When I tell people that I’m working in Houston for four months, those who’ve been there say: ‘My God! The drive from the airport!’ They mean the drive from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, down Interstate 45 or 59. It’s a ten or 12-lane highway, flanked by teeming feeder roads, and you career along it to the gathering rhythm of power pylons, used car lots, motels, the cacophony of billboards selling burgers, judges, vasectomy reversal, everything exposed and unashamed, the great aesthetic shock of America in all its barbarity and convenience. After twenty minutes or so, the famous downtown towers of Houston appear in a distant silhouette across the utterly flat and uncharming landscape. The freeway traffic hurtles towards them with daunting confidence, and before long you are right up beside those thousand-foot-high buildings, looking among them from the circling elevation of the road as the chasms of the streets flicker past. They have an extraordinary presence, the glamorous giants of the Seventies and Eighties half-obliterating surviving brick-clad structures that were giants in their day, and spelling out the fiercely Darwinian message of this boom city. Then they are behind you, and you get a confused hint of the rest of the place, which looks to a British eye like an endlessly extended suburb. Houston is now the fourth largest city in the United States, but it is hard to imagine when you arrive that you could ever come to like it, much less, as I think I did, to love it.
Houston is full of space – partly because there is a Texan endlessness of space for it to use, partly because so much of it has been knocked down. Any journey across town runs through zones of emptiness, intermittent blocks of ruin and decay, garish disjunctions, seams of poverty. It is a car city, second in that only to Los Angeles, and the parking lots are themselves a part of the pattern of emptiness. They give an odd rhythm to much of Downtown, like a half-cleared game of cyclopean solitaire. Newer buildings there aim at concentration by being raised on plinths of parking-garage eight or 12 storeys high. In between them are numerous other vast parking-garages, sometimes half disguised, but distinguishable by the oblique lines of their inner ramps. The buildings themselves are often linked by passages below ground, to avoid the astounding heat and humidity of the summer, so the sense of empty space is subtly intensified. There is no Manhattanish bustle between office and subway (there is no subway); just the coming and going of the cars.
In my early days there it was perhaps some unacknowledged form of homesickness that kept me perversely reading the wonderful fat new edition of Pevsner’s City of London, revised and expanded by Simon Bradley.[*] I found myself repeatedly escaping from the shallow architectural culture of Houston (founded 1836, the year of Texan independence) into imaginary rambles through my own city (founded 50 BC); and indulging a slightly self-conscious relish for the lanes and livery-halls and melancholy churches of London, alongside a faintly supercilious dismay at the trashiness and sprawl of my temporary home. Bradley has written an enthralling introduction, giving a historical overview of the growth of the City and bringing out to the full its oddity and insularity as well as its almost ungraspably layered density. To marvel at it was a kind of defence mechanism while I struggled to absorb the initial disconcertment of Houston, so torrid and extreme, so faceless or recklessly ugly, its inner life so hidden. I am still haunted by the number of windowless buildings there.
Houston’s Pevsner, and my main means of imaginative entry to the city, is Stephen Fox, a professor at both the large and unlovely University of Houston, where I am teaching, and the élite Rice University, which has a beautiful campus laid out by the Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram just before the Great War; Cram’s original Byzantine-eclectic halls and quadrangles are still being gracefully augmented by sympathetic architects such as Cesar Pelli. Fox is the author of the covetable AIA guide to Houston, published in 1990 and so covering the immense expansion of the boom years between the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the mid-Eighties slump, but none the less ready for further revision. His knowledge of the place is inexhaustible, scholarly, loving but not uncritical, and all the more remarkable in that he does not drive. There is something touching about this last fact, as a testament to his own devotion to his adopted city (he comes from the far south-west of Texas), and to the constant readiness of others to take him round. Houston needs its defenders and exegetes. It is not a tourist city, and it strikes me early on that Houstonians don’t expect their environment to be admired, and are wonderfully generous to anyone who shows an interest. Fox flatteringly offers me a Houston tour, on the obvious condition that I take the wheel.
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[*] Penguin, 704 pp., £30, 30 October 1997, 0 14 071092 2.