Rendering of proposed Central Station by Snøhetta
On the evening of Tuesday, January 24, the Houston Downtown Management District, along with Metro and its design-build component, Houston Rapid Transit, hosted a public presentation of five proposals for the new “Houston Central Station.” They were the result of an invited competition whose impressive advisory panel featured among others the new, and apparently well-connected, deans of Houston’s two schools of architecture, Patricia Oliver of University of Houston and Sarah Whiting of Rice University. Entries were presented by Chris Sharples of SHoP Architects, New York; Paul Lewis of Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis, New York; Neil Denari of Neil M. Denari Architects, Los Angeles; Mark Wamble of Interloop—Architecture, Houston; and Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, New York and Oslo. (I would have liked to see women architects like Jeanne Gang or Toshiko Mori also included.)
They are all decidedly avant-garde, modernist firms who have begun in the last several years to build increasingly large and prestigious projects. Collectively, they tend to use computer modeling to create rather complicated swooping and angled designs that rely on the newish technology of digitally assisted, custom fabrication for their realization. As such, they tend to be highly regarded in architectural schools and in the architectural press where these techniques are the common currency in trade, though perhaps somewhat less by the general public who usually seems to be either awed, mystified, or repulsed by such work.
Divis table designed by Mike & Maaike
This post covers the first lecture in the Rice Design Alliance’s three part series, “FURNISH.” If this captivates you be sure to attend the next two.
In the earnest tone with which he delivered his entire talk, Mike Simonian suggested on Wednesday evening that, in a given body of work, “if everything is perfect, then there’s a certain ugliness to all that beauty.” This, from the designer who made the XBOX console beautiful? You’d be hard pressed to find a blunder among the offerings coming out of Mike & Maaike, the San Francisco-based industrial design studio led by Simonian and his partner, Maaike Evers. By looking for one, though, you’d also miss the point.
Simonian and Evers, with the support of an international cadre of young interns, push their projects through a concept-driven, rigorous process and produce compelling works. A sort of completed perfection, though, doesn’t come across as the primary objective. The designs pose questions without declaring answers. They stir up trouble, find intrigue in uncertainty and sometimes fly in the face of staid conventions.
Detail from Ana Serrano's Salon of Beauty, all photos by Nash Baker
“Vibrancy” — the first and too often the last word that comes up when considering Ana Serrano’s Salon of Beauty, installed at Rice University Art Gallery. The brightly-colored buildings that make up the slightly-smaller-than-life-size cityscape are indeed at first glance “playfully vibrant” as one reviewer writes. The installation, a (re)created blue collar neighborhood from Los Angeles, is comprised of a flower shop, strip club, beauty salon, liquor store, bakery, and the like. Each building is made from wooden frames enclosed in painted cardboard that bring to mind a fantastical, “vibrant,” Disneyland-like aesthetic. It is in this contradiction, between the working class roots of this neighborhood and its aestheticization, that I am interested.
Fernando Brave, Pablo Ferro, and Craig Minor
Apparently, a whole army of people in Houston know who Pablo Ferro is and love his work. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston event (co-sponsored by the Rice Design Alliance and AIGA) was packed for the sold-out presentation of the title designer, movie director, animator and all around Renaissance Man. The crowd was a heady mix befitting of the presenter himself: a slew of hipsterfied young graphic designer nerds mixed with older film buffs, advertising professionals, architects, and typography geeks. The eclectic audience was an indication that Pablo Ferro has been fully rediscovered (if he was ever really forgotten).
Love of Pablo Ferro, the cult figure, has been growing for some time now. The rebirth of interest in him has been driven by a large, impressive and always surprising body of work (and its recent appearance in easily searchable YouTube videos): the skinny, sexy film titles of Dr. Strangelove, the boxy split screens of The Thomas Crown Affair, the flipped Я of The Russians are Coming, and the quick-cut, psychedelic weirdness of the Clockwork Orange trailer. Ferro created an aesthetic for an era and laid out an array of visual techniques that would be copied and reworked for decades. In recent years, he’s received a series of well-deserved awards from prestigious organizations, including the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. There’s also a documentary film in the works that combines animated sequences with celebrity interviews (e.g. Anjelica Houston and Jeff Bridges) to tell the story of Pablo’s unconventional life: his road from Cuba to working with Stan Lee and Disney in New York to Hollywood studio work and finally to a humble garage in L.A. where he lives and works to this day.
