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 sixteen 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 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] Regents 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 Centre. 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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The "most famous concept house in history"? Palladio's Villa Rotonda. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The "most famous concept house in history"? Palladio's Villa Rotonda. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

How Rybczynski Works: A Review of How Architecture Works

Confucius says that anyone who can learn something new by reviewing what he knows already is prepared to be a teacher. Witold Rybczynski seems to have done this, and he dedicates How Architecture Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 335 pages, $27.00) to the students in his freshman seminar.

So, how do we read it? My bet is that someone is going to begin a review of it by saying it is, therefore, a book for both the general reader and the professional architect, as though it’s both a primer and a summary. But I wonder if it’s possible for any book like this to be equally useful on two very different levels. I’ve asked myself if there is a book of practical literary criticism I’d recommend to friends who are serious readers, and I can’t think of one off-hand.

I’m not an architect, but not the general lay reader either. I’m an interested party who has read four of Rybczynski’s other books. His basic principle in How Architecture Works is that “most of us lack a conceptual framework for thinking about the experience of architecture.” It’s important to agree that any art has to be an experience first, before its meaning can be developed within an understanding of the art’s conventions, and then within the history and theories that make up the professional discourse around it. Rybczynski says, however, that architects are rationalizers and apologists, critics are partisans, and architectural terms — like “squinches and ogee curves” — are too obscure. He says that architecture itself should speak to all of us: “You shouldn’t need a phrase book or a user’s manual.” That is, no conventions. But he subtitles his book A Humanist’s Toolkit, which sounds to me like code for a user’s manual that is emphatically not a theory, and he includes a glossary with terms that range from “classicism” and “revival” to “esquisse” and “metope.” The general reader who picks up this book probably understands the first two terms, but only the architect, who doesn’t need the first two definitions in the first place, understands the second two.

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Pedestrians in Rice Village. Photo: Allyn West.

Pedestrians in Rice Village. Photo: Allyn West.

Viewing the Visions for Rice Village

In “It Fakes a Village,” an article published in the Spring 2006 issue of Cite (66), Daisy Kone derides the use of the word “village” for shopping enclaves like Highland Village that conjure a nostalgia for community without actually sustaining public life. Rather cars are given total primacy over the public realm. What does she have to say about the village, not the one in New York but Houston’s Rice Village?

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Photo: Paul Hester.

Photo: Paul Hester.

A Farm in Every Neighborhood: Plant It Forward’s Ambitious Vision for Houston

If this topic interests you, buy 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.

“Our vision is a farm in every Houston neighborhood,” says Colleen O’Donnell, Sales Manager at Plant It Forward. “We are really trying to change the landscape of the city and how people get their food while providing opportunities for work to our refugee neighbors.” She describes a future in which you can send your kid down the street to pick up arugula for dinner, that you don’t have to go to Whole Foods, that you can walk to a farm.

Plant It Forward launched in May 2012. Dr. Bob Randall, the visionary behind Urban Harvest, inspired the founders when he claimed that a person could make a living with an acre of land in Houston. Plant It Forward tested this idea by matching refugees who left behind farms in their home countries with land, tools, and knowledge of local conditions.

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Renderings of existing and proposed sections of I-45 through Downtown. Source: TxDOT.

Renderings of existing and proposed sections of I-45 through Downtown. Source: TxDOT.

The Rebuilding of I-45: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity to Improve Houston

According to proposals on the table at the Texas Department of Transportation, the highway system around Downtown Houston may be subject to a significant transformation. This well may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city to reconnect neighborhoods long bifurcated by highway IH-45 while also improving traffic capacity of the highways. How to change and improve the highway system is of great debate. As the Department of Transportation follows through on its federally required processes to propose and examine alternatives to the expansion of IH-45, also called the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, it’s winnowing the options quickly. Now is the time for residents to learn and speak up.

On November 14 and 19, 2013, the Texas Department of Transportation held its third set of public meetings about the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. The stated purpose of the project, in the works for more than ten years, is to reduce traffic along IH-45 between Beltway 8 North and its intersections with Highways US-59 and SH-288 in Downtown Houston. It divides IH-45 into three segments: Beltway 8 to IH-610, IH-610 to IH-10, and IH-10 to IH-45’s intersection with US-59 and SH-288, including the Pierce Elevated.

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Fruit stand on Airline Drive. Photo: Paul Hester.

Fruit stand on Airline Drive. Photo: Paul Hester.

CiteSeeing: The Pulgas of Airline Drive

You can see some of these photos 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.

The photos collected here illustrate the incredible vibrance of the flea markets on Airline Drive, the focus of a proposal to improve infrastructure and to spur economic development by Natalia Beard of SWA Group. Though the area, Beard writes, “lacks a centralized water service, experiences repeated bayou flooding, affords only limited police patrol, endures soil and water pollution, and is poorly connected by roads initially conceived for rural traffic only,” it is also the place to be for thousands of Houstonians every weekend. Cite contributor and one of Houston’s most accomplished architectural photographers, Paul Hester, shows us this world within a world in remarkable detail.

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Love at the pulga on Airline Drive. Photo: Paul Hester.

Love at the pulga on Airline Drive. Photo: Paul Hester.

Airline Market Mile: Inclusive Design for Growth

This article proposes a mobile fleet of community-service-oriented trucks and a marketing campaign to strengthen one of Houston’s most vibrant neighborhoods. The full text 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.

Every weekend, tens of thousands of people converge on Airline Drive’s flea markets to shop and enjoy live entertainment. It’s rare to see pedestrians in droves in other Houston suburbs, but here families and teenage couples, dressed in their best, flock to simple outdoor eateries as they make their way through the pulgas. The selection of merchandise ranges from cowboy boots and household appliances to religious paraphernalia, records, dresses for quinceañeras, oversized colorful piñatas, puppies, and live birds. But shopping is only part of the carnival atmosphere of carousel rides, live music, and soccer matches replayed on television. Food counters overflow with roasted corn, tacos de trompo (typically pork marinated in pineapple juice that’s hard to come by elsewhere in Houston), and freshly prepared churros. Unlimited combinations of fruit dressed with chile powder, lime, salt, cream, and soda make for refreshing snacks on hot summer days. There are sculptures of elephants and giant ducks; especially popular with children are the life-sized fiberglass dinos in the “Dinosaur World” exhibition that was carefully rebuilt after it burned down a few years back.

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Courthouse, Police and Jail Complex on Riesner Street. Rendering by Jp Dowling in Minecraft.

Courthouse, Police and Jail Complex on Riesner Street. Rendering by Jp Dowling in Minecraft.

Calling Minecraft Players: Help Reimagine Houston

Cite: The Architecture + Design Review of Houston, an award-winning publication of the Rice Design Alliance, is holding a Minecraft competition to reimagine part of Houston. The site includes the courthouse, police, and city jail complex on Riesner Street as well as a section of I-45 and the Downtown Aquarium amusement park. We want you to play along.

Minecraft is a “sandbox” game in which players can work collaboratively to place and break blocks, thereby creating buildings and whole landscapes. The United Nations Habitat “Block by Block” project is using the game to work with communities in Nepal, Haiti, Mexico, and Kenya. Blockholm is a design competition in Sweden that involved thousands of participants. With this pilot project, Cite and OffCite are joining the fun.

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