Houston, We Have a Program - Part 3

My last week at TIP was probably the most enjoyable, since I didn't have nearly as much prep work to do while the class worked on their studio projects.  Clearly, having the class do lots of studio work is best for everyone - the students prefer it, and it's less work for me - but I stand by my decision to start them off with some background information in the form of lectures, exercises, and sketching practice.  I hope that their final projects came out better for it, although without a control group for comparison, it's hard to know.

During this week I got to go on more side trips, including to the NASA Johnson Space Center, about 45 minutes outside of Houston, and to the Natural Science Museum and the Miller Theater in Hermann Park.  Four of us went to NASA and had a great time.  Johnson Space Center has a large visitor's center with exhibits, a replica Space Shuttle that you can go into, and tram tours of the working facilities.  We chose the tour that takes you to the original Mission Control, complete with 1960s carpet and original chairs.  Somehow, I ended up in the seat once before occupied by Queen Elizabeth, making me queen for a day.  The currently-used Mission Control is located elsewhere in the building but is not part of the tour.

Another stop on the tour was a Saturn V rocket, part the "Rocket Park" exhibit of rockets.  It had its own giant warehouse-sized building so you could see it up close.  The exhibits inside the main visitor's center were half silly, half interesting; the ones on space suits and on Moon exploration were pretty good, but there were also temporary exhibits about the TV show Mythbusters and something called "Angry Birds Space."  We did not explore the latter attraction.  Outside, we checked out the replica Space Shuttle and its modified 747 carrier jet.

During the week, I skipped dinner at the dining hall to check out the Natural Science Museum on its free day.  I have to say that I was terribly disappointed with it.  I thought most of the exhibits were underwhelming, either by virtue of excessive "Disneyfication" and hyperactive lighting/audio; lack of scientific content; or poor layout and exhibition design, making them very dark and disorienting.  The Egypt exhibit was a maze filled with fake temple pieces, the Amazon exhibit was an ethnographic nightmare full of bird noises, and the dinosaur exhibit had crazy mood lighting that made it impossible to tell the difference between real dinosaur fossils and fake reconstructions.  Maybe it's impossible to tell them apart under normal lighting as well, but the purple and blue glows certainly didn't help.

And don't get me started on the "Energy" exhibit, which read like a propaganda piece on the wonders of fossil fuels.  In disbelief, I took photos of the two placards that had anything to say about alternative fuels, and wandered mouth agape through displays of drilling hardware, casino-style drilling games that encouraged you to find "Texas Tea," and a simulator that has you travel down into an oil well.  I get it - oil companies are the folks who funded the museum, together with most of Houston's cultural scene - but one would think that any self-respecting museum with "science" in the name would temper their "energy" exhibit with some more detailed mention of other energy sources (isn't solar technically the source of all the rest?) and the impacts of our current fossil fuel dependency (ie climate change).  Apparently not.  Thanks, BP America and your cousins.

After dispiritedly escaping from the museum, I ate too many tacos at a nearby restaurant, then wandered through the adjacent public garden.  There was a cool hill / labyrinth / waterfall thing that I explored.  Then I proceeded to the Miller Theater to read Jane Jacobs for an hour and a half while waiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Some folks showed up in costume, which I appreciated, but it was really hot out, which I did not.  Finally night fell, and with the theater still nowhere near full, the movie began.  At least my fifth viewing of the film made up for the lousy start to the evening!

And with that, my exploration of Houston came to a close.  I survived the students' final reviews, parent conferences, and departure day, and headed home.  Thanks to all my students for a fun term, and good luck on your next adventures!


Houston, We Have a Program - Part 2

My course was split into three weeks of different topics.  Week one was primarily background information, covering architecture & urban history, with lessons on different types of architectural visualization (drawing, sketching, modeling).  Week two was "special topics," including historic preservation, green infrastructure, density, transportation, public interest design, and imaginary cities - all the things I think are interesting.  Week three was studio-intensive, with two briefs in five days, each culminating in a juried review.  Every week had one or two site visits to relevant places, including the nearby museums, a downtown walking tour, public parks, a non-profit preservation project in a low-income neighborhood, and the sites chosen by the students for their final projects.  I was able to have Rice professors lead two of the site visits, which I think added a lot to the experience.  My TA kept a blog with photos of our work, accessible here.  Scroll down to the "Term 1" posts.

