Rendering of proposal for utility easements. All images courtesy UH Community Design Resource Center.
In Fall 2012, the University of Houston Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) put on an exhibition that has become increasingly relevant in the past months. Entitled “Thick Infrastructure,” the exhibit put forth bold visions for Houston’s transit centers, park-and-ride lots, drainage ditches, and utility easements.
Team members included Ruqiya Imtiaz-uddin, Alex Lara, Rose Lee, Xavier Vargas, and Susan Rogers. Rice Design Alliance provided $5,000 in funding through a 2011 Initiatives for Houston grant.
“We’re looking at how to make better use of existing spaces, how to give things more than one purpose, and how to use resources in an efficient way that adds value to our community,” says Rogers, who directs the CDRC and serves as chair of the Cite editorial committee.
Overlook on Buffalo Bayou. All images by Peter Muessig.
Anyone who’s stalled in Houston’s early evening sea of brake lights might not be inclined to think we have room for an entirely new transportation infrastructure. But Peter Muessig has envisioned a provocative future between the lines of Houston’s urban grid. His graduate thesis for the Rice School of Architecture, “veloCity: Mapping Houston on the Diagonal,” reconceives the Space City and oil capital via the bicycle, which Muessig uses as a “versatile tool for local habitation” to subvert the city’s debilitating trend toward outward sprawl. The proposal won a 2012 Architecture Design Award from both the American Institute of Architects, Houston (AIA) and the Texas Society of Architects in the Conceptual category.
To tackle Houston’s “entwined problems of transit and dwelling, of movement and occupation,” as one of Muessig’s thesis jurists puts it, Muessig has designed the “Veloduct,” a canopy structure that opens uncharted territory to the bicycle, allowing it to cross over (or under) high-speed roadways that would otherwise be difficult to negotiate on two wheels. The Veloduct is, in effect, a versatile freeway for cyclists, with wood-paneled guardrails and a concrete-paved metal pan decking surface system that can accommodate commuters, cruisers, racers, mountain bikers and BMX tricksters. Like a cycle weaving among stalled cars, its network of corridors and pedestrian pathways threads through the spaces between existing structures. Where optimal, the Veloduct adapts these structures into its own form. In variations of concrete, joists, and steel, it can be grafted onto the pillars of freeways, hang suspended by girders, or stand on its own columns.
Burial ground site in the path of Grand Parkway Segment E. All photographs by Brett Sillers.
I visited the most sublime site in Houston. In the vast expanse of the Katy Prairie, the pure column and beam form of an elevated highway stretches into the distance, not yet topped by roadway or stained with leaking oil. Deer, coyotes, and raccoons have left tracks next to those of horses, heavy machinery, and booted workers. Then, the highway construction abruptly ends, and in the center of the gap is an excavation of human remains that could be 14,000 years old, potentially making it the oldest multiple burial ground in the Western Hemisphere.
The story of how the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) knew of the site in 1996 and failed to preserve it exposes more than a loss of heritage for this city, region, and continent. The treatment of the burial ground highlights a pattern of disregard at TxDOT and other governing bodies for the objections that citizens and experts raise about flooding, water quality, recreation, noise, traffic, and the loss of farms, hunting grounds, and wildlife habitat. To that list, we can now add contempt for history and scientific knowledge.
Westerpark in Amsterdam.
OffCite continues its coverage of responses to Hurricane Ike and, more broadly, efforts to adapt coastlines to rising sea levels and frequent mega-storms with a post by writer Zachary Martin.
Houston may have less than a year to decide how it’s going to survive the next big storm to strike Texas, according to Thomas Colbert, a Professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Houston and former chair of the Cite editorial committee. He was speaking at that university’s “Dynamic Equilibirum at the Water’s Edge: Three Continents Symposium” last week when he stated his belief that even the devastation caused by large storms like Ike and Katrina has a tendency to fade from public memory after about five years, making massive infrastructure projects like dikes and levees much more difficult to find support for, let alone fund and build.
Coming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the two-day symposium served to perhaps prolong the conversation a bit longer, long enough to debate the relative merits of a number of plans that have been put forward to protect the Upper Texas Coast and Louisiana wetlands. On hand were researchers, architects, and academics with vast experience in water strategy and management: David Waggonner, of Waggonner & Ball Architects in New Orleans; Jeff Carney, director of LSU’s Coast Sustainability Studio; Michael Rotondi, principal architect of RoTo in Los Angeles; Flavio Janches, professor at the University of Buenos Aires; Diego Sepulveda, professor at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands; and Thomas Colbert, among others.
Light Rail Construction, Photograph by Christof Spieler
OffCite continues its coverage of the METRO referendum. Colley Hodges cut through the confusion in our last post. Below, METRO board member and longtime Cite contributor Christof Spieler calls for vision beyond the immediate politics.
This Tuesday, Houston voters face a choice on transit. A “yes” vote will make more of the one cent METRO sales tax available for transit—but that additional funding is specifically allocated so it will not go to rail. A “no” vote could mean more money for rail—or it could lead to legislative action that would actually cut transit funding or even dismantle METRO. In either scenario, the future of the University Line—which was specifically approved by voters in 2003 to be completed by 2012—is uncertain. The most important new connection in the Houston transit system could be 20 years away.
Meanwhile, other cities are rapidly expanding transit. By 2013, Dallas will have 90 miles of light rail radiating out from Downtown to the suburbs. Salt Lake City just opened two new lines and is completing another to the airport. Denver is adding a fourth light rail spoke to its system and building electric commuter rail to the airport.
