A pink gecko scuttles across a psychedelic digital landscape, deftly navigating a tangled maze of drifting butterflies, waddling alligators, and a pair of pensive whales passing below. Stepping on any creature will result in its explosive demise, yet simply navigating the trippy environment renders such destruction inevitable. This sort of high-tech super-nature is par for the course in Japanese art collective teamLab’s immersive exhibitions but a first for Helsinki, Finland—and Amos Rex, the new art museum hosting the group’s first show in the Nordic region. The five-year, $64-million Amos Rex project was carried out by local Finnish firm JKMM and supported largely by Konstsamfundet, the association behind the old Amos Rex Art Museum (RIP 1965–2017). The project involved both a $17-million facelift of Lasipalatsi, the "Glass Palace" built in central Helsinki in the 1930s by three Finnish architecture students for the 1940 Helsinki Olympics (which was postponed until 1952 due to the Second World War), as well as the construction of a new underground art museum particularly well-suited for new media and immersive installation art. Because Lasipalatsi was originally supposed to be temporary, its young designers received carte blanche, resulting in an ambitious Functionalist fun home that includes a cinema, restaurants, shops, and a backdoor public square surrounded by 19th-century neoclassical barracks. Almost destroyed in the 1980s but listed and restored in the 1990s when it reemerged with a glorious inner coat of pastels, the Glass Palace is a resilient building with a tumultuous past. JKMM have taken care to preserve much of this history, including its doors and windows, fitted furniture and movie seats, plus the first outdoor neon sign in Finland. The revitalized 550-seat art deco cinema and new film program will be the delight of many a cinephile, yet the most compelling aspect of Lasipalatsi—and where the old most energetically meets the new—is out back. Once the site of military parades, the historic public square has been transformed into a surreal lunar landscape, where a series of bulbous domes sporting large round windows now connects a veritable jungle gym of a plaza to an underground art hub. “I was sitting in a meeting a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly a man with a stroller appeared right outside the window of our second-floor office,” grins Timor Riitamaa, the head of communications and marketing at Amos Rex. “That was when I realized the park was open.” Positioned somewhere between alien topography and an ancient lifeform, the textured concrete playscape is a total hit in Helsinki. Sunbathers, selfie-snapping teens, Instagram influencers, romping children, and even daredevil parents can be seen ascending the five volcano-like protrusions to peer down into the subterranean art world below. Within the museum, sliding butts, squished noses and photography wars are now as common a view as the art, which unfurls in a columnless 24,000-square-foot gallery space. Building underground is never easy, and for JKMM it involved burrowing through nearly 140,000 square feet of hard bedrock found right underneath the city’s surface. Their approach was slow but steady—and went largely unnoticed. The square closed in 2015 so that the architects could carry out miniature controlled explosions, timed for every four minutes so the Helsinki Metro system could run undisturbed. It was a teeth-gritting exercise, but little of that angst can be felt from the ethereal white staircase connecting Lasipalatsi to the new museum lobby below. Descending the stairs, a generous view out onto the square framing Lasipalatsi’s old columns beside new sci-fi domes is swallowed up by a cloud of soft lighting. Designed by Finnish company Doctor Design, the textured ceiling of pleated fabric shades diffuses light through rows of flower-like pendants. Tightly bundled together in a way that floats between surrealism and Finnish National Romanticism, the lights are a clear nod to Lasipalatsi’s heritage. The ceiling flower field yields to two large tunnels ending in angled circular skylights that peer out onto the public plaza some 20 feet above. One offers a significant view out onto the staircase of the old theatre, while the second was framed by the tiny hands and faces of several miniature onlookers during my visit. Futuristic circular benches are positioned directly below, seemingly at the ready for sky-gazers. “We wanted the feeling of going underground to be as positive and light as possible,” says Kai Kartio, director of Amos Rex. “We had to go under, but our solution was to bring the museum upwards—you always have contact with daylight,” confirms Freja Stahlberg, the project architect. The extent of the sculptural skylights’ magnetic effect on the public square above was a delightful surprise for both architect and museum. Back below ground, Massless, the inaugural exhibition by teamLab, echoes the world-making imagination of the architects. Four immersive installations make full use of JKMM’s revolutionary modular museum layout, realized through an acoustic-disk ceiling made from perforated aluminum and a wooden gridded floor below which “data, air, and power all flow,” according to the architect. The museum’s high-tech fixtures meet their match in the 137 projectors, motion sensor technology, and eight miles of cables that make up teamLab’s digital multiverse. The exhibition consists of fan favorites like Graffiti Nature as well as Vortex of Light Particles, a site-specific piece that involves an inverted waterfall seemingly bent on sucking visitors into an Anish Kapoor-like black hole that inhabits the main domed ceiling. Vortex is clearly the stuff of tripping nerds’ dreams (it was a hit among Silicon Valley tech bros at Pace in Palo Alto), while its dark dreamscape subverts the light-filled expectations of Amos Rex, proving the museum’s versatility. “Virtual reality isolates you in a virtual space. We are trying to bring everyone back to a physical space,” said teamLab member Nonaka Kazumasa. While Massless uses digital technology to bring its viewers closer to nature and each other, Amos Rex performs the larger function of bringing untraditional art experiences to Helsinki’s public in a spatially-sensitive and cost-effective way. It is a cunning answer to the city's future urban development plan that prioritizes inner-city densification, but Amos Rex should also be seen as a testament to the merits of building deeper and the informal spaces for public play that can bubble up to the surface.
