Cheong Gye Cheon. Photos: Christine Medina.

Cheong Gye Cheon. Photos: Christine Medina.

Cheonggyecheon: A Postcard from Seoul

I recently traveled to Seoul, Korea, for work and wasn’t really prepared for what to expect from the second-largest metropolitan area in the world (more than 25 million people, which makes Houston seem like a provincial village in comparison). Seoul is a bustling city, huge and sprawling with lots of traffic. Smack-dab in the middle is Cheonggyecheon, a stream that runs through the center of town, not unlike Houston’s bayous. And, not unlike Houston’s bayous, Cheonggyecheon received an tremendous application of concrete in the 1950s. In another grand Houston tradition, an elevated highway was then built on top of it.

Eventually Seoul leaders were faced with “such grave issues as the decreased aesthetic value of the city coupled with concerns for safety and security,” states a nearby plaque. And “citizens of Seoul who were more sensitive to environmental-friendly ways of thinking agreed that it should be restored as a clean stream.” The story of the restoration is remarkable in its own right. Below is a photoessay documenting my experience of the place.

more >


Photo: City of Houston.

Photo: City of Houston.

Time to Stop and Look: Sunday Streets HTX on 19th Street

Thousands flock to Sunday Streets in the Heights” reads the headline for Michelle Iracheta’s report for the Houston Chronicle on October 12. The event started off strong at noon. Around 2:30 pm, a pleasurable on-and-off sprinkle turned into a deluge. The stores along 19th Street filled with customers. Iracheta writes, “Dale Johnson and Colby Weems, owners of the Eclectic Home and Coda stores on 19th Street, said they’ve never seen as many people in their stores as they did Sunday.”

Angela Hilton, 46, who said she always drives down 19th Street, was among his first-time visitors. “This is my first Sunday Streets I’ve done,” she told the Chronicle. “It’s a great thing that they’re getting everybody out and onto the street and involved. It gives you time to just stop and look. You’re not so busy driving down and thinking you want to stop but can’t.”

Below is a selection of photographs from the event. Enjoy! And mark your calendars for the November 2 route through the Greater Third Ward and the December 7 route in the East End and Fifth Ward. Please share the Facebook events here and here with your friends.

more >


Anderson-Clarke Center. Photos: Allyn West.

Anderson-Clarke Center. Photos: Allyn West.

Past, Present, Future: A Review of the Anderson-Clarke Center at Rice University

Overland Partners, the San Antonio-based firm, faced a complex task with the Anderson-Clarke Center, the newest building at Rice University. First, it would have to serve more than 20,000 Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies students who come to campus to learn languages and practice iPhone photography and brush up on the brief history of the soul.

And it would also have to serve as the first building on a side of campus that’s set to grow, as the 2004 Michael Graves master plan shows. That plan — and, indeed, the need for a bigger building for the Glasscock School in the first place — coincides with the decade-long tenure of President David Leebron. Benjamin Wermund writes in the Houston Chronicle, “Just about everything about Rice has grown, from its physical boundaries to its student body and its art collection … . [President Leebron has] worked to connect Rice to the surrounding community.”

more >


Alan Ehrenhalt.

Alan Ehrenhalt.

After the Great Inversion

Is car sharing reaching a tipping point in Houston and other cities in the U.S.? What is the effect of gentrification on low-income students? Is it possible to have stable, mixed-class neighborhoods?

These questions were among many more posed to or by Alan Ehrenhalt during a roundtable discussion hosted by Bill Fulton, Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, at Rice University. Ehrenhalt is Senior Editor of Governing Magazine and author of The Great Inversion (read Terrence Doody’s book review from Cite 90), and came to Houston to speak at Central Houston’s annual luncheon. I participated in the discussion at Rice and summarize below some of the debates that most animated the participants.

more >


Illustration by R.L. Isern and R.E. Harris for Houston Traffic and some Short Cuts for Avoiding it, or the Confessions of a Short Cut Artist , 1983.

Illustration by R.L. Isern and R.E. Harris for Houston Traffic and some Short Cuts for Avoiding it, or the Confessions of a Short Cut Artist , 1983.

Traffic Panic: A Brief History of Farce, Frustration, and Practicality

In November 1980, Houston Post editorial writer Lynn Ashby asked readers if Houston traffic ever made them panic. Not a case of “mild terror,” mind you, but “a major case of panic to the point where you simply will not drive around Houston.” Ashby reassured those who answered yes that they were far from alone. He noted that in 1980 at least two overwhelmed drivers had “passed out on [city] freeways.”

The city’s success amid the national recession of the 1970s drew an influx of migrants to Houston during the decade. Area roads bore the evidence of this migration by the early 1980s. Traffic conditions deteriorated and congestion reached its highest-ever point in 1984. In 1970, stop-and-go conditions occurred for about 90 minutes per day. By 1982, the city faced more than seven hours of daily bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Houston Chamber of Commerce estimated that congestion cost the city roughly $1.9 billion ($5.4 billion in 2014) per year, more than double its cost in 1975.

more >


map2

A Bottom-Up, Unofficial Guide to the Heights Sunday Streets HTX

After a successful pilot project last spring, Mayor Annise Parker has brought back Sunday Streets HTX. The three routes this fall are October 12 in the Heights along 19th Street; November 2 in the Greater Third Ward along Dowling, West Alabama, and Almeda; and December 7 in the East End and Fifth Ward along Navigation and York. These streets will be open to pedestrians and bicyclists from noon to 4 pm to encourage walking, running, dancing, or riding with friends and family.

more >


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.

more >


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!

more >


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.

more >


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.

more >