[ Editor's Note: The following comment was left on archpaper.com in response to our Unveiled on the Gensler-designed Alessandra Hotel in Houston (AN 03_04.30.2014_SW). Opinions expressed in letters to the editor do not necessarily reflect the opinions or sentiments of the newspaper. AN welcomes reader letters, which could appear in our regional print editions. To share your opinion, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. ] “Glass ceilings permit guests in the lobby to see through to the top floor restaurant.” That lobby will become the biggest gentlemen’s club in Houston. Bill Wood Rangeview High School
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[Editor's Note: The following are reader-submitted responses to the editorial “Acceptable if not Noble” (AN 03_04.30.2014_SW), which considered the imminent demolition of John Johansen’s Mummer’s Theater in Oklahoma City and the renovation of Ulrich Franzen’s Alley Theatre in Houston. Opinions expressed in letters to the editor do not necessarily reflect the opinions or sentiments of the newspaper. AN welcomes reader letters, which could appear in our regional print editions. To share your opinion, please email email@example.com. ] There were local groups working hard to preserve and repurpose the Mummers Theater and conceptual plans put forth that incorporated the existing theater into a larger cultural and commercial mixed-use complex. My father supported and encouraged these efforts as an important and necessary evolution of this building, and architecture in general, to reinvent itself by adapting and embracing new ideas and technology. The counterforce was money in the hands of opportunistic, short sighted men and women with too much power and too little imagination. Christen Johansen Rhode Island School of Design Franzen would have added the fly loft. And zinc cladding does not exactly bring to mind corporate office buildings. Craig Hunt
Although Houston has been expanding outward for decades, its bus system has hardly kept up. This is not surprising given the track record for many American cities where cars take precedence over public transit. But what is unexpected—to the point of being radical—is a proposal that will grant greater, more efficient access to Houston’s commuters for not a penny more than its current cost. [beforeafter] [/beforeafter] How do these numbers run? Proponents of the plan explained that their efforts will not be to add to or subtract from the bus system so much as gut and rewire it completely. As it stands now, Houston’s Metro is terribly inefficient. It eats up most of its money in duplicate routes and lines that cater to the needs of a few instead of servicing the greater public, the group asserted. The new proposal wants to recalculate the routes for higher commuter accessibility that would lead to higher traffic and maximum fiscal efficiency. The current system is heavily oriented towards the downtown area, despite the fact that Houston has steadily decentralized for decades. Most of the proposal relies upon the realignment of the lines through neighborhoods that would use them. Although some people would no longer have ready access to the bus—with “ready” being defined as having to walk a quarter mile or more—the plan compensates for their toil by offering other nearby transportation outlets. The only catch, if it can even be called that, is that the plan’s completion is strongly contingent upon community support and approval. Public planning consultant Jarrett Walker pointed out that people who like the plan “falsely assume it will happen anyway.” Walker went on to emphasize that the plan will not happen without strong community vocalization. So go ahead! If you live in the Houston area, weigh in. If not, your comments are always welcome here.
Dunlavey Street in central Houston typifies the image of a Southwestern city street. It's a sprawling, four lane affair that is approximately 50 percent usable, 80 percent pedestrian unsafe, and, in this case, 100 percent in need of an update. Transportation officials are evening out the numbers for a proposed road diet that would reduce the four-lane street to two and using the outer lane space for parking, improved sidewalks, and bike lanes. Currently, many of Houston’s wide streets—and some of its highways—operate under the principle of induced demand. This idea dictates that existing space is utilized by sheer import of its presence. In other words, people use big roads because there are big roads to use. But the outer lanes of Dunlavey are hardly drivable. They are pothole-ridden, with uneven gutters and extensive debris. Because the lanes go largely unused, pedestrians misguidedly utilize them, sometimes with fatal results. Removing the exterior two lanes would remove confusion over what is drivable area and what is not. It would clearly delineate the road’s functionality, and create a responsible message to drivers and citizens about the roadway’s capacity. In years past, expanding outward has been the modus operandi of Southwestern transportation. Cars, and not people, determined the size of roadways. But this proposal overturns that tradition. The space that comes from the unused exterior two lanes will be converted into parking, bicycle lanes, and better sidewalks. According to planners, these changes will facilitate more efficient traffic, increase pedestrian safety, and encourage alternative methods of transportation such as biking or walking. It also curbs the expansion trend’s tendency to impinge upon private property—an aspect that, commuter or not, Houston’s citizens should be pleased about. If all goes according to plan, the proposal aims to not only increase the quality of life in Houston, but to be the beginning of a larger trend. Developers hope that Houston will be the next city that roadway planners look to when considering developments. A June open house meeting will follow up on the proposal’s details, while City Council will officially consider the changes in September. The plan’s announcement comes a week after Houston was named among the ten worst cities for pedestrians.