Search results for "metro"
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, has launched a new program to accommodate people with sensory sensitivities. Starting August 24, the museum will offer visitors free kits with a variety of equipment that they can use throughout their visit. According to Cleveland Scene, the kits include "noise-dampening headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards, weighted lap pads, and other resources." The Hall of Fame joins a variety of institutions that have taken similar steps toward inclusivity in recent years. Smithsonian reported earlier this year on a variety of D.C. museums that have tried to become more sensory friendly by opening early for quiet hours or by creating dimly-lit spaces that visitors can retreat to should they become overwhelmed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City offers a sensory friendly guide that highlights spaces that tend to be quiet and dimly lit along with spaces that are often loud and crowded. Autism Friendly Spaces, a New York–based nonprofit whose mission is to "unlock minds and transform spaces to welcome the full participation of the autism community," says that sensory friendly spaces adjust "the auditory, visual, and olfactory stimulation to levels acceptable for the population that will be experiencing it." People with autism spectrum disorder may be "more or less sensitive than other people to sensory input, such as light, noise, clothing, or temperature," according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For museums like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sensory sensitivity poses a real challenge because many shows are designed to stimulate a variety of senses at once. As Smithsonian noted, exhibition design has trended toward multisensory experiences that are more than purely visual displays. The sensitivity kits offer a variety of tools that can either dampen sensory input or offer coping mechanisms, like the fidget tools or weighted lap pads, and they are one way in which museum design is tackling inclusivity and accessibility more broadly.
The Boring Company has released yet another underground transit proposal for Los Angeles. Wednesday night, embattled Boring Company CEO Elon Musk announced the so-called Dugout Loop, a proposed “zero-emissions, high-speed, underground public transportation system” that could potentially ferry passengers between the Red Line subway and Dodgers Stadium. The company released a series of possible proposals, with variations on route length and station origination point. The ultimate aim of the proposal is to improve travel times between the East Hollywood, Los Feliz, and Rampart Village neighborhoods and the stadium, which is roughly 3.6-miles away. Boring Company estimates that the proposed loop would be able to complete a one-way trip in roughly four minutes and carry between 1,400 and 2,800 passengers per day, roughly the same number as are currently transported by the express Metro buses that currently operate between the stadium and Union Station using dedicated bus lanes. Here’s the hitch: Unlike conventional transportation systems that convey passengers in both directions simultaneously, Musk’s link would only be able to operate in one direction at a time. The limiting arrangement is a result of the small diameter tunnel that is being proposed for the route, similar to that of other Boring Company tunnels proposed for western Los Angeles and Chicago. The proposal comes after a week of questionable business decisions and erratic tweetstorms from Musk, and as L.A.’s Metro makes plans to embrace a proposed $125 million gondola system connecting the Union Station in Downtown L.A. with the stadium. Backers for the gondola plan include former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt; Estimates for the transit link indicate the gondolas could ferry as many as 5,000 passengers per hour, with traffic moving in both directions simultaneously. Musk recently drew criticism and accusations of project “segmenting” for bypassing environmental review as the Boring Company attempts to move forward with a portion of a proposed Hyperloop route through L.A.’s Westside neighborhoods. Neighborhood groups outraged by the effort successfully sued to block the project. The proposal also comes as the Boring Company faces legal challenges for a similarly-vague proposal issued for Chicago that would link the city with O’Hare Airport.
