The Texas RangersSchool of Architecture, University of Texas Austin
BETWEEN 1951 AND 1956, the program of the Austin School of Architecture changed drastically, thanks to the somewhat surprising combination of “some genuinely extraordinary people,” as Charles Moore refers to them. The “Texas Rangers,” as they were widely called later, were a group of architects, artists, and art historians who, within a few years, created a new curriculum for the newly founded School of Architecture. Bernhard Hoesli, Colin Rowe, John Hejduk, Robert Slutzky, Lee Hodgden, John Shaw, and Werner Seligmann were called to the new School of Architecture of Austin by Hamilton Harris. On “the Provençal dimension of the Texas hills,” as Rowe poetically recalled, they created a unique bond in which their different backgrounds and their forthcoming careers were tied indissolubly to the future of architectural education
“The purpose of architectural education,” reads the manual for the “Conduct of Courses in Design” printed in the official Handbook of the School of Architecture in 1954, “is not alone to train a student for professional occupation, but above all to stimulate his spiritual and intellectual growth, to develop his intellectual faculties and to enable him to grasp the meaning of architecture.” The new curriculum of the school, based on a memorandum drafted by Hoesli and Rowe, stressed exactly that: the possibility of teaching a process. The student would therefore have the possibility of knowing and understanding architecture as a discipline at large, with its own “intellectual content,” where “grasping the meaning of architecture” meant to establish a process of design by following a rigorous path within a frame of reference given by the teachers and their program.
This process began with one of the fundamental tools of the architect: the hand, for drawing was considered as an act of design in itself, or a “means of investigation,” as Bernhard Hoesli wrote in the proposed course matrix in 1953. The exploration of the line (derived from the Gestalt methods of Josef Albers) during the freshman year was an exercise on the abstraction of space, the understanding of the three-dimensional reality transformed into the two-dimensional flatness of its representation. Similarly focused, spatial investigations became the device for studio teaching: the famous “nine-square grid” problem was proposed by Hejduk and Slutzky with Lee Hirsche as an architectural problem in the junior studio. The metaphysical, open-ended quality of the exercise (a formal frame inside which the architectural project was developed) might be seen as a paradigm of the curriculum of the new program itself, and, at large, as a revision of the modern model. Indeed, to provide a framework for the students and tools for the “intellectual content” of architecture, the very act of teaching architecture, as well as learning it, had to become a research process rather than a mimesis of pre-established solutions.
Dominance was given to what has been called the “architectural idea” as the autonomous and unique substance of every architectural project, its content and its container. Yet such “autonomy” was not to suggest its freedom from historical references: courses in history and theory, mainly directed by Colin Rowe, were part of the design studio as a stimulus for students’ projects and their design process.
The “Texas Rangers” experiment consisted of the fusion of different backgrounds and visions, along with their shared aim to establish a diverse approach to architectural education. Brief yet powerful, their curriculum may be considered as an alternative to the architectural education of the American schools at the time, and if its seed was born during those few years in Austin, it is probably in the dispersion of its creators, in their continuity and efforts as educators, that we can identify its repercussions worldwide.