The Accidental City

A new book paints a witty, perceptive portrait of Houston, a metropolis as culturally complex as it is commercially crass.

December 2003By Comments

HOUSTON, THAT SPRAWLING LABORATORY OF URBAN experiments, has gone about its work largely outside the purview of expert observers. Limited to the stereotypes advanced by hand-wringing outsiders on the one hand and high-on-hydrocarbons boosters on the other, we really don’t know that much about our nation’s most modern, anarchic, and uninhibitedly capitalistic city. The picture becomes much clearer, however, with the publication this month of Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston (University of Texas Press). An anthology of articles spanning the first twenty years of Cite, the highly regarded journal of the Rice Design Alliance, Ephemeral City is in equal measure a sweeping historical overview, civic memoir, and municipal self-help guide. It adds up to a witty, unfailingly perceptive portrait of a Houston we haven’t seen before, a metropolis as culturally complex as it is commercially crass, as brilliantly innovative as it is heedlessly self-destructive, as enigmatic and hidden as it is aggressively in-your-face.

In their introduction to Ephemeral City, editors Barrie Scardino, William F. Stern, and Bruce C. Webb characterize Cite‘s approach as “tough love.” The tough stuff is predictable enough; the nonprofit Rice Design Alliance was founded in 1972 to confront Houston’s celebrated disdain for urban planning, and Cite (pronounced “Sight”) was born a decade later to address the scarcity of architecture criticism and commentary in a city whose postmodern skyline represented commercial architecture’s cutting edge. But there’s also a surprising amount of unconditional love between the covers. Although most of the contributors are architects or architecture writers with ties to Houston’s universities, Ephemeral City hardly presents the view from the ivory tower. Instead there’s a compassionate acceptance of many of the city’s most incorrigible characteristics (Houston is going to have floods, so get over it; you’re always going to need acres of parking, so figure out the best way to do it), along with street-smart, carefully weighed remedies for the civic maladies that can realistically be treated (a little shade, grass, and water would make actual public places out of many of the city’s withering concrete “plazas”).

Accompanied by more than two hundred photographs, plans, and maps, the 25 essays in Ephemeral City range from panoramic surveys of Houston’s evolution to close-up critiques of individual landmarks and buildings. Hopscotching through space and time, this eclectic narrative underscores the collection’s titular theme: More than any other major American metropolis, the nation’s fourth-largest city remains an elusive and ephemeral work in progress. “Where most cities converge on their past, Houston seems to be running away from its history, all too willing to sacrifice its heritage for future prospects, the lure of the deal,” writes Webb, one of Cite‘s founding editors and a former dean of the University of Houston’s College of Architecture. As much an ongoing process as an indelible place, the city where so many come to reinvent themselves is endlessly reinventing itself.

Houston’s primordial reinventors were its founders, New York developers John and Augustus Allen. As architecture writer and former Cite editor Scardino noted in “H2Ouston”(1999), the Allen brothers really wanted to purchase the site of Harrisburg, at the time the farthest navigable point upstream on Buffalo Bayou; the fact that their second choice, Houston, was waterlogged but essentially landlocked didn’t deter them from hyping its access to the sea. The ability to make lemonade out of brackish bayous and perennial floods has remained a constant in the city’s evolution. Flush with the proceeds of Civil War profiteering, Houston began dredging the Ship Channel in 1870; the opportunistic inland port was ready to pounce when coastal rival Galveston was obliterated by the 1900 hurricane. “Houston has emerged at the end of this millennium as a great city,” concluded Scardino, “because of the unrelenting arrogance of successive generations of leaders who have understood how to capitalize on external disaster and how to control the natural environment.”

When it comes to controlling the man-made environment, however, Houston’s leaders have been proverbially unsuccessful. Zoning referendums supported by the city fathers failed throughout the twentieth century, turning the nation’s largest unzoned city into a sprawling shrine to unfettered growth and unregulated commerce. But in “Planning in Houston: A Historic Overview” (1985), architecture historian Stephen Fox subtly revised the dynamic: “It is more accurate to say that Houston is a partially planned city in which successive episodes of rapid expansion have outstripped whatever planning progress might theretofore have been achieved.” Perhaps the greatest legacy of planned development is the evergreen Hermann Park, the product of a 1910’s plan that echoed Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for New York’s Central Park. And the failure of public initiatives didn’t deter private efforts at de facto zoning. William C. Hogg’s River Oaks development, begun in 1923 and still the city’s prestige neighborhood, became the model of planned communities preserved by deed restrictions and carefully engineered barriers against the surrounding city.

By the sixties Houston had arrived at what Fox calls a “co-existence of private planning and public laissez-faire.” The arrangement gave free rein to innovative private visions as diverse as John and Dominique de Menil’s in the arts and Judge Roy Hofheinz’s in professional sports. As recounted in Webb’s “Diamond in the Round: The Astrodome Turns 25″ (1990), Hofheinz pitched Houston to major league baseball with a model of a domed stadium, an answer to worries about mosquitoes and high humidity. He touted his air-conditioned ballpark—variously inspired by ancient Rome’s Colosseum (which had a vast canvas sunshade), futurist Buckminster Fuller, and NASA’s arrival in town—as the modern successor to the seven ancient wonders of the world and quickly saw it become the nation’s third-most-visited man-made tourist attraction. “The Dome was like some chimerical island plopped down in a vast field on the far south edge of the city,” wrote Webb, “offering a tantalizing glimpse of the brave new world Houstonians were creating for themselves.”

