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Opened in 1910, Teas Nursery occupied a healthy 5-acre lot at the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Newcastle Drive for nearly a century, until the Teas family sold the land in 2009 to the Rubenstein Foundation. Philanthropists and longtime Bellaire residents, the Rubensteins, in turn, sold the land to the City of Bellaire.
Now, there are live oaks and crepe myrtles — trees we consider quintessentially Houston — that grew, if not out of the pots, then out of what the nursery started. And soon, Evelyn’s Park will open here as a memorial to many things, but, namely, to the Rubenstein family’s late matriarch. Overseeing the family’s vision is Evelyn’s Park Conversancy, with the mission of “connecting us to our city, to our surroundings, and to each other.”
SWA Group, the park’s landscape architecture and master planning firm, materialized this mission. Central to SWA’s design process was bringing Bellaire its first community park. Sure, single-use facilities like swimming pools and tennis courts come with Bellaire’s high property taxes. But “there’s no way for the community to develop their own dialogue about creating different activities” in Bellaire’s few public spaces, says SWA Group Principal Scott McCready. The plan, then, was to construct a gradient of programs that would bring a representative cross-section of residents to the same place.
In my sophomore year, I began to feel that the Rice campus did not fully accommodate its students’ often unpredictable oscillation between stimulation and decompression. Instead, the university favors spaces programmed for productivity. The traditional academic quad, planned to inspire intellectualism, fails to accomplish the type of communal space for students and teachers seen at Jefferson’s University of Virginia Lawn.
Even Rice’s new wave of architecture, such as Brochstein Pavilion and “Twilight Epiphany,” the James Turrell Skyspace, exerts a level of control over the user—one interacts in Brochstein and meditates in the Skyspace.
All things considered, though, we have one of the most spectacular campuses in the country, a result attributable as much to the landscape as to its institutional monuments and architectural edifices—your first look of Lovett Hall is made memorable by the oak branches that gradually unveil the monolithic Sallyport. Moments so glorious are made almost commonplace with all of Rice’s greenspaces, yet nature in this context tends to feel ornamental or sacred, to be seen and not touched.
Rendering of pocket park by Open Architecture Houston team and Near Northside community members. Courtesy.
Not all vacant lots are the same. Some are nestled between residential lots and looked after by neighbors; some are littered and adjacent to highways; still others have a nascent appeal that can benefit from the right intervention.
One such lot is located along Fulton Street between Panama Street and Hammock Street in the Near Northside. The property consists of two vacant lots owned by the City of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department. A crosswalk connects the property to a light rail stop. There are commercial properties along Fulton to the north, south, and west; to the east is a residential area. Currently, there is one tree in the middle of the site, overgrown brambles and a row of trees along the fence on the eastern side of the property, and a utility right-of-way with power lines that bisect the lot.
Community members have long wanted to create a pocket park here. Recently, they worked with the Greater Northside Management District (GNMD) to realize that vision.
Michigan Avenue in Corktown, Detroit. Photo: Allyn West.
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.
New Corktown proposal by Albert Pope and Jesus Vassallo, US Pavilion, 2016 Venice Biennale. Photo: Peter Molick.
The 15th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) opened with a Vernissage last week, a private preview of the work produced for one of the most immensely exciting times for architectural practice, research, and theory. The exhibition entitled “Reporting From the Front” was curated by 2016 Pritzker Laureate Alejandro Aravena of Chile, who placed construction and quality of life at the center of the discussion.
Curators from each country selected representatives to exhibit their work in national pavilions at the Giardini, the grounds of the Biennale. In addition, the Arsenale collated projects from various countries illustrating significant examples of vernacular building methods, formal languages, and tectonic systems in current development. It was especially interesting to be in Venice at the time of the Vernissage because exhibitors, installers, supporters, and academics alike spilled out from their respective pavilions and onto the connecting alley, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, to socialize.
Buffalo Bayou Park. Courtesy: SWA Group.
This is the final part in a three-part interview Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2
Mankad: The transformation of Houston’s parks has not been free of controversy. The community outreach for the Memorial Park master plan was tremendous but not all the feedback was positive. I spoke with both proponents and detractors. Both sides rely on the word “natural.” Both sides invoke respect for “nature” — either preservation or restoration of nature. Those who oppose the project want to leave nature the way it is. Those who promote it talk about restoring the nature of a time before Houston. To some extent, the same objections were raised downstream at Buffalo Bayou Park. How are we to make sense of that contestation?
Alfaro: What does “nature” mean in Houston? What is it? Houston is so strange because you have at least three different ecosystems all combining, which is great when you are looking at plant selection. But it is difficult when you are trying to decide the flavor of the landscape. What is it that we are trying to do?