Off the Rails
New York’s subway temperatures surge past 100 degrees
A study released by the nonprofit Regional Plan Association (RPA) last week found that temperatures in New York City’s busiest subway stations are soaring and that the average temperatures hover around 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Although temperatures climbed past 104 degrees at the Union Square station on 14th Street, solutions are stymied by the design of each station, aging infrastructure, and the trains themselves. The RPA surveyed 10 of the busiest stations in New York and found that the sweltering temperatures were exacerbated by the heatwaves that much of New York (and the world) have been experiencing this summer. The constantly late trains aren’t helping commuters either, as passengers have been forced to wait for longer periods of time on the platforms. Why exactly are these stations so hot? As the Village Voice explains, the city’s busiest stations are often its oldest and their design precludes centralized climate control; this is also the official reason given by the MTA. The trains themselves output a large amount of heat as well, both through their air conditioners as well as braking. Each full train weighs around 350 to 450 tons depending on the make and length, and the kinetic energy required to brake is converted to heat when a train stops at a station. The hottest stations surveyed were where trains idled the longest. The Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop in Tribeca was unsurprisingly featured as well, as the 6 train makes its last stop there then idles before departing on its uptown route. When WNYC surveyed 103 of New York’s stations during the July 2015 heatwave, the Brooklyn Bridge stop clocked in at 107 degrees. For its part, the MTA has pledged to keep the trains running more efficiently to reduce the time passengers have to wait on these overheated platforms. While the MTA tests new communication and signal technologies that could improve wait times and braking efficiency, New York City Transit Authority President Andy Byford has pledged that most of the subway system will use communications-based train control by 2030. Still, as the climate warms, these types of heat waves are only going to become more common, and the fixes required to keep the city’s subway stations tolerable are solutions that will require long-term investments on par with the MTA's other sustainability initiatives.
Los Angeles County’s transit system is poised to become the first in the country to deploy airport-style security measures to screen its passengers. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is rolling out new portable body scanners that can be deployed in response to terrorist threats and during large crowd events like protests and sporting matches in an effort to thwart potential “mass casualty” attacks. The scanners can be used to screen passengers using radio waves from up to 30 feet away and are designed with an integrated split-screen display that produces a black square over the part of a person’s body where a gun or non-metallic explosive device might be located. Metro currently operates 93 subway and light-rail stations—with many more on the way—and has plans to utilize the mobile devices as necessary across its system. Officials at Metro explained that areas where passengers might be subject to body scanning will be clearly labeled in each station with signs that read: “Passengers proceeding past this point are subject to Metro security screening and inspection.” Plans call for making “randomized” scans of passengers traveling within these zones. Officials at a press conference announcing the plan explained, however, that passengers seeking to opt out of the possibility of being scanned will not be allowed to ride transit from that station. The scanners can process roughly 2,000 passengers per hour, according to Dave Sotero, spokesperson for Metro. The figure is an improvement over previous technologies, The Times reports, but likely to fall short of what would be required to process crowds efficiently during rush hour or large scale events. Recent protests in Downtown Los Angeles, for example, have drawn hundreds of thousands of people at a time and have snarled Metro service even without the scanners in place.
Super States, Assemble
The Center for Architecture’s latest show imagines the future of the New York region
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Regional Plan Association (RPA) released its Fourth Regional Plan back in 2017, a 400-page prescription for a variety of problems facing the Tri-State New York metropolitan area. Now through November 3, visitors to the Center for Architecture can explore the RPA’s plans for increasing housing affordability, improving the region’s overburdened public transit, and addressing climate change by 2040. The Future of the New York Metropolitan Region: The Fourth Regional Plan exhibition at the Center breaks down The Fourth Regional Plan into four typologies: core urban areas, suburbs, local downtowns, and regional green spaces. Each section is further broken down to address affordability issues, the failure of policymakers to address problems in those regions, how climate change will impact each area, and how to best improve mass transportation. Both the problems themselves, as well as the RPA’s proposed solutions, are on display. The Four Corridors, an RPA-commissioned initiative that tasked four different architectural firms with reimagining different “corridors” throughout the region, is also on display at The Fourth Regional Plan. Rafi A+U + DLANDstudio proposed a “landscape economic zone” to protect the area’s coastal regions from flooding—a softer, living take on the traditional seawall; Only If + One Architecture proposed creating the Triboro Corridor, an accessible route from Brooklyn to Queens to the Bronx; WORKac wants to turn the Tri-State suburbs into denser, greener versions of themselves and create easy access between smaller towns; and PORT + Range proposed reinvigorating the area’s highlands into ecological buffers with varied natural ecosystems. “RPA’s Fourth Plan is a blueprint for creating a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable region, one with more affordable housing, better and expanded public transit, and a closer connection with nature," said RPA Executive Vice President Juliette Michaelson. "This exhibit provides an opportunity for New Yorkers and regional visitors to explore the Fourth Plan and imagine what our future could look like if we are bold enough to reach for it." Other than the show itself, the Center will host two accompanying programs. Creating More Housing without New Construction will take place on September 14 from 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM, and Designing the Future of the Tri-State Region will be held on October 29 from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM.
