THANKS TO A LIGHT-RAIL PROJECT scheduled for completion in 2004, much of downtown's historic district appears to have been rooted up by a monster armadillo. Still, with its shady parks, outdoor sculptures, busy theater district, chic restaurants and clubs, and seven miles of air-conditioned tunnels (in essence, food courts for heat-shy office workers), Houston's downtown is seductive. I could have signed up for a guided tour at the Houston Visitors Information Center, in the deco-deluxe city hall. Designed in 1939 by Joseph Finger, this limestone creation is packed with Houstoniana and parked at the edge of Hermann Square, an inviting green space with huge live oaks and a reflecting pool. But instead of a tour, I decided to strike out alone, armed with my copy of the Houston Architectural Guide, written by the unabashedly opinionated architectural historian Stephen Fox. I love his take-no-prisoners critiques. Of the Bank of America Center (formerly RepublicBank Center), a granite tower also designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee that's so Gothic-looking I kept expecting a superhero to swoop down from its metal rooftop spires, Fox writes that its "desperate efforts to entertain and amaze have little substance behind them." Well, call me shallow, but I liked it, especially the soaring lobby with its cathedral like ceiling. Fox is kinder to I. M. Pei's JPMorgan ChaseTower (formerly Texas Commerce Tower), which he pegs as the "quintessential skyscraper in the polished gray granite suit." Still, I think someone on Pei's design team had a sense of humor: I took the elevator to the Sky Lobby, the tower's sixtieth-floor observation deck, and was drawn immediately to the floor-to-ceiling windows. I didn't notice the floor grates at the base of the windows, and when I stepped on them, they gave ever so slightly. The resulting sensation of falling, however infinitesimal, was more than a little thrilling. I recovered quickly, however, dazzled by the eye-popping panoramic view that showcases the green lawns and white clapboard buildings of Sam Houston Park, the elaborate Italian Renaissance crown of the Niels Esperson Building, the Astrodome lurking off to the southwest, and the city sprawling to the horizon.
WITH FOX'S BOOK ONCE AGAIN in tow, I set out on a scattershot architecture tour of Rice University. Lovett Hall, a reduced-fat Byzantine creation designed by Ralph Adams Cram in 1912 for the newly minted William Marsh Rice Institute, was my favorite for its graceful, breezy arched passageways and the playful details on the column capitals (a troll-like student reading a book and another running with a football). My feelings toward Anne and Charles Duncan Hall, designed by John Outram in 1996, were more ambivalent. Labeled ponderous, bombastic, and overbearing by Fox (now, don't hold back), the colorful building struck me as a cross between a multiplex theater and a well-funded children's museum. The ceiling of its colossal main hall is adorned with a computerized magnification of the chaotic psychedelic doodlings of the architect, titled The Birth of Consciousness . Where have you gone, Michelangelo?
RICHARD AND I HAD A TRANQUIL late lunch at Ling and Javier in the thoroughly modern Hotel Derek. We shared the Cuban-Chinese atmosphere with a table of two women—one of whom was the Maroon Carrot Queen, complete with tiara—who were fueling up for an afternoon photo shoot in the hotel. When we checked back later that night, the restaurant had morphed into a bar and you couldn't have wedged a carrot—maroon or otherwise—between the patrons, who were all youthfully stunning and stylish. The test for membership in this exclusive Sex-and-the-City-ish gathering? Whether you still look ravishing when bellied up to the 65-foot-long Plexiglas-topped bar that's lit from below.
SADLY, I'VE YET TO EXPERIENCE what Don Greene, the longtime owner of Whitewater Experience, calls the "ultimate escape from the city in the city": a canoe trip down Buffalo Bayou. Since the seventies Greene has been leading educational excursions on this "ribbon oasis," which runs from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to the Ship Channel, and he hasn't tired of it yet. He likes to sneak up on all the critters that live around the primordial waterway, like great blue herons, belted kingfishers, possums, raccoons, and even alligators. The colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that lives beneath the Waugh Drive bridge, Greene says, helps keep trips amazingly mosquito-free.