When it comes to notable architecture in Texas, it would seem strange to place San Antonio on par with Houston or Dallas. As the second-largest city in the state, San Antonio seems to only mimic the kind of architectural largesse seen in those cities. There are plenty of jewel-like late modern skyscrapers and austere civic buildings by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Caudill Rowlett Scott, and Marmon Mok in the city, but these are not the kinds of projects one would mention in the same breath as Houston landmarks like Johnson/Burgee’s Pennzoil Place and Williams Tower, Renzo Piano’s sublime Menil Collection, or Fort Worth's iconic Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn. A selective itinerary of San Antonio’s past and future architectural projects reveals a steady commitment to buildings with bold, expressive forms that reference the city’s unique environment, history, and culture. Alamo City warmed up to these compelling architectural additions as it expanded during the late 1940s and early ’50s, and became a home to energy and utility companies during the 1970s and ’80s. Funded by philanthropic organizations and influxes of oil cash, many of these buildings are now hidden by giant, swooping highway overpasses, corporate plazas, and other developer-driven projects. Despite the earlier innovative and controversial projects, San Antonio remains overlooked. This will soon change. Newly appointed mayor Ronald Nirenberg has re-energized discussions about creating new housing, battling gentrification, and committing to more public art. This will certainly place a spotlight on San Antonio’s rich architectural offerings while reminding us of how these and other past projects have embodied this city’s distinctive topography, Latino heritage, and dry, arid environment. Emilio Ambasz’s Lucile Halsell Conservatory, completed in 1988 at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, is a good starting point. Located on the city’s northeast side, Ambasz’s scheme took advantage of the sunken site with a series of prismlike canopies that appear to rise out of the bermed earth like upturned shards of glass. Each canopy creates its own kind of climate and features particular plant ecologies—architecture designed, as Paul Goldberger observed in 1987, for the interaction between plants and humans. The project is notable for its combination of building, landscape, and infrastructure into a seamless whole. The Lucile Halsell Conservatory accommodated some very particular environmental and topographical conditions, and did so with a formal and technological expressiveness unlike anything that had been built in San Antonio. Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta’s San Antonio Central Library, completed in 1995, continues in this vein. Here, cubic volumes are stacked at various angles, creating a series of triangular-shaped courtyards intended to be outdoor reading rooms. Legorreta’s debt to Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s minimalist polychromy is clear. Working with the painter Mathias Goéritz, Barragán created spaces framed by walls and surfaces doused in highly saturated reds, blues, yellows, oranges, magentas, and pinks. At his Central Library, Legorreta appears to invert Barragán with a simple, playful interplay of volumes that seem to be wrought from its own color palette as well. The reddish-brown colored cubes appear gutted in some places, revealing inner planes of yellow, blue, and purple. When viewed from the air, the Central Library appears otherworldly, framing circular plazas made from grass and limestone and located on a triangular-shaped site near the geographical center of the city, as if something from another time had arrived here. That a Mexican architect was chosen for this project is important. As the seventh-largest city in the United States, San Antonio has one of the biggest Spanish-speaking populations. Over 62 percent of its residents are of Latino origin. The appeal of Legorreta’s Central Library stemmed as much from the need for more public libraries as it did from the desire to reflect the city’s heritage. Though this was the first building in San Antonio designed specifically to reflect the city’s Mexican-American heritage, there are older buildings that expressed the cultural richness so important to the city. The Alamo and the four Spanish Missions (recently designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites) all combine Spanish and Catholic influences while referring to the rituals and structures of indigenous peoples. This is to say that San Antonio’s architecture continues to find a way to embody its venerable cultural geography. It also incorporates its distinct environmental geography. San Antonio is a city hewn from mesquite-dappled hills, limestone quarries, and deep-set aquifers. Lake|Flato continues to be the standard-bearer among the city’s firms for a kind of tectonic and environmental sensitivity that is immediately recognizable for its ingenious references to these conditions. Imagine a version of John Lautner’s spacious geometric forms where large cornices made from corrugated metal peer over meticulous compositions of glass, limestone, slats, and brise-soleil made from local woods, all culminating in views that privilege the rolling, arid mesquite and persimmon landscapes of the Texas Hill Country. This would not do justice to Lake|Flato’s work, but perhaps it is as close as we can get to a kind of South Texas regionalism. Yet some of Lake|Flato’s current work points to something altogether different. Their