Sunday, January 24, 2010

Heros for Houston

The New York Times carried an Op-Ed piece a few weeks ago aboutthe “Hero architects”: The New York Five - Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk andRichard Meier. The article came on theheels of the death of Charles Gwathmey, and was a testament to the death of NewYork as a center of avant-garde architecture.

There are lots of reasons for New York’s loss ofarchitectural prominence. Too manybureaucratic controls on building. Toohigh a cost of living for young architects. A hostile climate of criticism and historic preservation. Los Angeles was a much freer place to workand live, and so the next generation of prominent architects - FrankGehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Robert Mangurian, Craig Hodgetts - went there instead.

But that next generation is starting to get old. Frank Gehry, like Michael Graves, keepscranking out the same work. Thom Mayneand all the rest are still writing and their work is still evolving– butthey’re no longer the edgy young architects who grace the cover ofmagazines.

We can start to ask “who next?” We can also start to ask “where next?

Why not Houston? This is perhaps the most affordable of the large, American cities. In the late 1990s, students at Rice were ableto buy a warehouse and start a metal fabrication shop. Metalab has since morphed into anarchitectural studio, for better or worse. One has to ask: could studentsafford their own metal shop in New York, or even Los Angeles? Houston’s real estate prices allow for suchthings.

Houston’s schools of architecture compare favorably to thosein New York and Los Angeles. The RiceSchool of Architecture stands as a premier school of architecture theory. The Gerald D. Hines College of Architectureat the University of Houston offers a first rate education in architecturaldesign. The Texas A&M College ofArchitecture is at the forefront of construction sciences. The Rice Design Alliance and the Houston Mod, among others, are valuable resources for art and architecture.

Granted, there are hurdles facing Houston if it wants to behome to the next generation of “Hero architects.” We are a very free city for building. There is no zoning ordinance here. But architects don’t seem to take advantageof that the way developers do. Too oftenarchitects blindly do what the client wants - no matter how boring. Houstondoesn’t have the same zeitgeist as Seattle. People don’t think ‘Houston’ when they think avant-garde architecture.

But the possibility is still there. Houston is well placed to be a mecca of avantgarde architecture. We can take advantage of the freedoms that come with not having a zoning ordinance. We have top ranked architecture schools, and anaffordable, healthy market that should attract the best architects. Maybe the next generation of “Hero Architects”will be ours.

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