Soto: The Houston Penetrable Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1001 Bissonnet Through September 1, 2014 The final installation in Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrables series—Houston Penetrable—will be on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as of May 8. An interactive display of 24,000 PVC tubes, each hand painted and tied, will hang from the second story of the museum’s Cullinan Hall. The strands’ collective visual expression is of a floating yellow orb visible upon a transparent background. The installation’s kinetic quality defies the idea that viewers look only with their eyes. The interaction of museum visitors playing with and among the strands is, in fact, the final element that completes Soto’s work. The installation, which took almost a decade to finish, is one of the few that Soto created for the indoors. The piece will be accompanied by a neighboring exhibition of eight other pieces that exemplify the artist’s career, including Plexiglas boxes, and selections from his Agujas (Needles), Vibraciones (Vibrations), and Ambivalencias (Ambivalences) series.
Beyond Craft Museum of Fine Arts Houston 1001 Bissonnet, Houston Through May 26 The Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection is one of the most remarkable decorative arts collections in the world, and goes a long way toward challenging the idea that there is a difference between decorative and high art. Although primarily American in scope, it also encompasses significant pieces by acclaimed international artists. At its core are stunning examples of ceramics by groundbreaking California-based artists, such as Robert Arneson, Ralph Bacerra, Viola Frey, David Gilhooly, Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Adrian Saxe, and Peter Voulkos. Also included is furniture by Wendell Castle and Sam Maloof; textile and fiber art by Olga de Amaral, John Garrett, John McQueen, and Cynthia Schira; and jewelry and metalwork by William Harper, Albert Paley, Earl Pardon, and Joyce J. Scott. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston acquired the collection in 2010. Beyond Craft represents its first major showing, surveying significant artists, aesthetic principles, and art movements from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s and beyond.
AN recently profiled the emerging architectural typology of spaceports across the country, and now there's news from the Houston site that helped launch the dream of space travel decades ago. Independence Shuttle, a full-scale replica of NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle, recently was moved from the Johnson Space Center (JSC) to its next-door neighbor, Space Center Houston. To some people, the relocation was a matter of mere logistics. To others, however, the transfer symbolized not just a lessening of power and precedence associated with Johnson Space Center, but with NASA’s space program as a whole. Johnson Space Center, formed in 1961, is one of ten major NASA field centers, and one of the most famous space travel establishments. The 40-foot deep swimming pool built for astronaut training, was, in its heyday, frequented by astronauts and the curious public alike. The control room oversaw the launch and devastating loss of the Challenger, received Armstrong’s transmission as he made his first steps on the moon, and rejoiced with the rest of America during the Apollo 13 recovery. To say that JSC is iconic, a cornerstone, and a piece of history is an understatement: it is a monolithic nexus of space travel, this world’s anchoring connection to the vast unknown. So as grand-scale space launches wane and commercial flight takes over, the creeping neglect of JSC’s facilities and consequent decline stabs into the hearts of those connected to NASA’s past—and not simply for nostalgic reasons. Astronauts associated with JSC’s glory days—men like Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell—have spoken out against the political shifts associated with JSC’s downsizing. One such maneuver occurred when President Obama cancelled Constellation—a Bush-era initiative to send astronauts to the moon—in order to shuttle a sizable chunk of NASA’s funding from the manned space exploration into commercial space flight. The shift denotes a decrease in specialist training aimed at greater expansion into grand scale space projects—missions to Mars, for example, or a continuation of low-orbiting space travel—towards everything that “commercial space travel” connotes: sending consumers, not specialists, into orbit; changing the pioneer frontier into a tourism industry. Armstrong and Levitt both argue that the change negates the $10 billion already funneled into Constellation. They claim that private enterprise is taking a major step backward, that government’s funding focal change will place the U.S. into a reliant relationship with Russia, thereby relegating the nation to a second-rate spot for space travel. These men are the voice, in a