In Houston, you could be forgiven for thinking that the status of women architects is just fine. The architecture deans at Rice, University of Houston, and Prairie View are women. In addition, many of the prominent architects practicing in the city are women, as highlighted in this recent series. Though celebrating Houston’s exemplary women architects is important, which I will come back to, the national data reveal that the number of women architects drops off at each stage of seniority and power — and, notable exceptions aside, the local situation doesn’t appear to be all that different. Take a look at the photos of principals at the major firms.
Six years after President Obama announced a federal initiative to end chronic homelessness among society’s most vulnerable groups, including children and veterans, a local report by the Coalition for the Homeless found as much as a 46 percent reduction in the number of people on the streets or in shelters on any given night in Harris and Fort Bend counties. “[In 2015] … 4,609 people [were counted],” reports the Houston Chronicle. “In 2011, the count was 8,538.”
The construction of supportive housing, including multiple-award-winning projects like New Hope Housing at Brays Crossing (GSMA, 2010) and the Canal Street Apartments (Val Glitsch, 2006), has contributed to that. Of course, the population of people experiencing homelessness has needs besides housing, says Frances Isbell, the CEO of Healthcare for the Homeless (HHH), whose new facility opened Downtown in February after a renovation by a team from Page led by Kurt Neubek. “The city, especially under Mayor Parker, who made homelessness one of her signature issues her last administration, has put a lot of work into trying to coordinate services,” Isbell says. “One of the things they did was locate the major providers [of these services] within a four-mile radius. It happened to be Downtown, because there were so many services already occurring there.”
The Preston Avenue Bridge under water during the flood of 1929. Courtesy Houston Public Library, Houston Metropolitan Research Center.
This history of Houston and its water was printed in the Fall 1999 Cite (46) and reprinted in the 2003 book Ephemeral City. The author provides an update at the end of this digital version.
Paris has the Seine; Boston, the Charles; Memphis, the Mississippi; London, the Thames. Houston has Buffalo Bayou. Even the little San Antonio River makes us look bad. Chicago has Lake Michigan; Los Angeles has the Pacific; Miami has the Atlantic. Houston has the Lake on Post Oak.
Most great cities are easily identified with some body of water. The reasons aren’t hard to understand. Until 19th-century industrialization brought railroads and 20th-century ingenuity perfected the automobile, watercourses were the fastest and safest means of transportation for people and cargo. Even more important than commercial reasons for planting a settlement on a waterway has been the practical human need for drinking and bathing water. But the most subtle and perhaps most powerful draw for situating oneself near some form of water is an emotional one. Poets and theologians have for all time pondered water as the central life-giving force.
The draisine, named for its inventor, Baron Karl von Drais of Mannheim, Germany, was propelled by the feet pushing off the ground. This copper etching, which appeared in the June 1819 issue of the Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, was based on a color print in the February 1819 issue of the British publication Ackermann’s Repository of Arts. Courtesy photo.
Margaret Guroff’s new book, The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life, will be published this month by the University of Texas Press. The book, according to the press, “reveals how the bicycle has transformed American society, from making us mobile to empowering people in all avenues of life.” To read more about bicycling on OffCite, including Raj Mankad’s analysis of the new Houston Bike Plan, click here.
Allyn West: The Mechanical Horse demonstrates what you call this county’s “on-again, off-again romance” with the bicycle, starting with the first exhibition in 1819 of a “draisine.” Then the bicycle was dismissed as a fad and disappeared, only to reemerge in new forms throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ultimately, you argue that, just a generation after bike use fell off in the late 1960s to where 85 percent of bikes were ridden by children only, the U.S. is again in the midst of a “dewy-eyed affair.” You point to the rise of bike-share programs and a surge in bike commuting among urban adults. What else accounts for this resurgence of interest?
Guroff: After decades when U.S. cities were losing population, they’ve begun to grow, and that population density puts more Americans closer to their jobs, shopping, and schools. That makes commuting and doing errands by bike more realistic for those who want the exercise or who don’t want to deal with traffic jams or parking hassles. A drop in urban crime is also a factor — you’re more likely to ride a bike if you’re not seriously concerned about having it stolen, or about being mugged. Those crimes still happen, of course, but they’re statistically less frequent than they were a decade or two ago, and that makes people more comfortable being out and exposed on a bike.
