Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Shrine of the Modern

Houston is precisely the same age as Atlanta. You wouldn't know it from looking at it, though. The city is, according to one architectural historian, "notably unsentimental" about the past and the built environment of the central business district is certainly a testament to that. Houston is also the only major U.S. city with no zoning ordinances. This last bit is a tiny bit ironic since I was there to give a talk on, in part, the zoning for adult businesses in Minneapolis. The individualist orientation of Houston is most noticeable downtown in the buildings that span the street. Apparently the way downtown was platted, land owners owned to the middle of street and as long as they didn't block traffic, they were free to build away. And they did, creating an almost tunnel-like feel on many of the streets.

Downtown is chock full of skyscrapers built after the oil embargo of 1973 and before the U.S. oil market went bust in the 1980s. All the major oil companies built tall in that period, competing for height, shimmer, and bragging rights for capturing the hottest architects from around the world. There was a bit of public mindedness (or was it just competition?) so that several of these developments also include plazas, fountains, and, ah...., sculpture. Even though the architects came from all over, most gave a nod to climate of south Texas and put the steel frame on the exterior and set the windows back in so that the steel would offer a touch of shade. A touch is the right word, though. The setting sun reflecting off all that glass is a pretty amazing sight.

Houston has a couple of older neighborhoods. A tiny bit of the old 4th ward, the black neighborhood, still exists with its tiny streets and even tinier houses. These places looked like the tourist cabins you can still see in the UP, but closer together, all white, and under the shadow of downtown, separated by the elevated freeway that seems like a belt holding the skyscrapers together. A white working class neighborhood also still exists near downtown, but it has taken herculean efforts to save it and the results are mixed at best. Not surprisingly, THE wealthy neighborhood of River Oaks still exists, though even there some of the old houses are being torn down so that even more opulent abodes can be constructed. While there was a mix of housing styles, the modern theme of the city is still evident: flat roof, right angles, long footprints. There is a mark of the climate in the housing as well. Most of the homes are built to be quite narrow, not more than a room deep, so that windows can be opened to create cross-breezes.

One of the things that these wealthy, wealthy folks did was to collect art. The city has a sculpture garden and an art institute. One couple, John and Dominique de Menil, have had a stunning impact on Houston's built and cultural environment. They were instrumental in establishing the University of St Thomas and, a testament to their love of modern, had much of it designed by Philip Johnson. A block away, the couple worked with Mark Rothko to create the Rothko Chapel. A block in another direction they built the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. Both these spaces called too heavily on the sacred for my tastes, but together with the university, one can certainly get a good sense of the modern vernacular: entrance ways that are so non-descript that they look more like loading docks than front doors, heavy use of concrete and steel girders that almost overshadow the lines and proportions of the designs, and lots of dimness/darkness. Much effort went into controlling the light... using natural light, but bending it, diminishing it...

The real heart of this neighborhood of art is the Menil Collection, however. Not only is there a good chunk of amazing art from the Menil's personal collection in this museum, but Dominique guided the design of the building with her very strong ideas about building accessibility and aesthetics. The collection is plunked down in the middle of a neighborhood of 1920s bungalows -- all of which, the museum and the houses, are painted this shade of gray/green with white trim that she chose. She was also adamant that art spaces should be about art... no parking lots (there is one a block away, everyone must walk past houses and sculpture to get to the entrance), no gift shops, no cafes, no gimmicks -- just white walls, diffused light, rough dark wood floors and lots of art that included everything from tribal masks to surreal paintings and modern sculpture. Amazing.

So there. That is what I saw during my weekend in Houston.

1 comment:

qweerblue said...

Hey there, oh-most-awesome one! Just wanted to drop you a line to say that I have been enjoying both of your blogs very much; I am almost completely caught up with your older posts, so you're going to have to be sure to make new entries each day, or I may commence to weeping and wailing and such. Hope it's ok that I linked to you from my page of pathos and insanity. Cheers!