recently completed pavilion at Confluence Park designed in collaboration with Matsys connects the joining of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, to nearby Mission Concepción, an 18th-century basilica. This is a highly-charged site in predominantly Spanish-speaking South San Antonio. The most visually arresting parts of Lake|Flato’s project are the concrete “petals” that reference the local flora while reminding the most architecturally astute observer of Spanish-born Mexican engineer Felix Candela’s sweeping hyperboloid structures, like Los Manantiales Restaurant (1958) in Mexico City’s Xochimilco Park, or the Chapel Lomas de Cuernavaca (also 1958) in Cuernavaca. Confluence Park is also part of the larger San Pedro Creek Cultural Park. This scheme is projected to transform a once-neglected 2.2-mile-long drainage spur into a cultural attraction with water features, public art, and areas dedicated to the preservation of local grasses and wildlife. In a nod to its aspirations, lead architect Henry R. Muñoz and others have embraced this project’s more common nickname—the “Latino High Line”—which may say more about Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Field Operation’s celebrated scheme than the actual goal of the project, which is to create a version of the Riverwalk devoid of its tourist traffic while celebrating Latino heritage. Urban designers are finding new ways to move San Antonio forward while referring to curious artifacts from the history of American cities. Architect Antonio Petrov, who teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the founder of Urban Future Lab, is one of the most outspoken voices when it comes to redevelopment in the city. He is a proponent of bringing back skyrides, which were already used during HemisFair ’68 as a means of connecting the city’s downtown with San Antonio International Airport. Petrov’s proposal, though evocative of pie-in-the-sky urban transportation schemes, is to be taken seriously. Similar proposals were actually in use at the 1932 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago as well as in Disneyland and Disney World (which were, in a sense, attempts to envision cities of the future.) Other schemes, though funded by corporate dollars and serious placemaking advocacy firms, are barely more pragmatic in their approach. A case in point is the proposed Alamo Plaza Redevelopment. Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership authored one of the first master plans, a scheme that caused controversy when it called for relocating many of the businesses surrounding the Alamo and converting them to privately run cultural attractions. Current versions of the plan have done little to improve on the previous proposal. For example, the recent Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan—spearheaded by St. Louis–based “placemaking” firm Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets; the heritage consulting firm Cultural Innovations; and landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand—still hinges on the creation of a pedestrian-friendly “Alamo District” designed to turn this historically charged site into an open-air museum. A previous scheme took this idea a step further by encircling the Alamo with a glass wall, as if preserving this architectural artifact in a kind of amber. There are plenty of other projects that are reenergizing the architectural scene in San Antonio. The city is in a bit of a gut-rehab frenzy, as landmarks like the Pearl and Lone Star Breweries have been renovated as pricey hotels and higher-end restaurants, all with the end goal of molding San Antonio into a destination for design-savvy millennials with money to burn, in hopes they will ditch an Airbnb in the picturesque King William District in favor of the Hotel Emma’s posh industrial-chic. It is in this milieu that Adjaye Associates’ Ruby City arrives as one of the most exciting projects to break ground in the Alamo City. This 14,000-square-foot gallery and contemporary arts center—scheduled to open later this year near the city’s burgeoning arts district—appears as a strange hybrid, part OMA Casa da Musica, part Legorreta Central Library. Adjaye’s building appears as a literal jewel, a faceted brick-red form whose speckled, punctured surfaces make it seem fleeting and otherworldly. But it is anything but that, for this building, which sits precariously on the edge of the one-acre CHRISpark in downtown San Antonio, will anchor the San Pedro Creek redevelopment scheme, and provide the Linda Pace Foundation’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art with a bold, exciting home. Adjaye is still earning accolades for his groundbreaking National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and with Ruby City soon to be completed, this will be the most significant architectural gesture for San Antonio—one that will hopefully inspire an influx of more commissions and projects of a similar caliber. How should we look at San Antonio’s architectural legacies and gestures? It is tempting to stack them up against those in Houston or Dallas, but in doing so, we would risk ignoring how one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States is busy generating its own architectural identity. Don’t call it haphazard, however. The pace of architectural developments in San Antonio may appear slow, but like the city, its architecture is humming busily from what once was an undetectable purr to something greater. This sleepy South Texas city is anything but, and its architecture will demonstrate how this is the case.