Our downtown walking tour was led by architectural history Stephen Fox, who is one of the most knowledgeable historians writing about Houston today.  We started at the downtown public library and walked around Tranquility Park, the downtown skyscrapers, and along the 10-year-old MetroRail line, ending back at the library.  Philip Johnson was the architect of some of the most distinctive Houston skyscrapers, all from the 1960s and 1970s.

Two adjacent Philip Johnson skyscrapers

During the second week, I had a chance to return to the Museum of Fine Art to see the other half of the museum, which I hadn't had time to see before.  In the European section, I found a painting by Panini that's on the cover of one of my art history books from undergrad!  (Rome: Profile of a City, by Richard Krautheimer.)  For some reason, I really love the caprices and vedute paintings of the 1700s.

At the end of week two, we toured Buffalo Bayou Park, a restoration of one of Houston's natural wetlands by a public/private partnership.  The long, linear park is peppered with sculptures, installations, and architectural bridges across the bayou.  We walked to the point where there is a bat colony living under a bridge, then headed back.  Then we visited Discovery Green, another public/private redevelopment in the downtown area, in front of the convention center.  Though much smaller, this park was packed with people having different events.

That same evening, I couldn't resist going on the traditional TIP trip to a minor-league baseball game, recalling the many Durham Bulls games I attended as a TIPster.  We went to see the Sugar Land Skeeters, who may win the prize for worst mascot ever, at a fairly nice stadium in the middle of nowhere outside Houston.  

One of the other things I'm glad I did, although I have no photos, was to take the class to see Project Row Houses, a non-profit that's renovating early Houston homes as artist studios and residences in the Third Ward neighborhood.  In partnership with the Rice Building Workshop, the group has also sponsored design/build projects by Rice students to build additional homes.  Our class got to see some of these homes designed and built by students on a tour led by Danny Samuels and Nonya Grenader, the Rice professors who direct the design/build program.  Danny and Nonya were very generous with their time in leading us around the Project Row Houses neighborhood.

Teaching for six hours a day turned out to be exhausting, so that's all I managed to do during those first two weeks of the class!  I did get to check out a pretty cool coffee shop / bar one day with my fellow instructors, called Double Trouble, which also had "trouble-free" non-coffee non-alcoholic drinks.  I enjoyed the Caribbean Cream Soda and a Fluffernutter cookie.  Houston, like all major cities, seems to have plenty of hipster hangouts in re-developing parts of town.  With all three meals a day provided on campus, though, it was hard to get away to try any restaurants.

Next up - spaaaaace, in Part 3.


Houston, We Have a Program - Part 1

The following post was written in early June when I started at TIP - but I didn't have time to complete it.  The rest of my TIP posts will be written now, in late July / early August, after the fact.

It feels crazy to write it, but I'm back at summer camp, and not just any camp, but Duke TIP.  I'm here at Rice University in Houston for the month of June, living in the dorm, eating cafeteria food, and re-acclimating to the heat and humidity.  This time, though, I'm going to be the adult in the room, teaching a class of 8th to 10th grade students on "Architecture in the Urban Environment."  Maybe we'll call it CityLab for short, because that sounds cool.  [Edit: we didn't call it that.  Oh well!]

I've been here a few days and have managed to get off campus most days, if only for short distances.  I walked to the Museum of Fine Arts - Houston (MFAH), the Contemporary Art Museum - Houston (CAMH), and the Menil Collection.  Since Rice is located adjacent to the city's Museum District, museums are about the only thing within walking distance, and almost none of the staff have cars.  This means I've walked about 5 miles a day since arriving.  The MFAH has a Yayoi Kusama exhibit going on, which I was lucky enough to wander into during the preview, so I got to see both immersive environments without having to make an advance reservation or anything!  I only took photos in one, though, because the other one wouldn't make sense in a photo.  It's truly something you need to experience in person.  One of the best things about Houston so far is that most of the museums are free, probably thanks to the many wealthy (oil-funded) donors here.

Here are some photos from the art museums:

And here are a few thoughts on the Rice University campus so far:

1.  What is with all the live owls?  Did the university release them here, or have all the owls in Houston discovered that they are welcome on the Rice campus (since the owl is the university mascot) and have flocked here?  I have never heard so much owl hooting in my entire life.

