Author Archive

Launch of GrowOnUs: Courtesy: Balmori Associates.

A Garden Grows in Brooklyn: An Experimental Landscape Thrives in Notoriously Polluted Gowanus Canal

Diana Balmori of Balmori Associates will lecture in Houston on Wednesday, February 17, for the Rice School of Architecture/Rice Design Alliance Spring 2016 series, Projective Infrastructures. The lecture will be held at 6 p.m. at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn might be the most polluted body of water in the country. In 2007, students found traces of gonorrhea in an oily goo that was floating on its surface. Last year, the canal was confirmed to be carcinogenic. Last fall, Christopher Swain, an environmental activist, swam — more specifically, he did the breaststroke to keep his head up out of the water — its entire 1.8-mile length. (It was his second attempt; the first was cancelled because of rain, which pushes raw sewage into the canal.) Swain wore a full-body suit, heavy gloves and boots, a swim cap, and goggles, and his face was smeared with waterproof jelly. On his previous attempt, some of the water got into his mouth: “It tasted like blood, poop, ground-up grass, detergent, and gasoline,” he told New York.

A Superfund National Priority site since 2010, the Gowanus Canal will require more than $506 million and five more years, the EPA estimates, to be cleaned. The New York Times reports that there is a “black mayonnaise,” a thick deposit on the bottom of the canal, which “includes PCBs, asbestos chips, arsenic, copper, lead and mercury, as well as trash such as pieces of toilets and illegal guns.”

This is where Diana Balmori put a garden.

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Westbury Automotive at 5502 W. Airport. Photo: Paul Hester.

Uncommon Attention: A Photographic Exhibition of Houston’s Mid-Century “Background Buildings”

Uncommon Modern” is currently on exhibition at Architecture Center Houston through February 19. A panel discussion and release of a catalog of more than 400 buildings takes place Monday, February 15.

You would probably recognize most of the buildings in “Uncommon Modern,” but chances are you don’t know them. You wouldn’t be able to say when they were completed or who the architects were. But these are buildings you have passed a hundred times. They are, in fact, common, and it’s the exhibition that’s uncommon, paying an unusual amount of critical attention to architecture that might not seem, at first, to deserve it.

Curated by Anna Mod and Delaney Harris-Finch, the exhibition features photographs by Aker Imaging, Hester + Hardaway Photographers, Mark Johnson Photography, Peter Molick Photography, and Rocio Carlon Studios of dozens of “background buildings,” for lack of a better term: restaurants, clinics, insurance agencies, churches, gas stations, do-nut shops. They date from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, inflected with the tendencies and tropes of Modernism but absent the singularity (or the patronage!) that gave rise to the great works of mid-century architecture. These are the places that great architects might have driven-thru to cash their checks.

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Aerial view of proposal for “Integrated Urbanism.” Courtesy: Gensler.

Across, Through: A Mixed-Use Vision for Buffalo Bayou that Privileges Pedestrians and Cyclists

Texas is not a safe place to walk and bike. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition’s 2014 report, “Dangerous by Design,” Houston ranks seventh with respect to the likelihood of a pedestrian being struck and killed.

Making Houston safer for “vulnerable road users,” as pedestrians, cyclists, and others are described in the language of the 2013 “Safe Passing Ordinance,” is a complex problem that requires behavioral changes and urban design. The entire experience of the city — getting from your front door to your neighborhood street to your office to your watering hole to your favorite park — must come together in a more convenient, more pleasurable way in order to draw people out of their cars. The completion of the bayou greenways will go a long way toward that making that possible.

For now, though, as design critic Karrie Jacobs once found when she tried, and failed, to get from Hotel ZaZa to Hermann Park for a morning run, there are too few infrastructural connections to our parks and trails that don’t require risky at-grade negotiations. A tunnel at the Bill Coats Bridge that connects Hermann Park underneath South MacGregor Way is one example, but I can’t think of many others that get those vulnerable road users — literally — out of harm’s way.

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4224 Emory by studioMET Architects. Photos: Yoon You.

Playing in a Machine for Living: studioMET’s Emory House

You can tour this house and seven others on the 2015 Houston Modern Home Tour on Saturday, September 26, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. OffCite reviewed a house designed by Christopher Robertson and Vivi Nguyen that appeared on last year’s tour.