So, what’s different in Houston?
Though national politics get most of the attention, several major choices about the future of the local built environment will greet Houston voters at the ballot box. Colley Hodges cuts through the morass around the METRO referendum so you can make a choice. If you would like to get involved before Tuesday’s vote, you can join in the “Pro-Transit Flash Mob” this Saturday at 12:30 pm. OffCite’s next post will feature METRO board member Christof Spieler, so stay tuned.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett described the METRO referendum facing Houston voters in the coming weeks as “a little bit of a convoluted ballot item.” He wasn’t joking. If you’re the type who only evaluates local propositions in the voting booth, good luck on this one. You’ll wish you’d done your homework. Here’s the language you see on the ballot:
Metropolitan Transit Authority, Referendum on Street Improvement Mobility Program
THE CONTINUED DEDICATION OF UP TO 25% OF METRO’S SALES AND USE TAX REVENUES FOR STREET IMPROVEMENTS AND RELATED PROJECTS FOR THE PERIOD OCTOBER 1, 2014 THROUGH DECEMBER 31, 2025 AS AUTHORIZED BY LAW AND WITH NO INCREASE IN THE CURRENT RATE OF METRO’S SALES AND USE TAX.
Exterior of Torre David, Caracas. All photos courtesy Daniel Schwartz and The U-TT Chair at ETH Zürich
Just a few weeks after winning the Golden Lion at the XIII Venice Architecture Biennale, Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), spoke September 19 at the Rice Design Alliance Fall 2012 lecture series addressing the future of architectural education. (Watch the lecture on YouTube.) With offices in Caracas, São Paulo, New York, and Zürich, Urban-Think Tank is an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to high-level research and design.
At this year’s biennale, U-TT, along with Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan, presented Torre David: Gran Horizonte, an installation documenting an unfinished 45-story office tower in the center of Caracas designed by the distinguished Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez. Centro Financiero Confinanzas (as it was originally known) was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extralegal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum. Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities, edited by Brillemburg and Hubert Klumpner with photos by Baan, will be in bookstores this month.
Prior to the lecture, Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz Amaré-Cartwright of WAC Design Studio sat down with Alfredo Brillembourg and asked him questions about Torre David and squatting in Venezuela. This post follows on a response to the lecture by Alfonso Hernandez.
The current issue of Cite features a special section on the Port of Houston, including an intriguing history, oral histories of Father Rivers Patout and ship pilot Lou Vest, gorgeous photographs by Vest, and ideas for reconnecting the city to its port. You can subscribe to Cite online or find us at independent bookstores if you are at all curious about, well, why Houston even exists! One key story the new issue did not cover was told by Danny Marc Samuels in the Winter 2003 Cite (56). Few realize that the first docking of a container ship was right here in Houston. Don’t know why that event is important, why the global economy as we know it began that day, why an entire way of life and work on the port was soon wiped out? Then read on in this excerpt of “Port of Call: The Deep-Water Ambitions of a Bayou City” or download the pdf from our archives.
On April 26, 1956, when the freighter Ideal X carried the first load of 58 containers — steel boxes eight feet by 8 feet by 35 feet — from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston, it was not, on the face of it, a shipping revolution. But the eventual success of this shipping concept transformed not only the shipping industry but the nature of the global economy as well as the character of port cities around the world. When a producer could load a container in a factory anywhere in the world and ship it directly to a consumer anywhere else in the world quickly, at low cost, and in relative security, the whole equation of supply and demand shifted. Every point of production became directly connected to every point of consumption. A new kind of global commerce was born.
Crop from illustration by John Earles
The new issue of Cite (89) is available at Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, Issues, Domy, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores. You can subscribe here. The issue has already generated a good deal of talk, including a piece by David Theis calling for an investment in Westheimer. Let us know if his vision matches your own in the comment section?
A few years ago, my wife, Susanne, and I made our first excursion to Anvil, the Westheimer curve’s cocktail bar with high standards, to see what the young people were up to. The bar was already celebrated, even in the national media, for its pre-Prohibition era concoctions. We were also intrigued by owners Bobby Heugel, Kevin Floyd, and Steve Flippo’s conversion of an old commercial building into a contemporary space. They were continuing the welcome trend set at Café Brazil, Hugo’s, and Empire Café of renovating old buildings rather than demolishing them.
We went and we enjoyed. Watching the bartenders (they happily eschew the trendy term “mixologists”) strain mightily as they shook their cocktails was surprisingly entertaining, and we compared notes on our drinks with the thrill-seekers beside us at the bar. It’s quite possible that between us we had The Brave (tequila and sotol, for starters), the Kentucky Cane (rum, rye, and more), the Americano (campari, vermouth, and soda), and a Waxing Poetic (cinnamon-infused bourbon, absinthe, and more). I may have also thrown down a craft beer. All this as we admired the handcrafted-ness of the space itself: the reclaimed meat locker doors that led to the bathrooms and the tongue-and-groove flooring used as tabletops.
David Robinson leads a discussion of a plan for Dunlavy Street at the site for the Montrose HEB. Photo by Chris Curry.
David Robinson is an architect who has served in a number of different public positions—chair of the urban design committee for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, president of the Neartown Super Neighborhood, and president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance among others. He sat down with Raj Mankad, editor of Cite, at Empire Cafe for an interview on September 20.
Raj Mankad: Why not stick to designing buildings? What motivated you to enter politics and, now, run for City Council?
David Robinson: Since studying architecture in college and really even before that, I have always had an interest in the public realm.
RM: But why politics?