Author Archive

William Blake in Eastland, Texas. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: Outdoor Art in Eastland

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 pièce de résistance of the Outdoor Art Exhibit in Eastland, Texas, is a 12-foot-tall cylinder painted to resemble one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. On the back is a paragraph on Pop Art. It’s located in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen.

Eastland is located about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. Named for a former Texas Ranger and one of Sam Houston’s lieutenants at the Battle of San Jacinto, Eastland was founded in 1891 and boomed in 1917 when oil was discovered. Since then, oil remains one of the prime economic movers, along with peanuts. The population has topped off at about 4,000. According to census data, Eastland comprises 2.8 square miles of land. The median family income is not quite $35,000. The town’s largest employer is a ductile iron castings manufacturer. The next is Walmart.

I reiterate these facts to suggest that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Eastland to commit the resources to acquiring, then displaying, even a single famous painting. The town does have a museum of area history, located in a former bank building across from the county courthouse. Other museums are planned, including a “Dignitaries” museum devoted to the “Ladies of Texas” and an “Antiques” museum of the “Victorian era.” But there is no art museum. Why should Eastland, Texas, of all places, have one?

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Artpace, renovated by Lake|Flato. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: Artpace in San Antonio

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series and the forthcoming issue of Cite, guest edited by Ronnie Self, author of The Architecture of Art Museums. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The Texas Historical Commission has estimated that there are at least 660 museums in Texas, ranging from spectacular cultural institutions in our biggest cities to strange “cabinets of curiosities” in our smallest towns. I took a road trip to sample from this state of museums, trying not to take for granted the architecture, design, role, mission, even the very reason for museums.

I began at Artpace, opened in San Antonio in 1995, founded by artist and philanthropist Linda Pace. (You can watch a short video about its history here.) It’s just a short walk from the River Walk and shares a small trapezoidal city block with the parking lot for the Alamo Music Center. A former Hudson automobile dealership, the brightly painted 18,000-square-foot building dates to the 1920s. In the early ’90s, Pace sought out San Antonio firm Lake|Flato to renovate the dealership and create room for galleries, offices, archives, event spaces, and — crucially, for the mission of Artpace — residences and studios for visiting artists.

Three times a year, guest curators choose three artists — one Texan, one American, and one international — to live and work at Artpace for two months. It’s a sweet deal. The residency includes a stipend, the support of a full staff, and funding for tools and materials to produce whatever they’d like. This spring, the artists are Oscar Murillo from Colombia and England, Henry Taylor from Los Angeles, and Autumn Knight from Houston. (You will be able to see the result of these artists’ residences starting on March 19.) For San Antonio, then, Artpace is like DiverseWorks plus Box 13.

Thus, much of the building is reserved for studios and living quarters, so the spaces showing the work seem tight in comparison. It’s not that the art isn’t properly displayed, though. It’s just that the organization — and therefore the building — seems more committed to the process of getting things made, rolling things out. The building’s not fussy. It retains a kind of “rawness,” as Ted Flato describes it, the industrial character of its former life as a dealership. Thick concrete columns, garage doors, mismatched window panes, even an old Hudson hubcap on the wall keep much of the building’s past in the present.

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Urban Movement members demonstrate parkour on the Navigation Esplanade. Photos: Allyn West.

Rehearsing Possibilities: Sunday Streets HTX in the East End and Fifth Ward

Though last weekend’s Sunday Streets HTX was not quite as lively with participants or as busy with the pop-up shenanigans of previous ones, it was compelling, all the same. The 1.5-mile route along Navigation Boulevard, connecting the East End and Fifth Ward, showed parts of a city in transition and invited us to experience close-in neighborhoods still on this side of gentrification.

Land use, in these neighborhoods, has always been truly mixed. As Raj Mankad pointed out in his “unofficial guide,” heavy-duty industry and family-owned restaurants co-exist. Buffalo Bayou is bordered on the north by a noisy Prolerizing facility and on the south by a serene hike and bike trail. Empty buildings are decorated with murals; decommissioned railroad tracks sinking into the pavement lie just a few blocks from shiny new brass sidewalk inlays marking the stamp of a management district initiative. Which is it?, the question seems to be. Past or future? These neighborhoods answer that — at least for now — it’s both.

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Anderson-Clarke Center. Photos: Allyn West.

Past, Present, Future: A Review of the Anderson-Clarke Center at Rice University

Overland Partners, the San Antonio-based firm, faced a complex task with the Anderson-Clarke Center, the newest building at Rice University. First, it would have to serve more than 20,000 Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies students who come to campus to learn languages and practice iPhone photography and brush up on the brief history of the soul.

And it would also have to serve as the first building on a side of campus that’s set to grow, as the 2004 Michael Graves master plan shows. That plan — and, indeed, the need for a bigger building for the Glasscock School in the first place — coincides with the decade-long tenure of President David Leebron. Benjamin Wermund writes in the Houston Chronicle, “Just about everything about Rice has grown, from its physical boundaries to its student body and its art collection … . [President Leebron has] worked to connect Rice to the surrounding community.”

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Brio and Dixie Oil Processing and Southbend subdivision. Photo: South Belt-Ellington Leader via South Belt Houston Digital History Archive.

Back to Brio: A Review of Friendswood

The suburbs are supposed to be safe. It’s only inside the city, we hear, where you’ll find crime. Drugs. Addiction. Corruption. Pollution. Hypocrisy. Assault. Rape. Not, as least as they are bought and sold, in the subdivisions in the suburbs — that’s where you move to escape. That’s where you raise your family among families that share your values, among neighbors who look out for you.