Posts tagged with "Houston":
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.
Like many of the most exciting young firms currently practicing across the United States, Schaum/Shieh, based in New York City and Houston, owes its existence to the financial crisis of 2008. In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, Schaum/Shieh principals Rosalyne Shieh and Troy Schaum found themselves working as collaborators on speculative urban projects while attending graduate school at Princeton, where the pair shared studio space. Attempting to figure out “what happens when you ask a question no one tells you to ask,” according to Shieh, the pair was driven toward the “protected space” of academic work by prestigious fellowships—Shieh at Taubman College in Michigan and Schaum at Rice University in Texas—in an effort to bolster professional experiences that included stints at Abalos & Herreros and OMA, respectively. After becoming licensed and spending their fellowship years incubating their practice, the pair fortuitously landed a spot exhibiting a project in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, a platform that propelled their budding firm into the realm of client-based work. In the intervening years, a mix of bespoke design and meditative restoration work for institutional clients like the Donald Judd and Chinati Foundations—as well as commercially driven work for private clients—has kept the firm busy exploring multiple facets of architectural production. Driven by an intense curiosity and interest in the blend between high and low architectural culture, Schaum/Shieh continues to build its ever-elusive catalogue of offbeat work. Over time, the two architects have learned when to hold back. Schaum explains: “Restraint is [a] remarkable lesson for young architects to learn. [You realize] there are moments when we need to step back and not do certain things.” White Oak Music Hall One of the firm’s largest commissions to date is the White Oak Music Hall in Houston along Little White Oak Bayou north of the city’s downtown. Completed in phases between 2016 and 2017, the multistage music and event center features a pair of indoor stages that can house a combined 1,400 spectators, and a 3,800 capacity outdoor amphitheater built into the natural topography along the Bayou. The bar-shaped clapboard and wood plank-wrapped structure spans across the edge of its urban infill site and features balconies and open-roof decks that face toward the Houston skyline. An on-site industrial metal warehouse and steel tower were recently converted into a small music venue and bar as well. Transart The architects recently completed work on the 3,000-square-foot Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston’s museum district, a complex that seeks to treat the “white box gallery as a problem” by introducing softness of form and visual instability to the otherwise staid building type. The private arts foundation and gallery is spread out across two structures, including a new three-story edifice crafted out of super-size stucco panels. The building’s stucco walls feature clipped corners and upturned edges that reveal triangular windows designed to bring direct light into the galleries and support spaces. The new structure is buttressed by a 1,200-square-foot studio and apartment located within an existing structure that was re-skinned with cement panels and a standing seam roof. Judd Foundation The multifaceted firm has worked for several years on collaborative projects involving the restoration and rehabilitation of several of Donald Judd’s studios and installed spaces in Marfa. What started as an effort to “responsibly finish and maintain” Judd’s architecture office quickly morphed into a wide-ranging collection of restorations and long-term planning efforts led by the Judd Foundation for more than a dozen buildings in the town. Over time, the high-profile, low-visibility restoration and conservation-focused work became an “invisible exercise that led to a conversation you can't ever see,” according to Schaum. The architects sought to create a “Texas model” for restoration that was flexible enough to include off-the-shelf components as well as innovative solutions that stand apart from prototypical, white-glove restoration work. 420 20th Street Always eager to take on diverse projects, the firm has also tried its hand at updating the ubiquitous strip mall. Their project at 420 20th Street in Houston aims for an understated refresh by converting an abandoned 1950s washateria into a collection of bespoke storefronts. For Shieh and Schaum—both children of American suburban landscapes—the discarded 5,200-square-foot laundromat represents a type of “common” architecture that many architects are too often happy to avoid. Instead, Shieh views strip malls like this one as “a type that can be transformed, developed, and worked with,” part of an amorphous urbanism that runs counter to “traditional urban legibility,” but in a good way. For the project, the team opted to replace the building’s storefronts with new components, including custom steel and wooden door handle elements. New planters were also embedded in each of the building’s exterior columns, while the structure’s historic brick detailing was brought out with new paint and a mural. Inside, each of the serially arranged shops is separated from the others by expanses of clear factory windows that allow views through the entire structure.
New York-based studio Agency–Agency recently completed a new, light-filled headquarters for Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) Lone Star in downtown Houston. Designed alongside local firm Method Architecture, the 20,000-square-foot structure increases the visibility of the national nonprofit and connects it with its core demographic of volunteers and lower-income families nearby. Featuring a pentagonal plan, the muted, beige-gray building sits three stories tall and includes massive windows that cut through the facade, unveiling activity within. A full-height, yellow-walled atrium invites visitors into the facility while pops of coral and teal are painted throughout, adding to the interior’s playful atmosphere. “An old idea of nonprofits is to lean heavily toward modesty and frugality to show philanthropists a greater sense of need,” Pierce Bush, CEO of BBBS Lone Star, told Texas Architect. “Here, the decision was made to go bold.” BBBS Lone Star services Greater Houston, Dallas, and Tarrant counties, as well as West Central Texas. Agency–Agency wanted the design to speak to the organization’s leadership and influence across half of the state. Creating dynamic views in and out of the facility was an important priority for the project. The interior program houses community spaces on the first floor, offices on the second, and a flexible event and activity space on the third along with an outdoor terrace. “The scale of the building responds to the need to be visible in that part of the city,” said Tei Carpenter, director of Agency–Agency, to Texas Architect. “It’s meant to be seen at the speed of traffic.”
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.
The Continuous City: Fourteen Essays on Architecture and Urbanization Lars Lerup Park Books, 2017 $39.00 Lars Lerup, the Swedish-American designer and writer, has published a new book. The Continuous City (Park Books, 2017) presents his latest thoughts on architecture, cities, and the people who inhabit them by way of 14 disparate but interconnected essays. The handsome volume is bound in a matte cover featuring René Magritte’s painting Panorama Populaire (1926), which depicts buildings, a forest, and a seashore stacked atop each other, the ground plane of each upper level sawed away to reveal the strata beneath. The picture turns out to be a perfect signpost for what lies within, as its suggestion that these (and other) seemingly discrete realms are inextricably linked is precisely the crux of Lerup’s otherwise episodic inquiry. Lerup’s two previous titles—One Million Acres & No Zoning (Architectural Association Publications, 2011) and After the City (MIT Press, 2001)—took on the postindustrial car city as a subject of serious study. They look beyond the European-oriented urbanist’s dismissal of such environments as merely “sprawl” to find and examine the often-surreal juxtapositions embedded within that type of built fabric. Both books show Lerup’s fascination with Houston, where he first moved in 1993 from Berkeley, California, to take the job of dean at the Rice School of Architecture, a position he held until 2009. He is currently a professor there. Houston was to architecture in the 1980s what Dubai is to the field today—a petro-capital spending big money on ambitious development projects without paying much attention to the rules. Lerup’s championing of this subject matter in architectural academia (his has been one voice—there are others) has done much to save the discipline from self-inflicted obsolescence, an observation driven home by the fact that approximately 80 percent of currently existing global urban environments are designed and constructed around the automobile. His leadership also supported and propelled other academics who have done important work in this area, including Rice colleague Albert Pope, whose seminal volume, Ladders (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), laid the groundwork for serious consideration of the postwar American city, and former Rice assistant professor Keith Krumwiede, whose latest book, Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction (Park Books, 2016), explores speculative futures of suburbia. Another of Lerup’s preoccupations is subjectivity. In the 1970s, during a sabbatical from UC Berkeley, Peter Eisenman invited him to the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York (Rem Koolhaas was writing Delirious New York just down the hall). Lerup’s design work exhibits ties to that lineage of formal exploration