THOUGHTS ON HOUSTON
Daniel Emberley, December 1995
A very cool city. This is not at all your typical Spanish-colonial origin town. The city was marketed as pretty much a land swindle by a couple of Yankees, the Allen brothers, in the 1830’s, inland from the port of Galveston along the bayous. Hence, there is no mission, or old downtown, just the grid of land plots laid out over the coastal plain. It’s so flat, and close to sea level, the drainage ditches surround most street blocks. There really wasn’t much of any city here until:
The port of Galveston blew away in a hurricane, and the Army Corps of Engineers dug out the main bayou to create the port of Houston in the 1920’s
Railroads found Houston the closest dry location to the Gulf
Oil was discovered down coast in Beaumont.
By the 1950’s there was a small railroad city on the plain. The federal highway
programs and oil boom of the 1970’s are what made Houston what it is today, 4th
largest city in America. It’s all about the freeway, and how fast you can get on
and off it. There’s a minimal bus system, but to not drive is to not exist. The
lack of zoning, the speed with which the money hit, and the plains stretching
out with ready freeway access led to an obliteration of the pre-WWII city. The
city is about money and how to make it, and the land is there to facilitate the
moneymaking. The most common structure is the billboard; advertising stores,
churches, strip clubs, and the usual national brands, all one after the other.
Almost everyone lives in a single family house. Strip malls dominate commerce
and communities. The only time you really get above a third floor is in office
towers, which, in an effort to boost corporate prestige, are real skyscrapers,
usually situated in a sea of parking.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) guide to Houston used the line “since anything goes, everything goes.” Any structure over 25 years old is expected to be torn down and replaced soon, if only by a parking lot. Some of the major shopping malls are already on their second life, having been built, used up, worn out, and rebuilt as a new development, all since the mid-1960’s.
The flip side of all this is that people feel an incredible freedom to do anything they want with their property. Some of what we saw was undoubtedly due to Christmas, but the level of “folk art” is astounding. People paint their homes with wild colors, wrap them with lights, assemble villages of plywood cutouts on the front lawns, etc. One not unusual house had a six-foot rotating cement banana on the side lawn, with an eighteen foot white telephone in back. Even the skyscrapers get into the show, with five or six of them using their window grids to draw trees, “ho ho ho”, and other holiday symbols. The freedom also means people are comfortable hiring great architects to design their homes, with no restrictions on what is possible, leading to some real gems scattered throughout. One firm, McKie and Kamrath, were disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright, and from the 1940’s through 1970’s built homes, schools, factories, and temples across the city, which made for some great treasure hunts with the AIA Guide.
WHAT WE SAW AND DID
Downtown: Oh, those cool office towers! Deco city, with buildings from the 1920’s on up. Tranquility Park memorializes the first footprint on the moon, and the first word spoken there, which was, of course, “Houston”.
The Galleria: The other downtown. Any
mall with a Marshall Fields in it is okay by me. Actually, this is one mall in a
stretch of new office and retail, including the Philip Johnson Transco Tower,
which I’d always thought from photos was in a prairie, but that’s just the
Rice University: Cool avenue entrance of Texas Live Oaks
University of Houston: Michael’s alma
mater, a symphony of concrete, with a very cool school of architecture recently
built by Johnson and Burgee.
Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel: primitive art and art since the 1950’s (there’s a difference?), in very cool buildings by Renzo Piano and Philip Johnson. Dominique DeMenil owns the whole neighborhood, so all the surrounding bungalows are painted to match the museum. Has a beautiful new annex dedicated to the work of the loathsome Cy Twombley.
Herman Park: Home of the Conservatory, Museum of Natural History, and Museum of Art. Mies van der Rohe did Art, a wonderful home for a wonderful survey collection of art of the Western World. Also checked out the Sam Houston Monument, Robert Venturi-designed Children’s Museum, and under construction but very cool Holocaust Museum. Museum of Contemporary Art, by Gunnar Birkets, is like two wavy tin walls coming together in an entrance you’d miss if you didn’t look for it.
Mission Control: An abomination on the plains southwest of the city. Wanted $15/head to see the visitor center. Huh. They should have built it in Cambridge, Mass. as originally planned.
San Jacinto Monument: Everything you always wanted to know about Texas history in an obelisk that hides itself among the oil derricks and rigs along the ship channel.
The Heights: Fragments of a Victorian middle class community saved rather than trashed. Very cool. Ditto Montrose, for the 1920’s, a neighborhood farther west hosting the area’s gay community.
The Astrodome: Uh huh. Saw it from the
Houston Heritage Park: A collection of 8 buildings gathered into a park along the Bayou that demonstrates the history of Houston housing. Cool but weird, like if they took the top five historic Boston buildings, moved them to the Common, and bulldozed everything else.
Food: Tex Mex. Filipino. Chinese, in
the old Chinatown downtown and the new one in the strip malls of Bellaire. Soul
food. Hot dogs. Barbecue. We did all that.
Fiesta: The Safeway-type grocery stores were doing a poor job of servicing the ethnic mix that Houston is becoming, so Fiesta has stepped into the resulting vacuum. A super-store grocery store, where the foods of Mexico and Asia share equal space with Campbell’s soup and Chips Ahoy cookies. About half food, the other half towels, clothes, furniture, anything you can think of, all at tremendously low prices.