Brio and Dixie Oil Processing and Southbend subdivision. Photo: South Belt-Ellington Leader via South Belt Houston Digital History Archive.

Brio and Dixie Oil Processing and Southbend subdivision. Photo: South Belt-Ellington Leader via South Belt Houston Digital History Archive.

Back to Brio: A Review of Friendswood

The suburbs are supposed to be safe. It’s only inside the city, we hear, where you’ll find crime. Drugs. Addiction. Corruption. Pollution. Hypocrisy. Assault. Rape. Not, as least as they are bought and sold, in the subdivisions in the suburbs — that’s where you move to escape. That’s where you raise your family among families that share your values, among neighbors who look out for you. Not so in René Steinke’s new novel Friendswood (Riverhead Books, 2014, 350 pages).

The novel is based on the real Friendswood, of course, a suburb about 20 miles southeast of Downtown Houston. But the novel focuses even further in on a real place in Friendswood — the Brio Superfund site on Dixie Farm Road, where a succession of companies starting in 1956 processed and recycled chemical waste, until the last one, Brio Refining Inc., went bankrupt in 1982. These companies used the 58-acre site near Clear Creek to store in earthen pits both known and suspected carcinogenic byproducts, like styrene tars and vinyl chloride sludges, whose very names make you nauseated.

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Justin Smith and Mary Beth Woiccak at PARK(ing) Day. Photo: Allyn West.

Justin Smith and Mary Beth Woiccak at PARK(ing) Day. Photo: Allyn West.

Interrupting the Ordinary: PARK(ing) Day in Houston

“What is this? What’s your message?” asked the woman walking back to her apartment in the Hanover Rice Village development. I’d seen her about an hour earlier crossing the street to the 24 Hour Fitness at the corner of Kelvin and Dunstan.

Justin Smith of Walter P Moore, Mary Beth Woiccak (a colleague of mine at the Rice Design Alliance, which publishes this blog), and I had been relaxing and talking for the better part of the morning. It was the third Friday in September, or PARK(ing) Day, and we had paid $16 to occupy a parking spot from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Earlier that morning — as the rain soaked us — we’d rolled out a 240-square-foot hunk of artificial turf that we’d found at the City of Houston Building Materials ReUse Warehouse and laid down a few stone pavers, set up plants and furniture we had brought from home or had had donated. And — voilà — a park!

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Photo: Allyn West.

Photo: Allyn West.

CiteSeeing: Sample City

OffCite invites short essays, reviews, and observations on specific moments and places. Interested in contributing your own? Let us know.

I have seen where the concrete freeway dividers go to recuperate when they’re between jobs. They’re trucked to two dirt lots immediately north and south of Loop 610, near Long Drive and Cedar Crest Street, and crisscrossed in 20- or 30-foot-high stacks. There’s no fence or gate. If you squinted (or took off your glasses), you might mistake these stacks and their raw concrete and aggressive geometry for some kind of Modernist midrise development — not a Radiant City but a Sample City. It’s strangely peaceful, and strangely pleasing, to walk here. It’s as though you’re the guinea pedestrian among the models arranged on some giant urban planner’s table, helping to test theories about scale and building height and density.

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136 East 23rd Street. Photo: Christopher Robertson.

136 East 23rd Street. Photo: Christopher Robertson.

A Japanese Import Rises in Houston Heights

This house is one of seven that you can see on this weekend’s Houston Modern Home Tour. Click to see photos and descriptions of the other houses and purchase tickets.

A tour of Naoshima, a small Japanese island, inspired the design of the new house at 136 East 23rd Street in the Heights. The designers (and owners), Christopher Robertson and Vivi Nguyen, were particularly taken with Tadao Ando’s Benesse House Museum and Chichu Art Museum on the island and wanted to bring back to Houston some of the rawness and mystery that those buildings evoke.

The 23rd Street house presents from the street as a series of discrete volumes, a wooden box set atop a pair of concrete ones. Because the house is surrounded by typical bungalows with grinning porches and homey fretwork, it appears formidable. The measured fenestration suggests a desire for privacy. An L-shaped concrete wall requires three sharp turns as you approach the front door — creating what Nguyen describes as a “celebration of entry.” Inside, the boxiness of these volumes dissolves, and they lose their edges, resolving into two complementary halves infused with and brought together by light.

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Sick City: Can Houston Walk Itself Into Health?

Forty-four percent of children between 5 and 17 in Harris County are overweight or obese, according to the 2010 Health of Houston Survey. That comes out to about 400,000 children.

“Just to put that into perspective, that’s roughly the size of the city of Miami,” said Dr. Bakeyah Nelson at the Rice Design Alliance’s recent Walk Houston civic forum. Dr. Nelson, Assistant Professor, Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Houston, Clear Lake, was careful to note that more local data are needed, and that our local childhood overweight/obesity estimates range from 1-in-3 to 1-in-2 children in Harris County. A study of Houston-area fourth-graders published in 2010 reported that 46 percent were overweight or obese. (A video of Dr. Nelson’s talk is below.)

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“We Do Want To Be World Players:” A Conversation with Johanna Hurme of 5468796

The founders of Winnipeg-based 5468796, Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme, were in Houston on September 8 and 9 to receive the sixth annual SPOTLIGHT: The RDA Prize. Radulovic and Hurme gave a lively, entertaining presentation on Tuesday, September 9, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Earlier that morning, OffCite sat down with Hurme — Radulovic had to return their rental car — to discuss Winnipeg’s attitudes about architecture, Houston, and where 5468796 hopes to go from here.

Allyn West: What is it like to practice in Winnipeg, far from major centers of architecture? Is it isolated? Does it provide you creative freedom, the ability to be more nimble in the kinds of projects you take on?

