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Category: Reviews

Sadik-Khan at Times Square. Photograph by

Big Thinking on Skinnier Streets: New Books on Transportation

Books on urbanism and transportation innovation are having their moment. Here’s a look at five that have come out in the last year alone, starting with Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan, who is in Houston this week for a talk sponsored by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Wednesday, May 18, at 6:30 pm, at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan with Seth Solomonow (Viking, 2016)

The wounds are fresh. Sadik-Khan, the commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, chronicles the bruising battles over the building out of 400 miles of bike lanes and 60 plazas. Though I followed the controversies over the years as they were reported in The New York Times, to hear it from her perspective is something else. I didn’t realize that the first experiments were not all that controversial. With paint and planters, an ugly triangle of pavement in DUMBO went from parking lot to well-used public space without much opposition. We could do that here. We have so many excessive expanses of concrete in Houston.

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Architect Fay Kellogg in 1912. Courtesy photo.

Where Are the Women Architects?

In Houston, you could be forgiven for thinking that the status of women architects is just fine. The architecture deans at Rice, University of Houston, and Prairie View are women. In addition, many of the prominent architects practicing in the city are women, as highlighted in this recent series. Though celebrating Houston’s exemplary women architects is important, which I will come back to, the national data reveal that the number of women architects drops off at each stage of seniority and power — and, notable exceptions aside, the local situation doesn’t appear to be all that different. Take a look at the photos of principals at the major firms.

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The draisine, named for its inventor, Baron Karl von Drais of Mannheim, Germany, was propelled by the feet pushing off the ground. This copper etching, which appeared in the June 1819 issue of the Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia, was based on a color print in the February 1819 issue of the British publication Ackermann’s Repository of Arts. Courtesy photo.

“The main thing is efficiency”: A Discussion about The Mechanical Horse

Margaret Guroff’s new book, The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life, will be published this month by the University of Texas Press. The book, according to the press, “reveals how the bicycle has transformed American society, from making us mobile to empowering people in all avenues of life.” To read more about bicycling on OffCite, including Raj Mankad’s analysis of the new Houston Bike Plan, click here.

Allyn West: The Mechanical Horse demonstrates what you call this county’s “on-again, off-again romance” with the bicycle, starting with the first exhibition in 1819 of a “draisine.” Then the bicycle was dismissed as a fad and disappeared, only to reemerge in new forms throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ultimately, you argue that, just a generation after bike use fell off in the late 1960s to where 85 percent of bikes were ridden by children only, the U.S. is again in the midst of a “dewy-eyed affair.” You point to the rise of bike-share programs and a surge in bike commuting among urban adults. What else accounts for this resurgence of interest?

Guroff: After decades when U.S. cities were losing population, they’ve begun to grow, and that population density puts more Americans closer to their jobs, shopping, and schools. That makes commuting and doing errands by bike more realistic for those who want the exercise or who don’t want to deal with traffic jams or parking hassles. A drop in urban crime is also a factor — you’re more likely to ride a bike if you’re not seriously concerned about having it stolen, or about being mugged. Those crimes still happen, of course, but they’re statistically less frequent than they were a decade or two ago, and that makes people more comfortable being out and exposed on a bike.

City planners know that getting more people on bikes reduces air pollution, gridlock, demand for parking, and wear and tear on asphalt, so city and regional governments have begun creating safer spaces for people to ride, including cycle tracks protected by curbs or parked cars. And the safer cycling gets, the more people ride … and the more cyclists there are, the more lobbying they do for still more bike lanes.

But this is very much a phenomenon of prosperous city-dwellers. There are still lots of places in the country where it doesn’t make sense to ride bikes for transportation, because the infrastructure is built to exclude them or because people can’t live within cycling distance of where they work, shop, study, or worship.

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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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Lawndale Regional Wilderness Zone. Photo: Adam Clay

Lawndale Regional Wilderness Zone

Behind Lawndale Art Center, the artists Elizabeth Eicher and Hélène Schlumberger built a construction they called Lawndale Regional Wilderness Zone (2015). This work, which closed on January 9, was a two-tiered observation tower of exposed plywood decking and stairs. From certain angles, it looked like a detached and incomplete home patio, plopped onto Lawndale’s Sculpture Garden. Caution signs were staked out along both sides of the staircase: “LIMIT 4 PERSONS,” “DON’T FALL,” “NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY.” And had the viewer decided to take her life into her own hands, what was the reward that awaited? What was the view from the top? Try a mid-century office complex and the southwest corner of the parking lot. There are a few nice trees. It was underwhelming — and completely hysterical.