2.  Wow, your campus is spread out.  Is all this grass really necessary?  Are these giant lawns normally full of students in the school year?  Because it's starting to wear me out.  Rice's campus isn't at all compact, and our dorms are pretty far from the center of campus, where the library, student center, and classrooms are located.  Thus all the walking.

3.  At least your food is excellent.  I have yet to try anything that's not been tasty.  Or maybe it's just that I'm hungry from all the walking.

I shouldn't neglect to mention my visit to the James Turrell Skyspace, "Twilight Epiphany," which was an interesting experience.  This site-specific installation on Rice campus seemed a bit dilapidated; the roof edges were not as crisp as they should be.  However, the changing light sequence was soothing and we enjoyed watching the reflected glow of the sunset on the downtown buildings.  I'd recommend getting there early enough to snag a seat in the lower part of the structure, which we were not able to do.  I expect that the effect is better from there.

Next up - the start of class, and assorted side trips!  All this and more, in Part 2.


Visiting Hearst Castle

Back in February, I decided that the thing I wanted for my birthday was to visit Julia Morgan's Hearst Castle.  If you aren't familiar with architect Julia Morgan, then you should fix that right away.  Two years ago she was awarded the AIA Gold Medal, posthumously, as the first woman to receive this significant prize.  (Many of us wondered why the AIA couldn't find a living woman architect to be awarded, but that's a story for another post.)  She's generally considered one of the most important architects of the California Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th century.  She was the first woman admitted to the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most prestigious school of architecture of the European academy system; the first woman licensed in architecture in California; and one of very few women architects practicing in this country in the early 20th century.  Hearst Castle is considered one of her masterpieces.

Unlike many of her buildings, which were homes, community centers, university buildings, and religious buildings in the midst of communities, Hearst Castle was built in the middle of nowhere as a retreat for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who was a major patron of Morgan's.  The mansion (officially called La Cuesta Encantada, or The Enchanted Hill, by its owner) is perched atop a hill overlooking the Pacific, six hours south of San Francisco.  These days, it's operated by the state, as part of the state park system, with a massive visitor's center at the bottom of the hill, and buses to take visitors up to the property.  Visiting is by guided tour only, probably both because of the complete lack of parking (thus the buses) and to control the quantity of visitors stomping around.

My birthday falls around the long weekend of President's Day, so that was when we took the trip.  We drove down to Cambria, a bit south of San Simeon where the mansion is located, and stayed at the Cambria Pines Lodge.  It's a nice place to stay although our particular building wasn't the newest or nicest on the property.  It has some walking trails and adjacent gardens, which we strolled through before we left.  From there, it was a short drive to the visitor's center.  We also checked out the Red Moose Cookie Company after lunch in Cambria, which was a shop set up inside what appeared to be an industrial storage building.  The cookies were fantastic; we tried the Root Beer Float ones as well as the Pumpkin Moose Pie.  It's definitely worth finding this place (follow the signs from the road...) if you're ever in Cambria.

We took the "Designing the Dream" architecture-focused tour, which let us go inside some of the guest buildings and back-of-house areas.  In retrospect, we should have signed up for two back-to-back tours so we could also have seen the inside of the main building.  After the tour, you can wander around the grounds as long as you'd like.  The detailing on all the buildings was truly impressive, and the views of the ocean are lovely.  The ceilings of the various rooms were some of the most impressive parts of the buildings.

After the tour and wandering around, we headed back down to the visitor's center and made the mistake of watching the explanatory video in the theater.  After our tour, which gave little to no context for the building, I was hoping that the movie would tell us more.  But I was wrong.  I left feeling more than a bit angry about how the film glossed over all the important details, like who built the mansion and what were their lives like; how the building was financed, and how it was affected by the crash and the Great Depression; how this project fits into its context of other great mansions being built at the same time; where the materials came from and what construction techniques were used; etc.  As I wrote in my notes afterward, the building was presented as art, rather than as architecture - as one man's singular dream, realized by one (woman) architect.  All the context was stripped away, leaving visitors to marvel at this seemingly miraculous apparition on the hill.  But as anyone would know who's studied architecture at all, buildings are never one man's project, sprung into being fully-formed.  A whole team of skilled craftsmen, artisans, laborers, accountants, designers, manufacturers, and more are needed for the realization of any project of this size and detail.  What are their stories?  Not being told at Hearst Castle, apparently.

