Thursday, May 18, 2006

Houston, We Don't Have a Problem

After New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, very few people could name America’s fourth most populated city. Houston is indeed a very large city, though it fails to possess any cultural cache like other major cities. It certainly doesn’t contain a stunning architectural heritage like New York or Chicago, nor does it generate an unmistakable cultural identity like Los Angeles. Houston thrives on unglamorous industries like energy, medicine and its port. It is relatively spread out, like most major cities in the South and West, with leafy suburban neighborhoods appearing not far from the downtown area itself. In addition, the roadways are extensive, at times appearing redundant with ramps to highway, toll ways and everything in between. Houston has a road budget equal to the larger states in the U.S. It is definitely not nearly as pedestrian friendly as many Northeastern cities.

What makes Houston unique is the fact there is next to no zoning. This lends an urban landscape of seemingly random towers intermingled with small apartment blocks, sprawling mansions, and working class cottages in one big jumble. It is possible to have the shadow of a thirty-story tower over your private back yard. It also contributes to an initial sense of confusion to newcomers, not knowing which cluster of towers is downtown, since its Medical district and swank up-town at the outskirts of the city feature impressive high-rises of their own. And yet, as soon as you can identify where downtown is, navigating oneself in the Houston is quite easy since tall landmarks that dot the city’s vast expanse are visible from any street several miles away. For example, if you spot a twin set of towers that resemble big syringes, then that marks the Medical City (which is undoubtedly the most impressive self-contained medical complex in the world). If you see Philip Johnson’s lone sixty-story crystalline tower with a revolving spotlight (at night), then you have located the Galleria district, with its extensive shopping mall surrounded by offices and hotels, along with high end condominiums for the city’s young urban professionals. Houston’s central business district is punctuated by Philip Johnson’s post-modern design experiments, sheathed in elegant curtain wall glass. (actually, Houston was truly the great architect’s little playground, as his designs large and small are everywhere…)

My home city of Dallas is similar to its bigger brother in many respects, possessing similar looking districts, complete with a Galleria and Medical City. And yet, Dallas is far more carefully zoned, with uses quite clearly defined that results in a more identifiable urban pattern. Uptown is close to an unmistakably unique downtown skyline, surrounded by an interrupted sea of suburban style neighborhoods, broken up by carefully located commercial strip shopping centers. There are no random towers punctuating the landscape, as they are mostly relegated along the major exrpressways and are limited in height. Any visible cluster of towers seen from far away indicates the central business districts of surrounding municipalities. And yet I’ve been told that Houstonians pay attention to any major developments going on in its slightly smaller rival in North Texas. If Dallas gets an award-winning concert hall, then Houston has to match it; if nearby Fort Worth has Louis Kahn’s Kimbel Museum, then Houston catches up with Renzo Piano’s Menil Museum, only for Dallas to hire the same architect for its new Sculpture museum. Not long after Dallas established a major light-rail system for itself did Houston introduce its own line, with more futuristic-looking trains.

And yet, I find Houston a far more interesting and lively city. The very fact that it lacks the kind zoning that gives Dallas its visual consistency in turn creates a more dynamic and diverse environment. Driving along Houston’s streets presents itself with unexpected surprises, where within a mile one can pass by luxurious storefronts, a quiet leafy neighborhood, alterna-grunge restaurants, a stark office high-rise, a university campus, and an ethnic grocery store. The Menil museum finds itself not in an arts precinct notorious for their deadness throughout the day, but in the middle of a neighborhood of middle-class cottage houses. NIMBYism is sort of a foreign concept in Houston, in that choosing to live in the city requires that anything can happen near your back yard. If you don’t like it this way, there are numerous outlying suburbs. And even then, some suburbs have a particular character of their own, showcasing huge immigrant populations from around the world. The Houston area, like its three larger rivals, is a major destination for immigrants. It succeeds in assimilating immigrants quite well, and provides a comparably flexible environment in which to start up a business. Housing is affordable, taxes are minimal and the job-market is plentiful for any newcomer to get started. Houston seems a bit more entrepreneurial than my hometown by simply noticing that chain stores seem to compete with a large number of family-operated outfits, selling goods from many old low-rent buildings.

What this urban messiness gives is a particular identity with which Houstonians should proudly associate. It is very tolerant place, where homeowners are for the most part free to build whatever house they would like on their plot without having to worry about what the neighbors think. The restaurants feature an impressive culinary variety, and cater to all classes and lifestyles. Certain parts of Houston remind me of the laid-back streets of Austin, with its bohemian establishments and its heterogeneous assortment of buildings along the street. Yet Houston, by its large size and international significance, is far more ethnically mixed than Austin could ever be (which for all of its liberal pretense is probably the most segregated city in the state). Houston is particularly capable of absorbing strangers, as the events following Hurricane Katrina attest. Nearly a quarter of a million evacuees sought refuge in Houston, and citizens pulled together the resources to accommodate them. It proved that the city could be mobilized as a whole despite its sprawling nature.

Houston will never be regarded as a picturesque destination for tourists. It is not beautiful in any traditional sense, even as it contains very attractive and scenic corners here and there. Its very existence is the antithesis to good urban planning. When I reviewed the architectural journals coming from the city’s architecture schools several years ago, a frequent point of departure in the articles was that Houston was a problem that desperately needed to be solved. There was no efficient public transportation, no significant historic districts nor a coherent unified system of parks and indeed no visual harmony. What these journals seemed to ignore was the reality that is Houston: an agglomeration of urban villages governed by an amiable laissez-faire ethos and an ever-changing ethno-cultural makeup. And it all somehow works. It shows no hesitation to remake its landscape, whether by expanding roadways or inserting towers regardless of what views have been eliminated. Its narrower network of artery roads (with only four lanes compared to the typically six lanes in Dallas), do not abet the smooth flow of traffic, but it provides a more comfortable and intimate scale of for its streetscapes. Architectural styles are less conformist, too, and therefore it is easier to find true gems along any street, none of which impose a uniformity of style common in the most picturesque of cities. It is this very disorderly quality that makes this city quite stimulating for me. I wouldn’t mind living there, but the humidity is pretty thick in the air there.

A longtime immigrant resident of Houston admitted to me that her home is truly a city without a memory. Its people thus live for the sake of building a future.

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