Every incorrect preconception I had about Dallas turned out to be true about Houston. It sprawls further than Phoenix. It has the most inhumanly-scaled and corporatized downtown I’ve ever seen. If it had a decent, older part of downtown, either I couldn’t find it, or it was knocked down to build the current crop of hellish corporate headquarters. I think it is my second least favorite American city, after Phoenix.
Houston is the largest city in the country without zoning, and I was curious to see how this affects the form of the city. I think it actually isn’t that important. One of my suspicions about zoning is that it merely codifies current practices. We have perfected how to build placeless sprawl, and Houston follows these precepts – the conventions are so strong it doesn’t need explicit rules. I couldn’t tell the difference between the sprawly parts of Houston, Dallas, Washington DC, or Atlanta. It’s just that Houston has more of it – about 50 miles across in each direction.
The one noticeable difference is that the Edge City centers out there in the sprawl are bigger, and the buildings at their centers are much bigger than anywhere else in the country. Whereas much commercial development in Edge City is subject to height restrictions, in Houston it is not, and so skyscrapers that would be considered large in downtowns happen out there on the edge. This is probably a good thing. Many large metro areas are developing secondary centers now – the Puget Sound region has about eight, Portland has consciously designated Regional Centers. So if Houston ever begins to redevelop a sense of urbanity in these places, it will have some serious density at those centers, versus the midrise buildings in most of Edge City elsewhere.
There are certainly some nice parts of Houston – we saw some pleasant residential areas, the Menil Collection is a wonderful complex (to be blogged separately), and Rice University is beautiful. Unfortunately, this is all I can post about Rice. Houston is a city where you have to drive, and it is really not possible to park anywhere near Rice unless you have a permit or are willing to take out a second mortgage. So we just drove through it a few times. I don’t blame them for restricting cars, but I regret not being able to see more of the campus.
Near Rice is another amazing center, the Texas Medical Center, which reportedly has 54 different institutions. I have seen some pretty big medical districts in other cities, but nothing like this. It is the hospital as city. Not being a patient, I don’t know whether having a medical complex organized on city streets in separate buildings increase or decreases the dysfunctionality of wayfinding here – it’s like the O’Hare vs. JFK paradigms. Maybe it’s better being able to drive from building to building, rather than having to walk down endless hallways.
We took a good look at the downtown, and were appalled. Granted, we were seeing it on a weekend, when it didn’t have surging crowds of urbanites on the sidewalks, but I get the feeling that still doesn’t happen. Why would you walk here? The streets are the most car-oriented, overscaled and boring I have ever seen, and that pattern goes on and on. Many blocks are given over to corporate headquarters, with desolate plazas and parking garage ramps occupying the periphery.
There are almost no stores, there is no smaller scale, there is nothing for the pedestrian to do but hurry to the end of the block. The one exception seems to be Main Street, which has stores, a median with a light rail track (running in the middle of a lagoon) and some attempts at design of the public realm.
These epitomize the Corporate Private City. We came across one park downtown, and it was full of homeless people hanging around. It is probably the one place in the downtown where they can sit down without being shooed away by guards.
(While not directly related to the terrible downtown, the state of the streets in Houston might be another indicator of the general lack of civic- or commonwealth-mindedness. Without a doubt, they are the worst maintained streets in America. You really can not ride a bicycle in Houston as the streets are so potholed and rutted as to be impassable; we didn’t see a worse road until we took the 20-mile dirt road into Chaco Canyon. Just another way that this is the ultimate city for elevating private, individual interests above common ones.)
Eventually, contemplating the streetscape became just too depressing, so I started looking at the building skins. I’ve been shooting these curtain wall juxtaposition photos in every city, and Houston abounds in them. When all else fails, fall back on abstraction.
And of course, there is the requite Philip Johnson excrescence. This one may be a little better than the PPG building in Pittsburgh in building design, but it loses a lot of points for how it interacts with the street. The corporate headquarters as fortress has never been better expressed.
When they try to address the pedestrian realm, it ends up looking like this. (The irony of the name must be unintentional.) I can’t quite place what movie this is from. When the Earth Stood Still? Pacific Rim? Independence Day? Transformers?
Overall, a truly terrible place. And we were there in February – I can’t imagine what kind of special hell this must be in the summer.