So while the mansion itself is beautiful and a joy to see, don't expect to learn much from your trip except how wonderful Mr. Hearst was, and how generous he was to build this giant house that we all now get to enjoy for two hours or so for $30 a tour.  If you want real information, you'll have to read up on it yourself ahead of time.

Hungry and disgruntled, we left San Simeon and drove to King City for part two of our weekend - Pinnacles National Park.  The next morning, we headed over to the park, which is about 1.5 hours from where we live.  But when we arrived, we encountered a huge line leading up to the entrance.  It turns out the park was full, and each car was being admitted only when someone left.  After learning this, and seeing how slowly the line was advancing, we headed home, even more disgruntled.  Apparently the lesson is not to try to go to Pinnacles during a holiday.  On the way back to the highway from the park, we lost GPS signal, and ended up missing our turn, adding an extra hour to the trip.  Yay!

Overall, this wasn't our best trip together, but hey, you can't expect every trip to be perfect!  At least we got to see half the stuff we set out to see.  And had some tasty, tasty cookies, made with love and butter.


Book Review: Architectural Agents

Architectural Agents: The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings (2015) by my undergraduate architectural history professor, Annabel Jane Wharton, is an imagining of what it means when we say that buildings "act" or "do things" in the world.  Architects and architectural historians like to think that buildings are active -- taking roles in the built environment, shaping human action -- but if pressed, we might not be able to say exactly what we mean by that.  Of course buildings don't move or act in a traditional sense, we'll say.  But they can enable, or conversely, proscribe limits to, human action.   In her introduction, Professor Wharton goes further, exploring the agency of buildings as grounded in their unique, embodied, historical characteristics, which allow them to have distinct social and political effects.  Wharton writes,

"Now, as in the past, buildings may be immobile, but they are by no means passive.  [...]  [M]ost buildings, like most people, can both confirm our familiar patterns of behavior and modify them.  We build a classroom to accommodate a certain kind of learning; the classroom in turn molds the kind of learning that we do or even that we can imagine.  Modifications in the room might lead to innovations in teaching practice.  Buildings, in this sense, certainly have social agency.  Indeed, the acts of buildings may be compared with the acts of their human counterparts insofar as those acts are similarly overdetermined--that is, fraught with more conditions in their social circumstances or individual histories than are necessary to account for the ways in which they work." (xix)

I think this way of thinking about buildings is distinctly helpful for architects.  Too often we talk about how we can create social change through novel spatial relationships or by adding "collaborative space" without stopping to think about how this actually works.  Of course the building alone can't do much; it is the building's interaction with human agents that causes it to have positive or negative social effects.  A case in point: Compare the histories of "tower in the park" projects, and you'll see how architecturally similar buildings have encountered drastically different results depending on how their inhabitants have used them.  And yet, the precise spatial organization of the building, its physical effects on the environment, its relationship to other buildings, etc, do have measurable effects on human action and thought.  This argument can both support architectural work, in providing a basis for its significance, and restrain us from thinking that architecture can do more than it can.

The body of Wharton's book explores six case studies of buildings that have encountered / been victim of / contributed to various life-altering events: murder, despoliation, disease, or addiction.  The case studies show how the changes in the buildings' status and structure have generated negative or positive effects on their users.   Wharton describes the first case, the Cloisters in New York, as a "murder" because the Cloisters was built from fragments of medieval European buildings that were forcibly taken from their original, often still functioning, locations.  She argues that the medieval pieces now on display were not meant to be viewed as artworks, but as parts of a sophisticated whole, and removing them from that whole destroys their ability to act:  "A Mondrian can act much the same way in the Museum of Modern Art as it once did in the living room of the patron for whom it was made; a processional cross is not allowed to behave in the museum as it did in a church" (29).  Further, the orphaned pieces can no longer tell a coherent story to the museum's visitors, giving them a misguided understanding of the pieces' history, and concealing the violent acts that brought them to the museum.