City planners know that getting more people on bikes reduces air pollution, gridlock, demand for parking, and wear and tear on asphalt, so city and regional governments have begun creating safer spaces for people to ride, including cycle tracks protected by curbs or parked cars. And the safer cycling gets, the more people ride … and the more cyclists there are, the more lobbying they do for still more bike lanes.
But this is very much a phenomenon of prosperous city-dwellers. There are still lots of places in the country where it doesn’t make sense to ride bikes for transportation, because the infrastructure is built to exclude them or because people can’t live within cycling distance of where they work, shop, study, or worship.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation held its Leading with Landscape conference in Houston March 11-13. Charles Birnbaum, the founder and executive director of the organization, set the stage for a day-long symposium with a review of Houston history in which he suggested three eras: engineering (freeways), architecture (great buildings), and landscape architecture (today’s park renaissance). After designers presented about their work on Memorial Park, Buffalo Bayou Park, Discovery Green, and other major projects, a final panel was charged with synthesizing and responding to the day’s proceedings. William Fulton, Director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute, spoke after former Mayor Annise Parker. The following is an edited transcription of Fulton’s comments.
Thank you very much for having me. This has been a very stimulating day and evening last night. I want to do a poll. How many of you live in Houston or the Houston area? Keep your hands up. Of those people, in the last month, how many of you have gone out somewhere on the bayou system and walked or jogged or rode your bike or something like that? [More than one hundred.] And of all the people with your hand up, how many of you have transported yourself to this event today without driving your own car? [A dozen or more.] Now, of those, how many of you don’t own your own automobile? [Two or three.] Now you know why I feel so out of place so often in Houston.
Even though he’s developing the former Cheek-Neal Coffee Company Building on Preston Avenue, David Denenburg doesn’t think of himself as a developer. “I guess I’m a repurposer,” he says.
The term fits him, and it fits his project — it suggests that there’s plenty of life left in in the 55,000-square-foot building, designed by Joseph Finger and James Ruskin Bailey and completed in 1917. A rendering of the project that Denenburg’s not ready to publish shows a storage wing of the building, which now houses wheelbarrows and other tools, turned into a storefront and shared kitchen that would be used by food vendors operating stalls on the first floor; the top four floors would be furnished offices.
Denenburg has already envisioned ways of incorporating into this new concept the building’s old machinery. The fire escape he imagines as a way for people to clamor up to the rooftop bar, where an icehouse would be carved out of the decommissioned water tower. A corroded boiler in the basement could find new life as a pizza oven; an internal four-story-high motor-driven chain could become a kind of hipster dumbwaiter delivering boiler-fired pizza up to the office workers. Even the forgotten steel rods jutting out of the facade, in place for an addition that was never added, Denenburg sees as useful. “They show the history of the place,” he says.
“It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.”
In contrast to the concentric organization of Houston's freeways, the bayou system is configured in a series of lines or bands that run east-west, from prairie to the coast.
This essay, written by Rice School of Architecture Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope, first appeared in print in Cite 97: The Future Now. Read the first part of this essay here.
Beyond the Corridor
Houston’s progress can be described as the transformation of a city organized by a single, dominant center, into a city organized by a number of dispersed and equivalent centers, to a city finally brought together by a banded/linear system that is rooted in the geometry of its most prominent natural features. In spite of its comprehensive geometry, Houston’s centric pattern has never fully dominated the city. Since its founding, it has instead been driven by the give and take between this monocentric pattern, its polycentric buildout and the linear logic of its natural systems. This give and take will continue to determine the city’s subsequent growth with a marked shift in emphasis toward an accommodation of ever more volatile natural forces. This shift can be seen in transformations that are taking place in the city today, transformations that are nowhere more visible than in a remarkable new network that has recently been assembled under the name of Bayou Greenways 2020.
