Author Archive

“There is no one nature”: A Conversation with Emma Marris

Follow OffCite’s Synthetic Nature series that supplements the forthcoming issue of Cite (99). Use the hashtag #SyntheticNature to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Allyn West: When we think about “nature,” you argue, we tend to think about “pristine” landscapes ostensibly free from human interference or intervention. You call this “the Yellowstone model,” in which a site is protected from “all human use” — except tourism, of course. But you argue, finally, that “the cult of pristine wilderness” is both culturally and ecologically harmful, because it leads to there being “only two possible future states for most ecosystems: perpetual weeding and perpetual watching, or total failure.” What’s a more productive way, then, to think of “nature”?

Emma Marris: First of all, I should point out that the closer people are to nature, the more nuanced their view tends to be. Working conservationists and serious outdoors-people know that there aren’t many places that are untouched by human influence. But for many people — including myself when I was younger — the touch of humans tends to make spaces seem very much less natural. (I didn’t realize then how much intensive management places like Yellowstone require to keep them looking so natural!) I think this is dangerous because as the population grows and the climate changes, it means fewer and fewer places will “count” as nature — and fewer and fewer people will have the means and time to spend time in those places. Nature will become a luxury good for elites and the rest of us will just check out.

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Postcard from 1111 Lincoln Road

I saw the most beautiful parking garage in the world. Located in South Beach, just across the causeway from Downtown Miami, it was designed by Herzog & De Meuron and completed in 2010. It cost $65 million. Inside, there is one site-specific Monika Sosnowska sculpture and 300 spaces — it costs four times more per hour to park here than other South Beach garages, but some drivers like the exclusivity. “I wouldn’t even think of parking anywhere else,” Douglas Sharon told The New York Times in 2011.

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Interior courtyard of New Hope Housing’s Rittenhouse complex. Photo: Mark Hiebert.

Changing Conversations: New Hope Housing’s Unique Approach in Houston

A stigma of “hulking towers and barren blocks,” as Alan Mallach writes, is associated with affordable housing. Sam Davis, author of The Architecture of Affordable Housing, identifies a “misconception” that good design — or, rather, almost any design at all — is too expensive, unnecessary. According to that misconception, affordable housing “should be basic, safe, and clean — but no more.”

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Photo: Katie Edwards.

An Industry in Crisis: How Construction Career Collaborative is Trying To Do Right By Its Workers

The essay appears in Cite 98. The issue explores the intersections of finance and design. You can purchase the Cite 98 at local bookstores, including Brazos Bookstore and the shops at the Menil Collection and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. You can also subscribe.

Hermen Valdez realized that he wasn’t going to be able to afford to get back to Texas. His oldest son, a Houston native, was set to graduate from Baylor, and Valdez needed a plane ticket.

But he also needed to make payroll that month.

Valdez, who had moved away in the late 1980s from the recession in Houston to New England in search of more steady construction work, was an independent contractor, responsible for the salaries and insurance payments and taxes on a crew of about 20 general and skilled laborers.

He started working in the construction industry in high school. Before that, since he was 10, he had been helping his parents as a manual laborer. He grew up a few hundred miles southeast of Seattle, where his parents settled after emigrating from Mexico. When he graduated from high school in the late 1970s, he heard there were opportunities in Houston, then in one of its booms. Developers like Hines were financing big commercial projects Downtown, and the Medical Center was expanding. You could move to Houston, build buildings, start a family — and that’s what Valdez did.

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Michigan Avenue in Corktown, Detroit. Photo: Allyn West.

Postcard from Detroit

For a few blocks, all six lanes of Michigan Avenue, the major commercial strip of Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, are paved in brick. Petunias bloom in plastic bins underneath the street trees. Original buildings now home to shops and cafes and offices line the wide sidewalks. The going is easy, interesting. There are a few spaces for lease, but most of the real estate is taken up and appears to be doing well.

But it wasn’t easy getting there. If you don’t have a car in the Motor City, you’re at a disadvantage. Heading west from the Renaissance Center in Downtown, where I was staying to attend the Docomomo US Symposium, I had to trudge past long stretches of vacant land and negotiate unfriendly infrastructure. A bus or two rattled past. I didn’t see any other pedestrians. As I walked, a wide strip of asphalt down the middle of Michigan stuck out, not quite covering up the streetcar tracks that signify how connected Corktown used to be.

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Rendering of Ruby City. Courtesy: Linda Pace Foundation.

Ruby City: David Adjaye Designs an “Important Civic Moment” for San Antonio

You can see in the renderings of Ruby City, the building David Adjaye Associates has designed to hold the Linda Pace Foundation’s art collection in San Antonio, the same “skewed, swelling shapes” that architectural historian Stephen Fox praises in his essay in Cite 78. “[Adjaye’s] buildings,” writes Fox, “don’t conform to their programs and sites; they deform in response to them.”

It is a very compelling, very optimistic deformation. The site, in this case, is the Pace Foundation campus on Camp Street in Southtown. The campus comprises the one-acre meditation garden CHRISpark, one-room SPACE Gallery, and the former Tobin Building, a 1927 candy factory that has been converted into residential lofts and Pace Foundation offices. The three large galleries of Ruby City will add 10,000 square feet of exhibition space for contemporary paintings, sculptures, installations, and video works.

What Fox calls “disarmingly exuberant cheerfulness” in earlier Adjaye buildings here manifests most obviously in color and material. When they met in 2007, Pace sketched for Adjaye a vision for Ruby City that had come to her in a dream: a series of magenta turrets, all bedazzled and bejeweled, atop a circular plinth like a merry-go-round. Adjaye translated this whimsy into off-kilter forms and material experimentation. To be clad in an array of red-stained precast concrete panels that Adjaye says will have embedded in them “bits of recycled red glass and other reflective materials,” Ruby City will shimmer in the Texas sun, even more so in the context of the drab buildings immediately surrounding it.

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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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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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Machinery inside under-renovation Cheek-Neal Coffee Company Building. Photo: Jim Parsons.

“I’m a repurposer”: Preserving East Downtown’s Cheek-Neal Coffee Company Building

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.”

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Bus stop near Lidstone on the 28 OST/Wayside. Photo: Allyn West.

Why Bus Shelters Matter More Than You Think

Last year, Streetsblog held a contest for its readers to send photos of the “sorriest bus stop” in the country. (The winner — or loser? — was a “stick in the ground” on the shoulder of divided four-lane artery outside St. Louis.) It should be no surprise that Houston, with a bus network comprising 10,000 stops, has its share of sorry ones, too. City of Houston planner Christopher Andrews submitted one on his route. Several of the stops on mine, the 28 Wayside/OST, could have been contenders — as the photo above illustrates.

Most of Metro’s 10,000 stops are similar to the “stick in the ground” that won the contest — lacking any protection from the elements and lacking much in the way of aesthetics, too. Though Metro says that it intends to build 100 new shelters every year, only 2,100 of Metro’s stops now have shelters, according to Pablo Valle, a program manager for the passenger bus shelter program.

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