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Category: Architecture

Carlos Jimenez and John Zemanek at Peden Street. Photo: Eric Hester.

Architecture is about Life: A Conversation with John Zemanek

Johnny “John” Eugene Zemanek died at the age of 94 on Monday, April 18. His obituary was written by Patrick Peters with input from Nora Laos, Alberto Bonomi, and Elizabeth Gregory. Look for a review of Zemanek’s book about his life and career, Being Becoming, on OffCite in the coming weeks. Below is an interview of Zemanek by his former student, Carlos Jimenez, who is now Professor at the Rice School of Architecture. The interview was first published in the Summer 2008 issue of Cite (75).

John Zemanek, who at 86 remains as curious and vigilant as ever, has for more than 40 years taught design and history to countless students at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture.

I was one of those students in the late ’70s. During my years at the university I spent many mornings and afternoons in one of the architect’s earliest designs: the Student Life Plaza (1971), a work of rooted subtlety where water, trees, and paving patterns composed a tranquil space amid UH’s disparate gathering spaces.

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Frame House (Harwood Taylor, 1960). Photographs by Ben Koush.

Instagramming the Frame House: A 1960 Modern Design by Harwood Taylor

OffCite and Rice Design Alliance are exploring the potential of Instagram to engage more people in the built environment. A recent RDA program, #HOU_OLD6, was an Instagram Scavenger Hunt of the Old Sixth Ward. Similarly, designer and architectural historian, Ben Koush, has brought all his acumen to Instagram. (You can follow him @benkoush.) He shares images and commentary on architecture in Houston and many other cities. This post draws from his series of photos on Harwood Taylor’s Frame House.

From the front, it seems like a nice but typical postwar modern house. Once you walk past the gate, the Frame House (1960), designed by Harwood Taylor, brilliantly slinks down in section across its sloping, bayou-edged site. I think it’s his best work and probably my favorite, or close to it, house in Houston.

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Glenbrook Golf Course. Photographs by Paul Hester.

Houston Botanic Gardens: Enhancement or Loss of Park Space?

There is a lot to like about the Houston Botanic Garden (HBG) master plan proposed by the Dutch landscape and urban design firm West 8. It would boost Houston’s appeal as a tourist destination, increase surrounding property values, and repurpose a golf course in southeast Houston. So, why have residents in the surrounding Meadowbrook and Park Place communities mobilized in opposition to the HBG?

The designated site, the former Glenbrook Golf Course, is located just eight miles south of Downtown Houston, right off I-45. If the HBG can reach prerequisite fundraising goals by the end of 2017, a lease agreement with the City of Houston will give them the Glenbrook site for the next 30 years. The West 8 garden experience would begin as soon as one exits I-45 onto Park Place Boulevard — a four-lane commercial street that will be enhanced with trees planted on both sides.

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The Garden House designed by Sam Cuentas, Jose Martinez, and Claudia Tax for Fifth Ward. Courtesy.

Big Living in Small Houses in the Fifth Ward

Donna Kacmar is the author of BIG Little House (Routledge, 190 pages, 2015), a study of small houses designed by architects, and professor of architecture at the University of Houston. Here, she writes about four small houses designed by her students in collaboration with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation. The projects were presented to the board and staff, community leaders, and local architects on April 26. Construction of one of the houses is expected to begin in fall of 2016. For more on small houses, read Allyn West’s essay in Cite 97.

My professional-level design studio this spring focused on developing small-scaled solutions for living “large” in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Located just northeast of Downtown, the Fifth Ward has a rich history and an urban fabric damaged by large industrial and transportation infrastructure. The area is now attracting new development of its many vacant lots, yet it remains an affordable inner-city neighborhood in fast-growing Houston. The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation asked the students to design affordable 850-square-foot houses for three small lots located at 4017 Market, 3906 Curtis Street, and 4018 Farmer. The students began their work by investigating the local context of the neighborhood along with research on other small houses and construction systems. After individual design work for five weeks, the students were organized in teams and spent an additional five weeks developing the four different schemes.

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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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View of Uptown Houston from Bubba’s Burger Shack. Photos: David Richmond.

Letting the City In: Icehouses in Houston

Seven months ago I started a yearlong project photographing an icehouse in Houston every week. Each location is studied both formally on its own and as documentary survey points across Houston. It’s a pretty simple process. I arrive, have two Shiners, take photographs, and leave.