John S. Chase, trailblazing Texas architect, celebrated in two exhibits
John Saunders Chase, FAIA (1925–2012) was a Houston architect who realized a large body of work in the city, throughout the state of Texas, and around the United States. At its peak, his office had nearly fifty employees in four cities: Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Washington, D.C. Chase, an African American in a profession that has struggled with diversity and discrimination, achieved many historic firsts during his career. His life, as seen via his personal and professional achievements and the work of younger architects who passed through his office, was on display this spring in Chasing Perfection, a two-part exhibit produced by the Houston Public Library. Born in Maryland, John Chase moved to Austin in the late 1940s after receiving initial architectural training at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and serving in the Army during World War II. He applied to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) School of Architecture after the Sweatt v. Painter Supreme Court decision in 1950 that fought the “separate but equal” policy of racial segregation in college education. After graduation, no firm would hire him, so Chase established his own practice in Houston, and in 1956, he became the first African American architect to be licensed in the state. Throughout his career, he designed churches, homes, union halls, libraries, high schools, fire stations, and institutional buildings, including much of the campus of Texas Southern University. He was a founding member of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) in 1970 and received his AIA Fellowship award in 1977. In 1980, Chase was selected by President Jimmy Carter to join the Commission of Fine Arts and was part of that committee during the contentious process of realizing Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. He was the first African American to serve on this commission. During the 1980s, his office was part of a consortium of local architects responsible for the design of the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Chase is survived by his wife, Drucie, and their three adult children. According to Danielle Wilson, the exhibition’s curator, discussions about the show began in 2009 with Chase’s participation. At that time, his architectural archive had been donated to the Houston Metropolitan Research Center’s Architectural Archives, and his personal archive was in the process of being donated to the African American Library at the Gregory School. Wilson’s father grew up next to the Chases in Houston, so she was familiar with the family and immediately knew that she wanted to work on a show about the architect when she joined the staff of the Gregory School. After Chase passed away, it took a number of years to assemble the parts for this successful exhibition. On the second floor of the Julia Ideson Building in downtown Houston, letters, photographs, and artifacts were installed alongside photographs of built work, architectural drawings, and hand-drawn renderings. Seen together, Chase’s life and work could be understood through the staging of these personal and professional artifacts, sequenced together to tell a holistic life story. Wilson said, “When I think about architects and their work, everything goes all together. I think it’s great when you have that context of both. I think it makes works more powerful.” The room also included a large–scale model and drawings of the George R. Brown Convention Center mounted on a drafting table. At the Gregory School, the work of four architects who worked with Chase is on display and demonstrates the effect his mentorship had on a subsequent generation of African American architects. “When I was focusing on his work and life, it was hard to tell a comprehensive narrative without talking about these men,” Wilson said. Daniel Bankhead, AIA; Darrell Fitzgerald, FAIA; James Harrison; and Wilbert Taylor all worked at various points with Chase and went on to become professional and community leaders themselves. In February, the library hosted a discussion between these architects, in addition to a conversation with Mrs. Chase and her children. Chasing Perfection offered a powerful portrait of a 20th–century American architect through Chase’s life, work, and impact on the profession. Wall text for the exhibit was excerpted from a manuscript titled The Life and Work of Architect John Saunders Chase: You Can Do More from the Inside, by architectural historian Dr. Wesley Henderson with Andrea Lazar. Both worked for two years to conduct interviews with family members, colleagues, and former employees of John Chase. Henderson and Lazar believe that Chase’s life story deserves to be more widely known since very few biographies of successful black architects have been published. They were very pleased to be able to contribute to the show at the Houston Public Library. Chase’s legacy continues to be explored and celebrated. In February, UT Austin announced that it had purchased one of Chase’s early buildings in east Austin to renovate and use as a community engagement center. While Chasing Perfection closed in early June, Wilson says there are already discussions underway about touring the show at other institutions. She also said a brochure from Chase’s firm and drawing supplies from his office were recently acquired by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. Wilson added that she and Mrs. Chase are “going to go through his personal archives to see what materials might go to the NMAAHC, and the rest will be housed at the African American Library at the Gregory School.” Chase is an important figure among the talented architects who practiced in Houston during the second half of the 20th century. His career opened the door for many architects of color to enter the profession, and he serves as an example of the countless ways in which an architect can effect positive change in the world.
