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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Open House, Plan of the Future, Block. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Open House, Plan of the Future, Block. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Vital Suburbia: An Interview with Charles Renfro by Carrie Schneider

If this topic interests you, buy the new issue of Cite, “The Beautiful Periphery.” It includes a contribution by the interviewer in this article, the artist Carrie Schneider. 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.

Charles Renfro graduated from the Rice School of Architecture in 1989 and is among its most celebrated graduates. Rice recently announced that he will design a new opera theater for the school. In this interview, he speaks with Carrie Schneider about Open House, a one-day event in Levittown, a community outside New York City widely considered to be the archetype for post-war suburbs. Their conversation expanded from there to include the High Line, the Museum of Image and Sound, and the very idea of what constitutes a suburb.

Carrie Schneider: I recently found online images from April 2011 of Open House, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro project in Levittown that you were the project lead for, in collaboration with Droog. Can you tell me about it?

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Is Houston a City? An Interview with Susan Rogers and Albert Pope

This interview 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.

When talking about Houston, the traditional terms of architecture quickly fall apart. How can we start to make sense of the problems and possibilities of this … what is it called? Are we even living in a city? It takes a theorist to answer that question, or at least to help us form better questions, which is why Cite approached Albert Pope, a professor at the Rice School of Architecture. Susan Rogers, Director of the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston, spoke with him at Brochstein Pavilion at Rice on November 11, 2013.

Susan Rogers | In your writings, you make a distinction between a megalopolis and a metropolis. Could you talk about why that’s important to understanding Houston?

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Back of Walmart from Maxwell Lane. Photo: Paul Hester.

Back of Walmart from Maxwell Lane. Photo: Paul Hester.

Walmart Transcends the Dumb Box — Just Not in Houston

This review 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.

The second Walmart inside Loop 610 is going to make a lot of money, and that’s too bad: The receipts will undercut the argument that the store could have added something of value to the neighborhood and Houston’s vocabulary of retail architecture other than a few jobs and one more big dumb box.

The one-story, 185,000-square-foot Supercenter, which opened in January, sits on a 28-acre site in the East End where Oshman’s Sporting Goods warehouses once sat. It can be accessed from South Wayside Drive and the I-45 feeder. East of the site are the Sanchez Charter School (of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans) and a low-slung apartment complex. Beyond are older neighborhoods of single-family houses — Idylwood, Country Club Place, Simms Woods, Eastwood, Forest Hill, Magnolia Park, and Pecan Park. The site, in other words, is complex and interesting and urban, only a few miles from Downtown, the University of Houston, a Houston Community College branch, and light rail lines on Scott Street and Harrisburg Boulevard. It’s also near Brays Bayou, where stretches of the Bayou Greenways hike and bike trail are now under construction.

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Heat map showing density of multifamily housing in Houston. Graphic by Rose Lee.

Heat map showing density of multifamily housing in Houston. Graphic by Rose Lee.

The Beautiful Projects: Contradiction and Complexity in Houston’s Multifamily Housing

This essay appears in a slightly different form 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.

There is a stubborn and widening gap like the one between the rich and the poor, in how we imagine our cities and the reality on the ground. The time-honored suburban stereotypes of homogeneity, conformity, and middle-class banality are as unmoving and obstinate as a giant rock, regardless of the actualities. It is as if we are blind, or perhaps just don’t want to see. But big changes have occurred in this landscape of strip centers, shopping malls, subdivisions, and apartment complexes — change big enough to completely eradicate labels, yet somehow they hold. Some designers are paying attention, but their vision is too often to retrofit the suburban landscape into a semblance of the nineteenth-century city — a feat that is far too nostalgic and flawed. So while designers look to the past for inspiration, ground-up action transforms the present in hopes of a brighter future. What I define as the “New Projects,” distressed and disinvested multifamily housing, is one story of transformation, among so many that could be told.

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Dun Huang Plaza. Photo: Paul Hester.

Dun Huang Plaza. Photo: Paul Hester.

Suburban Mutations: What Developers Could Learn from Retail Architecture Outside the Loop

This essay appears in a slightly different form in the new issue of Cite, “The Beautiful Periphery,” guest edited by Susan Rogers and Gregory Marinic. 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.

One of the most dominant narratives in urban design and planning holds that suburbia — and by extension, the suburbanized metropolis — is a “middle landscape” that mediates between civilization (the city/urban) and wilderness (nature/rural), producing a condition in which architecture recedes and landscape becomes the primary condition of the metropolis. This trajectory of suburbanization is a literal form of “flattening;” as advances in transportation technologies allowed people to live farther away from their work, the form of the metropolis was quite literally becoming physically flat as the periphery expanded, particularly in those locales with the seemingly limitless geographies of much of the United States. This trajectory was most pronounced in the explosion of post-World War II American residential suburbia, comprised largely of single-family houses on individual lots, producing a middle landscape with an ever-increasing perception of space. It was also evident in the parallel evacuation of the traditional inner city, as buildings were razed for parking and empty lots proliferated, also producing a reading of void. The Houston of the early-to-mid 1990s seemed exemplary of this way of thinking.

Yet by the late 1990s it was clear that many American metropolises were in actuality becoming very different places — not ever more suburban, as was often forecast, but more urban, albeit with a decidedly suburban influence. They were not “flattening” in the literal sense. Rather, they were “flattening” in the conceptual sense; there was an increasing similarity between urban and suburban forms and ways of life. This ongoing trajectory of flattening is both effect and cause; driven by substantial demographic and cultural change and evidenced by new spatial and formal practices, flattening also makes architectural and urban innovation possible. These novel practices, seen most vividly in urbanizing suburbs and suburbanizing urban cores, are exemplified in the emergence of hybrid suburban/urban — sub/urban, for short — conditions, including the residential densification of suburbia, and new forms of big-box and strip-mall retail, among others. Each of these new sub/urbanisms reflects, to varying degrees, the reciprocating influences of the urban and the suburban. At the same time, these hybrid practices combine and re-configure conventional understandings of these familiar terms, and in so doing, challenge us to recognize and project the design opportunities of an American metropolis like Houston that is decidedly both/and.

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