Eicher and Schlumburger continued their droll presentation of Lawndale’s wilderness with accompanying placards that pointed out various flora and fauna in the area. There were American sweetgums and Eastern Grey Squirrels, but there were also Light Poles, Sedans, and Lawndale staff members. These designations swung from a sincere recognition of urban ecology to the outright silly. The artists even included Cattle Rustler on this info-panel — just ludicrous or some sort of attempt at a deeper history? The only item missing from the info panel was the interactive “How many can YOU spot?” Or maybe a little checklist for the number of species you’d seen? They make those for bird watchers.

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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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Left: interior of DZ Bank Building in Berlin, photo by Roland Halbe. Right: Frank Gehry, photo by Atelier Courbet.

Are Architects Artists? A Review of Paul Goldberger’s Biography of Frank Gehry

“There are a lot of interesting and true facts that don’t belong in a biography because they don’t advance the story.”

Paul Goldberger said this at Brazos Bookstore when he was explaining what he learned in writing Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, $35). This is a long book, as clean of superfluities as any biography I’ve read, and the full story of a complex man who is still, at the age of 86, building art. As Goldberger’s title implies, the art of Gehry’s building creates buildings that are art and, of course, architecture too. And to make this argument, Building Art contains the facts that are necessary and many that are more than merely interesting.

For instance: Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg on February 28, 1929, in Toronto, into a working-class Jewish family. He changed his name for a couple of reasons, but he changed it to “gehry” because, set in lowercase letters, the “g” and “y” sink symmetrically below the horizontal like pylons and the “h” rises in the middle like a steeple. It looks architectural.

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Images courtesy ArCH and Thomas Colbert.

Ariadne’s Thread: Drawings by Thomas Colbert at the Architecture Center Houston

Drawings by Thomas Colbert is on view May 21 to August 14 at the Architecture Center Houston. Click here for more details and read Bernard Bonnet’s brief essay on the drawings below.

The beauty of Thomas Colbert’s drawings lies in their complexity. When I saw his work for the first time, I immediately thought of the myth of Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. Which one of these thousands of lines that escape all around from the dark jumble should I unroll to get to the core? When I discovered recently the very beginning of Colbert’s drawings, the sumptuous free-hand volutes, the purity of these lines, I perceived the complexity of the ensemble. At that point, we are poles apart from the scribbles one might see first. There is a construction (the architect/artist?), a patient weaving (many of his drawings do look like fabrics), an endless progression. In a scribble, there is no attention, no focus: it is only a leisurely, instinctive movement of the hand. Colbert’s drawings are obsessive, relentless, never finished and this is the reason for which he cannot draw anything else.

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Photos: Sean McNeely.

A Much Wilder Place: A Review of Tom McNeely’s Ghost Horse

Thomas McNeely’s new novel, Ghost Horse (2014, Gival Press, 246 pages) is set in Houston in the 1970s. Not coincidentally, it’s a difficult book to read. The characters lead difficult lives, some broken by divorce and others shadowed by fear, child abuse, domestic violence. The lines between race and class are sharply drawn and harshly spoken; the novel turns when the main character, Buddy, a young boy whose parents are separated, plays a cruel prank on a friend and spits a racial epithet at him.

Much of the action takes place in the car, as Buddy, the novel’s main character, is shuttled back and forth between a private school where he struggles to make friends and his mother’s house near Telephone Road. As good as McNeely is at bringing Buddy’s confusion and frustration to life, as the boy tries to figure out whether he ought to align himself with his father, or mother, or both, or neither, he is even better at capturing the ambiguity of Houston’s built environment, especially in the neighborhoods near Telephone: “All the way back to his mother’s house,” McNeely writes, “past El Destino Club #2, where purple lights revolve, and Tellepsen Tool, where sparks shower night and day, and Andrew Jackson Grammar School’s cement playground, enclosed in a barbed-wire fence; past the orange duplexes at the end of his mother’s street, whose porch roofs sag like heavy-lidded eyes, where Mexican children stare at his father’s car, then vanish into the houses, or around corners, or under gutted cars.”

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Front view through gallery window. Photo: Joshua Fischer.

The SHOTGUN Show at Rice Gallery

SHOTGUN is on view at the Rice Gallery from January 30 to March 15, 2015.

Rice Gallery’s newest installation, SHOTGUN, offers a view into how density and civic space have been addressed in the past with shotgun-style houses, and how architects are breaking down and reassembling these ideas with an eye to the future.

The installation is the culmination of a course taught at Rice’s architecture program by faculty member Jesús Vassallo and visiting architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, principals of the internationally celebrated architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow in Tokyo, whose work is centered on dense, urban environments. Five shotgun structures, framed with local yellow pine, merge to form a star. Visitors enter and find in each wing a different, engrossing exploration into row houses.

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