and defamiliarization, but where Eisenman seeks to liberate architecture from the user, Lerup’s ambition has been to explore the problems of the urban inhabitant. For example, he did several years of research with the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., on how people in nursing homes panic and escape buildings that are on fire. The result was a series of publications compiled into Learning from Fire: A Fire Protection Primer for Architects, composed of a series of hand-drawn comic strips that depict nurses and patients reacting to infernos. In Continuous City, Lerup says hello to the Anthropocene. Quoting from the introduction: “The Anthropocene brings with it the realization that we live in a new (catastrophic) geological era of our own making. This is no longer a squabble between liberty or community, but a need to avert disaster. Lacking easy answers, we now seek opportunities for change, skirting the dark side of the new city, which the earlier books dealt with, to find in architecture a device for positive movement forward.” He argues that conceptual distinctions between urban and suburban, or urban and rural, are no longer productive. “The urban,” he writes, “is inescapable. The city is everywhere.” Lerup’s hunt for constructive examples takes the reader on a journey that spans the globe and delves into the history of human settlement. He establishes links between the plan of Teotihuacán and OMA’s Seattle library, investigates the coexistence of natural and built environments in the work of Roberto Burle Marx, considers the synergies of Herzog & de Meuron’s Miami garage, and worries the uneasy relationship between users’ topological experience and the planner’s topographic approach. His findings are as revelatory as they are perturbing. If humankind is to survive the era of global warming (the Anthropocene’s most threatening result), there remains much more work to be done.
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Earlier this year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) opened the new Glassell School of Art, the nation’s only museum-affiliated art school serving pre-K through postgraduate students. The Steven Holl Architects-designed project is the first building in a 14-acre development that will reshape the museum’s campus. It joins other buildings on the campus designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Rafael Moneo, and Carlos Jimenez. The design has an L-shaped plan with a sloping, walkable roofline running the length of the building.
The facade of the Glassell School consists of monumental precast concrete panels tied together with cast-in-place concrete plank beams with glazed infill panels between. There are 178 unique precast panel shapes. They all reference the same 11-degree angle seen in the slope of the roof. This shows up with variations in each panel to create the facade’s unique look. Originally, the project team designed a system of only precast panels, but this created challenging connection details, so they opted for cast-in-place beams to connect the panels. These beams were cast with vertically-projected rebar that each precast panel mounted onto. The panels were fitted with sleeves at the base and the top to receive the rebar from the beams. This required a great amount of precision in the fabrication of the panels to align the sleeves with the rebar. It took immense coordination between the architects, the concrete contractor casting the beams, and the precast fabricator, Gate Precast Company. The architects, along with the client, chose to cast the concrete using a color that references the Indiana limestone used in the surrounding buildings on the campus. The cast-in-place beams were cast in a similar white concrete to match the precast concrete as closely as possible. The interior of the building is mostly art studios, which called for indirect daylighting. Steven Holl Architects delivered this through the use of two different glazing systems integrated within the facade. Alternating between the precast concrete structure there are expansive insulated glazing units (IGUs) with a translucent polyvinyl butyral (PVB) interlayer. This assembly was designed to mitigate solar gain and save energy while allowing the interior to be fully illuminated. The translucent glass also creates a glowing effect for the building's exterior at night. In addition to the IGUs, each studio space has a small three-foot-by-three-foot operable vent with clear glazing that allows for an exterior view.
The Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology is now open in Houston. The art center, designed by New York and Houston-based SCHAUM/SHIEH, uses its sculpted stucco facade to strategically funnel light to the gallery space within. Transart is actually broken in two buildings; a 3,000-square-foot gallery and library, and the adjacent 1,200-square-foot studio and living quarters. The foundation was envisioned as a space for experimental art, performances, and lectures that cross the divide between art and anthropology. A large “living room” in the gallery building is broken into two exhibition spaces by a staircase-slash-library in the center that serves as a circulation core. The front-facing space is naturally lit and will be used for more traditional shows, while the dimly-lit back section will be used for digital pieces and performances that require precise lighting. The circulation core flows upwards into a second-floor salon that looks down on the spaces below, which is also accessible through a rounded acrylic-and-steel elevator. Visitors can also find a small room for mediation or one-on-one meetings on the second floor. The third floor’s core holds an administrative office, roof deck, and accompanying garden. "We introduced some playful moments into the otherwise taut plan," said SCHAUM/SHIEH in a statement. "There is a sink lathed out of a tree salvaged from Hurricane Harvey; a sculpted, cave-like nook tucked into the wall off the seminar area; and a galvanized steel beam is used as a bathroom countertop." The main building was framed with heavy timber like a “Dutch barn,” according to SCHAUM/SHIEH, with the white stucco facade curving around the building’s bones, akin to a billowing cloth. The thick timber walls were reinforced with closed-cell insulation, and combined with the swooping window cuts that restrict sunlight, the entire building was able to be passively cooled. The secondary building, a single-story standalone studio and living space for visiting artists and scholars, was created by renovating an existing photography studio. SCHAUM/SHIEH wrapped the building in cement planks and topped it with a new metal roof, creating an auxiliary space a stone’s throw from the main art center. SCHAUM/SHIEH is a small studio formed in 2010 in a joint collaboration between Rosalyne Shieh and Troy Schaum. They operate out of Houston and New York City, and the studio has been recognized for its built and unrealized projects, including by the AIA New York as part of its New Practices New York competition. The Transart Foundation can be found in Houston's museum district at 1412 West Alabama Street and was founded by artist, writer, and independent curator Surpik Angelini, a contemporary of John Cage and Gordon Matta Clark.
West 8 is designing Houston’s first botanic garden, which is set to break ground later this year. Renderings were recently released of the 120-acre park, featuring four discrete areas that incorporate bayous and wetlands, as well as a children’s garden and play area, picnic grove, tree farm, lawn, and walking trails. Called “Botanic Beginnings,” this is the first of several phases that are planned over the next 30 years. “The astonishing array of plant life that can be grown in Houston, combined with this city’s love of gardens will make this one of the most beloved collections in the world. To be involved in the design of a cultural and scientific institution of such great relevance in our nation’s most diverse city is truly a once-in-a-career commission,” Claire Agre, principal of West 8’s New York and Rotterdam–based design team said in a statement. The garden will help educate visitors on local cuisine with the Edible Garden, featuring fruit and vegetable plants as well as pecan and olive trees. A Global Collection Garden will display the Botanic Garden’s horticultural exhibits, including a tropical, subtropical, and arid climate examples. An event lawn along the Sims Bayou is expected to be an event space for performing arts, educational programming, and weddings. For children, the Susan Garver Discovery Garden includes the “wildest and most appealing plants for children,” such as carnivorous and water plants. “We are honored to be working with West 8, a visionary leader in landscape design. With their expertise, we hope to bring Houstonians an urban oasis where they can disconnect and appreciate the beauty of nature—from rare and exotic plants they have never encountered to natural areas reflecting Houston’s ecosystems,” said Claudia Gee Vassar, president and general counsel of the Houston Botanic Garden, in a statement. The botanic garden is slated to be complete in 2020.