nutshell, of those deeply unhappy with the changes taking place. JSC countered these claims with an official statement claiming that the center is still relevant. It cited robotics projects and continued operation of Orion—a spacecraft designed to take astronauts to asteroids—as evidence. JSC, the statement said, is a cultural mainstay of Houston’s identity, and it will stay that way. Certain facts remain however, and seeing, in this case, is part of believing. The government’s retraction of funds has instilled the center with a calcified, weary demeanor. JSC has employed far fewer people in the past two years than ever before. Half the buildings have been torn down or consolidated. One of them is a new building, the NASA Johnson Space Center 20, which has upstaged its famous brother by being the first LEED platinum project of its kind in NASA. In comparison, the control room at JSC that once oversaw mankind’s greatest scientific achievements now has less technology than the average smart phone. “Nothing’s going on there,” said one former NASA employee. “People are leaving in waves.” The Independence Shuttle was just moved next door. But as far as interpreting symbols go, they might as well have launched it to the moon.
Houston is set to double the amount of tax breaks it gives to developers for downtown apartments and condos to try to lure people to the city's sleepy business district. The City Council unanimously agreed to expand the Downtown Living Initiative, which first launched a year and a half ago, to offer tax breaks for 5,000 residential units, up from a previous cap of 2,500. Houston will now offer developers up to $15,000 for each residence they build in a complex of at least 10 units, provided they meet design guidelines focused on getting retail built at street level. The idea is to lessen the hurdles to developing downtown, such as high land costs, and to draw in retailers to serve the new residents and create a more vibrant street scene. "We made a judgment that it was needed when we looked at the extra cost of construction downtown," Andy Icken, the city's chief development officer, told the Houston Chronicle. "Retail follows rooftops, and it's our view that critical mass is needed. We've had a lack of retail in downtown. We believe that will follow and we believe this is needed to make it happen, to really continue the momentum that's on right now." In the decade preceding the subsidy, only one new residential development was built. After the subsidy initiative launched, 13 new projects have been announced, including six recent proposals that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core. The momentum is hard to miss. The total cost of the tax breaks could reach $75 million.
The historic Niels Esperson Building has lit up the Houston skyline since 1927, but far below the tower's neo-Classical cupola, a basement space connecting to a series of tunnels meandering underneath the city has remained out of the spotlight. Now, the building’s basement gets to play catch up in the fame game with a $2.5 million renovation spearheaded by architectural firm Page. The Niels Esperson Building is the only example of Italian Renaissance in Houston. Reconstruction entails maintaining architectural integrity while improving the existing businesses. The renovations will improve access to Houston’s underground tunnel system, which stretches out over six miles beneath the city. The improvements will hopefully solidify the building as a landmark in a city known for demolishing its architectural heritage. Page's design includes several new business additions, including a public relations firm, a car sharing service, and a software company. The building's food court will be making new friends as well, with the addition of two new restaurants. The real show stealer is a two-story glass “art wall” that will stretch from the building’s basement level up into the lobby. The top half, which will feature an opaque geographic design, is intended to become a new landmark in downtown Houston’s landscape. Natural stone, wood veneer, textured glass, and stainless steel all will be used in the design, which is expected to reach completion by June 2014.
Never mind! After all that fuss to preserve the iconic Texas tin structure, Rice University's Art Barn met the Grim Reaper on Wednesday, April 16. While a group was able to salvage the building’s corrugated metal siding, wrecking crews tore away at the Martel Center's structure, marking a definitive end to efforts of preservationists to move the building to another site in Houston. Andy Warhol’s famous oak tree planted in front of the former structure will remain intact, but once the dust clears only a grass lawn will serve as tombstone. A rogue power line temporarily stalled the demolition, thereby buying a commemorative moment for the Art Barn’s historical and cultural import. The building’s spirit will live on through the Menil Collection it once housed, as well as its legacy with other tin houses.
