Texas Ranches: Q&A with the Architect

Texas Ranches: Q&A with the Architect

I've always believed that architecture should be culture and heritage and tradition in material form. It should tell a story. It should thoughtfully reflect a community. A native Texan and the daughter of an architect who has designed many ranches over his career, I have lived the past 25 years enveloped by Texan architecture rooted in this very distinct cowboy culture and heritage– an architecture that tells the story of who we are as a people.

Architecture is the biggest unwritten document of History.
— Daniel Libeskind

No matter where I travel, I always find myself yearning for Texas and its rivers and cicadas and old mesquite trees. I think of the hill country's German Sunday houses and the haciendas of San Antonio, and, of course, ranches. My dad, Michael G. Imber, published a book entitled Ranches, Villas and Houses and today shares his viewpoint on thoughtful ranch design.

Right image    @michaeImber

Right image @michaeImber

You’re from West Texas. Tell me a little bit about your background, and what makes you an expert on ranch house design.

Deep down, it’s just who I am as a Texan. Growing up in West Texas among the cattle and oil, I became shaped by ranch culture – the history, the lifestyle, even the bravado. My father worked on a dude ranch when he was young and I was always fascinated by the stories and the image of him in those days; so much so, that my thesis in architecture school was focused on ranches and the landscape, materials and cultural influences that shaped their architecture. Leaving school and moving to the East Coast for my internship only deepened my love for Texas and the idea of the ranch. My first project back home ended up being (you guessed it) a ranch house, which won my first Texas AIA Award, and has been published many times since.

One of my dad's very first projects, Butcher Ranch.

One of my dad's very first projects, Butcher Ranch.

Butcher Ranch

Butcher Ranch

In what way has there been an evolution in ranch house design over the past century?

The biggest shift is that of going from work ranch to pleasure ranch and family retreat. Although we have designed some houses for true working ranches, it’s really the idea of the retreat in the Texas countryside (the Texas version of a country house) that is what we do most. It’s that retreat where Texans can reconnect to the land and get back to their roots – a place to kick their boots up.

Rancho Dos Vidas: "Rancho Dos Vidas was built as a ranch headquarters and family hunting lodge for an Aspen couple."

Rancho Dos Vidas: "Rancho Dos Vidas was built as a ranch headquarters and family hunting lodge for an Aspen couple."

You recently published a book called Ranches, Villas and Houses. Tell me a little bit about some of the ranches you’ve designed.

We’ve designed a variety of ranches. Our smallest was just 1200 square feet. Our largest, 20,000 square feet. We’ve designed ranches as rustic hunting lodges and we’ve designed ranches as venues for the entertainment of corporate guests. However, I would say our favorites are the personal getaways that people are seeking – the one place were they can recharge their souls and get back to the basics of life.

Medina River Ranch

Medina River Ranch

When you think of the perfect ranch house design, what comes to mind?

One that connects to the landscape, history, materiality and people of a place. A suburban house on a piece of land does not make a ranch house- a ranch house must exude the character of a place- it must define it.

Rancho Del Cielo: "Soft white plaster walls provide contrast with the natural surroundings, while the red clay tile roof anchors the house to the landscape."

Rancho Del Cielo: "Soft white plaster walls provide contrast with the natural surroundings, while the red clay tile roof anchors the house to the landscape."

You give presentations all over the U.S. about design with “a sense of place.” How does this relate to ranch design and the history of ranching?

Buildings can be so much more than a functional structure. They can speak volumes about who we are as a person and as a people. Since ranch houses are so connected to our land and to our histories as a people they can embody our cultural memories of not only who we are, but who we wish to be.

Rancho Dos Vidas: "The compound draws its forms, geometry, and details from the Spanish colonial archetypes of south Texas and northern Mexico: missions, haciendas, presidios, and public places familiar to the outposts of the frontier."

Rancho Dos Vidas: "The compound draws its forms, geometry, and details from the Spanish colonial archetypes of south Texas and northern Mexico: missions, haciendas, presidios, and public places familiar to the outposts of the frontier."

Name the most important DO’s and  DO NOT’S of ranch house design. 

            DO build with materials that are natural to that place.

            DON’T build with foreign materials.

            DO be authentic

            DO be nostalgic, but...

            DON’T be cheeky or cliché

            DO respect the land and build to augment the landscape.

            NEVER build to oppose the landscape.

Ranch life at Rancho Dos Vidas

Ranch life at Rancho Dos Vidas

Talk a little bit about ranch house interiors and what makes a ranch home feel authentic and timeless.

Real materials and a style that’s authentic, not trendy. It should be personal- family pictures and memories are important, and it should never be so formal one can’t "put your boots up!”

A more recently completed project in Columbus: River Ranch. "Simple white trim accents rustic Texas stone, recalling early farmhouses of Texas."

A more recently completed project in Columbus: River Ranch. "Simple white trim accents rustic Texas stone, recalling early farmhouses of Texas."

What’s your favorite historical ranch house of all time?

Well, most are private and difficult to get into, so I’m sure I have yet to see my favorite. But if pressed, I must say the Gallagher Ranch in San Antonio, which was founded in 1833 northwest of San Antonio as a supply depot by General Santa Ana. It represents the deep history of our state and the rich character a ranch can represent.

Photo by my dad. He wrote more about the Gallagher Ranch    here.

Photo by my dad. He wrote more about the Gallagher Ranch here.

Galveston's Carr Mansion

Galveston's Carr Mansion

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather