Building in a landscape being converted from mid-income housing to high-end luxury condos; construction currently stalled due to financial hardship. Photos: Daisy Ames.

The Oil Series: Housing in Houston

Houston is caught in the crosshairs of irrational exuberance, a term initially coined in the 1990s by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan in reference to the overvalued dot-com market. Similarly, when the United States’ housing market crashed in 2008, we were again forced to rethink our economic investments and spending. As architect and writer Pier Vittorio Aureli explains, we began to embrace Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism “less is more,” rendering it fashionable once again.

During such fundamental economic shifts we have come to see Houston’s continuing growth as more of a superficial reconstruction rather than an attempt to address the root of its problems. For example, the oil market crash in the 1980s left the city desolate, and the buildings Downtown were referred to as “see-through buildings” because the floors were not occupied and left transparent from one glass facade to the other. Since Fall 2015, the oil price per barrel has declined 70 percent, and unless we implore thoughtful design and fiscally responsible construction methods, we might face an empty city once again.

What is particularly important about the phenomena of being in a state of economic crisis is that there are important spatial implications that we, as architects, need to account for when designing households. Models of living, commuting, and spending are shifting away from the “bigger is better” version of the American Dream that has typified suburban growth in Texas towards an economically sustainable strategy. Gaining a thorough understanding of these changes in economy lead to homes that address need rather than aspirations to express an embellished kind of Dream.

Two versions of the Texas American Dream in Montrose.

Two versions of the Texas American Dream in Montrose.

As my second-year graduate students at the Rice School of Architecture design their studio projects, I am urging them to keep in mind the the tumultuous relationship that housing has with the oil market. The fluctuations of the past are re-emerging, and there is evidence that it is currently threatening jobs, new construction, and progress in Houston, which in turn is no less an extraordinary opportunity to rethink, reimagine, and redesign necessary and meaningful spaces which respond to the current shifts.

On April 26, we will be hosting a colloquium at Rice School of Architecture exhibiting the students projects and opening the discussion to local architects and developers.

RSA students on site, north of Downtown between a highway and railroad track and between skyscrapers of Downtown and the Fifth Ward.

RSA students on site, north of Downtown between a highway and railroad track and between skyscrapers of Downtown and the Fifth Ward.

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