- Architecture that Speaks: S. C. P. Vosper and Ten Remarkable Buildings at Texas A&M ed. by Nancy T. McCoy and David G. Woodcock
Architect S. C. P. Vosper is far from a household name, and his influence on shaping the college experience at Texas A&M University has been [End Page 221] little acknowledged. As chief designer for the university between 1929 and 1933, and with the supervision of the technically oriented chief architect, Frederick Ernst Giesecke, Vosper designed the Cushing Library, the Chemistry Building, the Petroleum Engineering Building, the Agricultural Engineering Building, and six more classroom and office buildings at the heart of the now sprawling campus. The ten buildings featured in Nancy McCoy and David Woodcock's architectural history of the campus offer new insights into the ways that the university, which is now well known for its strict observance of tradition, established its reputation and culture in the 1920s and 1930s.
At the heart of this story is Vosper's ability to translate the architectural ideals of the Beaux-Arts and the City Beautiful movements, which dominated American thinking about public and civic buildings through the 1920s, into something appropriate to an isolated and still-fledgling land grant campus in small-town Texas. In the late 1920s, Texas A&M had access to new wealth from the oil-boom-fueled Permanent University Fund, and it began to expand to its east, poised to connect to the newly proposed State Highway 6. As a result, the university embarked on what the authors call the "largest building program to date on the campus" (19), which would amplify its ability to become the premier agricultural and mechanical college in the state.
Vosper, raised and educated in New York, had more than ten years' experience working in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio before taking on the campus commissions, and he had developed a "love of Texas history" (19) that is still visible in his designs. Particularly emphasized in Vosper's work is the idea of architecture parlante, or the idea that "buildings speak" of their uses and purposes through ornament. Vosper's design for the 1933 Administration Building, for example, is embellished with cast stone panels that illustrate events and heroes from state history and with bronze doors whose figures personify, appropriately enough, agriculture and mechanics.
McCoy and Woodcock divide the book into two complementary sets of chapters, one providing a detailed campus history and the other looking in minute detail at the design and construction of the ten Vosper buildings. In so doing, they provide a welcome primer for non-architects on how to understand the design and construction of historic buildings. They also emphasize the importance of collaboration and craft, giving capsule histories of sculptors, artisans, and craftsmen who were essential to making the buildings come to life. The book translates the specialized jargon of the architecture and planning professions and classifies the kinds of materials and techniques that Vosper and Giesecke used. These Beaux-Arts and Art Deco buildings are easy to navigate, with grand staircases that lead to airy hallways and generous auditorium spaces. Carolyn [End Page 222] Brown's superb photographs highlight details like cast stone horse's and sheep's heads, plaster constellations, stained glass crystals, iron trilobite fossils, and terrazzo maps of Texas that may go unnoticed on a typical class day but here receive justified attention. The text plainly elucidates the pro-Texas, pro-agriculture, pro-science messages of these adornments and their role in celebrating the university's mission to educate students and to support the state's economy.
McCoy's and Woodcock's book provides ample evidence that architecture is fundamental to our understanding of institutional culture and identity. The survival of Vosper's auditorium in the Chemistry Building, for example, ensures that contemporary students have a palpable connection to the ways that the university's core mission originated in and has grown from long-established roots...