Architecture book looks at Houston

By Ann Holmes, published in the Houston Chronicle, May 1990
Our city can look at itself in a new, though not always flattering mirror, in a book about its architecture.

The Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) has brought out its new, richly informative and sometimes scathingly critical book, Houston Architectural Guide. The paperback book will be available to the public at $15. It comes as a prelude to the national AIA Convention, which will bring several thousand architects to Houston May 19-22.

Such a guide is long overdue for our restlessly changing burg. The last AIA Houston architecture guidebook emerged in time for the last national AIA convention here in 1972.

The new guide is tall and narrow and a half-inch thicker than its predecessor. It was formatted to fit the coat pocket, but there is simply too much of Houston to fit in a coat pocket. But it is neatly bound with wire rings, and its cover bears a colorful collage of Houston's architect landmarks, from the Astrodome and the Transco Tower to downtown skyscrapers.

The text is handily assembled on short paragraphs about buildings and houses that are worth knowing about. Most of these are accompanied by crisp, definitive images taken especially for the book by architect-photographer Gerald Moorhead, AIA.

The 850 entries are organized within 13 geographic areas so that those who wish may take their own drive-by tours. A wide range of buildings is depicted, both well-known and obscure. The guide includes the Taiwanese Temple in deep depressed downtown, the house and garden of Timoteo Martinez in the old Second Ward, Victorian-style villas in the Heights, and the late Howard Barnstone's 16-foot-wide townhouses.

Stephen Fox, a respected architectural historian and fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas wrote the new guidebook. He and Moorhead spent more than two years crisscrossing the city to locate and document details of the newest towers, the old buildings, the novel structures and some of the most important or unusual residences. Thick as the book is, Fox agonizes at the things that he left out.

Though quiet and mannerly, Fox employs a sly humor and sometimes a quick and verbal slice in his evaluations. In an introductory commentary on the character and personality of the city, Fox quotes the late Houston author June Arnold, "Houston is a mess," Fox adds, "It is and always has been. That is its scandal and its charm."

Fox's comments may not be the gems Houston Proud will seek to quote, but they are honest and to the point.

He calls the Frank Lloyd Wright house perverse. Of I.M. Pei's Texas Commerce Tower he writes: "good grooming and public amenities provided by Texas Commerce Bank compensate for a lackluster personality." He dislikes the former RepublicBank Center, now NCNB Center, for its "exaggerations of scale and disregard for the realities of making the building," and believes "the building's desperate efforts to entertain and amaze have little substance behind them." He rightly states that the Tenneco Building has yet to be surpassed.

Fox acknowledges the city's extreme contrasts. It is expansive and welcoming, yet unpredictably violent. It preserves the accessibility of the small town while still being the nation's fourth-largest city. 

"People are appalled by its tawdriness," Fox writes, "yet entranced by the flashing skylines and the profusion of its live oak trees."

Because major economic interests maintained Houston as an open city, there is no old guard to perpetuate the proprietary myths of an established elite. Similarly there is no one to exclude or indoctrinate newcomers, he observes.

Houston wanted what other cities had, and has been influenced by those trends, rather than being motivated inwardly, Fox writes. This accounts, he says, for the prominence of architecture here, and explains a shallowness, too, since what is already here is neglected and devalued.

"Houston forgets itself," Fox writes. "Amnesia is an essential local cultural attitude."

Houstonians, he writes, value individual initiative above collective wisdom. Thus Houston voted down zoning four times between 1929 and 1962. He sees the invisible hand of economic interests asserting greater strength than organized efforts for a shared vision of the public good.

"It is Houston's lack of vision itself as an operational whole (rather than a collage of glimmering high points), so tellingly apparent to visitors, that accounts for the lack of public concern about the messy appearance."

Fox sees his city as open, optimistic and averse to self-criticism, and believes that its architecture reflects this extroverted appearance. He feels that conserving the past has yet to register as a critical issue.

Fox's pungent comments follow in the tradition of such guidebooks. The 1972 AIA guidebook stirred up a small tempest when its editor, Peter Papademetriou, then assistant professor of architecture at Rice University, explored the extent and the reasons for Houston's kitsch.

Papademetriou, now professor of architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, writes in the foreword that in the earlier book, "our realization was that the immediate urban past of the late 1940s and 1950s was being written over by the boom of the 1970s." The perspective of that book was to "put (Houston's) moment of incredible change into a context." Now he says, though economic resources may be diminished, more thoughtful possibilities might be created when "value" becomes a word with more economic dimensions.

Houston Architectural Guide is published by AIA/Houston chapter and Herring Press. 


Sold out! City guidebook a landmark hit

By Danni Sabota, published in the Houston Business Journal, August 1991
Books about buildings are rarely found at the top of reading lists, but the popular Houston Architectural Guide is proving to be an exception to the rule.