On Tuesday, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) installed a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, the same artist behind Chicago's Cloud Gate (better known as the Bean). The two sculptures are remarkably similar: both are hewn in shiny stainless steel and occupy prominent public spaces in their respective cities. They even have similar names and public sitings: Cloud Gate frames Millennium Park horizontally, while Houston's Cloud Column is mounted vertically in front of the Glassell School of Art. In light of the install, writers in both cities took to the pages of their respective papers-of-record to defend their hometown sculptures and throw serious shade across the continent. In the Chicago Tribune, Kim Janssen derided Cloud Column as a johnny-come-lately Bean and took cheap shots at Houston's arts scene:
If being surrounded by a cultureless abyss insufficiently communicates to confused tourists that they are in Houston, the bean’s verticality will therefore act as an additional reminder of their poor life choices.Kapoor told the paper Cloud Column, which he imagined in 2000 and brought to life in 2006, is a totally separate thing from Cloud Gate, despite the obvious resemblance. Today, Houston Chronicle senior digital editor Lisa Gray responded to Janssen in a letter:
Yeah, it's true that we have a giant new shiny bean that stands upright. But Kim, did it occur to you that maybe we wanted it just because it's a cool thing? It's a piece of art, and works by the same artist often look similar. Our Calder looks kinda like other places' Calders. It made me wonder: Is Chicago feeling defensive? How bad is it there, knowing that Houston is set to pass you in population, taking your spot as third-largest city in the U.S.? Are you feeling—well, to steal someone's joke from Twitter–like a "has-bean"?Janssen, of course, volleyed back. The Chronicle lovingly reprinted their dogged this-is-the-city-booster-hill-I'll-die-on correspondence under "Dear Chicago: Houston's bean is better. And so is Houston"–a shots-fired headline if there ever was one. Here's a selection from the conversation:
Chicago: "It's a leftover bean, a second-rate bean that's been lying around in storage for the better part of 20 years, because nobody else wanted it. Nobody except Houston wants a leftover, second-rate bean." Houston: "Our art critic, Molly Glentzer, tells me that our bean is actually the better bean—the original bean, the one made by hand, the one that reaches for the sky. Appropriate for its spot in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's fast-growing complex—which is, as far as I can tell, the fastest-growing big art museum in the country." Chicago: "If art were measured by the yard—and I can see the appeal, to a Texan—you might have a point." Houston: "Any final thoughts? It's been a pleasure fighting with you." Chicago: "As a certified hater, I thought I'd never find as chippy a city as Chicago. But the outpouring of bile from Houston has genuinely surprised me, and given me hope that you may one day amount to something worthy of our rivalry. In the meantime, enjoy your bean, which is not as good as our bean, and never will be."Separate from this beef, in a statement on the install, MFAH Director Gary Tinterow copped to the Chicago influence: “When we had the opportunity several years ago to acquire this precursor to Chicago’s Cloud Gate, I could only imagine that it would be as extraordinary for this city as Anish’s work has been for Chicago," he said. "Its elegant form and the subtle humanity of its hand-worked surface will fully animate this new gathering place for Houston.”
Caution and timidity have been the ruling traits of Houston’s commercial real estate market for the past three decades. But, in the last few years, local developer Steve Radom and his team at Radom Capital have been working almost single-handedly to bring architectural sophistication back with their recent series of commercial developments. From the 1970s through the mid-1980s, Houston was an international architectural mecca. During these years, developers famously competed with one another to commission the best architects to design ever more sensational projects in a crowded real estate market. Then, a collapse in oil prices wrecked the city’s economy. In the decades since, with its high-flying developers grounded, Houston’s architectural scene has stubbornly trailed that of its nearby neighbors, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas. The recent fracking oil crash has only exacerbated the situation. Even Gerald Hines, Houston’s greatest modern developer, has turned away from the outstanding architecture that brought him fame and success. Today, his buildings are tasteful, yet completely unremarkable. In this milieu, Radom’s commercial retail projects are noteworthy. Radom and his team commission talented architects on the basis of their design excellence. They insist on rigor and quality in concept and execution. Rather than follow an established set of safe but boring development rules, their projects cleverly reimagine the most banal of building types: the strip mall. The results are exciting. The fact that they have leased immediately in Houston’s unsteady economic climate demonstrates again that good design is a good business practice. Radom’s largest project to date is Heights Mercantile, a low-rise retail center partially located inside the Houston Heights Historic District a couple of miles northwest of