Johanna Hurme: We don’t see ourselves as isolated from the rest of the architecture community. It’s a fairly small community. We have about 150 registered architects in all of Manitoba and even fewer firms. When we entered the marketplace, it felt that it had been quite stagnant for quite a long time. We had a great tradition in the city during the ‘50s, and ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, in Modernism, and there’s a great stock of old Modernist buildings in the city, and we were competing at the world scale, almost, at that time. But then I don’t know what happened. I’m not going to really speculate on that. Somehow, there didn’t seem to be the same ambition in Winnipeg. That’s the context that we started the practice in and thought that certainly there must be a way that we can inspire people and try to make something more out of the situation. And, sure enough, we found a few people who were willing to entertain the idea of doing something different in the private sector, which is where our clients are, but I think it isn’t ever that you get a perfect brief; it’s always that you have to make it, to make the project. It’s not like we were told: “Go to town. Please design something.” But it’s always about trying to convince your clients that it’s worthwhile, that it doesn’t necessarily cost more, that if we do our job properly, their bottom line is actually better. It’s been a lot of that. And I think that’s allowed us to stretch the boundaries a bit more.

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Intersection Plan. Courtesy Energy Corridor District.

Intersection Plan. Courtesy Energy Corridor District.

A Vision for a Walkable Energy Corridor

The Energy Corridor District is not an obvious candidate for becoming walkable. Office towers oriented to parking garages, single-family homes on cul-de-sacs, and the Katy Freeway define much of the landscape. Yet, at the Rice Design Alliance’s recent Walk Houston civic forum, Clark Martinson, General Manager of the Energy Corridor District, presented an ambitious vision for a walkable Energy Corridor. Ideas ranged from adding sidewalks, expanding the trail network through the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, and building an air-conditioned bridge across the freeway to a transit oriented development with multi-modal transportation functions at the METRO Park and Ride location. A video of the talk and an excerpt are presented below.

There is amazing growth happening on the west side of Houston right now. It is greater growth in office development than we have seen in 30 years; however, the Class A office tenants today and the millennials they are hiring don’t want the old campuses. They don’t want the old buildings. They want something that is not so dependent on the private automobile.

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ATNMBL, a concept for a driverless car by Mike and Maaike.

ATNMBL, a concept for a driverless car by Mike and Maaike.

Google Car + Uber = Walkable Houston?

After 16 months of deliberation, Houston City Council recently approved new rules that legalize the operation of taxi-like car-sharing services, like Lyft and Uber. Last night, in his talk for the Rice Design Alliance’s Walk Houston civic forum, Kinder Baumgardner, President of SWA Group, discussed the impact these services could have on the future of Houston. An edited excerpt of the talk is presented below.

I like to think of Houston as a multiverse of little walkable places. In between is all this dark matter, which [could be called] the suburbs. So we go from bubble to bubble, multiverse to multiverse. On a typical day, you might start off in the suburbs and go Downtown, then walk around, and get some breakfast. Then you go to the Medical Center, get some tests done, and walk around there. You could take some transit. Maybe you go to [the future] Regent Square and buy some stuff or meet some friends. Then you go to Uptown and go back home. That’s how Houston operates. Where are the [other] places people go [to walk]? Well, they go to The Woodlands Town Center. People walk there. They don’t walk to there but they walk around when they get there. CityCentre — I love the name, especially given where it is — people love to walk there. It is extremely appealing. [What are walkable places with] other demographics? Airline Drive — people drive there and then they walk — is a pretty amazing place if you haven’t been.

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Bagby Street. Photo: Claudia Casbarian.

Bagby Street. Photo: Claudia Casbarian.

Complete Streets Are Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon. We Hope.

Almost a year ago, on November 1, 2013, Mayor Annise Parker signed her Complete Streets Executive Order calling on City employees to do all they can to make all streets safe for all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Though a single proclamation cannot change a city overnight, a rapid transformation is possible because of ReBuild Houston, the multibillion dollar road-building and drainage initiative created by the 2010 Proposition 1 vote.

The Design
What would Complete Streets look like in Houston? One pilot project to consider is in Midtown — Bagby Street between I-45 and the Spur. The Midtown Redevelopment Authority asked Design Workshop out of Austin to redesign the street to take better consideration of pedestrians while using various environmentally sound principles to reduce the negative impact of street construction and improve water quality. You really should walk down Bagby. Notice the bulbouts — curb extensions that allow for a shorter pedestrian crossing. Notice simple design elements that respect the pedestrian, such as benches for resting or for sitting and enjoying the space. Notice how investments in good streets can also serve water quality.

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"Mixed Use Development," collage, 2014. Image: Carrie Schneider.

"Mixed Use Development," collage, 2014. Image: Carrie Schneider.

The Mixed Use Future of Now

This essay appears in the new issue of Cite, “The Beautiful Periphery.” The issue is available for purchase at Brazos Bookstore and River Oaks Bookstore, as well as the bookstores at the Menil Collection; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Contemporary Arts Museum; and the Blaffer Art Museum. Read more from Cite 94.

On the way to a friend’s house in the suburbs, a friend and I skipped the tolls and drove past the second loop on a surface road, playing a guess-what’s-next car game: Best Buy, Marshalls, AT&T, Subway, ……… .

But in spurts, the retail syntax gave way to those euphorically Houston stretches where scrappy, audacious imagination cracks through the concrete and reads like a romp told by too many voices at once.

The friends we were going to see are recent transplants from Montrose, now occupying their colonial two-story with an independent press and compromising their lawn with art too unnerving to describe here. When we arrived, they apologized, “We’re so far!”

But I was thinking the reverse: the young professionals who move inside the Loop claim heightened cultural capital for living “the urban experience” but are more consumers than contributors to creative life.

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