My Kind of Town

I’D BEMOAN THE LOSS OF the Baytown Tunnel, an icon of my childhood (on the drive through it, my sister and I kept our eyes shut and our feet off the floorboards to avoid misfortune), if its replacement, the Fred Hartman Bridge, weren’t such a marvel of engineering. A cable-span bridge with towering triangular supports, it looks like a giant mutant harp with canary-yellow strings. And I was awed by the view from it—the bays, the islands, the San Jacinto Monument, and the petrochemical wonderland of pipes, tanks, valves, steaming stacks, and flares extending across the coastal flatlands as far as the watering eye can see.

HOUSTON KNOWS THAT IT’S A BIG, bustling, messy city, and this knowledge has spawned a number of quiet hiding places. One of them is the well-known Rothko Chapel, which was built by John and Dominique de Menil in 1971. Granted, if you visit it on a searing, white-hot summer day maybe when your boss is rabid or world events are overwhelming—the cool, tomblike interior will probably knock double digits off your blood pressure. But as I sat on a monastic bench and contemplated the purple and black paintings by Mark Rothko, all I could think about was the artist’s suicide shortly after completing the works.

I LEFT THE ROTHKO FEELING serene but blue. I must not have had my fill of staring at rectangles, though, because that evening I visited the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in the Heights to view artist James Turrell’s Skyspace. Every Friday, during the hour surrounding sunset, the Quakers of Live Oak, reluctant but gracious curators of this joyous work, open their place of worship to visitors who come to gaze, silent and unblinking, at a hole in the room’s gently vaulted ceiling. Of course, this isn’t just any old hole in the roof. It’s a twelve-foot square that appears to have been cut in a paper-thin ceiling and is open to the sky. (Most of the time, it is covered by a retractable roof.) If not for the square’s slow transformation from pale blue to cobalt to midnight black and the occasional grackle or plane passing over, I would have sworn that it was simply painted there.

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