With all the discussion today about walkability and public space in Houston, it seems like icehouses are an important local example that new public and communal spaces might learn from. This project was also a way for me to spread out across the region, whereas most of my classes at Rice had focused within the Loop. These buildings stood out to me largely because they counter most understandings of Houston. In this city known for massive forms, these are intimate. In a city home to the world’s widest freeways dividing neighborhoods, icehouses create slow spaces that connect neighbors. In a city of conditioned malls and underground tunnels, they invert their interiors outward, and in doing so pull the city in. The icehouse reinforces the basic notion that form affects both the users of a building and the city around it.

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Arc Wildlife Crossing. Source:

Permaculture by a Different Name: On Diana Balmori’s Arc Wildlife Crossing

This is a response to the third lecture in the RSA/RDA Spring 2016 Lecture Series, Projective Infrastructures. To view excerpts from the lectures, click to RDA’s Vimeo page. To read OffCite’s other coverage of the lectures, including an essay about another Balmori project, GrowOnUs, use the tag Projective Infrastructures.

Diana Balmori of Balmori Associates presented in a humble manner on major projects that speak to the core principles of permaculture, but she never called her work by that name. Permaculture is a design-focused discipline that seeks to leverage the deeply resilience systems of nature to meet human needs. Patterns observed in nature are applied to agricultural and cultural contexts. An example of agricultural permaculture are swales, which capture water running down a slope in a “ditch” and slowly release the water to plants lower down the slope. A local example is Finca Tres Robles on Navigation, which uses a city waste product, tree mulch, to grow hundreds of pounds of produce per week. An example of social permaculture is Ecoescuela El Manzano, which is a 1,200 acre community embracing village culture in Chile.

Balmori’s design for the U.S. Department of Transportation introduces a large land bridge over a freeway to connect wildlife areas. After discovering that blue pine were devastated in the Rockies by pine beetles, she found a way to turn that tragedy into a productive way to pay it forward to nature. Her firm met with a structural engineer who helped them determine that the blue pine could support the massive weight of soil and trees over the freeway. A shining example of permaculture principles.

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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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Photos: Mary Beth Woiccak.

“Architecture is Everywhere”: Reflections on the First-Ever Chicago Architecture Biennial

Yesterday, Curbed’s Patrick Sisson reported that, based on the “unequivocal success” of the first-ever Chicago Architecture Biennial, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement, a second biennial is in the works. Here, RDA’s Mary Beth Woiccak shares her photographs and reflects on what she saw when she visited the first biennial.

The first-ever U.S. Architecture Biennial, The State of the Art of Architecture, took place in Chicago this winter. The three-month run ended at the beginning of January. The “big one” that you might have heard of, or even visited, is the International La Biennale do Venezia (Venice Biennial). Chicago wanted to put themselves on the map of biennials; they were in a great position to do so with their city’s architecture, setting, and passion.

A biennial is a conglomeration of numerous events (exhibition, lectures, and films, for example) focused on a particular theme where ideas are shared. The theme for the upcoming 15th Venice Biennale, opening May 28, is “Reporting from the Front.” Chicago’s title was borrowed from Stanley Tigerman’s 1977 conference, when numerous practitioners presented a specific project. For the 2015 participants, the scope was much more open and global. Some common threads that I saw were inequality, public housing, public health, the impact of architecture on communities, experiences with materials, and fabrication.

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Flij, a temporary tent in the plaza of the Institut du Monde Arabe, 2014. Photo courtesy of Oualalou + Choi.

“Our responsibility as architects is to invent the form of public-ness:” An Interview of Tarik Oualalou

The seventh annual SPOTLIGHT: The Rice Design Alliance Prize was awarded to OUALALOU+CHOI, formerly KILO Architectures. Founded by Tarik Oualalou and Linna Choi in 2000, the firm has offices in Paris and Casablanca and recently completed the Moroccan Pavilion for Milan Expo 2015. You can see their full talk at The MFAH here. Before Oualalou and Choi accepted the award, Oualalou gave an interview to Cite Editor Raj Mankad, which is presented in an edited form below.

Raj Mankad: You took a tour of Houston with architectural historian Stephen Fox yesterday. Tell me your impressions of Houston?

Tarik Oualalou: It was a pleasure to see it with him because he is knowledgeable in facts and ideas and gossip, which gives an insider understanding of the city. But I have to say, it was a very big surprise. [This is] the first time I have come to Texas. I’ve known Houston through the eyes of our students — the Rice School of Architecture students in our Paris studio. I understand the city through what they say and what they do. Coming here, I realize this city has some incredible things going on and is also incredibly unlucky. Its relationship to landscape is very American in that the landscape defines the city at its core … the parks, the trees lining [the streets], all this is very beautiful.

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