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.
The Sunday afternoon agreed on is one of heavy rain, and everything we see is craned at through the splosh of the windscreen-wipers. Yet, oddly, I can’t remember the impediment, and recall only the communicated pleasure of looking, and the new sense of logic as the growth of the city is explicated: the competitiveness, the accelerated flux of fashion and money, the westward migrations of the rich, the impact of one or two key developers. The contrasts are certainly astounding. Houston has no zoning laws, and the mood of planning laissez-faire is both exhilarating and melancholy. Something, like nothing, happens anywhere. The downtown area once contained the mansions of the rich, but they have all gone; some of those baking, dusty parking-lots were once their gardens. Elsewhere ‘little’ 12-storey office buildings of the boom years were mere teasers for vaster projects which never had time to be built. Or as a commercial development ran into the slump it turned into a residential one, to slightly eerie effect. Just occasionally an owner held out, and an older house huddles stubbornly in the shadow of the surrounding high-rises.
Stephen directs me to go through the former Fourth Ward. It is an old African-American quarter, much of it demolished to make way for new middle-income housing in the horribly bastard sub-Post-Modern style common in Houston – fanlights, balustrades, other bits of tat. Beside these, the late 19th-century rows of tiny wooden ‘shotgun’ cottages along potholed or unpaved roads exhibit an architectural dignity that is only a part of their eloquence. The type takes its name from the unhappy certainty that the discharge of a shotgun through the front door would pass through the back door without encountering any (architectural) obstacle. Most of the ones here are well kept up. One or two have slumped into the engulfing vegetation of this swampy place. Then you lift your eyes and just beyond the trees, startlingly close, the downtown towers loom and glitter. Stephen says how moving the Fourth Ward is, and I feel deeply touched by it myself – as a late symbol of close-knit urban life in a city that is all suburban dispersal and avoidance of focus; and a poignant architectural survival in a city of such rapid erasures. But apparently the black mayor does not support the preservation of these archetypal Southern working-class dwellings. And one can see that they perpetuate (if that is the word) the original distinction between the white Downtown and the adjacent black area which serviced it. Later, I find myself questioning my surge of emotion. Later still, an African-American friend speaks of the place as a kind of disgrace. When I suggest showing it to a friend visiting from England, he says: ‘My God! Don’t take him there!’
The flatness of Houston. An early arrival on the bayou sailed straight past it without noticing, so utterly did it lack elevation; certainly the later mania for elevation is part of the city’s crudely defiant dynamic. When landscape is reduced to invisibility the buildings take on a new supremacy. Living on one of the steepest roads in London I find the flatness after a while emotionally oppressive, and book a flight to San Francisco, really just so as to see a hill. True, there is a northern area called the Heights, which sounds as if it ought to be the Hampstead of Houston, but the altitude in question turns out to be a mere 23 feet: not enough to notice, at least until a tropical storm comes in and the rest of the city is underwater. Otherwise it is only from the raised race-track of the freeway that you get any kind of view over things. Or of course from a high building itself. I.M. Pei’s 1002-foot-tall Texas Commerce Tower has an observation deck on the 60th floor, a good way short of the summit. From it you look down into the Deco crown of a nearby Twenties block, and across other rooftop areas not quite meant to be seen. The rest of Downtown clusters around, but its glamour is reduced and exposed. What strikes you more is the leafiness of the rest of the city, much of which is almost invisible among trees, browning now in the late quasiautumn. It is like a poetic resolution of the vacancy and transience of Houston, as if nature had reclaimed the place. It looks at least like a garden city; until you see, far off, the secondary Downtown of the Galleria area, and the glinting monolith of Philip Johnson’s Transco Tower.
Johnson is perhaps the most conspicuous architect in the Houston cityscape. He was brought in by the Menils, the city’s great artistic benefactors, and his later career is interestingly represented here. First there is the economical Miesian minicampus of the Catholic University of St Thomas, built in the late Fifties, a place and moment at which, as Stephen Fox says, ‘the spirit of the new entered Houston.’ Nearly twenty years later he designed with John Burgee the first of his giant commercial buildings, Pennzoil Place. It stands towards the edge of the Downtown cluster of corporate towers, and makes a subversive play on them by actually being two towers, only ten feet apart. Their surface is refinedly Miesian, articulated by close-set vertical black I-beams, but in the dynamic play of forms and angles Johnson is his own man. Pennzoil Place becomes one of my favourite Houston sights, constantly changing as one circles round it or walks through the narrow ravine between its two parts – which mass and merge and separate again with a lightness and tension never quite achieved, for example, by the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
It is a repeated dull shock to glimpse, between these finely honed forms, the sterile and bombastic Republic Bank Center, which Johnson built seven years later on the other side of the street. This is one of his buildings which blows up a traditional but alien form to a colossal scale – like the broken-pedimented tallboy of his famous AT&T building in New York. Here it is the pinnacled, stepped gable of a Flemish cloth-hall raised in overtopping triplicate eight or nine hundred feet high. It must be said that it’s a popular building with Houstonians, and in a sense a trademark one among the relative anonymity of its neighbours. If the Transco Tower is more successful it is because the language it adapts is that of the visionary skyscrapers of the Twenties and Thirties; like much new design of the Eighties and Nineties it has a slightly camp quality, as if it were imitating a long-ago imagining of the future. Also it stands alone, like Cesar Pelli’s more blockish but very American Canary Wharf tower, and its soaring glass surfaces, like Canary Wharf’s stainless steel ones, help make it a theatre of sublime effects when seen from a distance in storm, haze or sunset.
