Burdette Keeland, Jr.: “The Bird” Who Built a Better Houston

By Robert Perla Ventura

Known by his friends as ”Bird,” Keeland became one of Houston’s premier architects.

Burdette Keeland, Jr. was a man as busy as they come. As an architect, professor, and chairperson of the Houston Planning Commission, Keeland was always working to better our city. A graduate of the University of Houston (UH) and a professor in the UH College of Architecture and Design (CoAD) for over forty years, he was widely respected by students and colleagues alike and left a lasting mark on the Houston architectural landscape.

Keeland shows off his sleek roadster in front of one of the houses he designed. ark:/84475/do21504z636.

Keeland was born in Mart, Texas, on February 22, 1926, and his family moved to Houston six months later. He graduated from Lamar High School in 1943 and enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at Texas A&M University. Keeland, however, soon found out that engineering was not the right path for him. After leaving Texas A&M with seven Fs in 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Service and was stationed with the Japan Occupational Forces until 1946.1Keeland briefly returned to Texas A&M before coming home to Houston. Joining the ranks of veterans taking advantage of the new GI Bill, he enrolled at the University of Houston in the architecture program.

Drawing of a Virginia Street Townhome, ca. 1972. ark:/84475/do0921gj558.

In 1950, Keeland graduated with a Bachelor of Science in architecture. He joined the UH faculty in 1954 as an associate professor, beginning his long tenure with the university. He soon befriended Howard Barnstone, a famous Houston architect and his former professor. Barnstone had a significant impact on Keeland and mentored him throughout his early career. They collaborated on many projects and forged connections with other architects and clients. Barnstone also convinced Keeland to apply for graduate school at Barnstone’s alma mater, Yale University. Keeland attended Yale from 1959 to 1960, where he was exposed to architectural styles and ideas in the modernist movement from the likes of respected architectural figures Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. After graduating, Keeland returned to UH in the fall of 1960 as a professor of fifth-year design studios – the final studio design course required for undergraduate architectural students – a position he held throughout his tenure at the college.

The poster for the grand opening of the Keeland Design Exploration Center humorously honors his legacy of excellence with the University of Houston.

Photo courtesy of the UH College of Architecture and Design.

Keeland taught architecture at UH for forty-six years and earned the admiration of his students and colleagues. Among the architecture students, he had a reputation for being a blunt and vicious professor. For example, one of his former students, and future dean of the CoAD, Joe Mashburn, recalled, “[He] seemed merciless: anything could be said, and anything could be criticized. It was common for students to be told to leave architecture and find something else to study. It was leave or fight, and the battles would be fought through the work on the walls.”

It would be easy to write off Keeland as a mere stereotype of the harsh and critical professor, but his ruthlessness came from a place of benevolence. Despite his apparent coldness, he always advocated for his students. As a fifth-year design studio professor, he determined which students would make the cut as architects, and which students would be better suited to different career paths. Keeland explained, “If [a student] cannot do it, [I] suggest that he find something that he can do. It sounds awful to talk about it, but it is really a kindness. … It is uncomfortable to sit with some young guy with tears in his eyes … [but] this whole silly five-year period is to train you to make it to eighty years old doing something … that means something to people in the world.” Many of his former students later agreed with him and were thankful for Keeland’s criticism.

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The Burdette Keeland, Jr. Design Exploration Lab is a fabrication space for graduate students at the University of Houston College of Architecture and Design. With over 50 total machines, the lab spaces are well equipped with the latest in woodworking, metalworking, and digital fabrication tools.
Catalogue of the Ten Years of Houston Architecture exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, on display March 6, 1959 – April 1, 1959. Artists featured include Donald Barthelme & Associates; McKie & Kamrath; Cowell & Neuhaus; Bolton & Barnstone; Wm. R. Jenkins & Associates; Neuhaus and Taylor; Burdette Keeland, Jr. with Clyde Jackson; Swenson and Linnstaedter; Philip Johnson Associates; and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

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