Last week Preservation Houston celebrated its 35th Anniversary at its annual Cornerstone benefit, handing out 10 Good Brick Awards to recognize excellence in local preservation and restoration work. It was a spirited event that showcased a great variety of projects ranging from a delicate Victorian house restoration to the conversion of the historic Bethel Church into a park following the devastating fire in 2005 that left the building as just a shell. The diverse group of winners was selected from 20 nominees, a sign that Houston continues to gain momentum in building its culture of historic preservation.
This review is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, published in connection with two national conferences in Houston in November.
This week Houston serves as host city for two significant symposia on historic preservation: the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, PastForward, and the Preserving Communities of Color conference, organized by the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance. For the next five days, preservation professionals, stakeholders, and enthusiasts will gather to exchange ideas, tour preservation sites, and discuss the future of the field as they mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Houston’s unique history of urban development, which has now grown to support 22 historic districts reaching across the nation’s fourth-largest and most ethnically diverse city, makes it a welcome context in which the leaders of the field can strategize about the future of the preservation movement.
As our city prepares to host these exchanges, both seasoned and new preservationists alike could benefit from reading Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation and United States, an anthology edited by historians and preservationists Max Page and Marla L. Miller. Inspired by the occasion of the NHPA’s 50th anniversary, Page and Miller have assembled a comprehensive collection of essays — or as the editors call them, “provocations” — that collectively challenge the field’s status quo and make recommendations for the years ahead.
It seems in Houston we are forever in search of ways to wrest control over the suburban landscape. So when a new 1,072-page tome from Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern reintroduces a historic suburban model that encourages suburban retrofitting, it is tempting to assume that an answer to our anonymous sprawl is within reach. But Paradise Planned (The Monacelli Press, 2013) is first and foremost a reference book, a monograph that traces the history of the garden suburb movement and the urban planning ideas that drove its creation, listing and describing hundreds of individual garden suburb plans in the U.S. and across the world. The book champions the garden suburb model and urges contemporary planners to consider propagating the largely forgotten plan back into our fractured suburbs.
Rarely do we see art galleries in buildings designed specifically for gallery use; often they are in generic commercial properties or in structures converted to exhibition space. Brave Architecture was given the unusual task of designing the Sicardi Gallery in Montrose from the ground up. Fernando Brave embraced the project’s blank slate and in his building has crafted a collection of deliberate gestures that accommodate the needs of its occupant. The building, completed in 2012, reads as a carefully assembled compilation of display and operational spaces that intermingle within the overall building envelope.
Exhibition space stretches across both floors and takes many shapes, as if the building were assembling a kit-of-parts to maximize gallery versatility. There is a high-ceilinged room for large installations and an intimate alcove for smaller ones. There is a sun-filled niche for those pieces that benefit from natural light, and a room with blackout shades for video art or low-light works. Art that should be viewed from afar can hang at the focal point at the gallery’s far wall, while pieces best seen up-close can greet the visitor in the building’s shallow front vestibule. Sculpture can even perch on the staircase’s substantial central partition. Brave described his approach as a “formulaic response” to both the site on West Alabama and the gallery program.
Julian Rose House, Wahroonga, Sydney, 1949-50, photo by Max Dupain, courtesy Harry Seidler & Associates
It is unusual for a retrospective exhibition to feel like a breath of fresh air. Yet the current exhibit at the Architecture Center on the work of Austrian-born architect Harry Seidler somehow manages to seem new in spite of its focus on works of 20th-century architecture. “Harry Seidler: Architecture, Art and Collaborative Design” (on view through May 31st) introduces us to an inspirational and wildly prolific architect who has largely gone unrecognized in the United States. Working almost exclusively in Australia, Seidler repeatedly collaborated with many leading contemporary artists and produced a body of work uniquely linked to the most important movements of the day in the fields of art and architecture. Credited with bringing Modernism to his adopted country of Australia, Seidler eventually expanded over the course of his 50+year career into multiple stylistic expressions that reflect the breadth of his own sources of inspiration.
Detail from site model showing downtown tunnels. All images courtesy Byrony Roberts.
Downtown Houston’s tunnels may keep pedestrians cool during the summer, but they are often criticized for robbing the streets of life. Stephen Fox, for example, writes in the Houston Architectural Guide that “[t]he public way appears eerily underpopulated, since the buildings are linked to each other by an extensive but invisible network of pedestrian tunnels routed beneath the sidewalks and streets.”
In her exhibition “Lobby Urbanism,” on view in the lobby of One Allen Center through tomorrow (Tuesday April 30), Rice University Wortham Fellow Bryony Roberts presents an opportunistic analysis of the existing network, particularly focusing on tower lobbies where street and tunnel traffic intersect. Instead of merely mounting a critique of these hubs, Roberts recognizes their significance and then provides suggestions for how they could be redesigned to serve as a richer source of public space in downtown Houston. (The project received grant funding from Rice Design Alliance, the publisher of this blog.)