On May 17, 2014, Michael L. Klein, chair of the Humanities Texas Board of Directors, delivered the commencement address to this year's graduates of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture (UTSOA). In his remarks, Mickey shared personal stories of his experiences as a life-long devotee of art, architecture, and the natural environment with the hope of inspiring the graduates to pursue their careers with passion, creativity, and collaboration.
Mickey is an independent oil and gas entrepreneur who graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a BS in petroleum engineering in 1958 and an LLB in 1963. He and his wife Jeanne are among the nation's foremost supporters and collectors of contemporary art. Mickey also serves as chair of the Blanton Museum of Art National Leadership Board and the University of Texas Press Advisory Council. He is a member of the Longhorn Foundation and is on the development board of The University of Texas at Austin and the board of trustees of The Contemporary Austin.
Mickey has previously served on the SITE Santa Fe board of directors, as a member on the board of trustees for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, DC); the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Chinati Foundation (Marfa); the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City); the Cate School (Carpinteria, California); and as the chair of the board at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Mickey and Jeanne divide their time between Austin and Santa Fe. Their custom-designed home in Santa Fe has received several architectural awards.
Below is the full text of Mickey's speech from the UTSOA spring commencement at Hogg Auditorium. For more on the proceedings, including a welcome from Dean Fritz Steiner and photographs from the event, please visit the UTSOA website.
Distinguished members of the faculty, graduates, proud parents, families, and guests—good afternoon and congratulations to the class of 2014!
Fifty-six years ago I graduated from the University with a degree in Petroleum Engineering. After working in the oilfield for several years, I returned to the University and received a law degree in 1963. I've spent my career in oil and gas exploration, production, and law, first with a major oil company, and for the last forty-five years as an independent operator. So where does this leave me in talking to a group of young, resourceful architects, planners, landscape architects, interior designers, and preservationists? I'd hoped that I might receive some input from my omniscient wife, Jeanne. I asked her if, in her wildest dreams, she could ever imagine my giving a commencement talk at a school of architecture. She responded, "Mickey, I don't want to disappoint you, but you're not in my wildest dreams."
After much thought, I realized that I had been given a gift—the unique opportunity to share some of my experiences in a life lived with an intense passion for art, architecture, and the land, and hope that some of these experiences might inspire you scholars of the built environment. I'm often asked how I developed these passions. Exposure and curiosity were key. I grew up in a family with absolutely no interest in art, architecture, or the environment. At the age of ten, much of my spare time was spent engaged in sports. But, in those days I had a secret, one that most of my friends wouldn't appreciate. I loved art, buildings, and gardens. On weekends, I would hop a bus and sneak off to the Nelson-Adkins Museum [of Art] in Kansas City, where I'd spend the day fantasizing in the armor room, immersed in the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, or fascinated by the paintings of his student, this guy who with his paint brush flung oil on a canvas lying on the ground, Jackson Pollock. The museum became my refuge, a place where my imagination ran wild. Through this exposure I learned at an early age that art aroused feelings of happiness, curiosity, discovery, and challenges like nothing that I'd ever experienced. I learned as well that the physical structures strongly affected my feelings in many of the same ways—and that the environment in which the structures are situated completed the experience. At the recent Nature and Cities Symposium organized by the [UT] School of Architecture, landscape architect Carol Franklin wisely pointed out, "For the building to work, the landscape has to work."
My art and architecture education has come from exposure rather than formal schooling. I read ten different art and architecture magazines monthly, visit museums, galleries, art fairs, gardens, homes, churches, and libraries at every opportunity, and attend every lecture by artists, curators, and architects that I can. Like so many of you, my passion for the arts was sparked by great teachers. In Houston, I had the good fortune of forming a close association with the great art and architecture patron, Mrs. Dominique de Menil, who was my greatest teacher. I vividly remember standing in front of a Mondrian painting at MOMA and asking her if she saw the influence of Mondrian on Brice Marden, a contemporary painter I admired. Her answer was simple, yet so profound. She said that every artist influences everyone else, a point that I'll return to in a moment.
