Translating Mies: Barnstone and Houston Modernism


Michelangelo Sabatino




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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone, edited by Barrie Scardino Bradley, Stephen Fox, and Michelangelo Sabatino, published by the University of Texas Press, expected August 2020.

Making Houston Modern Part Two
Translating Mies: Barnstone and Houston Modernism

By Michelangelo Sabatino

During the English architectural critic Reyner Banham’s last visit to Houston, to write about the Menil Collection by Renzo Piano (with Richard Fitzgerald, 1986), he observed the interrelationships among three generations of architects--Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Howard Barnstone--who all left an indelible mark on modern architecture in Houston:

Locally the echoes are of Mies van der Rohe, which may sound strange, but one should remember that, next to Chicago itself, Houston must be the most Miesian city in North America. Quite apart from Johnson’s works for the de Menil/St. Thomas connection, and Mies’s own extensions to the Museum of Fine Art, there is also the work of . . . Howard Barnstone himself, Anderson Todd, and a small host of their pupils, partners, and followers. Almost anywhere, it seems, in the rambling, unzoned dystopia that makes Houston an urbanist’s nightmare, one may stumble with relief on neat steel-framed structures with “made-at-IIT” written all over them, and as often as not the exposed I beams of their exteriors are painted white against their gray walls. . .(1)

Mies’s Cullinan Hall (1958) and Brown Pavilion (1974), his two additions to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Philip Johnson’s Dominique and John de Menil House (1951) and University of St. Thomas campus (1957–1959); and Bolton & Barnstone’s Barbara and Alvin M. Owsley, Jr., House (1960) all represented a radical intervention in the cultural and domestic fabric of Houston, reflecting Miesian tectonics, materiality, and spatial clarity. The aura of cosmopolitan elegance and glamour associated with Miesian architecture that they emitted stood in contrast to the ordinary buildings of developers.(2) This intervention signaled shifts in postwar modern architecture as young, US-trained architects translated the experiments of European modernism to significantly different political and cultural frameworks.

Houston’s (and Barnstone’s) Miesian episode is paradoxical because it took place within a laissez-faire, market-driven, populist cultural economy not known for its adherence to standards of rigor, austerity, and refinement. Barnstone’s contribution to postwar architecture in Houston is best understood by examining the buildings that he and his collaborators produced in response to the genius loci of Houston, a city on the flat Gulf Coast plain of Texas. Defined by heat and humidity, Houston has long been in thrall to automobiles, air-conditioning, and the absence of zoning.(3) Barnstone’s design trajectory can be divided into phases: his partnerships with Texas A&M–trained Preston M. Bolton (1952–1961) and with his former University of Houston student Eugene Aubry (1966–1969) stand out distinctly.

  1. Reyner Banham, “In the Neighborhood of Art,” Art in America 75 (June 1987): 124–129.
  2. Friedman, Alice T. American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).
  3. Lerup, Lars. One Million Acres and No Zoning (London: Architectural Association, 2011); Kamps, Toby, and Meredith Goldsmith, eds. No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 2009).

About the Author

Michelangelo Sabatino, an architect, preservationist, and historian, is a professor (and former dean) at Illinois Institute of Illinois and a member of the Board of Directors of Docomomo US.  Throughout his career Sabatino has focused new light on larger patterns of design discourse and production during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: his book Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy (2011) was translated into Italian and won critical acclaim and multiple awards, including the Society of Architectural Historians’ Alice Davis Hitchcock Award. His recent books include Canada: Modern Architectures in History (with Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, 2016), Avant-Garde in the Cornfields: Architecture, Landscape, and Preservation in New Harmony (with Ben Nicholson, 2019), Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone (with Barrie Scardino Bradley and Stephen Fox, 2020) and Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929–1975 (with Susan Benjamin, 2020).

Making Houston Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, Mississippi, and Midland, Michigan. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

Making Houston Modern Part Three 
A Constructive Connection: Barnstone and the Menils