Salina, Kansas, is a town like so many others in America. Its downtown stands as a reminder of what once was — brown paper is taped to the inside of windows, lackluster rental signs hang askew beckoning no one. Its vital economic lifeblood has drained to the southern outskirts where a Walmart and a Lowe’s dominate the placeless landscape.
These monolithic stores’ lack of connection to place, environment, and land, and their undermining of community, connection, and relationships, stands in stark contrast to all that the Land Institute embodies. We had arrived in Salina on the hot, windy plains for the Prairie Festival, celebrating the Land Institute’s 40th anniversary and the retirement of Wes Jackson, its leader. More than 1,000 pilgrims went to pay homage to a man and place that have inspired so many.
Follow OffCite’s Synthetic Nature series that supplements the forthcoming issue of Cite (99). Use the hashtag #SyntheticNature to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Allyn West: When we think about “nature,” you argue, we tend to think about “pristine” landscapes ostensibly free from human interference or intervention. You call this “the Yellowstone model,” in which a site is protected from “all human use” — except tourism, of course. But you argue, finally, that “the cult of pristine wilderness” is both culturally and ecologically harmful, because it leads to there being “only two possible future states for most ecosystems: perpetual weeding and perpetual watching, or total failure.” What’s a more productive way, then, to think of “nature”?
Emma Marris: First of all, I should point out that the closer people are to nature, the more nuanced their view tends to be. Working conservationists and serious outdoors-people know that there aren’t many places that are untouched by human influence. But for many people — including myself when I was younger — the touch of humans tends to make spaces seem very much less natural. (I didn’t realize then how much intensive management places like Yellowstone require to keep them looking so natural!) I think this is dangerous because as the population grows and the climate changes, it means fewer and fewer places will “count” as nature — and fewer and fewer people will have the means and time to spend time in those places. Nature will become a luxury good for elites and the rest of us will just check out.
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.
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.
The Preston Avenue Bridge under water during the flood of 1929. Courtesy Houston Public Library, Houston Metropolitan Research Center.
This history of Houston and its water was printed in the Fall 1999 Cite (46) and reprinted in the 2003 book Ephemeral City. The author provides an update at the end of this digital version.
Paris has the Seine; Boston, the Charles; Memphis, the Mississippi; London, the Thames. Houston has Buffalo Bayou. Even the little San Antonio River makes us look bad. Chicago has Lake Michigan; Los Angeles has the Pacific; Miami has the Atlantic. Houston has the Lake on Post Oak.
Most great cities are easily identified with some body of water. The reasons aren’t hard to understand. Until 19th-century industrialization brought railroads and 20th-century ingenuity perfected the automobile, watercourses were the fastest and safest means of transportation for people and cargo. Even more important than commercial reasons for planting a settlement on a waterway has been the practical human need for drinking and bathing water. But the most subtle and perhaps most powerful draw for situating oneself near some form of water is an emotional one. Poets and theologians have for all time pondered water as the central life-giving force.
In contrast to the concentric organization of Houston’s freeways, the bayou system is configured in a series of lines or bands that run east-west, from prairie to the coast.
This essay, written by Rice School of Architecture Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope, first appeared in print in Cite 97: The Future Now. Read the first part of this essay here.
Beyond the Corridor
Houston’s progress can be described as the transformation of a city organized by a single, dominant center, into a city organized by a number of dispersed and equivalent centers, to a city finally brought together by a banded/linear system that is rooted in the geometry of its most prominent natural features. In spite of its comprehensive geometry, Houston’s centric pattern has never fully dominated the city. Since its founding, it has instead been driven by the give and take between this monocentric pattern, its polycentric buildout and the linear logic of its natural systems. This give and take will continue to determine the city’s subsequent growth with a marked shift in emphasis toward an accommodation of ever more volatile natural forces. This shift can be seen in transformations that are taking place in the city today, transformations that are nowhere more visible than in a remarkable new network that has recently been assembled under the name of Bayou Greenways 2020.
Bayou Greenways 2020 is an ambitious plan to unite the bayous within the city limits of Houston into a series of publicly accessible greenways. Adding 80 new miles to existing bayou parks, it will create a cumulative 150 miles of park space becoming the largest network of urban, off-street corridors in the country. (The second-largest system is Portland, Oregon with 78 miles.) In addition to the greenways themselves, 77 of Houston’s existing public parks exist along the axes of the corridors. Quoting from the Houston Parks Board’s introduction, “Bayou Greenways 2020 will create a network of connected, walkable nature parks and trails along nine of the bayous that run through every neighborhood within city limits. Upon completion, the project will add 1,500 acres of equitably distributed parkland, connect 150 miles of multi-use trails, and put 60 percent of all Houstonians within 1.5 miles of a public greenway.” To state what may already be obvious, Bayou Greenways embodies the banded/linear system that is rooted in the geometry of riverine network. It represents a significant reconciliation of an indifferent city to its natural systems. As such it is so much more than a “nature trail.” Given the environmental limitations which we confront today, it is the scaffold upon which the next iteration of Houston will be built.
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?
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.
Launch of GrowOnUs: Courtesy: Balmori Associates.
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.
Rendering for George R. Brown Convention Center updates. WHR Architects.
Several efforts underway for years have come to a head in Houston. City Council approved Plan Houston. As Planning Director Patrick Walsh explains in this Houston Matters interview, though the document is short on measurable goals, it contains the vision, policy directives, and performance indicators that will provide the foundation for more detailed plans that city staff and leaders can work together on more effectively. More news below: