glass buildings seem to float on water. Taken together, Ando’s design in tandem with the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden create a bucolic setting for the museum’s 3,000-piece collection.

Mission San Antonio de Valero in San Antonio

The Mission San Antonio de Valero building in Texas (known as the Alamo). The building’s facade is stone. The door is large, wooden, and arched. There are columns on both side of the door. The windows are small and have bars. Philip Lange/Shutterstock

Now better known as the Alamo, this 18th-century Roman Catholic mission and fortress is without a doubt one of the most famous buildings in Texas. But before the 1836 battle that would launch the compound into the history books, the Mission San Antonio de Valero functioned as one of the early Spanish missionary outposts along the Rio Grande.

From around 1700 until the mission closed in 1793, Spanish missionaries worked to convert local Coahuiltecan residents to Catholicism. The Alamo’s most famous structure is the mission’s chapel, started in 1758 and never completed as originally designed. Local limestone blocks form the chapel’s walls, and the mission had planned for the building to have twin bell towers and a dome over the center.

Eventually, the buildings of the Mission San Antonio de Valero served as a garrison for the Spanish military in the early 19th century and as the site for the now-infamous 13-day siege in 1836 known as the Battle of the Alamo. After Texas was annexed to the U.S. in 1849, the compound was used by the U.S. Army as everything from a warehouse to a general store. The centennial of the battle in 1936 prompted extensive renovations and the creation of a memorial to those who died. Today, the unfinished chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero sees more than 2.5 million visitors each year.

The Ashbel Smith Building at the University of Texas Medical Department in Galveston

The Ahbel Smith Building at the University of Texas. The building’s facade is orange and red stone with a staircase leading up to the door. There is an arched structure over the door. Brian Ambridge/Flickr

This Romanesque Revival building located in Galveston, Texas, may not be as well known as others on our list, but the Ashbel Smith Building impresses with its stunning red brick and sandstone. Affectionately called “Old Red,” the first University of Texas Medical Branch building is named after Ashbel Smith, a former physician and one of the first regents of the University of Texas.

Designed by Galveston architect and Irish emigrant Nicholas Clayton, the building was a state-of-the-art medical facility when it opened in 1891. It housed lecture halls, a well-lit dissection room, a library, laboratories, and medical museums. But by the mid-1960s, many on campus wanted a more modern facility.

Registered as a Texas Historical Landmark in 1969 and renovated in the 1980s, the Ashbel Smith Building was saved from demolition thanks to its historic significance and the arches, rough-hewn stones, and red coloring that made the building famous. It today houses the Department of Anatomy, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and the Institute for the Medical Humanities.

The Little Chapel-in-the-Woods by O’Neil Ford

The interior of the Little Chapel in the Woods. The ceiling is arched and there are multiple hanging light fixtures. There are rows of benches and there is a chapel with a stained glass window. Courtesy Denton Public Library/University of North Texas Libraries

Often called Texas’s godfather of modern architecture, even when he was alive, O’Neil Ford was considered one of the most famous architects that nobody knew about. An early modernist who advocated craftsmanship, the handmade, and the beauty of Texas landscape, Ford embraced modernism as a way to refine—and preserve—the past.

A highlight of Ford’s career is the Little Chapel-in-the-Woods at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Constructed in 1938 to be a sublime, meditative, and interdenominational prayer space, the chapel uses a series of parabolic arches that lead toward an alter to express the infinite possibilities of the future. On the walls, stained glass shows scenes of women ministering to human needs, while metal light fixtures hang from above.

Built using grey fieldstone and brick from nearby Bridgeport, the narrow space is small and intimate, seating a total of 110 people. Today, the church is a popular wedding space and is widely considered one of the best buildings in the state.

Pennzoil Place by Philip Johnson

The two buildings of Pennzoil Place in Texas. The buildings are tall towering structures. The facades are made of bronze tinted glass and aluminum Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Although they are far from the tallest buildings in downtown Houston, it’s hard to miss the two 36-story towers of Pennzoil Place. Completed in 1975 and designed by American architect Philip Johnson, the trapezoidal towers stand dark and sleek in bronze-tinted glass and aluminum.