The success of the book goes to show that Houstonians love their landmarks. Or at least they love reading about them.

In May of 1990, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects produced 5,000 copies of the book featuring photos and brief descriptions of some of the Bayou City's most historically or architecturally significant buildings.

This month, the first reprint of 5,000 will restock some area bookstores that have been out of the guides for almost a year.

"We expected the book to sell well, but we didn't expect it to sell out in six months," says Martha Murphree, AIA executive director.

AIA members spent more than five years kicking around the idea of the Houston Architectural Guide, Murphree says. The association had produced a similar book called Houston, An Architectural Guide in 1972.

But the earlier version lacked the building-by-building description that appears in the current edition written by Stephen Fox, Houston's history and architecture guru and a former student of Peter C. Papademetriou, who created the first rendition almost 20 years ago.

"Just sitting down and doing it was the hardest part," Fox recalls. "There was a lot of riding around the city and discovering things. That was tiring but enjoyable."

Fox and photographer Gerald Moorhead spent more than two years combing the streets of the city for the landmarks featured in the book. A six-member AIA committee sifted through the material each week to decide which buildings should be included.

"We started out with a book that would have been impossible to carry," Murphree says. "There was one point where we were ready to include five warehouse that we thought were significant until someone put their foot down and said we should just pick one."

There were a number of reasons the association produced the book when it did, Murphree says. Houston had undergone many architectural changes since the 1972 guide, so when the local chapter landed the national convention held in May of 1990, the group decided it was time to move ahead.

It cost $85,000 for two print runs in addition to other miscellaneous expenses. With a cover price of $15, AIA decision-makers expected the book to generate only modest funding for some of the association's other programs.

But the response turned out to be overwhelming, even above the 1,000 copies initially sold to architects at he convention. Murphree says she thought the 4,000 remaining copies would last for some time.

Karl Kilian, who purchased the last of the AIA's supply so he wouldn't run short at his Brazos Bookstore, says the guide's popularity was little surprise to him. He has seen various historical accounts of the city move steadily off his shelves over the years, books about the neighborhoods of Broadacres, Braeswood and the museum district and the works of River Oaks architect John Staub.

But none has been as all-encompassing of the city as AIA's guide, he says.

"There are virtually no other books about the city of Houston," Kilian explains. "The Houston skyline has drawn a lot of attention over the last 15 years, but there have been no books about it to answer questions people might have."

Marketing the book has been a snap, he says.

"I leave this book near the cash register, and it virtually sells itself," he says. "It usually starts out that someone picks it up and joking says, 'I wonder if our house in there.' Usually, it's not, but they see one that's in their neighborhood or one they've gone past, and they get drawn in."

Work on the project prompted a similar response from most everyone involved, Murphree says. And the group has piles of information that wasn't used.

Fox says it's surprising how many significant structures have sprouted up since he completed the book more than a year ago, like Cesar Pelli's St. Luke's Medical Tower, some of the new buildings at Rice University and buildings by Carlos Jimenez and local architect William Stern.

Despite a wealth of new and leftover landmarks, Murphree buckles at the thought of another edition any time in the near future.

"The whole process was sort of like giving birth," she says. "The first one was such a monumental operation that no one at the time was thinking about what it would take to produce another."


Houston Architectural Guide

By David G. McComb, published in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 1992
Urban history is a lot more than architecture, but the built environment provides the unique "signature" of a city. The explosive growth in the 1970s and early 1980s accompanied by an attitude that the future was more important than the past gave Houston a showcase of modern and postmodern buildings. Almost all of the great architects of the twentieth century found concrete expression in the Bayou City. Consequently, for the 1990 meeting of the American Institute of Architects in Houston, Stephen Fox, Gerald Moorhead, and Nancy Hadley prepared this guidebook of 850 places in the city and suburbs.

Each entry offers a photograph, address, name, date of construction, architect, and brief description. They are efficiently arranged in nineteen driving tours with easy maps and a general orientation. Most are buildings and homes, but there are included a few statues, bridges, and parks. The text, as might be expected, is sprinkled with architectural terms, but it is not overbearing. Moreover, the descriptions often provide critical comments such as these involving the Astrodome: "In 1989 the historic integrity of this Houston landmark was ruthlessly destroyed by its owner, Harris County. The scoreboard was demolished to provide space for more seating and four, giant cylindrical drums were added to the perimeter of the dome to contain new circulation ramps" (p. 126).

The beauty of architecture, like art, often lies in the eye of the beholder, but critical and accurate evaluation like this can sharpen historical analysis. Stephen Fox, who wrote the text, is both witty and perceptive. The guide, which touches everything of importance, seems excessive at times. Did they really need to include the country store at Clodine? Well, maybe. As time passes and Houston goes its way, we may need this guidebook to let us know what once existed.