Architecture occasionally makes front line news. A recent panel discussion was held to analyze MOMA's controversial decision to raze the critically revered American Folk Art Museum designed by Todd Williams and Billie Tsien to make way for a MOMA expansion. Glenn Lowry, director of MOMA, made his position clear, saying, "We don't collect buildings." These remarks stand in stark contrast to a decision of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas to acquire Frank Lloyd Wright's Bachman House, a 1954 example of his Usonian Houses, with the intention of disassembling it and rebuilding it on the museum's 120–twenty acre campus. This move emphasized founder Alice Walton's mission to preserve and honor art in all forms.
At the risk of being presumptuous, there are several things I would urge you to remember throughout your careers. First, always keep in mind your client's personalities, objectives, and values. This point was made by UT psychology professor Sam Gosling in his recent book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. Professor Gosling discusses the need to identify people's emotional and psychological associations as a vital component of the design process. He suggests that architects should deeply consider people's personalities—let me repeat that—people's personalities, in the earliest stages of the design process to ensure that the structure fits the occupants and users, not the other way around.
Let me share some experiences I've had in choosing an architect to design our Santa Fe home and what it's like to be on the other side. Jeanne and I set out to find an architect to design a contemporary home that would be surrounded on three sides by national forest as a showcase for the art that we love. It was vital that the home be built with a respect for the land and that it take advantage of the infinite variations in the natural light of northern New Mexico. We had the privilege of speaking to two prominent architects and an artist before we made our choice.
I first spoke to Phillip Johnson while visiting the glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut, where I told him about the project. Mr. Johnson, who was then a spry ninety, jokingly said, "I can do everything at ninety that I could at fifty, which shows just how pathetic I was at fifty." Then he said he wanted to design the house, and the process was very simple. He proposed that I fly him out to the site, where he would spend just one day, and then design the house, with no further input from us. The next person we spoke to was a prominent New York architect who wanted to build a monument to himself, with little regard for the land or art. He didn't ask us one question about ourselves. Then, the artist James Turrell, from whom we had purchased a sky space, which was to be the centerpiece of the house, called saying that he wanted to design the house. He proposed that the only art in the house would be his light pieces, which he would give us, and he suggested that the house be called the "House of Light." Jeanne thought this might be interesting. I didn't, but to preserve marital harmony, I relented. We spent a year working with Turrell, to no avail.
The problem was that none of the three listened to us. Then we spoke to a young, early-career New York architect, Mark Dubois, who had very little experience in residential design. He took a week to come stay with us, to see how we lived, observe our personalities and psychological needs, and become familiar with our art collection. We decided to take a chance on this young man. Not only did we share sensibilities, principally on the use of light and color, but his abundant talent was evident. Further, he was willing to consider some of the elements of the work of two architects whom we admired, Tadao Ando and Peter Zumthor.
Before we began construction, the major works of art were placed—rooms were designed for Ellsworth Kelly, John Chamberlain, and Richard Serra sculptures. The building site was on a ridge at the highest point in the area. Frank Lloyd Wright said, "No house should be on a hill, it should be of the hill, belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other." Following Mr. Wright's advice, although I didn't appreciate the reason at the time, Mark excavated seven feet of dirt from the building site so that the house could grow from the land, not loom over us from the ridge.
Of crucial importance was our architect's on-site presence for two to three days per month for the three and one half years of construction. He not only got to know our personalities, but those of our general contractor and every carpenter and stone mason, relaying his vision for the project—and importantly, exchanging ideas with them in a true collaboration. The home, completed ten years ago, has won several architectural awards and has been a delight to share with others. It is a seamless extension of our personalities and our lifestyles. We are now considering the future of the house. Our hope is to add two cabins and leave it to the University as a study center, where scholars of all disciplines can gather to pursue their work and freely exchange ideas, if this is feasible from the University's standpoint.