Leaving campus the way it came in—amid a swirl of shifting plans and controversy—seems to be the modus operandi for Rice University’s Martel Center, more colloquially known as “the Art Barn.” After reports last month that the building would be demolished, Rice University changed its mind and announced that it would, instead, relocate the historic structure to the Fourth Ward area of Houston, just west of downtown. The Art Barn has graced Rice University’s campus since 1969. Originally conceived by John and Dominique de Menil as what was meant to be a quick-fix housing solution for their prestigious private art collection, the squatter became father to a generation of its kind, and established itself as a cultural mainstay not just within the university, but the community as a whole. The Art Barn was never meant to be more than a temporary safe haven during a turbulent time. The Menil Collection, which boasts over 15,000 pieces of art—including originals by Picasso, Duchamp, and Matisse—sought a sanctuary for their darlings after facing rising tension from original host, St. Thomas University. The resulting structure, which was dubbed the Menil Museum, and its “twin brother,” the Rice Media Center, were built out of a corrugated metal known as galvalume, a metal siding that was affixed to a wooden frame. This design spurred Houston’s West End “tin houses,” a 1970s movement named after the building’s noticeably atypical siding. These inexpensively constructed modular buildings sprouted up throughout Houston shortly after the Art Barn was built. They often played fundamental roles in the community art scene. Although the Art Barn was not the original tin house, it was, perhaps, the most predominant forerunner of the movement, as it was a highly visible fixture due to its stark contrast with Rice’s surrounding masonry buildings. The Art Barn’s 1968 inaugural exhibition, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, attracted tens of thousands of visitors before going on to enjoy a three-month residency at MoMA. In 1969, Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox also showed at the space and went on to achieve renowned fame. The space remained open to the public and free until 1986, when the de Menil Arts program was relocated. However, the Martel Center (as it was renamed) continued to act as host to art shows, classroom and office space, and was the home of Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Now, the Art Barn is being removed due to alleged safety problems and the potential cost of renovation, although there is some controversy over the validity of these claims. The building was never meant to be permanent, argue the defenders of its removal. Its very mode of construction asks that it be taken down. Naysayers, however, are less convinced, citing other cases where historical structures have been recycled for new purposes. Photography professor Geoff Winningham calls attention to the fact that the space could easily function as much-needed studio space, and points out that Rice’s forthcoming art center will not be completed till 2016. Until then, a simple green lawn will memorialize the removal of the campus treasure, as will the live oak tree planted by Warhol on the site after the Raid the Icebox show. Many hope the relocation and repurposing of the building to Houston’s Fourth Ward, where it will act as an art center and contribute to Houston's rise in culture, will ease the blow to the aggrieved arts community. Rice’s Visual and Dramatic Arts Department organized a last huzzah for the beloved space in February, during which they invited commemorators to bring picnics, music, and any other modes of expression they wished to share.
It’s no secret that Houston is going through a growth spurt. The city currently has four central business districts that, if separated, would each be among the country’s top 15 employment centers. In the next 30 years, 3.5 million people are projected to move to the 8-county region, with two million of those concentrated in Harris County. In a recent presentation to the Livable Houston Initiative, Kimley-Horn Associates engineer Sam Lott characterized the increased traffic that this population growth will entail as an impending crisis. “Our crisis is that we cannot build enough capacity,” said Lott. “TxDot is reaching the limit of what they can do. They’re now at a point where it’s going to be a challenge to maintain the capacity we’ve got. More traffic will move to city streets and the congestion on the freeways…is going to last all day long. The light rail and bus system, as important as it is and as we need to build it, is not in itself going to be able to provide the necessary capacity.” Lott put forth a three-fold solution to this congestion forecast. 1) Establish protected right of ways to increase the capacity of the freight rail system. 2) Create a regional commuter rail system as an alternative to the freeways with stops every five to 10 miles. 3) Build a grade-separated transit circulator system to work in concert with the light rail and regional commuter rail. Lott posited that a grade-separated circulator that connected the city’s four employment centers would be a boon for Houston. “I believe we would have the economic equivalent of Manhattan if this system were built,” he said.