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Monday, September 9, 2013

Postcard from Houston

Everybody maligns Houston. I like it. But then, I like Los Angeles, too. Houston reminds me a lot of Los Angeles, but with more humidity, more parking, and slightly less traffic. It is much easier to navigate. Basically everything that you are interested in is inside the Interstate 610 loop. So while the city sprawls outward forever, most of the good stuff is within a relatively small circle—unlike Los Angeles.

First, let’s talk about the town of no zoning. This means high-rises next to mansions, laundries across the street from a Dan Flavin installation, dance halls next to middle-class residential districts. Apparently, there are codes on how property can be subdivided, but the voters have turned down zoning repeatedly. Not an experiment worth repeating, perhaps, but it does create some bizarre adjacencies.

The laundry across the street from the Menil Flavin installation.

Museum of Fine Arts - wing by Mies van der Rohe

Quaker meeting house with skyspace by James Turrell

Reyner Banham reintroduced Californians to Los Angeles and got people to see it with fresh eyes. Architect Carlos Jiménez did that for Houston. I heard him lecture a long time ago. He asks you to look at the sky, at the possibilities of a new city.

The Houstonian Hotel is one of those buildings where the architecture is irrelevant and the décor is everything. I call it “we are rich now” décor. Some of the fabrics and details are lovely, but the overall effect is sort of Hearst Castle for the parvenu. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun! In Houston, like Los Angeles, you just add water and you have a jungle. Nobody remembers that the Houstonian is actually a banal, modern, office park-like structure, but rather that all the rooms look out onto dense foliage. It’s like staying in a baroque terrarium!

Houstonian lobby

Houstonian pool and jungle

Driving around Houston, we did smell gas occasionally. This is a town built on oil. Even the parts that I am drawn to—the art and architecture that arrived with the largesse of the de Menil family—came about because of oil. The Schlumberger oil drilling fortune paid for the Rothkos, Philip Johnson, and Walter De Maria. The most challenging and spiritual of good works are rooted in Texas gold.

Driving is a divine right in Texas, and nobody bothers with a Prius. It’s all about big fortress cars being aggressive on the freeways. We had a few near-accidents. Some of this is to due to the confusion of the lane markers and last-second lane changes. But when you are sitting by the pool, these folks couldn’t be nicer, and everybody wants to help you find a good restaurant. Foodie culture has definitely come to Houston. Two places that we tried and enjoyed were Hugo’s, which offers haute Mexican cuisine, and Triniti, which would have fit right into any affluent coastal city in California.

Our purpose in visiting Houston was to see the James Turrell exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. (More on that in a later post.) We nearly missed an exquisite show at the Menil Collection entitled Byzantine Things in the World, which links various pieces in the Menil Collection over history. Although I still struggle with Cy Twombly’s work, the lighting (only natural light when we visited) in the Twombly Gallery at the Menil is simply stunning in its subtlety. That little building is one of Renzo Piano’s great accomplishments in lighting. If only he had done the Rothko Chapel! We were also lucky enough to stumble on Soo Sunny Park’s sculpture at the Rice Gallery. Although made of chain link fence and Plexiglas, the sculptures seem to float and change shape before your eyes.

Rothko Chapel with sculpture
by Barnett Newman (gift of the de Menils)

 Soo Sunny Park’s exhibit at Rice University

Another architectural highlight was tracking down the de Menil’s home (designed by Philip Johnson in 1950) on San Felipe Drive. There are no sidewalks on that section of the busy street so you have to park on a side street and walk on along a verge and cross the street and peek down the drive. Johnson fought with Mrs. de Menil over the windows on the right side of the front elevation. She won. He hated them. But he really hated the interiors by her Charles James, her fashion designer. Now they are legendary. James knew that Johnson needed to be softened up several decades before he realized it. Unfortunately, the public can’t visit the house but it is owned by the Menil Foundation and completed a extensive restoration about ten years ago. By the time we returned to where we had parked, two cars from the River Oaks Patrol were on us. The ruling class don’t screw around. I doubt the security folks get many people telling them they are architectural writers checking out significant landmarks. Because from what we could see River Oaks doesn’t have very many!

Typical River Oaks residence

de Menil residence in River Oaks

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