Monday, June 26, 2017

Mistake in Yellow and Gray

Texas has always been a forward-looking state, where things are always going to get better and history doesn't count for much.  The spirit of the state is well expressed by GM engineer and inventor Charles F. Kettering, who said in 1948, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."  So it's natural to expect that this bias toward novelty would show up in architecture. 

The problem with novelty in architecture is that most of the time, a new building is surrounded by older buildings.  And if the style of the new building is too radically different than its surroundings, the overall effect cannot be a happy one, regardless of how elegant or coordinated the new building is on its own.  When you leave out elegance and coordination and design a building's appearance in a manner that seems to have taken every minute of a half-hour's thought, well—you get the new Local apartment building here in San Marcos, Texas. 

I should explain something about the way San Marcos has grown from a town of less than 10,000 people in 1950 to its present estimated population of over 60,000.  Like most county seats in Texas, settlement started out around the county courthouse in the town square.  Many of the original buildings around the square still stand, and the immediate area of the square is a historic district, as is a quarter-mile or so of old homes along the main road that extends southwest of downtown, and much of the newer construction in town is several miles farther southwest in that direction.  Going northeast in the opposite direction from the old residences, you encounter one- and two-story commercial buildings, a 1970s-era bank building or two, a few auto repair shops, a gas station, and so on, until you reach the San Marcos River, fed by nearby Spring Lake, which has evidence of human habitation going back 9,000 years.  While there are not any architectural gems in the couple of blocks northeast of town, the buildings were all pretty consistent with each other, and the historic small-town atmosphere still lingered in that district to some extent.

That is, until the Local started going up a mere two blocks away from the courthouse square.  Here is a view taken from a parking garage a few blocks north of the area I'm speaking of:
The brownish copper dome to the extreme right is the county courthouse, no longer in active use but preserved for its historic and architectural beauty.  Almost even in height with the courthouse is the six-story thing on the left that looks like something an architecture undergraduate turned in at the last minute. 

In researching the history of the Grenfell Tower building in London that caught fire on June 14, I learned that its architectural style is known by the technical name of "brutalist."  I'm not sure that the Local's style has the dignity of a name, but I think brutalist will do until a better one comes along.  Here's a closeup of its sole concession to the fact that it's going to be on public display to thousands of people for years or decades to come: the yellow and gray—patterns—or whatever they are:

Good architecture treats space and the people who occupy it with respect, framing and transitioning to make mechanical necessities such as columns and cornices things of beauty.  The Local is just a box for housing students, and one gets the feeling that the designers came close to leaving it a solid uniform light gray, and then had a twinge of conscience, plus maybe some leftover yellow and dark gray panels (there's no sign of paint anywhere outside), and so they determined on the alternating design that reminds me of nothing more than a surveyor's stadia rod, or the way old 1960s space-flight rockets were painted with alternate black and white squares so the engineers could tell if they were spinning after launch.  Both patterns were designed for high visibility, and I suppose you could say the Local has that.  But they could have made it any color or no color at all, and it would still be highly visible anyway, towering six stories above the surrounding one- and two-story buildings.

Engineers were no doubt involved in the design of this structure.  If you look carefully just to the right of the old-fashioned-design streetlight in the second picture above, you can see evidence that electrical engineers were involved:  a set of junction or transformer boxes connecting to large steel conduits that run up outside the first two parking-lot floors of the building.  I suppose this side is the rear, but it looks pretty much the same from any angle, so who can tell?  Trying to make one side of this building inconspicuous is like trying to hide an elephant under a napkin—the thing can't be done. 

This is not the first or the only apartment building in downtown San Marcos.  The red-brick structure visible to the left in the second picture probably is, or was, an apartment building, but it was built in a scale and style commensurate with the rest of that section of town.  With the huge increase in population in the last decade brought on by the explosion of enrollment at Texas State University (of which I am an employee, therefore indirectly part of the problem), the city has broken out in a rash of apartments ranging from the marginally tasteful—the old First Baptist Church was converted into apartments in a way that at least made some concessions to the appearance of its surroundings—to the esthetic horror that is the topic of this blog. 

There may be no place on Earth where the Local would fit in and look normal, but if there is, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to live there.   And nothing I'm saying should be construed as a criticism of the safety, structural integrity, or legality of the building under discussion.  There are lots of things that are legal that nevertheless shouldn't be done.  Downtown San Marcos was not exactly an architectural showplace, but it at least had a semblance of coherence and a flavor of the town's historic roots.  The Local has changed all that.  I will probably teach students who live in the Local, and that's okay—everybody has to live somewhere.  But I'll still always think of it as the Mistake in Yellow and Gray.

Sources:  The photos were taken by the author on June 15, 2017.  The Kettering quote is from a Forbes magazine interview and can be found at

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