Paul Philippe Cret, architect, was born in Lyons, France, on October 23, 1876, the son of Paul Adolphe and Anna Caroline (Durand) Cret. He attended a lycée in Bourg and studied architecture at the École des Beaux Arts in Lyons and the École des Beaux Arts, Paris, where he graduated in 1903. At the Paris school he was awarded the Rougevin Prize and the Grand Medal of Emulation, both in recognition of his remarkable skill as a draftsman. In 1903 he was invited to teach architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained until his retirement in 1937.
During his long tenure at Penn, Cret was recognized as one of the foremost practitioners of the "Beaux-Arts" style, and his work left a lasting impact on the built environment of the United States, forming a bridge between the end of Beaux-Arts historicism and the rise of modernism. Cret's early buildings-among them the Pan American Union Building in Washington (1907–10), the Indianapolis Public Library (1917), and the Detroit Institute of Arts (1927)-evinced a refined classicism that represented the best traditions of the Beaux-Arts style. By the late 1920s, however, he began to experiment with a new, radically stripped-down classicism, exemplified by his Folger Shakespeare Library (1930–37) in Washington, that was more attuned to the growing modern movement.
In 1930 the regents of the University of Texas hired Cret as the university's supervising architect and commissioned him to draw up a general development plan for the campus. Cret's scheme, which he formally submitted in 1933, was based on general Beaux-Arts principles of balance, axial arrangements, and symmetry. It called for four "principal aspects" or malls extending in the four cardinal directions from the main building, which would serve as an ordering concept for the buildings and monuments of the campus. In front of the main building and tower was a great courtyard framed on the west by Cass Gilbert's library, and on the east by Herbert M. Greene's Garrison Hall. A main north-south axis was formed by Littlefield Fountain, the tower, and the Home Economics Building; and a primary east-west axis featured the Union and Architecture buildings, the pavilions of the main building, and a proposed open-air theater. The remainder of the campus was subdivided into "secondary" areas, with the buildings generally arranged around large courtyards.
Cret argued that the malls and the other main features of the plan should not be altered. But he recognized the importance of introducing a plan that was flexible enough to meet the changing demands of the university, and he proposed what art historian Carol McMichael has called an "elastic formal plan" that allowed for variety in placement and design of individual buildings, as well as a certain amount of freedom for future development. The combination of formal, axial planning and informal, casual arrangements was in many respects unique in the design of American college campuses and has been widely admired. Since the 1930s the university campus has grown well beyond the confines of the area in Cret's development plan, and subsequent architects have ignored the spirit of his scheme, but the central part of the campus still bears the unmistakable imprint of Cret's work.
In 1931 the board of regents also commissioned Cret to design a new library on the site of Frederick E. Ruffini's Old Main Building. Cret proposed several different designs, but the regents eventually opted for a large axially planned building in a Mediterranean-influenced Beaux-Arts style topped by a thirty-one-story tower. The great tower, the only structure at the time that competed with the dome of the state Capitol on the Austin skyline, became the centerpiece of the university's campus, and formed, in Cret's words, "the image carried in our memory when we think of the place."
Between 1930 and the early 1940s Cret, working in association with the firm of Greene, LaRoche, and Dahl and Robert Leon White, designed eighteen additional buildings for the campus. These included the Home Economics Building (now Mary Gearing Hall), the Texas Union Building, the Architecture Building (now Goldsmith Hall), and an auditorium (now Hogg Auditorium). Most of the buildings, like the tower, were characterized by a Mediterranean revival style. Only the Texas Memorial Museum, designed in association with John F. Staub, embraced the stripped-down classicism Cret had first employed in the Folger Shakespeare Library along with curving forms of the Moderne.
In addition to his work for the University of Texas, Cret designed the United States Courthouse (1933) in Fort Worth, built in association with Wiley G. Clarkson. In 1937 ill health forced Cret to resign from the University of Pennsylvania. His last important work was the Federal Reserve Bank (1935–37) in Philadelphia. He died of a heart ailment in Philadelphia on September 8, 1945.