MacKie and Kamrath: Texas Medical Center, Part 1

My continuing look at the work of Houston architecture firm MacKie and Kamrath (Karl Kamrath, chief designer) turns now and for the next several installments to the work just south of the “midtown” area in Houston’s hospital district. Paradoxically, the success of the firm in this zone contributed to its later relative obscurity, since structures in the medical world have a way of disappearing. The Texas Medical Center experiences a condition of high growth, rendering original use parameters of a building out of date in just a few decades, thus little to no time is available for organizations to consider expansion ideas coherent with the original designs. Most Kamrath designs in the Medical Center have been altered or even removed, and two larger structures soon will be. These are the University of Houston College of Pharmacy (to be covered in a future article) and the University of Texas Health Sciences building, our subject for today.

This 1975 structure, originally called the UT School of Public Health, is located midway between Fannin and South Braeswood on Holcombe Boulevards’ south side. It’s possibly one of this firm’s least recognized projects since it’s set back an acre from Holcombe behind a small drainage creek and a parklike setting beneath enormous trees. This camouflages the building in a way unavailable to surrounding ones since they lack the real estate. This means that most Houstonians have probably never seen the structure up close and for the younger set probably not at all. But when one enters the park, the front or north entrance (facing Holcombe) allows one to comprehend the arrangement as two towers, one east and one west, joined with an X-shaped corridor structure in the center.

This school for doctors provided Kamrath with an opportunity to reconcile his strong Prairie School tendencies with the block mass approach of another of his influences, Amsterdam architect Willem Marinus Dudok, whom Kamrath met in the mid-1940’s. Dudok had considerable experience with vertical massing in the context of large urban structures, which were not in Frank Lloyd Wright’s portfolio of completed works except for the single Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (done for Phillips Petroleum). Without much of a Wright model to follow, how would Kamrath – a Prairie School practitioner used to strong horizontal emphasis as in the Winslow and Robie houses – orient a building that would need to be vertical due to the demands of the site and the square footage needs of the school?

He had to go up, since half of the site as a park would be unavailable to the building and realized that Dudok’s vertical massing showed him how. I am indebted to Kamrath’s draftsman and later partner Lloyd Borget for this insight, which I got from him in an interview in the early 1990s  at the MacKie and Kamrath office in River Oaks.  Dudok would use large expanses of masonry, stucco or brick where windowless vertical aspects of floors could be placed, as with a stairwell. Rather than conceal them within, Dudok often made such aspects corner or side features, following a somewhat Wrightian tendency to make structures resemble on the outside what spaces they shaped on the inside. For Kamrath, horizontal floors could then become connecting elements between the corner stairwells or central lobbies. To lower contradictory emphases, Kamrath used a tinted glass curtain wall over the floors between the stairwell masses and recessed these horizontal floors behind the tower-like vertical elements about 15 to 20 feet back. He then added thin white stone vertical column details over the windows which, when viewed under the square parapet overhangs at the top, resemble a waterfall from the tops of the towers to the ground. This effect is seen on at least two faces from any angle of the building.

Brick and stone details include 270-degree stairsteps which are of pink granite. These steps are possibly a nod to the geology of Austin and the University of Texas, which was both MacKie and Kamrath’s alma mater. As well, one can notice tiny orange tile details if one is close enough (orange is famously the UT school color and it worked into the warm color palette popular in the 1960’s and 70’s). A clever hexagonal park bench affords curbside seating and has bench surfaces both outside and inside the enclosed area. Cantilevering makes more than one support edge unneeded by the benches and at the edge where the outside bench is oriented there is no interior bench surface, which allows for wheelchair room inside the hexagon.

This building perhaps better than any other MacKie and Kamrath design uses horizontal awning, brick work and steps in conjunction with the vertical aspects of a basically vertical arrangement. If other choices had been made, the confusing interplay between horizontal and vertical elements might have caused so much visual confusion that the firm might have failed to get the contract. One hopes for a wider availability of this building’s presentation drawings on the web site of the Kamrath archives at UT. This Health Science Center provides an object lesson in detail orientation that deserves to outlive the project.

Kamrath Collection at UT-Austin:

Willem Dudok:

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