The Astrodome also presaged an elemental fact of Houston’s brave new world: It would unfold largely beyond Loop 610, which by the time of the eighties oil bust had surrounded the city’s increasingly enervated center with a great “doughnut” of suburban development. Among the reasons for the inner-city slump was the toilet bust, a moratorium on construction inside the loop resulting from a shortage of sewer hookups for additional potties. But the decline of downtown could also be traced to a loftier cause: the good intentions of Miesian modernism. When the de Menils summoned architect Philip Johnson to Houston in 1949 to design their River Oaks home, Johnson brought along the gospel of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s International Style, his ardent advocacy sparking a Miesian revolution in Houston’s streets (Mies himself designed additions for the Museum of Fine Arts). Johnson’s design for the University of St. Thomas still stands as proof that the much-maligned, hard-edged International Style could slip respectfully into a modest residential neighborhood. But the Miesian vision proved shortsighted when office towers modeled on Mies and Johnson’s Seagram Building, in New York, took over downtown Houston beginning in the early sixties. Sleek boxes isolated within concrete plazas, the Miesian clones accelerated the flight of pedestrians and small retailers. As Fox wrote in his 1984 survey, “Scraping the Houston Sky: 1894-1976,” “Instead of ‘cleaning up’ downtown, these lithe, graceful, modern towers participated in its cleaning out.”

Johnson’s conversion to postmodernism in the late seventies gave Houston a revolutionary new skyline by the mid-eighties, but the damage had already been done. By then the West Loop—the four-mile stretch of 610 from Interstate 10 to U.S. 59—was the busiest freeway in the United States, and the surrounding developments, anchored by the Galleria and Johnson’s 64-story Transco (now Williams) Tower, would soon become the nation’s eighth-largest business district. This “node” on steroids competed for the title of city center while offering little respite from downtown’s sterile anomie. In a classic 1984 commentary, “Pursuing the Unicorn: Public Space in Houston,” essayist and former University of Houston writing instructor Phillip Lopate opined, “Managing to combine the twin nightmares of claustrophobic congestion and anemic vacuity, the Galleria is my idea of hell. . . . Houston suffers from this malaise of placelessness, and nowhere more so than in the Galleria area.”

Houstonians who migrated much farther outside the loop could expect a similar malaise in a more bucolic setting, noted former Rice School of Architecture professor Richard Ingersoll in “Utopia Limited” (1994), his examination of master-planned “new towns” such as Kingwood and First Colony. In 1998 former Cite and Texas Architect editor Joel Warren Barna observed in “Filling the Doughnut” that “Houston had stretched out so far that its sprawl was doubling back on itself.” The central business district had become one of Texas’s fastest-growing residential neighborhoods, its resuscitation aided by a lifting of the inside-the-loop potty moratorium; a surprisingly activist mayor, Bob Lanier; the desire of frustrated suburbanites to discover the low-maintenance inner-city simple life; and high-profile projects such as the conversion of the venerable Rice Hotel into loft apartments and the transformation of the Albert Thomas Convention Center into the Bayou Place entertainment complex. Even the Astros went downtown to Minute Maid Park, team owner Drayton Lane Jr. having received a substantial taxpayer-funded subsidy. But as reporter Jim Zook noted in “Fair or Foul?” (1999), the retro-look stadiums in Baltimore and Denver that spawned the whole ballpark-as-urban-renewal movement took advantage of downtown neighborhoods already reclaimed by restaurants and retailers. Although the Astros’ new retro-dome (the roof is retractable) has benefited from proximity to Houston’s Theater District (the nation’s second-largest when measured by total seats), the jury remains out as to whether it will end up surrounded by small businesses or blocks of new parking lots.

More promising are Houston’s ad hoc culture districts, which have accreted over the years without any formal coordination. In “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” (1996), city planner Drexel Turner modestly proposed that some of the taxpayer assistance so liberally offered to the owners of sports teams be invested in the little guys—restaurants, retailers, galleries—actually capable of bringing street life into the Theater District. Architect Peter Papademetriou’s “Loose Fit” (1996) suggested that the successful Museum District, lifted by the ambitions of its myriad institutions, doesn’t need much more to bring it together than a “loose fit” provided by consistent signage, some shade trees for major arteries, and some benches for pausing pedestrians. And sometimes the best urban-renewal strategy is simply to preserve a civic heirloom. Webb’s “Evolving Boulevard” (2000) celebrated Montrose Boulevard, “Houston’s most urbane street,” and cautioned against overdeveloping it at the expense of a “genuine urban past.”

Perhaps the best bit of tough-love advice Ephemeral City offers Houston—or any Texas city—is self-acceptance: You’re a city; deal with it. It’s telling that an observation in Lopate’s 1984 essay is as apt as ever: “Anti-urban values color our Chamber of Commerce religion—Texana. Houston, as the biggest city in a state that is now predominately urban, though it refuses to recognize itself as such, has suffered from this schizoid denial. Its resistance to city planning is partly a way of putting off acceptance of its urban nature.” As this indispensable collection so vividly illustrates, even the capital of sprawl must face a reckoning with its inner city. Our frontier is long gone, but the ephemeral city is here to stay.

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