8.11.2016

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!


8.04.2016

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.