Carlos Jimenez and John Zemanek at Peden Street. Photo: Eric Hester.

Carlos Jimenez and John Zemanek at Peden Street. Photo: Eric Hester.

Architecture is about Life: A Conversation with John Zemanek

Johnny “John” Eugene Zemanek died at the age of 94 on Monday, April 18. His obituary was written by Patrick Peters with input from Nora Laos, Alberto Bonomi, and Elizabeth Gregory. Look for a review of Zemanek’s book about his life and career, Being Becoming, on OffCite in the coming weeks. Below is an interview of Zemanek by his former student, Carlos Jimenez, who is now Professor at the Rice School of Architecture. The interview was first published in the Summer 2008 issue of Cite (75).

John Zemanek, who at 86 remains as curious and vigilant as ever, has for more than 40 years taught design and history to countless students at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture.

I was one of those students in the late ’70s. During my years at the university I spent many mornings and afternoons in one of the architect’s earliest designs: the Student Life Plaza (1971), a work of rooted subtlety where water, trees, and paving patterns composed a tranquil space amid UH’s disparate gathering spaces.

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Frame House (Harwood Taylor, 1960). Photographs by Ben Koush.

Frame House (Harwood Taylor, 1960). Photographs by Ben Koush.

Instagramming the Frame House: A 1960 Modern Design by Harwood Taylor

OffCite and Rice Design Alliance are exploring the potential of Instagram to engage more people in the built environment. A recent RDA program, #HOU_OLD6, was an Instagram Scavenger Hunt of the Old Sixth Ward. Similarly, designer and architectural historian, Ben Koush, has brought all his acumen to Instagram. (You can follow him @benkoush.) He shares images and commentary on architecture in Houston and many other cities. This post draws from his series of photos on Harwood Taylor’s Frame House.

From the front, it seems like a nice but typical postwar modern house. Once you walk past the gate, the Frame House (1960), designed by Harwood Taylor, brilliantly slinks down in section across its sloping, bayou-edged site. I think it’s his best work and probably my favorite, or close to it, house in Houston.

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

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

Looking for Jane in All the Wrong Places

Around the world, the legacy of Jane Jacobs is being celebrated on what would have been her 100th birthday. She’s most famous for her critique of slum clearance and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She called for the preservation of old, mixed-use districts. She called attention to the virtue of short blocks and ground-floor retail. She urged the mixing of uses, mixing new and old, mixing income groups.

In Houston, we have a few neighborhoods originally built around streetcars that still have the bones — the human-scaled streets, the old buildings — for a return to a more pedestrian-oriented past. However, most of the city was built after World War II when automobiles became dominant, blocks grew supersized, and — even in the absence of zoning — uses were separated by huge distances along highways. That means we have to be more creative about celebrating Jacobs and envisioning a future less dependent on everyone owning a car. As the contributors to Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (APA Planners Press, 2011) argue, instead of looking for the forms Jacobs wrote about, we should look with the curiosity and openness that characterized her approach. In other words, let’s look for Jane in all the “wrong” places. Here are five examples:

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Sadik-Khan at Times Square. Photograph by Olugenrophotograpy.com.

Sadik-Khan at Times Square. Photograph by Olugenrophotograpy.com.

Big Thinking on Skinnier Streets: New Books on Transportation

Books on urbanism and transportation innovation are having their moment. Here’s a look at five that have come out in the last year alone, starting with Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan, who is in Houston this week for a talk sponsored by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Wednesday, May 18, at 6:30 pm, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan with Seth Solomonow (Viking, 2016)

The wounds are fresh. Sadik-Khan, the commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, chronicles the bruising battles over the building out of 400 miles of bike lanes and 60 plazas. Though I followed the controversies over the years as they were reported in The New York Times, to hear it from her perspective is something else. I didn’t realize that the first experiments were not all that controversial. With paint and planters, an ugly triangle of pavement in DUMBO went from parking lot to well-used public space without much opposition. We could do that here. We have so many excessive expanses of concrete in Houston.

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Glenbrook Golf Course. Photographs by Paul Hester.

Glenbrook Golf Course. Photographs by Paul Hester.

Houston Botanic Gardens: Enhancement or Loss of Park Space?

There is a lot to like about the Houston Botanic Garden (HBG) master plan proposed by the Dutch landscape and urban design firm West 8. It would boost Houston’s appeal as a tourist destination, increase surrounding property values, and repurpose a golf course in southeast Houston. So, why have residents in the surrounding Meadowbrook and Park Place communities mobilized in opposition to the HBG?

The designated site, the former Glenbrook Golf Course, is located just eight miles south of Downtown Houston, right off I-45. If the HBG can reach prerequisite fundraising goals by the end of 2017, a lease agreement with the City of Houston will give them the Glenbrook site for the next 30 years. The West 8 garden experience would begin as soon as one exits I-45 onto Park Place Boulevard — a four-lane commercial street that will be enhanced with trees planted on both sides.

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The Garden House designed by Sam Cuentas, Jose Martinez, and Claudia Tax for Fifth Ward. Courtesy.

The Garden House designed by Sam Cuentas, Jose Martinez, and Claudia Tax for Fifth Ward. Courtesy.

Big Living in Small Houses in the Fifth Ward

Donna Kacmar is the author of BIG Little House (Routledge, 190 pages, 2015), a study of small houses designed by architects, and professor of architecture at the University of Houston. Here, she writes about four small houses designed by her students in collaboration with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation. The projects were presented to the board and staff, community leaders, and local architects on April 26. Construction of one of the houses is expected to begin in fall of 2016. For more on small houses, read Allyn West’s essay in Cite 97.

My professional-level design studio this spring focused on developing small-scaled solutions for living “large” in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Located just northeast of Downtown, the Fifth Ward has a rich history and an urban fabric damaged by large industrial and transportation infrastructure. The area is now attracting new development of its many vacant lots, yet it remains an affordable inner-city neighborhood in fast-growing Houston. The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation asked the students to design affordable 850-square-foot houses for three small lots located at 4017 Market, 3906 Curtis Street, and 4018 Farmer. The students began their work by investigating the local context of the neighborhood along with research on other small houses and construction systems. After individual design work for five weeks, the students were organized in teams and spent an additional five weeks developing the four different schemes.

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Healthcare for the Homeless clinic. Photo: Slyworks Photography.

Healthcare for the Homeless clinic. Photo: Slyworks Photography.

Downtown Houston’s New Clinic for the Homeless

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.”

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Architect Fay Kellogg in 1912. Courtesy photo.

Architect Fay Kellogg in 1912. Courtesy photo.

Where Are the Women Architects?

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.

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The Preston Avenue Bridge under water during the flood of 1929. Courtesy Houston Public Library, Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

The Preston Avenue Bridge under water during the flood of 1929. Courtesy Houston Public Library, Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

H20uston: In Houston, Water Has Been as Much Obstacle as Opportunity

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.

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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.

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.

“The main thing is efficiency”: A Discussion about The Mechanical Horse

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.

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