[The Sprawl Net]

Utopia Limited

By Richard Ingersoll

Part 3
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(Continued) locate their corporate campuses outside Loop 610 along Highway 6, in what has come to be known as the Energy Corridor. These postindustrial forms of high-income corporate employment are the perfect patron group for master-planned communities, and the relationship has become symbiotic, so that it is difficult to distinguish which has had a greater impact on the others' choice. Schlumberger Well Services recently decided to consolidate its administrative offices in the area, partly because of the access to this type of housing.

In many ways First Colony reverses the strategies of the Woodlands. The landscape, mostly old rice and sugarcane fields, had few trees. The look of the development was created by introducing a new -- and often striking -- formal landscape. The SWA Group, which specializes in the landscaping of corporate campuses, has given an orderly look to the streetscape. The regular rows of teardrop-shaped, nonbearing Aristocrat pear trees that frame the last of First Colony's three freeway exits at Sweetwater Boulevard are a stunning reminder of the displacement of the regular agricultural striation of the land by the cash crop of single-family homes. During the past 15 years, 10,000 street trees were planted and paved sidewalks laid along every street to give the edges of the streets more definition. Some streets have the charm of Houston's older oak-lined boulevards, although the plantings have not been uniformly successful: Palm Royale Boulevard was lined with tall palms that were unable to survive in this climate. In the more expensive neighborhoods, decorative landscape features such as pergolas and fountains give a lush quality to the outdoor spaces. Because the landscaping is so ambitious, all of the houses and retail are much more visible than in the Woodlands. This should not imply that they are more pleasant to look at, only that it is easier to orient oneself.

First Colony spreads out over 9,700 acres with a population of over 30,000 (projected build-out population is 50,000). The name implies the good WASPy stock of Pilgrim fathers but actually refers to the fact that Stephen F. Austin established the first (Anglo) colony in Texas nearby.

What is so astounding about First Colony is the sense of crowding where there is so much space. It is difficult, of course, to squeeze four-car garages onto standard suburban lots. If there is a style that is emerging in the expensive houses, it is not by accident. Sugar Land Development Company hired the firm of Ray Bailey Architects to develop design criteria. The builders were then educated through presentations and booklets about ``enduring design characteristics'' culled from the most admired parts of River Oaks and Shadyside. ``Contemporary'' houses (i.e., modern style, with flat roofs or strip windows) were thought to be inappropriate, as were styles not of Anglo derivation. A design for a house with onion domes and pointed arches was successfully discouraged. The result is a kind of nouveau riche Heimat style. Many of the houses at First Colony, especially those in Sweetwater Village, where the high-priced (between $300,000 and over $1 million) houses are, aspire to the girth of River Oaks houses with only a quarter of the land. They are abnormally high, capped with a big-hipped roof, studded with fake dormers, and smeared with Georgian or Colonial regalia. In contradiction to wood-frame construction, the typical First Colony house is liberally encrusted with gables, brackets, quoins, rusticated brick patterns, and pilasters. The rear elevations of these houses are almost invariably surfaced with cheaper siding materials. Such regular features as cathedral ceilings for the living rooms and private baths for each bedroom boost the square footage well beyond the needs of a modest family.

The developer, Gerald D. Hines Interests, owes some of its fame to its practice of hiring celebrity architects to make distinctive packaging for large commercial projects. In the privatization mentality of the 1980s, this meant that the developer took over as provider of the public realm, a transfer brilliantly portrayed in the fountain park at the base of the Transco Tower. At First Colony the firm of Johnson/Burgee was hired in 1982 to design an office park at First Colony's first freeway intersection. The only one of the buildings to be constructed is brick-clad, with a neoclassical tympanum placed at the top of the central wing and two wings spreading out at a 45-degree angle. It looks stranded, especially when glimpsed with the shimmering Fluor headquarters, the star resident of the office park, looming in the distance. Charles Moore and William Turnbull were engaged to design the Sweetwater Country Club in 1983 for the high-income neighborhood. Despite some interesting interior plays with light in this structure, its construction is generally cheap, and the overall impression is that it has the biggest hips of the big hipped roofs in the development.

Sugar Land Development Company has helped establish the First Colonial style with the design of several commercial buildings such as the Williams Trace Shopping Center, site of the extremely successful Home Depot, and in several of the commercial facilities, where brick elevations are given some articulation with striated bands of different-color brick, string course moldings, and limestone corners. One of the neighborhood recreation centers uses a prominent Palladian archway for its bathhouse. By far the finest buildings are not those of the famous architects, but the excellent design for elementary schools by Spencer Herolz Architects. At the Austin Parkway School, an arresting free-standing wall shoots out on a 45-degree tangent to serve as a canopied walkway from the automobile dropoff point. The design was so successful that it was repeated on another site for the Colony Meadow School with only a slight variation in brick color.

There are bike paths and greenswards at First Colony, but they are not conceived with the conviction of the Woodlands and are apparently little used except by joggers. First Colony is designed for those who like to drive. The ample retail areas have huge parking lots in front. The planned mall will be surrounded by parking, similar to the one planned for the Woodlands, except that its main axis will run parallel to the freeway. Among the largest green spaces on the First Colony map is the right-of-way of the high-voltage power lines. One idea that is currently being discussed is to copy an idea first used at Cinco Ranch: using white sand imported from Florida to create an artificial beach at the recreation center lake.

There is diversity at First Colony the way there used to be in the Old South. The only pedestrians to be seen are the domestics and gardeners, all people of color working hard to maintain the look of the American Dream while the occupants are off working hard to pay for it.

Clear Lake City and Kingwood

B0TH CLEAR Lake City and Kingwood are products of Exxon's Friendswood Development Corporation. They use nearly identical promotional literature and follow very similar layouts. Clear Lake City, the first master-planned new town in Texas, was begun in 1963 by Humble Oil and Refining and the Del Webb Company (famous for developing Sun Cities, Arizona), whose interest in the development was bought out by Humble shortly thereafter. It is located at the southeastern edge of Houston, off I-45 and near NASA, which opened in 1964. Kingwood is at the northeastern frontier, just north of the town of Humble, from which the Humble Oil and Refining Company, now known as Exxon, took its name. Friendswood has also developed Copperfield and Fairfield, both in the northwest quadrant of Houston, which are considerably smaller but similar in concept.

The logic of Clear Lake City, which has a population of 40,000 on 15,300 acres, is to provide a suburban setting for a major new employment center; about 80 percent of the residents work in the immediate area. Following on the success of Sharpstown, Clear Lake City in many ways offers (Continues)


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lda@owlnet.rice.edu 5/22/95