Chapbooks by Beverly Dahlen and Jamie Townsend
Everywhere, a surfeit of essays and articles bemoan the declining fortunes of the book and the publishing industry’s deepening crisis. Even though there have been some recent hopeful reports of better times ahead, overall, the news is: the book is dead, there’s no hope. Get. Out. Now.
Despite this bleak outlook, there’s been a huge resurgence in the last few years of small, often experimental, publishers committed to the art of book-making and also excited by the technological innovations driving the written word forward into new venues, platforms, and futures. Each time one person or a few decide to launch a new small publishing venture, it feels like a mini-revolution, a stand against the pessimistic future envisioned for the book itself.
Detail of Schindler House, Wikimedia Commons
When you first walk in, there’s a man, blindfolded and gagged with his hands and feet cuffed to parallel leather rods holding him in place in his chair. Two women in another room are knelt over blankets, sewing strings onto an accordion-folded long sheet of paper, with printed repeated images of rectangles at odd angles. Soft twenties jazz is playing on a record player. In the bathroom, an oracle intones softly through a tube coming through the ceiling; the female voice describes your own identity (past, present & future) by reading the characteristics of your particular bird-spirit. In the vitrine at the back of the house, something similar to a woman’s body contorts within the confines of a red, fabric bag.
Magic Island site at Southwest Freeway and Greenbriar Street. All photographs Paul Hester.
Paul Hester’s retrospective Doing Time in Houston at Architecture Center Houston—culled from his extensive archive documenting Houston’s architecture through all its transitions over the past 45 years–invites the viewer to contemplate all that has ever stood on this viscid alluvium we call home. Row houses razed to make room for rows of gated townhomes; first ring suburbs mowed down to clear space for skyscrapers. Here, a saddlery turned ballet parking lot; there, a sea food market turned newspaper headquarters. Even the buildings left standing have been stripped and fused and cloaked in marble panels or kitschy Egyptian temples (see my “Ancient Curse of Freeway Frontage Excavated from Archives,” Cite 81, Spring 2010).
Cover image cropped from Monu issue #14.
Houston has always had a tricky relationship with historic preservation. Unlike numerous other global cities, Houston often allows its older structures to grow over with weeds or be demolished, eventually making way for new development. Traditional preservationism would imply that this approach is morally wrong: not to preserve architectural history is to lose it forever.
Yet both the new issue of MONU: Magazine on Urbanism and a recent show called Cronocaos, curated by Rem Koolhaas at the New Museum in New York, question our common approach to preservation. Should old buildings be preserved in a pristine state forever, or should they be allowed to remain an active part of a city, even if they continue to deteriorate from use? Has historic preservation done more damage to cities than good, by airbrushing and sanitizing them for tourists and the wealthy, while making them less accessible and useful to citizens? The image portrayed by Koolhaas is of preservationists cleaning facades, scrubbing interiors, and then putting up metaphorical velvet ropes that prevent users from getting too close to the architecture—”please do not touch. Even clean hands can harm the art….etc.” Even the term preservation implies an object sealed off from the effects of time, petrified, as it were.
Yasufumi Nakamori gave a talk at the Architecture Center Houston. Photo by Hank Hancock.
Houston might let you gawk at all its contradiction and complexity, but it doesn’t exactly provide an easy education for why it looks the way it does. Even if one’s adolescence consisted of breakfast with the Hobbys and dinners with the Menils, odds are—with only that human mind at your disposal—you would still be unable to answer why all the bayous and highways and neighborhoods turned out the way they did. But Progrowth Politics: Change and Governance in the City of Houston tries anwering those questions. Though the book ends with the reign of Bob Lanier, it’s still a wonderfully definitive explanation of the city’s development.
The duo is Robert Thomas and Richard Murray. They are well-credentialed: the former was then director of the program in Public Administration at UH, and the later is now director of the Institute of Public Policy at UH. The book is part of a series by the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley, designed to promote “better understanding of the nature and working of the American system of democratic government, particularly in its political, economic, and social aspects.” We’re in the company of New York, London, Toronto, Stockholm, Montreal, Winnipeg, Indianapolis, and Leningrad, and have a place among them because we were a “unique case study” in a city where “it no longer seems appropriate to focus government intervention primarily on economic development alone, while ignoring societal ills and social objectives.”