Dr. Anoop Agrawal wasn’t sure he wanted to live in a contemporary house. But he came around, he says, after his wife, Neha, encouraged him to go on architecture tours in Houston. A house that they saw on the 2012 AIA Home Tour, designed by studioMET at 4917 Laurel in Bellaire, proved to him that contemporary architecture didn’t have to be aggressive. The boxy boxes that often tower over the street and scale of their neighbors didn’t have to be so — well, pugilistic.

Convinced, the couple hired studioMET to design something for a lot in West University that they had owned since 2012. The small house that stood on the lot was in need of so many repairs, says Agrawal, he couldn’t convince a bank to bite. It was just as financially prudent to build new. Contacting Habitat for Humanity, Agrawal hoped to minimize the waste of the teardown. He says that Habitat was able to salvage almost $65,000 worth of materials during the ensuing deconstruction — which includes the original hardwood floors, used on the second story of this new house.

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Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: The Salt Palace

I licked it. In Grand Saline, Texas, I licked the Salt Palace, the country’s largest, and probably only, building constructed partially out of stone-sized chunks of rock salt.

Grand Saline, population 3,300, is about an hour east of Dallas. The town sits on a 20,000-foot-thick deposit formed during the Permian Age that could salt the entire country for another 20,000 years, were it the only one that remained. That deposit has been overseen since 1920 by various iterations of Morton Salt, which now operates a shaft that plunges more than 750 feet down. Unfortunately, the mine is no longer open to the public. Photographs and a 20-minute video inside the Salt Palace Museum and Visitors Center show a cavernous interior that is dry and white — like a hollowed-out Moon or a more savory version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

The chunks that come up out of there are saltier and kickier than you’d think, potent enough to send you into a full-body pucker. (And kosher, too, in case you’re wondering. Grand Saline invited a rabbi to bless the entire deposit.) It’s an acquired taste. The chunks I was given as souvenirs I kept for months in the center console in my Honda, and I kept popping them in my mouth for reasons that are best unexplored here.

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Entry plaza of Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: The Good Ship Morphosis

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series that supplements the new issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The critics, guys who are paid by major American newspapers to have opinions about buildings, haven’t always been crazy about the one that Morphosis designed for the new home of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Downtown Dallas.

When the museum opened in 2012, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne panned it as “a thoroughly cynical piece of work,” arguing that the “largely windowless crypt” is “marked by civic aloofness” and “cartoon menace” and “uses a frenzy of architectural forms to endorse the idea that architecture, in the end, is mere decoration.”

Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News wrote that the building “looks like nothing so much as a boxy spaceship arrived from the faraway galaxy of Starchitecturas Major.”

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The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: The Pop-In and Trip-To of The Contemporary Austin

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series that supplements the new issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

One hundred seventy-seven green glass blocks stud the bright white exterior of the Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center. The blocks, which let in light during the day and then glow at night like an encrypted message to extraterrestrial life, are the kind of detail that makes you giddy and grateful for architecture. Form follows function, sure, but you want to stand near them and let them work on you. Improve you, somehow.

I cozied up to the wall of the three-story building along 7th Street and pointed my Instagram-primed iPhone up at the blocks, tilting back to find a good angle. And I kept tilting until the espresso I forgot I was holding popped its lid and dumped all over my face and collar and soaked through the straps of my backpack. Though the Contemporary Austin is located in the heart of Downtown, it was a Sunday morning, and I don’t think anyone saw. At least I didn’t hear anyone laugh. I patted my face dry, waited a moment, and then turned the corner to enter the space.

I blame you for this, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis. You owe me a new backpack!

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Photos: Sean McNeely.

A Much Wilder Place: A Review of Tom McNeely’s Ghost Horse

Thomas McNeely’s new novel, Ghost Horse (2014, Gival Press, 246 pages) is set in Houston in the 1970s. Not coincidentally, it’s a difficult book to read. The characters lead difficult lives, some broken by divorce and others shadowed by fear, child abuse, domestic violence. The lines between race and class are sharply drawn and harshly spoken; the novel turns when the main character, Buddy, a young boy whose parents are separated, plays a cruel prank on a friend and spits a racial epithet at him.