Chasing Perfection: The Work and Life of Architect John S. Chase Houston Public Library Julia Ideson Building
Chasing Perfection: The Legacy of Architect John S. Chase The African American Library at the Gregory School
Escape from New York
Jail tower proposed by New York City officials
As part of the plan to close Rikers Island by redistributing inmates to smaller jails across four of the five boroughs, the Daily News reports that city officials are looking to build a 40-story jail tower at 80 Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. Perkins Eastman, along with 17 subcontractors, has been tapped to redesign the smaller community-oriented jails in each borough and orient the new developments toward a rehabilitative model. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office had released a list of preferred community-chosen locations in each borough back in February, but ran into opposition with their sites in the Bronx. Now the plan for the Manhattan location appears to have changed as well, as the city is looking to top the nine-story 80 Centre Street with a jail tower that could contain affordable housing. The initial location in Manhattan, an expansion of the Manhattan Detention Complex at 125 White Street, was deemed infeasible for the number of inmates that would need to be housed. Rikers currently houses 9,000 inmates, but the city is hoping to cut that number to 5,000 through bail and sentencing reform and distribute the population throughout the new sites. Closing the jail has been the goal of vocal activists for whom the facility embodies gross abuses of the criminal justice system. Mayor de Blasio has recently come to support the push for closure. If the jail tower moves forward–80 Centre St. is one of two sites under consideration–the 700,000-square-foot Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building would be gutted and the preserved facade would serve as the tower's base. The granite, art deco building is currently home to the marriage bureau, and was completed in 1930 and designed by William Haugaard; according to the city’s official building description, Haugaard kept the building squat to avoid casting shadows on the nearby courthouses and Foley Square. The jail’s vertical shape would mean that men and women would need to be separated on different floors, as would the hospital area, outdoor space, recreation areas, and classrooms. AN will follow this story up as more details become available.
Initial notes on Houston after theory
1 We landed in Houston two weeks before the storm. For newcomers to Texas, Hurricane Harvey provided a terrifying crash course in the geography and hydrology of the city, its micro-differences in topography and macro-differences in resources across the city’s communities. We were told that after the water receded, nothing would be the same, that the magnitude and destruction of the storm would simply be too hard to ignore. Yet less than a year later, as rebuilding continues on the verge of another hurricane season, it is hard to see how much—if anything—has changed for the better. Money was spent reconstructing homes on their original sites, and large-scale infrastructures that were designed to flood, like Buffalo Bayou Park, have performed admirably well as examples for designing resilient landscapes in Houston and elsewhere. A slew of well-intentioned policy reports were issued in the wake of Harvey, many reiterating similar proposals that preceded the storm, seemingly to little avail. The heuristic measures of the so-called 500-year event were questioned in light of a new reality in which such mega-storms will now be separated by years, not centuries. And then the city went back, it seems, to the combination of development and dread that has apparently become the new normal. 2 I came to Houston expecting to tap into a rich body of urban writing from the late 1970s to the 2000s that placed the city firmly at the center of broader attempts to theorize the contemporary metropolis. These formed part of what Joel Warren Barna described as “a long American tradition of minority reports” in which the social, political, economic, and psychological dimensions of architecture and the city were probed. Houston’s horizontal field provided an ideal environment for such speculations. For Joe Feagin, it offered the example par excellence of the “free enterprise city,” a case study of the unceasing urban transformations wrought by capitalist development unburdened by zoning. For Doug Milburn, Houston was “the last American city,” characterized by its ever-unfinished status as process rather than product. For Lars Lerup, its diffuse ecology of mega-shapes and micro-stimuli heralded the demise of the traditional city: a fluid condition of natural and artificial strata, a metastasizing field of events and affects punctuated by moments of stim and dross. At its peak, metropolitan Houston served as a radical testing ground for new ways of understanding the relentless permutations of 20th-century urbanism at large. Far from finding new extensions of these threads of writing the metropolis, probing their limits, or harnessing their potential for new speculations, instead, I encountered a city that seemed to have little nostalgia not just for its architecture, but also for its own prior theorizations. While cities like New York and Los Angeles capitalize on the major authors of their urban histories, Houston, by comparison, has largely fallen out of the center of contemporary discussions of urbanism and its possible futures. The most significant attempts to characterize Houston ultimately left a shrinking footprint on the contemporary urban scene, perhaps condemned by their avoidance of fixed definitions in relation to a metropolis endlessly in becoming. 