I mentioned Mrs. de Menil earlier. She made psychological and emotional associations in another way. She often expressed the idea that the art people collect gives insight into their personality. I have no creative ability, but have come to realize that the art that I collect is a way that I express myself.
Second, a common criticism in the world of art is that the work is "derivative." But that misses Mrs. de Menil's point that I referred to earlier, that every artist influences everyone else. She would tell you to look at the work of Shigeru Ban, Larry Speck, Juan Miro, Elizabeth Diller, Billie Tsien, Laurie Olin, Douglas Reed, or Susannah Drake. Learn from it. The message is, to be influenced or inspired by their work is not copycatting, or being derivative.
Third, much of what I learn comes from children. When I go to a city, my first stop is a museum. I always try to follow a school group, preferably an elementary school group, listening to the observations and questions of the students. They see everything so openly and clearly without preconceived notions or filters. They ignore the often mystifying labels and don't care about who owns the work. For most children, the art simply exists, and they respond to it at an emotional level. At the Nature and Cities Symposium, esteemed landscape architect Laurie Olin put it beautifully, saying, "my litmus test must be: does it work for children?"
This brings me to my fourth point. As architects, remain flexible, but don't compromise your core principles. A few years ago I found myself on the losing side of a battle for the design of the Blanton Museum. In my view, the museum as it is now configured, and from an aesthetic standpoint, is not as successful as it could have been. As some of you may recall, after a worldwide search, the prominent Swiss architecture firm, Herzog and de Meuron was awarded the commission. After submitting several proposals, all of which were rejected by the two members of the [UT] Board of Regents assigned to the project, Herzog resigned the commission. The ostensible reason given by the regents was that the building didn't conform to the [UT] Master Plan. In my opinion, this was a huge missed opportunity that we are now trying to correct. We did make a positive change in the entry atrium space that was previously a cold, sterile, and unwelcoming white box, by commissioning Teresita Fernández, a New York artist, to create Stacked Waters, an installation of tiles inspired by a Roman bath and Donald Judd's stacked sculpture. What observations did I draw from this experience? First, the board, as client, failed to acquit its responsibility to the students. Second, in contrast, Herzog correctly and courageously acquitted its professional responsibility. They refused to compromise their core principles and resigned a very high-profile commission.
The power of the built environment is that it affects our mood and state of mind. Think about how you feel when you enter Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, the Renzo Piano Menil Museum in Houston, the Ryoan-ji gardens in Kyoto, or a simple well-designed garden in a residential setting. The artist Ed Ruscha, with his 1960's photographs of gas stations along Route 66, reminds us that even the most modest structures can have charm and character. Both art and design have intimate transformative effects on our thinking, creativity, and well-being. How much comfort and challenge a structure, a garden, or a public art space can elicit requires great skill in reading the souls of the people who inhabit them. The human element is always present. In your work, you will likely make some mistakes along the way, but remember that is how we all learn. Again, as my favorite humorist Frank Lloyd Wright said, "the physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines," or, as Dean Steiner offered, hire a landscape architect.
In Sir Winston Churchill's address to the British Women's Temperance Union in 1953, he was introduced by the Chairwoman, who said, "Mr. Prime Minister, we have estimated that if all the wine, whisky, and brandy you have consumed in your life was poured into the ballroom, it would come right up to your chin." In answer, Churchill said, "Madame President, I accept the accuracy of your calculations, but as I look at the high ceiling of this room and ponder my seventy-eight years, my only thought is this—how much left to do and how little time to do it." Unlike Churchill, you have the gift of time. Don't get frantic, but don't waste it. The happiest people I know are those doing what they're passionate about. We all have to pay bills, but my unhappiest acquaintances are those who are caught in ruts, going through the motions and marking time in jobs that don't interest them. There is so much left to do. Dare to take risks and make interesting, fantastic, and inspiring mistakes as you explore the infinite possibilities available to you—and take some time each day to enjoy every moment of the ride.
Congratulations class of 2014!