The Houston Transformation and The City Beautiful: A Discussion with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro
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.
Mankad: Not long after the Brochstein Pavilion was completed, Discovery Green (Hargreaves Associates) opened in 2008, drawing crowds to what had been a sea of surface parking lots in Downtown Houston. It spurred a wave of construction along its borders. During the Great Recession, Houston experienced a pause, though many projects were in planning stages. Last year, the Hermann Park McGovern Centennial Gardens (Hoerr Schaudt, White Oak Studio) and Buffalo Bayou Park (SWA Group) opened. Emancipation Park (Philip Freelon, M2L Associates) is almost completed. We have the remaking of the Houston Arboretum (Design Workshop, Reed Hilderbrand) and Memorial Park (Nelson Byrd Wolz) underway. The largest scale of all these projects, Bayou Greenways 2020, is making steady progress. West 8 was chosen for the Houston Botanic Garden master plan. All of a sudden, Houston is commanding positive national attention for what has been one of our greatest failings—public space and parks. How did this happen?
Alfaro: It was the perfect storm, the coalescing of lots of forces at the same time. Perhaps most important is people across the demographic spectrum becoming more aware of environmental issues. Not just being more aware of the environment but giving a damn and wanting to enjoy the outdoors.
Albers: The dream for large parks connected by linear trails along the bayous has been around for 100 years. Buffalo Bayou Park is a piece of that — Sesquicentennial Park (Team Hou, 1989) and now Eleanor Tinsley to Shepherd. Bayou Greenways comes out of that history.
Mankad: Let’s go to those roots, the 1912 Arthur Comey report. Comey was a former student of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. The proposal spurred Houston to acquire land for a system of parks linked by the bayous. World wars, the Depression, and major floods halted those plans. Many of the bayous were channelized and lined with concrete. They were seen as drainage ditches and no more. Activists, civic leaders, and organizations like Rice Design Alliance [which publishes this blog], Buffalo Bayou Partnership, and many others advocated for a more sensitive approach. The transformation we are seeing now is a resuscitation and expansion of Comey’s plan. Bayou Greenways is built on the backbone—the actual acquired land—and the concept of Comey’s plan. Are we seeing the fulfillment of an old dream or is it the reinvention of an old dream?
Albers: I think it is the reinvention. The City Beautiful Movement that Comey came out of was a response to cities developing rapidly without planning. The industrial revolution created poor living conditions, tenement housing, no spaces for the public. People worked ungodly hours without support services. The city was a place for economic opportunity but it wasn’t the place where you wanted to be. The rich would live in their enclaves. The City Beautiful movement was about addressing the core conditions, making the city livable for those of means as well as creating beautiful public places. Through the architecture, the space planning, and the parks, the ordinary citizenry were to be improved. The theory was that because you are in a beautiful space, you will become a better person.
Alfaro: A better citizen and a more moral person.
Albers: That’s right. There was a moral program to the movement. Today’s program is entirely different. Those in positions of power driving the City Beautiful movement saw the citizenry as if they were serfs. As if they were the lords of their own Downton Abbey. Today, the citizenry is seen as clients, as consumers. We are creating spaces for people to have lives outside of architecture.
Alfaro: I think that you are right. The idea that you can improve morality and civic loyalty has changed. You had people like Jane Jacobs looking at City Beautiful and saying this is an architectural cult. This architectural aesthetic is being imposed on everyone else. Who are you to say this is the way to move forward? Now the landscape is conceived of as ecological restoration, which, to some extent, bypasses aesthetics. The connection to natural systems and the understanding of ecological processes take the role of the sociomoral imperative of the City Beautiful Movement. We are focusing on ecology, healthy living, hiking and biking, and so forth. Obviously we have to have a trail here.
These parks are also important to the marketability of the city. This month (2/11/2016), the New York Times published a “36 Hours in Houston” piece. The cover photo is Buffalo Bayou Park, front and center. It is the icon of the city. We are the Bayou City. Here it is. You can play in the Bayou City. This marketability concern is tied to the change in demographics. The same article noted that Houston has the highest concentration of Millennials of the large cities. People are moving here because it is affordable and, in spite of the transportation problems we face, younger people are moving here because of these fantastic outdoor amenities that they can take part in.
That said, there are some parallels to the movements, if what we are looking at now is a movement. The City Beautiful movement was trying to address income inequality, which, to a great extent, is happening now as well. The eastern side of Houston should be developed a little more for exactly that reason.
Albers: In order to find financing for these great projects, the city works through nontraditional ways, such as public-private partnerships. These organizations help create endowments. They package funds from Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, the Harris County Flood Control District, federal grants, private donors, and other sources. This means you don’t have to go through as much government approval. What that seems to do, though, is to leave areas underserved.
Alfaro: That’s the income inequality rearing its ugly head again.
Mankad: In some cases, low-income neighborhoods are getting attention. Bayou Greenways, which received $100 million of public bond funding and was approved by a vote, is a moonshot of trail building along almost all the bayous in the city. The rationale there did hark back to the public health arguments of the City Beautiful movement. We have a powerful mix of motivations. Restoring ecologies, marketing an image of livability, spurring economic development, and improving park access.
Alfaro: The private side of the financing is critical to the operation and maintenance of the parks, which typically the government can’t sustain. That’s more critical I would say than the initial cost to create that beautiful space. Hermann Park, perhaps, was the early model in Houston. It was a long neglected city park. Rice Design Alliance held the Heart of the Park competition, which helped bring about a new nonprofit that commissioned Laurie Olin to do the master plan (1995). The transformation has been amazing to see. The latest addition, the Centennial Gardens, is one of those projects that will have a profound impact on people, laypeople, people who are visiting the Natural Science or Health museums. The gardens are right there.
Mankad: The McGovern Centennial Gardens is also walking distance from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where The Cultural Landscape Foundation is holding its conference. What should visitors look for there?
Albers: The big move is a mount with a snail trail up to the top. It puts landscape front and center. It is a landscape skyscraper.
Alfaro: A landscraper?
Albers: It is funny. Coming from a place that had hills, Houstonians’ relationship to topography has always struck me. You come here and it is so hyper-flat. You are hyper-aware of any sort of mound or hill or any chance to go up and down. There’s almost an innate desire to do that. The most popular piece of playground equipment at schools is the pile of dirt or grassy mound. The kids just go up and down, up and down.
Alfaro: The Centennial Gardens is one of those old garden pieces. It is not an amazing new thing in the history of garden design. Houston is a city where you could put a stick in the ground, and it would grow. But many people don’t necessarily know what kinds of plants they can grow. From a very practical perspective, there is a very basic experience when you walk through the garden. Look at that beautiful red plant. Can I grow it? Obviously, it can grow, because it is here in Houston. I want this plant. So there is that kind of experience. It operates on multiple levels.
The Jerusalem Thorn trees in the parking areas look fantastic. They have this beautiful yellow flower. A grove of crape myrtles. My god, how many more crape myrtles do we need? Well, they work! Then you look at the ground cover, the texture, the trees. The juxtaposition of those materials, walking and paving materials, the planting materials, that’s the kind of education you get when you walk through that garden. It is so compact.
For a long time, the site was the back end of Hermann Park. No one knew what to do with it. The same thing here at Brochstein Pavilion. That’s the beautiful thing about design in general, and landscape architecture in particular. The sites that are problems are where there are opportunities. And we have so many opportunities in Houston! I won’t speak for you all, I will speak for myself. I thought that Houston was an incredibly ugly city.
Albers: And now, you wouldn’t believe the transformation.