r e m o t e   c o n t r o l

   
 
     

In the last thirty years, America's built landscape has changed remarkably. Urban, suburban, and exurban areas have grown more alike, and more homogenous. People and buildings have become more isolated from their natural surroundings. And all around us we see more attempts to apply generic solutions to local or specific conditions.

Writer James Howard Kunstler describes these changes differently: "jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, . . . Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons . . . Lego-block hotel complexes, . . . 'gourmet mansardic' junk-food joints . . . particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield" -- creating, in short, "the geography of nowhere."

   
         
      Jiffy Lube on
Dairy Ashford,
Houston, 1996.
Photo by
the author.

         
     

This project is an attempt to identify Houston's role in this transformation of our landscape. This city is fully invested in the mainstream economic characteristics of the turn of this century -- global markets, multinational conglomerates, massive government subsidies of selected industries, a weakened labor force, "flexible accumulation." The growth and development of Houston as a whole mirrors recent patterns of growth in outlying areas of older cities.

Houston, specifically, is how most American cities are growing today.

 
         
  Gulf Freeway,
Houston, 1996.
Photo by
the author.

 

"The post-war collapse of Elm Street and Main Street," writes Albert Pope, "is followed by 'Houston,' the production of an endless and anonymous sprawl of freeways, office parks, subdivisions, and malls. This is the city that unchecked consumer capital really wants to make. . . . the truth of the matter, like it or not, is that by now 'Houston' is everywhere."

But if "Houston" is everywhere, what does that imply about the city of Houston? What is the connection between this city and the development patterns it seems to symbolize?

How could we possibly consider Houston -- or, for that matter, any location -- to be the hometown of a universal, generic form of development that is distinctly divorced from "place"?

 
         
  International
Space Station
traveling exhibit,
Johnson Space
Center parking
lot, 1996.
Photo by
the author.

   
         
     

I think it is possible to imagine it: a city devoted to the enterprise of making life possible in the least-obvious places. In Houston, this idea predates the founding of NASA, the building of the giant air-conditioned expanse of the Astrodome, even the discovery of oil. It was present at the city's founding: Houston, a real-estate scam, an artificial, instant capital of an invented republic. A booming metropolis -- a great international port -- just where it would seem most unlikely: in the middle of a sweltering, soggy coastal plain.

 
         
     

This project, Houston Wet, paints a picture of this city as a giant war zone and laboratory. Over a period of more than 150 years, Houstonians have fought steadily escalating battles against nature -- just to be able to live here, in this difficult environment. In the course of battle, we have learned from our mistakes, developing and appropriating successively more complex techniques with which to isolate ourselves not only from the particular problems of this soggy land, but from difficulties that might exist anywhere.

C.A. Webber and Coralie Roe watch the destruction of a portion of their light-hydrocarbon lab to make room for a new laboratory building, Baytown, 1966.
Courtesy Sterling Municipal Library, Baytown.

         
  Linwood Street, Brownwood, after Tropical Storm Delia, 1973. The Volkswagen in the center is parked on the raised perimeter road.
Courtesy Brownwood Civic Association Archives.

   
         
     

Ironically, in other locations, parallel battles have yielded building practices that we might term "appropriate," or even "indigenous," because they inscribe the particular qualities of the region into the architecture itself.

 
         
      Lee College Open House Tour, Baytown, 1951.
Courtesy Sterling Municipal Library, Baytown.

         
     

In Houston, locally developed, regional technologies have always been eagerly abandoned when more powerful, more generic solutions developed elsewhere could be imported: thus ceiling fans and the siting of buildings for ventilation have given way to air conditioning; the paving of streets with shells has given way to paving with asphalt; and local diners have given way to fast-food franchises.

 
         
  Allbritton's cafeteria, Waugh Drive, 1996.
Photo by
the author.

   
         
     

The major strategies Houston has appropriated and made its own -- and which I explore in this project -- are the same strategies employed in similar, generic developments in other cities.

 
         
     

So how is Houston different from any other booming sunbelt city? In Houston, generic solutions have been applied so persistently that they have established themselves as a significant aspect of the local culture. Here the attempt to insulate people from the local hazards of any natural environment has staked a strong claim as an appropriate, if not quite indigenous, way of life.

Allbritton's demolition, 1996.
Photo by
the author.
         
     

Larry Albert
October 12, 2000

 
         

Photos at top of page: Flag at Rice Stadium, 1962. Courtesy Aubrey Calvin. Brownwood subdivision, 1994. Photo by Eric R. Shamp. Used with permission.

     
         
   

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