I watch a documentary about the Loisaux family – three generations of demolitionists. Their technique is described, not quite accurately, as implosion: they hollow buildings out and then collapse them inwards; and there seems something efficiently nihilistic about this, unlike the dogged poking and swinging of bulldozers and iron balls, which dramatise the doomed resistance of the structures. We see them at work removing the inner walls of great sad inter-war apartment and office buildings, thirty-storey hotels with ballrooms at the top and huge neon ‘HOTEL’ signs stilted up on the roof. One building has gone from being a hotel to a masonic temple to a private home: an odd recension. The Loisaux are perfectionists, bringing down their prey with the minimum of charge in the exactest area. We see them demolish the Douglas Building in downtown Omaha: rough brick side-walls and grandiose corniced and pilastered street façades. One set of charges weakens the building, a second set brings it down. Each victim looks indescribably obsolete in its last erect moments; yet the technique is devised to assault what is essentially modern about them all: their immensely strong metal or reinforced concrete frames.
Demolitions of a slower kind are depicted in an exhibition of Paul Hester’s photographs of Houston, ‘The Elusive City’, shown at the Menil Collection, the serenely long and luminous museum by Renzo Piano which is one of Houston’s most treasured resources. Hester’s vision is rather at odds with it: he has a clever eye for what is actually seen but rarely isolated and framed: his subject is less architecture than the spaces between architecture, that interstitial emptiness which is so potent a part of Houston but not of New York or New Orleans or San Francisco. He observes the obviously ephemeral – shacks, strip-joints, neighbourhood tarot parlours – alongside the monumental sheen of bank lobbies and Downtown towers too tall to fit the frame. Like any close observer of a place he loves, he produces anecdotes and memorabilia, but he also has pictures with no discernible subject at all: a bit of freeway, an empty parking-lot, figures waiting at a bus-stop in a featureless street. And then he has pictures in which the monuments themselves become nothing: the demolition of the Shamrock Hotel (1949-87), or of the colossal blank cylinders of the Rice Elevators. He shows the Memorial Baptist Hospital ripped and trashed against a beautiful but pitiless background of night-lit office towers.
Boom-town thoughts. I remember how in 1982 the TLS, which I had recently joined, moved to Clerkenwell, an area of obsolescent trades, little printers and watch-menders. I liked it, despite its shabbiness and apartness and oppressive closeness, for a vegetarian, to the bloody squalor of Smithfield meat-market. But then, as that convulsive and destructive decade continued, Clerkenwell changed. It was discovered, clustered around a deep railway cutting halfway between the City and the West End. People moved in and out. And it wasn’t all bad. The stinking little cafés and third-rate trattorias were suddenly supplemented by bracingly pricey restaurants. Galleries, wine merchants, even night-clubs opened. There was refurbishment; but there was also massive destruction. A sombrely impressive Piranesian warehouse along the railway line was demolished, and replaced by a meretricious street-long office block in the ubiquitous grey and maroon of low-class Eighties development. Bits of Post-Modern nonsense were quickly run up. Whole blocks of small-scale Victorian commercial building were reduced to rubble and anonymous new projects begun. And then the boom was over, and the building stopped, and for years and years there were just the concrete stumps, sprouting their reinforcement rods, and empty half-built frames encroached on by weeds and small bushes. They were premature ruins, and very symptomatic ones. They seemed to have a curious formal kinship with the real ruins, the Blitz bombsites which were still numerous when I first came to London in the early Sixties, and the last of which, deployed as rough carparks between shattered walls, survived into the late Eighties. This was the devastated City that Pevsner had had to describe in his original volume of 1957, and I realise that I was lucky to have seen it on the threshold of its delayed (and sometimes disastrous) redevelopment. The presence of the different types of ruin keeps coming back to me as I drive each day through the gappy urban fabric of Houston; though Houston, of course, has never been bombed by anything but money.