3 Perhaps the major characteristic of Houston in the age of its most provocative theorizations was its lateness. An economy centered on petro-capital meant that its cycles of boom and bust happened a full decade out of step with urban development elsewhere in the U.S., with its peak following the spike in crude oil prices in the 1970s at the same time that the rest of the nation suffered from a deep recession. The city was similarly subject to the end of the oil boom in dramatic fashion, as plans to build the world’s tallest tower in Houston ran aground as prices crashed after 1983. The city’s authors reinforced the sense of Houston as late: for Milburn, the “last” truly American city in its combination of frenetic pace and untimely development; for Lerup, a model for what comes “after” the conventional city. Inevitably, Houston became a capital of late modernism and its manifestations. These included lapidary icons of petro-development, like the faceted, symmetrical towers of Pennzoil Place (Johnson/Burgee, 1976), along with local masterpieces like Four Allen Center (Lloyd, Morgan & Jones, 1984), which MoMA curator Arthur Drexler praised as “absolutely staggering” in its mirrored-glass effects. Houston’s later corporate development encapsulated its seamless, stylistic transition to postmodernism in buildings often designed by the same architects, like Johnson/Burgee’s RepublicBank Center of 1984, just across the street from Pennzoil Place. Houston’s theorizations provided valuable frameworks for understanding these economic and aesthetic cycles together, from the city’s boom to the period that Joel Warren Barna called the “see-through years” in homage to the hollow, abandoned development projects that littered the city’s landscape in the 1980s, begun a decade too late. 4 Houston has emerged as ground zero for what architecture and the city have become—for good or evil—in the midst of our national politics. The genuine multiculturalism of the country’s fourth-largest city—its greatest resource—offers conflicting signals with regard to architecture’s complicity with, or resistance to, the rise of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism in the U.S. This year provided welcome news of an international competition to design the country’s first official Ismaili Center, sponsored by the Aga Khan, with the hope of producing a distinguished building worthy of serving the nation’s largest community of Ismaili Muslims. Emancipation Park, established in 1872 as the first municipal park for African Americans in a segregated Houston—but long fallen into disrepair since the 1970s amid the decline of the historically underserved Third Ward—reopened last year to much fanfare following an extensive program of renovation and new construction by a team of designers led by Phil Freelon. Such initiatives are tempered by the news that Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit, plans to repurpose a warehouse near Houston’s downtown—which previously housed families displaced by Harvey—as a detention center for “tender age” immigrant children under the age of 12 who were forcibly separated from their parents by ICE. Meanwhile, the first federal contract for an immigrant detention center under the Trump administration was awarded in April 2017 to GEO Group, a private prison company, to build a $110 million, 1,000-bed facility in Conroe, a city just north of Houston. Such cruelties underscore the presence of the vast prison-industrial complex that underlies much of the financial landscape of the city’s politics, in parallel with the multinational conglomerates centered here—such as Halliburton—that have tied the city’s petrochemical industries to the construction of military detention facilities abroad. 5 What lessons can we learn from Houston today, from its dissonant combination of the hopeful and the horrifying amidst the city’s current urban transformations? How can new thinking emerge from the multiculturalism of an expanding city? Perhaps Houston’s lateness can be redeployed in its favor: While it may be behind the beat in offering responses to climate change, urban development, and cultural conflict, Houston’s apparent condition of being out-of-time can be reclaimed as a mode of resistance, a slowness in relation to contemporary politics. In this context, what can we do differently, and what must we think anew? For one, future criticism and speculation on the city will have to become more intersectional, no longer centered around a dominant—white, male—set of voices. (Look again at the list of authors on the previous page.) New ideas will have to come from beyond the domain of the academy, from the full spectrum of actors, interests, and constituencies that together represent Houston’s enviable diversity. The way forward might be indicated by the remarkable success of Project Row Houses, established in 1994 by artist Rick Lowe as a residency program for artists, architects, and writers—primarily women and people of color—to create and exhibit work in a series of restored shotgun houses in the Third Ward. The project’s model, based on a commitment to public art and an alternative model of community development—one that includes dedicated residences for young, single mothers—offers a true praxis for how cultural identity and community work can intersect in rethinking and remaking the city. Another lesson in joint urban practice can be found in the recently announced initiative by the University of Houston and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to create a partnership focused on Latino and Latin American art and culture. In seeking to connect students to the culture and heritage of Latino communities that make up some 43 percent of the urban population, this initiative suggests how architecture and design can respond more fully to a deeply multicultural city. Such examples offer the hope of a new Houston urbanism to come, one that expands the range of those who can participate in interpreting its transformations and reclaiming its prior theorizations toward new, untimely, and more humane futures.