Not so in René Steinke’s new novel, Friendswood (Riverhead Books, 2014, 350 pages). It’s based on the real Friendswood, of course, a suburb about 20 miles southeast of Houston. But the novel focuses even further in on a real place in Friendswood — the Brio Superfund site on Dixie Farm Road, where a succession of companies starting in 1956 processed and recycled chemical waste, until the last one, Brio Refining Inc., went bankrupt in 1982. These companies used the 58-acre site near Clear Creek to store in earthen pits both known and suspected carcinogenic byproducts, like styrene tars and vinyl chloride sludges, whose very names make you nauseated.

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Justin Smith and Mary Beth Woiccak at PARK(ing) Day. Photo: Allyn West.

Interrupting the Ordinary: PARK(ing) Day in Houston

“What is this? What’s your message?” asked the woman walking back to her apartment in the Hanover Rice Village development. I’d seen her about an hour earlier crossing the street to the 24 Hour Fitness at the corner of Kelvin and Dunstan.

Justin Smith of Walter P Moore, Mary Beth Woiccak (a colleague of mine at the Rice Design Alliance, which publishes this blog), and I had been relaxing and talking for the better part of the morning. It was the third Friday in September, or PARK(ing) Day, and we had paid $16 to occupy a parking spot from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Earlier that morning — as the rain soaked us — we’d rolled out a 240-square-foot hunk of artificial turf that we’d found at the City of Houston Building Materials ReUse Warehouse and laid down a few stone pavers, set up plants and furniture we had brought from home or had had donated. And — voilà — a park!

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Photo: Allyn West.

CiteSeeing: Sample City

OffCite invites short essays, reviews, and observations on specific moments and places. Interested in contributing your own? Let us know.

I have seen where the concrete freeway dividers go to recuperate when they’re between jobs. They’re trucked to two dirt lots immediately north and south of Loop 610, near Long Drive and Cedar Crest Street, and crisscrossed in 20- or 30-foot-high stacks. There’s no fence or gate. If you squinted (or took off your glasses), you might mistake these stacks and their raw concrete and aggressive geometry for some kind of Modernist midrise development — not a Radiant City but a Sample City. It’s strangely peaceful, and strangely pleasing, to walk here. It’s as though you’re the guinea pedestrian among the models arranged on some giant urban planner’s table, helping to test theories about scale and building height and density.

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136 East 23rd Street. Photo: Christopher Robertson.

A Japanese Import Rises in Houston Heights

This house is one of seven that you can see on this weekend’s Houston Modern Home Tour. Click to see photos and descriptions of the other houses and purchase tickets.

A tour of Naoshima, a small Japanese island, inspired the design of the new house at 136 East 23rd Street in the Heights. The designers (and owners), Christopher Robertson and Vivi Nguyen, were particularly taken with Tadao Ando’s Benesse House Museum and Chichu Art Museum on the island and wanted to bring back to Houston some of the rawness and mystery that those buildings evoke.

The 23rd Street house presents from the street as a series of discrete volumes, a wooden box set atop a pair of concrete ones. Because the house is surrounded by typical bungalows with grinning porches and homey fretwork, it appears formidable. The measured fenestration suggests a desire for privacy. An L-shaped concrete wall requires three sharp turns as you approach the front door — creating what Nguyen describes as a “celebration of entry.” Inside, the boxiness of these volumes dissolves, and they lose their edges, resolving into two complementary halves infused with and brought together by light.

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“We Do Want To Be World Players:” A Conversation with Johanna Hurme of 5468796

The founders of Winnipeg-based 5468796, Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme, were in Houston on September 8 and 9 to receive the sixth annual SPOTLIGHT: The RDA Prize. Radulovic and Hurme gave a lively, entertaining presentation on Tuesday, September 9, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Earlier that morning, OffCite sat down with Hurme — Radulovic had to return their rental car — to discuss Winnipeg’s attitudes about architecture, Houston, and where 5468796 hopes to go from here.

Allyn West: What is it like to practice in Winnipeg, far from major centers of architecture? Is it isolated? Does it provide you creative freedom, the ability to be more nimble in the kinds of projects you take on?

Johanna Hurme: We don’t see ourselves as isolated from the rest of the architecture community. It’s a fairly small community. We have about 150 registered architects in all of Manitoba and even fewer firms. When we entered the marketplace, it felt that it had been quite stagnant for quite a long time. We had a great tradition in the city during the ‘50s, and ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, in Modernism, and there’s a great stock of old Modernist buildings in the city, and we were competing at the world scale, almost, at that time. But then I don’t know what happened. I’m not going to really speculate on that. Somehow, there didn’t seem to be the same ambition in Winnipeg. That’s the context that we started the practice in and thought that certainly there must be a way that we can inspire people and try to make something more out of the situation. And, sure enough, we found a few people who were willing to entertain the idea of doing something different in the private sector, which is where our clients are, but I think it isn’t ever that you get a perfect brief; it’s always that you have to make it, to make the project. It’s not like we were told: “Go to town. Please design something.” But it’s always about trying to convince your clients that it’s worthwhile, that it doesn’t necessarily cost more, that if we do our job properly, their bottom line is actually better. It’s been a lot of that. And I think that’s allowed us to stretch the boundaries a bit more.

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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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