I am invited to Galveston by some friends, and taken on a windshield tour by Ellen Beasley, co-author with Stephen Fox of an excellent architectural guide to the town, and author of a book on the alleys which run behind the houses, like long, straight, slightly countrified mews. Galveston is a boomtown of the later 19th century, a port, founded, like Houston, on cotton, and a major point of immigration. It covers a long narrow island, and the journey to it, past the oil refineries and petrochemical plants of Texas City, is one of the most hideous I can remember making. Galveston suffered from a terrible hurricane in 1900, and a decade later from the opening of a ship canal to Houston, forty miles to the north-west, which effectively took its business away. In its decline it became famous as a gambling town. Nowadays it has a long, delightless front but behind it an amazing amount of the old town survives and has been beautifully conserved. We drive round block after block of raised white wooden houses, distinguishing the different formats, the variety of gables, the follies of the rich, and again the little back-houses in the alleys, where the mainly black servants once lived. The town has its own architectural hero, an Irishman called Nicholas Clayton, who designed a number of vigorous polychrome brick buildings in a medley of late Victorian styles. Ellen is deeply attuned to her subject, and has a particular appreciation of the simple geometry of the more modest houses, which have their own subtleties of vocabulary and proportion. About ten times she says: ‘This one is my favourite.’ We drive on and on, through derelict black neighbourhoods, boarded-up social housing, past the last surviving bordello, gaping behind a chain-link fence, and out to the desolation of the town’s edge: the vast ruined Falstaff brewery, zones of salt marsh, distant lines of grey concrete silos. The car humps over half-buried railway tracks and, caught up in Ellen’s emotion, I find myself nodding and murmuring in melancholy appreciation of a scene that is undeniably frightening and sad.
The writer Phillip Lopate described Houston as a ‘covert, lyrical city’, and as the months go past these unexpected adjectives slowly reveal their rightness. The lyric has the lightly thudding rhythm of the car’s tyres over the concrete blocks of the long straight avenues, and the sedated pace of American town traffic, so different from the communal frenzy of the freeway or the clogged aggression of London driving; as well as the generalised sense of aptness which comes from falling in love with a place. And as the open-sesames of Texan hospitality follow each other, new districts unfold. One evening it’s a party in North Boulevard, the street at the humblest end of which I live, but which, as one drives eastward, grows grander and grander by the block, until it is a triple avenue of live oaks flanked by Twenties mansions – now Spanish, now French, now severely Georgian, now picturesque Lutyens Tudor. The juxtapositions are as surreal as you could hope for from a new plutocracy, but the houses themselves have space to breathe, unlike comparable avenues of the same period in North London, with soulless and pretentious neo-William and Mary manor houses packed side by side. Next it is a party in the Heights, in a different kind of Twenties house, a corner bungalow with candles on the porch and a profound suburban calm in the roads which seem to stretch away for ever under the trees.
And then, one of the best surprises of Houston, a visit to the architect Cameron Armstrong, who lives in one of a number of ‘tin houses’ he has built in the West End (so named from its being the end of the long-vanished Blossom Street trolley line). These houses are sided in Galvalume, an alloy produced in flexible sheets which can then be crimped into rigid folds. They pick up on the forms and scale of various metal-sided sheds in the area, but their language is sophisticatedly modern. Armstrong speaks of the influence of the great Viennese architect Rudolph Schindler, who worked so inventively in the climatic conditions of his adopted California; and certainly the interiors of Armstrong’s own house and of others he shows me round display a refined Modernist apprehension of the ever-changing subtleties of light, the multiplicity of whites, and the ambiguous margins between inside and outside. There is grandeur and intimacy, and surprising relations between the two. Unlike most new Houston domestic architecture, the houses are both practical and beautiful. Where brick can reach 140 degrees and turn a house into a kiln, and stucco absorbs the damp, and wood rots and drops off, the tin is resistant and cools quickly and should prove to have a long life. The architectural press seems to have passed Armstrong’s work by, but its new synthesis of modernism with its industrial roots is highly original and satisfying.
In general it is artists and collectors who have commissioned the best – though not by a long way the biggest – new houses. It takes time, a good guide or good luck to come upon these quiet, unannounced enclaves, leafy, almost rural-feeling little quartiers in the West End or along the inner curves of the bayou, where you sense a sudden change of terms, and the vulgar suburban conformism of latterday Houston is shot through with originality and beauty.
[*] Penguin, 704 pp., £30, 30 October 1997, 0 14 071092 2.