The two buildings are separated by a ten-foot void (although a glass atrium connects the two 115 feet up), and Johnson’s corporate-meets-postmodern design was a rebuff to the boxy, International Style skyscrapers of most cities. Instead, Pennzoil Place is sculptural in appearance, with a satisfying symmetry in the 45-degree rooflines of the two structures.

Dubbed the Building of the Decade by New York Times architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable in 1975, the dramatic silhouette of Johnson’s design has made Pennzoil Place Houston’s most decorated skyscraper.

Fair Park in Dallas

A building in Fair Park in Dallas, Texas. There is a statue in front of the building which is of a woman raising both of her hands. She has a star crown. The building is tan with an orange patterned border over the doorways. Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Located just southeast of downtown Dallas, this 277-acre park is registered as a Dallas and National Historic Landmark thanks to the world’s largest collection of Art Deco exhibit buildings. Many of the structures were designed by Dallas architect George Dahl for the 1936 Centennial Exhibition.

Aiming to present the city as forward-thinking and progressive, Dahl divided the exhibition into four sub-districts, including a portico-filled Esplanade with a 700-foot-long reflecting pool; a naturalistic lagoon surrounded by museum buildings; an agrarian district with livestock facilities and exhibit halls; and the Midway, home to the second-largest Ferris wheel in the world.

And while the rides within Fair Park—to say nothing of its status as the home of the annual Texas State Fair—may get more attention than its buildings, architecture lovers still love touring all 26 remaining Art Deco masterpieces.

Marienkirche in Fredericksburg

The interior of Marienkirche in Texas. The ceiling is arched and there are columns. There are many benches. The chapel has stained glass windows. Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Home to German immigrants who came to Texas Hill Country in the 19th century, the town of Fredericksburg boasts historic architecture that combined a fondness for European heritage with the Texas vernacular.

Worshippers of St. Mary’s Catholic Church began meeting in Fredericksburg in 1846 in the log home of a school teacher, but a roaming Jesuit minister inspired parishioners in 1859 to build a larger, more impressive structure. It took just under three years for parishioners to build the structure using local limestone and cypress, and the result was a Catholic cathedral with a rather unusual helmet-style steeple.

The building eventually became too small for Fredericksburg’s growing congregation, so the church constructed a “new”—and much more ornate—St. Mary’s next door in 1906. But the Marienkirche still stands today as an icon among early American Gothic Revival churches and as an example of the architectural diversity found in Texas.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science by Thom Mayne

The exterior of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Texas. There is a glass lobby and a textured concrete facade. Philip Lange/Shutterstock

Completed in 2012, the giant gleaming cube of Dallas’s Perot Museum of Nature and Science is meant to stand out. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne and his California-based firm, Morphosis, built the hypercontemporary building as a temple to the future, a brawny love letter to physics, biology, and chemistry.

The 14-story building is a whopping 180,000 square feet, including a glass-enclosed lobby, an acre of green roofscape, and 656 textured precast concrete panels that form the museum’s skin. A 54-foot continuous flow escalator sits ensconced in a glass tube that snakes outside the building to provide views of the museum and of the Dallas skyline.

While some criticize Mayne’s oversized design as mere decoration, there’s no doubt that the Perot Museum is one of the most significant buildings constructed in Texas in the past decade.

The State Capitol building

The exterior of the State Capitol building in Texas. There is a domed roof and the facade is red granite. Shutterstock

When the former Texas State Capitol burned to the ground in 1881, government officials decided to seize the opportunity to build a bigger, grander structure. Opened in 1888 in Austin, the Neo-Renaissance capitol building features the domes, columns, plasterwork, and pediments often associated with classical architecture.

But the State Capitol’s most unique element is its striking sunset-red granite sourced from Granite Mountain near the site of present-day Marble Falls in Burnet County. It creates a distinctive hue that’s unique among capitol buildings in the U.S., and that’s inspired countless visitors to snap photographs and Instagrams. Catch the building at sunset and you’ll see why it’s one of the most beautiful (and most Instagrammed) in the entire country.

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