Car Capping Critics
New York City might limit the number of drivers using ride-hailing apps
Last week, the New York Times reported that New York City officials are “moving to cap the number of vehicles driving for Uber and other ride-hailing services,” amid concerns over congestion, the exploitation of drivers' wages, and the livelihood of the city’s iconic yellow cab drivers. If passed, the legislation would make New York the first major American city to limit the number of for-hire vehicles. A recent report by Schaller Consulting titled The New Automobility: Lyft, Uber and the Future of American Cities suggests that shared ride services such as UberPOOL and Lyft “while touted as reducing traffic, in fact add mileage to city streets.” They are reported to increase congestion on city streets by up to 160 percent. The Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) in total added 5.7 billion miles of driving in the nation’s nine largest metro areas. The rivalry between taxi and Uber drivers has pushed down the price of riding in the city, and there are increasing concerns over the dwindling wages of Uber drivers and the estimated 70,000 app drivers who earn less than the minimum wage. TNCs are known to recruit more drivers than needed to minimize their customers’ wait time. Taxi drivers aren't faring much better; as customers have flocked to app-based rides, drivers have felt the weight economically. Since December, six taxi drivers have committed suicide over their failing businesses. As the city debates the merit and harms being done by app-based car companies, the cap had been suggested by the City Council as a potential solution to these problems. However, the cap may not work as intended. As Streetsblog NYC theorizes, “an Uber ceiling will encourage permit-holders to rent their idle vehicles to other drives who want in.” It is believed that the cap could further dilute driver earnings. Uber and Lyft recently offer an alternative by proposing to create a $100 million fund for the medallion drivers in exchange for doing away with the cap. The Verge reported on the “hardship fund,” which was “summarily rejected” by the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. The TNCs are expected to continue to scramble to rally against the bill. The City Council will vote on it next week.
Spike, Shake, and Serve
Can a volleyball bar change Houston?
Houston is a city that revels in the intersection of event and space—it certainly has an abundance of both. Adjacent to one of Houston’s meandering and often overflowing bayous in what was once an empty lot turned parking lot, Sideout Volleybar responds to the city's social pressures and urban conditions. This volleyball social club opened in the Northside neighborhood in June 2017 and combines casual sports, bright lights, and beer. AN contributor Jack Murphy and I decided to do a bit of participant observation on a recent Wednesday and headed over for burgers and beer. Sideout has three courts lined on two sides by a covered observation porch along with a bar house, a bean bag toss court, a dog area, and a food truck parked outside. “It’s like an athletic Ice House,” Jack observed, referring to the open-air beer joints that have long dotted the city. The comparison to the classic Houston outdoor bar is apt in that everything feels so provisional, as if the wood-framed decks could quickly be dismantled and the carpet of sand rolled up if business got too slow. The bar itself is not much more than a converted bungalow with a slab of wood in the space once occupied by the living room sofa. There was an effort to cover every surface with some choice of bright yellow, millennial pink, or a color I can only describe as greenish. The lighting is simply the parking lot pylons poking out of the sandy courts, which were installed on top of the parking lot surface, like a Houston version of “Sous les pavés, la plage!” This particular evening was both a trivia night and a league night, so the jarring patter of trivia questions layered over the chatter of various teams on the courts, all atop the soundtrack of greatest hits from the early 1990’s. The music of 311 was on heavy rotation. It was a ball. Sideout is a bar for beach volleyball and this seemed simple enough. The venue calls itself a “volleybar,” but the place is alive with activity: What we discovered was a veritable volleybar ball. “I think we are in the 1 percent of people not wearing an obnoxious league shirt,” Jack comments. The team players wear generic loose-fitting league T-shirts, distributed by Houston Sports & Social Club. For expediency, the graphics on every shirt are the same, so the 20-odd teams are differentiated by a range of colors that evokes a middle-school summer day camp. What is illustrative to the architect in this situation is that what is happening is really an event-based urban choreography. Houston is a city of unparalleled diversity with very few circumstances that allow for the public to appear together—but here, people come in droves. By our rough count, there must have been nearly 200 players at any given time in the complex: trivia sharks, volleyball players, dog-walkers, and even a few just plain barflies. I can’t help but imagine the league T-shirts as some type of Situationist uniform à la Constant’s Homo Ludens. Will Thomas, one of Sideout’s owners and a local musician, cited many of the Tex-Mex establishments of his youth and their “organic informality” as his inspiration for the place. Thomas is a partner in W2 Development, a company responsible for many of the recent commercial developments in the neighborhood. Nearby, there is a new metro light rail stop, the White Oak Music Hall, designed by Schaum/Shieh, a dramatic bridge over a river (a bayou, upscaled), and a hike and bike trail in the works, all set in a loose assemblage that doesn’t quite amount to an urban system until you see it activated through its events. Whether it’s an outdoor concert, a cinema screening, or, of course, league night at the Volleybar, each time you visit, you might find yourself in what feels like a different city. If you don’t mind the sartorial constraints of the league T-shirt and would enjoy the feeling of standing at the center of a sociality you can’t quite perceive the edges of, then come over to the Sideout Volleybar. If bumping, setting, or spiking isn’t your thing, then at least you will find a unique place to imbibe and watch the sun set against the Houston skyline.