Bayou Greenways 2020 is an ambitious plan to unite the bayous within the city limits of Houston into a series of publicly accessible greenways. Adding 80 new miles to existing bayou parks, it will create a cumulative 150 miles of park space becoming the largest network of urban, off-street corridors in the country. (The second-largest system is Portland, Oregon with 78 miles.) In addition to the greenways themselves, 77 of Houston’s existing public parks exist along the axes of the corridors. Quoting from the Houston Parks Board’s introduction, “Bayou Greenways 2020 will create a network of connected, walkable nature parks and trails along nine of the bayous that run through every neighborhood within city limits. Upon completion, the project will add 1,500 acres of equitably distributed parkland, connect 150 miles of multi-use trails, and put 60 percent of all Houstonians within 1.5 miles of a public greenway.” To state what may already be obvious, Bayou Greenways embodies the banded/linear system that is rooted in the geometry of riverine network. It represents a significant reconciliation of an indifferent city to its natural systems. As such it is so much more than a “nature trail.” Given the environmental limitations which we confront today, it is the scaffold upon which the next iteration of Houston will be built.
This essay, written by Rice School of Architecture Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope, first appeared in print in Cite 97: The Future Now. We will present the essay in two parts. The first examines the relationship between Houston’s freeways and bayous.
Control and Accommodation
While we tend to regard cities as permanent and unchanging, they are constantly adapting and readapting their basic forms to their natural settings. Such adaptations have occurred since the beginning of urban history and usually take place, not over months or years, but over decades and centuries. The natural conditions that brought Houston into existence were an abundance of natural resources that put agricultural commodities (primarily cotton) in relative proximity to a protected port.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the significant dredging of Buffalo Bayou that boosted Houston’s port functions and turned the city into the second-largest petrochemical complex in the world. Today Houston’s network of bayous places it at the nexus of the global carbon economy.
As urban and natural systems continue to evolve, climate scientists tell us that they will do so with increasing speed and volatility due to the extraordinary amount of CO2 that has been put into the atmosphere. Houston is threatened by this volatility in two distinct ways. The first threat concerns rising sea levels that will affect all coastal cities and put at risk the entire southeast quadrant of the city (including our petrochemical complex, which is situated only inches above sea level). The second and perhaps more significant threat concerns the extraordinarily high levels of per capita energy consumption in Houston (double that of European and Japanese cities). As the newest and most dispersed of all major American cities, Houston’s infrastructure locks it into a high degree of energy consumption, which, in the long run, will damage the city’s viability. As the dual threats of low-lying inundation and high per capita consumption have become increasingly clear, big changes will be upon us, changes that will require a significant renegotiation between the city and its natural context.
Building in a landscape being converted from mid-income housing to high-end luxury condos; construction currently stalled due to financial hardship. Photos: Daisy Ames.
Houston is caught in the crosshairs of irrational exuberance, a term initially coined in the 1990s by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan in reference to the overvalued dot-com market. Similarly, when the United States’ housing market crashed in 2008, we were again forced to rethink our economic investments and spending. As architect and writer Pier Vittorio Aureli explains, we began to embrace Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism “less is more,” rendering it fashionable once again.
During such fundamental economic shifts we have come to see Houston’s continuing growth as more of a superficial reconstruction rather than an attempt to address the root of its problems. For example, the oil market crash in the 1980s left the city desolate, and the buildings Downtown were referred to as “see-through buildings” because the floors were not occupied and left transparent from one glass facade to the other. Since Fall 2015, the oil price per barrel has declined 70 percent, and unless we implore thoughtful design and fiscally responsible construction methods, we might face an empty city once again.
Seven months ago I started a yearlong project photographing an icehouse in Houston every week. Each location is studied both formally on its own and as documentary survey points across Houston. It’s a pretty simple process. I arrive, have two Shiners, take photographs, and leave.
With all the discussion today about walkability and public space in Houston, it seems like icehouses are an important local example that new public and communal spaces might learn from. This project was also a way for me to spread out across the region, whereas most of my classes at Rice had focused within the Loop. These buildings stood out to me largely because they counter most understandings of Houston. In this city known for massive forms, these are intimate. In a city home to the world’s widest freeways dividing neighborhoods, icehouses create slow spaces that connect neighbors. In a city of conditioned malls and underground tunnels, they invert their interiors outward, and in doing so pull the city in. The icehouse reinforces the basic notion that form affects both the users of a building and the city around it.