Anthony Vidler Reframes the Legacy of John Shaw and The Texas Rangers

Woman holding a phone and man wearing a scarf talking together

Anthony Vidler, right, speaking with a member of the Shaw family at the lecture reception in Milstein Hall dome. William Staffeld / AAP

April 18, 2018

The late Cornell architecture professor John Shaw's place among a group of influential theorists and designers known as the Texas Rangers was the subject of a recent lecture given by former AAP Dean Anthony Vidler. In his March 23 talk titled "The Invention of an Architectural Pedagogy: Austin, Cambridge, Ithaca," Vidler reframed the legendary story, setting the men and their work in the wider historiography of architecture education from the 1950s through the 80s.

Shaw, who died in 2016, was a Cornell faculty member from 1962 until his retirement in 1995. The other Texas Rangers were Colin Rowe (1920–99), Bernhard Hoesli (1923–84), Lee Hodgden (1926–2004), Werner Seligmann '53 (1930–98), Robert Slutzky (1930–2005), and John Hejduk (1929-2000). This influential group first met at the University of Texas at Austin (UT–Austin) in the 1950s, where Shaw had earlier been a student. Several of the group — including Hejduk, Hodgden, Rowe, Seligmann, and, eventually, Shaw — reunited as Cornell faculty in the 1960s.

Vidler, a historian and critic of modern and contemporary architecture specializing in French architecture from the Enlightenment to the present, first met Shaw in 1967 at a conference in Ithaca and again many times over the years. Vidler went on to be dean of The Cooper Union's Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture from 2002 to 2013 and continues to teach a wide variety of classes.

"John Shaw was not only a great mentor, colleague, and friend, but most importantly for the school, an extraordinary teacher," said Andrea Simitch, chair of the Department of Architecture.  "In honoring his legacy at Cornell, Anthony Vidler illuminated not only the context in which John Shaw practiced, but the choreography of temperaments, identities, and histories in which John played a significant role."

Professor Jerry Wells, a former student, colleague, and lifelong friend of Shaw's, gave an introduction to Vidler's lecture. "Thinking about what to say about John Shaw, about Cornell, and architectural education," Wells said, "forces me to stop and let the dust settle — Texas dust, Ithaca dust." Wells was recruited by Shaw, and together with the other Rangers, established an architecture curriculum at Cornell rooted in the one devised by the Rangers at UT–Austin, featuring an emphasis on design teaching in the studio and a first-semester drawing class that is still taught in the department.

Taking the podium, Vidler began by describing how the UT–Austin group played a pivotal role in the evolution of architectural education. He noted the mythology characterizing them as rebels during their brief stays at UT–Austin, their subsequent diaspora around the world, and their gradual consolidation at Cornell as "almost equal to that of The Magnificent Seven."

Vidler detailed the shifting liaisons among this group and how they arrived at a new academic curriculum — a "Texas manifesto" — for teaching architecture in the academy. Within the European precedents of the modern classical Beaux-Arts, the polytechnic traditions exemplified at The Cooper Union, newer styles represented at MoMA, and the "trickle-down" effect of the Bauhaus, the group identified pitfalls in teaching architecture — namely, the elimination of history at one extreme and the "intuitivist free-for-all" on the other. For them, Vidler said, the new academy required a class, "heretical in 1954, which might be called the theory of architecture, and a corollary course in drawing."

Shaw, who was the only one of the Rangers actually from Texas, taught at UT–Austin only briefly, between 1949–50. At Cornell in the early 60s, he was known for finding a way to integrate the new curriculum with the needs of students and "to have an instinctive ability to see potential ideas and express the most complex design issues and ideas in a disarming and simple way," according to Vidler.

Rowe's and Hodgden's influence as theorists and designers overshadow Shaw's. But for Vidler, the way historians divide the field of architecture and its people into these two groups is a disservice to Shaw and overlooks his own influence. "This emphasis on Shaw's teaching has had the effect of pigeonholing and misunderstanding Shaw and his legacy," he said. "My new history would shift John's place to central in the round-up of the Rangers. 'Teaching is a patient search' might well have been his motto."

Showing slides of Shaw's notes from around 1964–65, Vidler said, "John always talked about space," and described how he diverged from the "uber-theories" of Rowe and Slutzky. "Shaw would pause at the entry, move through and encounter the space, rather than objectify the plan and the façade," he said. "Where Le Corbusier would say 'architecture is in the telephone and the Parthenon,' Shaw would have said, 'there is architecture in the barn and in the house.'"

Vidler concluded his talk with a personal observation. "I find it touching that in the house Shaw built for himself and his wife Betsy in New Mexico was a passion for home, related to the earth and sky, a home for an elderly couple. From the time we met, I loved John."

By Patti Witten