MacKie and Kamrath: Texas Medical Center, Part 2

Today we look at two more Mackie & Kamrath works in the Texas Medical Center, one of which is slated for demolition as in the case of the earlier-seen UT School of Public Health. This structure, the University of Houston School of Pharmacy building, went up in the early 1970’s and although not revolutionary is worthy of note.

Laboratory square footage where window space was not a critical consideration was the primary need that the Pharmacy building would address. This allowed for great flexibility in meeting the school’s changing internal arrangement needs but would dictate a rather blank exterior. Kamrath solved the problem by placing bands of small high “transom” windows at the east and west ends of the building where offices were situated, while a Willem Dudok-influenced broad windowless expanse dominated the north and south sides in the center (behind which laboratories were placed for Professors that preferred or required darkness). This expanse was faced with orange-tan brick separated by horizontally-raked mortar as with Wright, mirroring the overall horizontal building orientation. Another nod to Wright would be the arched entranceways which recall somewhat the 1948 V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco and the 1902 Arthur Heurtley house in Chicago.

Although most aspects of the facility are restrained, there is a rather showy display of cantilevering on the east and west ends. Simply by extending floors about 12 feet and then repeating the extension above, he gets five different floor lengths, four of which are longer than the foundation. This is interesting in an engineering sense because the cantilevering is not of the Fallingwater variety. It is made possible by the building’s steel structure itself, as beams are not counterweighted with a stone mass above, but are counterweighted by being bolted to everything else. It’s unfortunate that the school is constructing a new facility rather than expanding this one but the structure is old and new work is frequently cheaper to build than restoration or redesign jobs.

The second M&K building to note in this installment will be an aspect of the larger two-section Lutheran Pavilion (the structure’s original name that remains on one tower), which fortunately is not immediately threatened with demolition. The Freeman-Dunn Chapel, a freestanding feature in front of the south Holcolmbe face of the Pavilion tower complex, is an unexpected gem which must be entered in order to understand the design. This will take a bit of doing since not only will one need to park in a Medical Center garage and take a third-floor walkway back to the Pavilion, but there is no outside entrance to the chapel. A small corridor extending south from inside the Medical Center mega-structure is the only public way in.

The inspiration for this work is clearly Wright’s First Christian Church in Phoenix, Arizona but Kamrath got a similar effect in a tiny fraction of the space. The chapel’s sanctuary is only about 600 square feet in size, but is not cramped due to a 45-degree ceiling which in a sort of 3-D A-frame maneuver (essentially a pyramid) makes the roof a major element. Impinging corner windows of modernist stained glass are also at 45-degree angles, which is also the offset of the oak chandelier in the center. These angles when mixed with the 90-degree corners and the 45-degree rooflines give the effect not of a square (which it actually is) but of being inside a 20-foot diamond. I know of no Wrightian precedent for this room, and I don’t think Rudolph Schindler, Richard or Dion Neutra, Craig Ellwood or Charles Eames approached it either.

There are also completely unexpected features with no precedent in the Prairie or any other design school. Where Wright would sometimes make column-style wall supports in a stylized version of the classic column order (capital, shaft and base), Kamrath does the entire west wall of the chapel in a stretched version of the idea, and with wildly expensive light rose-colored marble. Horizontal separator elements are in white marble. Cleverly, the two other walls to the south and southeast are of differing shades of red granite, which with a more demure effect, hide the brighter impact of the west-side marbles until one banks left and then one is on top of it. It’s quite a surprise.

At press time I did not have permission to do interior photography; I suggest you spend some time and drop by this Chapel, which although tricky to get to is open 24 hours. It’s one of the most delightful spaces in Houston.

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