Katy Freeway. Photo: Alex MacLean.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation will hold a conference in Houston, March 11-13, called Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation. The expert-led panels and discussions will feature the world-class projects by the leading practitioners working in Houston. This is the second part in a three-part interview that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land. Click here to read Part 1.
Mankad: With major landscape architecture firms coming to Houston and all these big projects underway, and each having their own funding source and their own nonprofit, and their own contexts, the proposals run the gamut. At the Arboretum, you have a reverent approach to ecology. At the Centennial Gardens, you have formal gardens, strong axes, symmetries. With the proposed Botanic Garden master plan, West 8’s design is playful, almost irreverent. Is that a reflection of what is happening in landscape architecture around the country?
Alfaro: I think that range is a reflection of what Houston is like. That same thing happens with buildings. You get such a bizarre collection of eminent architects but it all works somehow. We force it to work. We will force the landscape to work. Houston is such a weird animal. You have the temperature extremes and the dominance of cars. Designers who come here have to contend with many extremes. It forces them to adapt what their normative approaches would be. But that’s fine. We’ll take it.
Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University. Courtesy: The Office of James Burnett.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation will hold a conference in Houston, March 11-13, called Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation. The expert-led panels and discussions will feature the world-class projects by the leading practitioners working in Houston. This is the first part in a three-part interview that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture. Albers is Vice President at The Office of James Burnett and Alfaro is Senior Associate at SLA Studio+Land.
Raj Mankad: We are outside the Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University on a gorgeous February day in Houston. First off, simply to sit outside is a testament to Houston’s transformation.
Ernesto Alfaro: We didn’t have spaces like this before.
Andrew Albers: I moved to Houston sight unseen as a graduate student in 1996. I was imagining a combination of Dallas and West Texas. I was expecting tumbleweeds and cows in the streets and everybody would have cowboy hats. I had no idea. Riding my bike around the Rice University campus for the first time, it was beautiful and green, but I noticed it was not really geared toward people using the space outside. There were no places to stop. No seats with a back. There was nobody outside.
Mankad: Did you work on the landscape for the Brochstein Pavilion?
Albers: Yes, I was the project manager. I drew those fountains.
Mankad: I remember before all you saw here was the blank library wall. This was a grassy expanse that you passed through as fast as you could. Now this space is a magnet for people, even though it doesn’t have any real purpose.
Albers: It has a purpose. The program here addresses a condition we have at Rice. When President Leebron arrived, he recognized there was no place where everyone came and mixed. You had these multiple centers organized around the residential colleges. The program here was creating a crossroads. By switching the entrance to the library to this side and then adding the pavilion with minimal program, just offering coffee, you create a crossroads.
Alfaro: Rice is a microcosm for what is happening across Houston, as well. All of a sudden, you have a lot more buildings. With buildings you need the connective tissue.
Image of landscape made with “point cloud” technology. Courtest: Atelier Girot.
This is the second in a series of response to the Spring 2016 RSA/RDA Lecture Series, Projective Infrastructures. To read Oliver’s and Veras’ response to the first lecture by Chris Reed of Stoss, click here.
How we choose to represent a landscape can reveal as much about us as our representations do about their ostensible subjects. For Christophe Girot, the representational techniques used by contemporary landscape architects both enable, and are symptomatic of, a way of thinking about landscape that suppresses the particularities of place. As he argued in his lecture, the zoning- and map-driven abstraction of contemporary practice, with its conceptualization of landscape as a set of scientifically diagnosable systems or flows, has begotten a set of unspecific design responses, and it has robbed landscape architects of the ability to deal with the fact of our culturally mediated experiences of landscapes.
Girot used the lecture to advocate for a different way of thinking. He described this way of thinking as “topology” and likened its intended use to the way architecture uses the term “tectonics. “Though “tectonics” had once been used only in the geological sciences, it has also come to describe a way of thinking about architecture that emphasizes a coming-together of parts. Similarly, Girot’s invocation of “topology,” which up to now has been a primarily mathematical term, is intended to pave the way for a more comprehensive conception of landscape — one focused on its status as a complete physical body with volumetric, poetic, and temporal dimensions.
This reverence for the specificity of place has led Girot, in conjunction with his colleagues at Atelier Girot and his students at the ETH Zurich, to develop their own system for recording and representing landscape. Through a combination of spatial data obtained via LIDAR, or laser scanning, and drone photography, existing sites are mapped in fine detail into three-dimensional virtual “point clouds.” These models, comprised only of densely grouped points in space, offer Girot and his counterparts a foundation for looking at a site in many ways, from the creation of infinite numbers of thin “salami”-like sections to that of complex four-dimensional models to test the performance of design solutions under flood conditions.
Aerial view of proposal for “Integrated Urbanism.” Courtesy: Gensler.
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.