downtown. Austin-based Michael Hsu Office of Architecture designed the shell-and-core build-out and some of the interiors. Up-and-coming Houston architects Schaum/Shieh and Content Architecture designed additional interiors. The Houston branch of the international SWA Group was the landscape architect, while Houston-based graphic design firm Spindletop devised the graphic identity. Heights Mercantile includes a mixture of six new and remodeled buildings—two of which are protected historic landmarks— spread across eight properties that were acquired in four separate transactions over a 14-month period. From 1967 to 2007, Pappas Restaurants, a local restaurant group, used three of the existing buildings as their headquarters. Two of the former Pappas buildings were remodeled to include a suite of shops and a wine bar. The third Pappas building, a one-story prefabricated metal warehouse used for cold storage, was demolished and replaced by a two-story building containing retail and restaurant space on the ground floor and a fitness club and offices on the second floor. The two protected historic buildings are one-story wood frame bungalows. They were converted into a clothing boutique and an ice cream shop. A small one-story wood frame building was built behind one of the bungalows and houses a cafe. Although Houston lacks zoning, it has other methods of land-planning. Among the most onerous are its excessive off-street parking requirements, which forced the design team to be creative in organizing the site. By reusing instead of replacing the Pappas buildings, the developers were able to maintain the existing, but now illegal, head-in parking. The bulk of the additional required parking was fitted between the bungalows and the new two-story building. According to the developer, the city requested that the final property Radon bought directly north of the bungalows facing Heights Boulevard be devoted completely to parking. Fortunately, the 140 parking spaces do not overwhelm the development, thanks to creative landscape and siting decisions. Houston Heights, like the city of Houston, is a tattered collection of heterogeneous residential and commercial buildings. Platted in 1891 as a streetcar suburb, it actually contains very few pre-1900 Victorian houses. What remains of its historic architecture is mostly Queen Anne worker cottages from the 1910s and bungalows from the 1920s and ’30s. These are interspersed with garden apartments from the 1960s and ’70s and the occasional one or two-story postwar commercial building. Up until 2010, when the city’s preservation ordinance was changed to prohibit demolition in designated historic districts, the last Queen Anne cottages and bungalows were quickly being replaced by townhouse developments and lot-filling faux-Victorian houses. Heights Mercantile wittily addresses its motley neighborhood by providing its own assorted mix of buildings. Rather than replicating the same building across the site, as most recent strip developments in and around Houston Heights have done, the architects consciously worked to make each building look and feel different. Furthermore, they casually spread them across the site, which is split up in a very ad hoc Houston manner by an active street, a popular hike and bike trail, a drainage easement, and an abandoned alley. The results celebrate the mess that is Houston. And, along with some clever landscaping interventions, they feel inviting and fresh rather than chaotic and dreary. If this is the vision Radom and his team want to promote for Houston, then I’m all for it. And judging from its completely filled lease spaces, so is the real estate market.
Late last year, architects took to the streets to protest changes to the AT&T Building, Philip Johnson and John Burgee's postmodern masterpiece. The renovation proposed by Snøhetta would glass in the building's monumental granite facade, a move that riled preservationists and fans of the building. Now, similar changes are afoot at another Johnson and Burgee tower, this time in Houston. The owners of the Bank of America Center, a 56-story postmodern tower with a soaring atrium, want to glass in the lower level to create mezzanines which, while more low-slung, are infinitely more leasable. M-M Properties has hired New York's Sydness Architects to carry out the $15 million renovation, which includes the partial excavation of the Western Union building, a structure that was ensconced by the Johnson-Burgee tower. Phase one calls for replacing the building's first-floor granite facade with glass, to showcase a restaurant and offices, and phase two will add two stories for business tenants above that. The resulting mezzanines would add approximately 30,000 square feet of new floor space, and ground is expected to break on the first phase in February or March. "It will be a lot more friendly as a building on the streetscape than it has been," Sydness told the Houston Chronicle. Interestingly, Sydness had also worked with the architects on the original tower, then known as the RepublicBank Center. The structure was built in 1983, and since then, it's had four anchor tenants: The RepublicBank Center was the first, followed by NCNB Center, then NationsBank Center, and finally current tenant Bank of America. The firm, however, plans to move out of its digs in 2019. The building's design, said local real estate blog Swamplot, is a nod to the 16th-century Dutch guildhall, and it sits across from Pennzoil Place, another Johnson building.