Much of the action takes place in the car, as Buddy, the novel’s main character, is shuttled back and forth between a private school where he struggles to make friends and his mother’s house near Telephone Road. As good as McNeely is at bringing Buddy’s confusion and frustration to life, as the boy tries to figure out whether he ought to align himself with his father, or mother, or both, or neither, he is even better at capturing the ambiguity of Houston’s built environment, especially in the neighborhoods near Telephone: “All the way back to his mother’s house,” McNeely writes, “past El Destino Club #2, where purple lights revolve, and Tellepsen Tool, where sparks shower night and day, and Andrew Jackson Grammar School’s cement playground, enclosed in a barbed-wire fence; past the orange duplexes at the end of his mother’s street, whose porch roofs sag like heavy-lidded eyes, where Mexican children stare at his father’s car, then vanish into the houses, or around corners, or under gutted cars.”

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State of Museums: Creation Evidence Museum of Texas

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series in advance of the forthcoming issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The road to the Creation Evidence Museum of Texas was blocked. Just outside of Glen Rose, the two-lane 1001 is crossed by the Paluxy River, which splits off from the Brazos a few miles away. I passed small ranches until the pavement ended and the road funneled down to a rocky ford. That morning, the water was running so high I had to put my Honda into reverse and take the long way around.

Just upstream from there you can see in the riverbed hundreds of fossilized tracks of the Paluxysaurus and Acroca­nthosaurus, dating back, most paleontologists agree, to the Cretaceous Period, the last era before dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. Dr. Carl Baugh, who founded the Creation Evidence Museum in 1984, claims that you can also see fossilized “man tracks.” For Dr. Baugh, these tracks show that Man and Dinosaur co-existed, refuting theories of evolution and proving that Earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago.

His Creation Evidence Museum houses a variety of objects thus appointed: fossils, Bibles, bones. The building, a two-story rock cabin with a peaked roof and walls of sun-stained Plexiglas, is long and narrow with an open plan on the inside. Perched on a short hill and shaded by a few trees, it’s flanked by portables and a prefabricated shed and backs up to the Paluxy. Dr. Baugh, a trained Baptist minister now in his late 70s, has said that the museum receives about 15,000 visitors a year, many of them making a kind of pilgrimage to see what he alone can show them.

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1906 Artesian Bottling and Manufacturing Company Building, or the Home of Dr Pepper. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: The Ghost of W.W. “Foots” Clements

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series in advance of the forthcoming issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The Dr Pepper Museum is in the same building in Downtown Waco where the uniquely classified soft drink (it’s not a cola, it’s a pepper!) was first produced and bottled. The three-story Romanesque building, which dates to 1906 and survived the 1953 tornado relatively unscathed, was designed by Milton W. Scott, the most prominent and prolific of Waco architects. If anything, the building shows that we just don’t make ’em like we used to. For a bottling works, it’s pretty and visually striking, with a jaunty turret and an asymmetrical elevation, stacked up in the rear with the smaller second and third floors that once held the distilled water and syrup tanks. The building also features these great burly arches, emphasized with roughly hewn voussoirs, that frame the doors and windows like the out-of-control eyebrows of white-haired philosophers.

Dr Pepper was bottled here until 1965, and the company donated the building in the late ’80s to the nonprofit that now runs the museum. It opened in 1991. Next door, the 1880s Kellum-Rotan Building, also fully renovated, houses administrative offices, educational spaces, and a boardroom. The museum, which has an operating budget of about $500,000 annually, is also home to the Free Enterprise Institute, “dedicated to educating students of all ages about the most successful and empowering economic system in the history of the world: America’s.”

It’s a truism that museums are dedicated to education, and I learned a lot at the Dr Pepper Museum about the carbonated soft drink. It also struck me as a kind of unintentional diorama of the division of labor and corporate hierarchical structures. You could cross-section the building, open it up, and show students of all ages roughly how American companies were made in the 20th century: Workers make things at the bottom; middle managers figure out how to package and sell it; and the head honchos make the big decisions at the top. For me, the experience of the museum was a story of these three stories. To wit:

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