Wharton's other chapters are equally fascinating as a social / biographical history of specific buildings.  The rest of the book covers the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem  ("Spoils"), the Hospital de los Reyes Catolicos ("Amnesia"), the American Colony in Jerusalem ("Urban Toxicity"), Las Vegas casinos ("Gambling"), and the virtual spaces of Assassin's Creed and Second Life ("Digital Play").  In the Conclusion, she turns to the Chicago Tribune Tower, site of another bizarre set of spoils from the ancient and medieval worlds.  Weaving all of these disparate sites together is an understanding of how they have been active, agents of their own ends, despite and in reaction to whatever changes we humans have made to them over the years.

If you are interested in understanding how buildings can and do act in the world, in more than a superficial sense, then I recommend Architectural Agents as a way to begin thinking about this problem.   As Wharton writes, "Architectural Agents investigates the ontological status of buildings as embodied agents [...].  [I]t also makes the case that buildings exert a force on the world independent of human intention or even human consciousness." (xxi)  Walking the line between giving buildings too much agency and too little can be a difficult one, although it is important for a profession that makes claims every day about the significance of its production -- buildings -- in the world.  Besides that, the buildings Wharton chooses to investigate have amazing histories, and are worth reading just for an understanding of how much buildings can change over time.

Professor Wharton teaches medieval and modern/contemporary architectural history in the Art, Art History, & Visual Studies Department at Duke University.  Her famous short-word-count essay assignments helped me learn to write better than any other art history assignments.  I will always remember struggling to read Deleuze & Guattari in her class, whilst discussing Second Life.


Book Review: A Country of Cities

A Country of Cities is the book I think we should all send our parents, to help them understand what it is we are facing as a generation when it comes to climate change, land use, changing lifestyles, urbanism, sustainability, etc.  Vishaan Chakrabarti, partner at SHoP Architects in New York and a GSAPP professor of real estate development, has put together a fully-researched and attractively illustrated book that breaks down urbanism into simple illustrations explaining how the US came to be a nation of "highways, hedges, and houses," and how he thinks we should instead work toward a country of cities, of "trains, trees, and towers," to use his phrase.  The book is a polemic, an unabashed argument for greater density in our cities, fewer cars, and, most importantly, fewer subsidies for the suburbs, which he argues is the one of the biggest reasons we Americans are as sprawling, land-wasting, and unsustainable as we are.

The first part of the book lays out the history of suburbs in the US, and the policies that enabled and encouraged suburbanization instead of continued urbanization.  The following two parts explore what makes cities good -- better at achieving economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and social benefits than suburbs -- and what policies could help us create better cities.  The final part is a manifesto of sorts declaring the value of cities and the possibilities for a future, more equitable, more prosperous, urban society.  Chakrabarti is not interested in having a spectrum of land use between the fully rural and the fully urban, but instead a "country of cities," a country with urban centers that quickly fade out to rural areas, with no suburbs in between.  This would require some suburban areas to be returned to rural use, and others to become true cities, dense enough to support transit.

As someone who's now nearing three years of suburban life, after having lived three years of a fully urban life, I continue to see the appeal of Chakrabarti's vision.  I have become more accustomed to the increased dangers and fewer opportunities of living in the suburbs: Every day I take my life in my hands on the road, instead of enjoying the safety of the subways, and every evening I return home, with nothing much to do for fun besides watch TV.  Because of traffic, and the lack of attractive transit options, I can't get to San Francisco or San Jose in the evenings in time to do anything interesting.  It's "comfortable" here, I have a large apartment and an easy routine, but the fun of having everything at my fingertips is gone.  The extra 100sf of carpet that I've gotten in exchange for being able to walk everywhere, see anything, and meet anyone I want, doesn't seem like much.

Back to the book - It's a fast read because 50% of the book is diagrams, and if you're familiar with most of the recent discourse about urbanism, then there may be nothing new here.  But the plea for better urban policies is still a good one to hear, and this is the kind of book that might be able to convince some laymen out there that (hyper)dense urbanism will help us out of many of the social, energy-efficiency, and even financial holes into which we've dug ourselves.  As I said - send it to your parents.  Well, read it first yourself, and then send it to your parents.  Let me know what they think about your proposed hippie urban car-free lifestyle afterward.  We'll need to get them on board with these ideas if we want to make anything like this possible in our lifetimes, because we need to start now.

Disclaimer:  Vishaan was my studio critic for my final semester at GSAPP, so I'm a bit biased here.  But only in a good way, of course!