How the Rio Grande came to separate the U.S. and Mexico
This article is the fourth in a series that originally appeared in AN's July/August 2018 issue which focuses exclusively on Texas and was guest edited by AGENCY. The rest of the essays will be released in the coming days and examine architecture and practice across the southern border of the United States. In the border metropolis of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, the power relations of international negotiation are not only performed through the apparatus of control over the movement of bodies, but are also embodied in a concrete architecture that exposes the calculus of separation and asymmetrical infrastructural development between the two countries. In the borderland, the control of water—as territory, commodity, and reproductive agent—produces its physical spaces. While the shared waters of the river and the underground aquifers contribute to the reproductive capacity of land within the desert climate, the infrastructures of water supply and sanitation are material evidence of the socio-spatial injustices and imbalances that structure and reproduce social relations within the border cities. Negotiation The geopolitical history of the river as a border and of the partitioning of its waters is inscribed within the built environment as a thick constructed zone. The international border between the United States and Mexico was defined by the 1848 and 1884 Treaties, which delineated that the border follow the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo del Norte) from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. This rendered the border an unstable condition, as its line needed to be redefined by the International Boundary Commission each time floods caused the river to relocate. A treaty in 1933 attempted to “fix” the river by engineering it into a constructed channel. However, this location left several hundred acres of disputed Mexican territory to the north of the river—the result of a violent change in course in 1864. The 1963 Chamizal Agreement relocated the river and the international boundary once again, moving the Rio Grande back to its 1852 survey location. In this highly publicized moment of international diplomacy, the disputed land was “returned” to Mexico, and a new channel was constructed to reroute the Rio Grande north so that both river and international border aligned. The division between the two countries was now emphasized, further asserted by the open lands of the former riverbed on the Juárez side and a new elevated border highway on the U.S. side of the channel. Management The colonization of the U.S. would not have been possible without the massive campaign of dam projects in the early 20th century that commodified the waters of the West and irrigated the farms and settlements of homesteaders. Four dams manage and distribute the Rio Grande waters in the El Paso-Juárez region: Elephant Butte, Caballo, American Diversion, and the International Diversion Dam. Water is distributed according to the 1944 Water Treaty, drawn up when the population of Juárez was less than one-tenth its current size. In 1965, the binational Border Industrialization Program enabled maquiladoras, foreign-owned manufacturing plants, to be located within Mexico’s border zones, and to move materials and products with reduced tariffs and trade barriers. This propelled an influx of new residents who arrived to work in the Juárez border zone maquilas. The treaty, which retains the majority of the river water in the U.S., has not been revised since and contains no provisions for sharing the rapidly depleting Mesilla and Hueco Bolson aquifer waters, which traverse the binational region underground. The division of the river water produces politically charged urban spaces. The U.S. Franklin Canal materializes as a physical barrier within the U.S. border zone, flowing deeply and rapidly in a concrete channel alongside the Rio Grande. In Juárez, the diverted water flows along the Acequia Madre, which takes a diagonal course, traversing some of the city’s main public spaces. This once green irrigation channel and common space is now largely neglected and has deteriorated into a toxic line of sewage and trash. Biopolitics Water is not only scarce in the desert city of Juárez—it is also dangerous. The paper worlds of politics materialize as realities on the ground and in the tissues of bodies. Due to the explosive population growth of Juárez, large portions of the city have been rapidly and often informally constructed, typically without proper municipal sewage or drinking water services. The residents of these informal settlements, known as colonias, rely primarily on truck-supplied water, which has a much higher likelihood of being contaminated and results in high rates of water-borne diseases. Only about a third of the city’s sewage is actually treated. Some colonias have additionally encroached on the city’s drainage gullies and arroyos, putting residents at further risk during flash flood events. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly “explicitly recognized the right to clean drinking water and sanitation as essential to the realization of all human rights.” If this mandate is taken seriously by the binational region of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, new treaties and agreements will need to be negotiated that address not only the scarcity and distribution of its shared waters, but also the shared responsibility of water rights to citizens on both sides of the border. What remains to be seen is not only what shape these take in terms of political agreements, but also how they will reshape the physical urban spaces of the paired cities.