Vincent Scully (the noted educator and historian of architecture, not the baseball announcer) hates Houston. In his highly regarded American Architecture, he dismisses our bit of Splendour on the Bayou as “a choir of gleaming towers,” entwined by freeways, each massive building “an architectural one-liner, intending to knock our eyes out for a fleeting instant as we glimpse it from behind the wheel,” the glass-and-steel piles “blanker and more inarticulate the closer they are.” Downtown streets are empty of pedestrians, because the skyscrapers bear “no scale or function in relation to the street.” In Houston, our eminent critic concludes, “there is nothing there – nothing that can be called a city as we ever knew a city to be.”
This will raise some hackles. It’s not so much that any of us particularly cares about what Vincent Scully (the architecture historian, not the baseball announcer) thinks about Our Town. It’s not even that we’re inclined to disagree with him: for most of the six million people sharing this little corner of the Gulf Coast flood plain, Downtown Houston is a little like exercise equipment, or the symphony: we have it, and having it makes us feel a little smug, but we don’t actually use it.
What bothers us is the gall, the cheek, the sheer Yankiness of somebody coming in here and telling us that we’re doing it wrong. You just don’t do that. It ain’t right.
We know Houston. We’re the ones who endure the endless summers (my brother, a fancy-pants New York attorney, was in town on business last week. During a break, he decided to take a walk. At two o’clock in the afternoon. “I got about a block away from my hotel,” he said, “and it felt like the soles of my shoes were melting. I had to turn back. I couldn’t take it.”) We’re the ones who live next to the bipolar menace that is the Gulf of Mexico, one moment breezily offering up redfish and shrimp, the next trying to kill us with hurricanes. We’re the ones who brave 290, or the Gulf Freeway, or the Devil’s Banquet that is the 59-610 interchange.
We’re the ones who turned strip bars into “Upscale Gentlemens Clubs” and converted a basketball arena into an enormous church that was once known as “The Oasis of Love.” (I imagine that in the old days, the odd conventioneer wandering into the “Oasis of Love” was discomfited to find not tassels and G-strings, but the sincere and toothy grins of Clan Osteen.) We’re the ones who combined a tabletop hunk of prairie, several industrial pumps, and a large ring of concrete into a ragged approximation of Niagara Falls called The Waterwall, and made it the most popular spot for quinceañera photos on the planet. We are the city that forged beloved cultural icons out of a bewigged man with a cosmetic surgery fetish and a guy dressed in a full-sized mattress, jumping around and screaming “Saves You Money! Saves You Money!”
Skyscrapers out of scale to the street? Architectural one-liners? Brother, those are the least of our issues.
People pick on us, from Yale professors to Yelp reviewers (Nick, from Denver, opines, “Houston is a boring city with nothing going on and the people are sometime just hateful”) to those dreary hipsters in Austin, who think standing in a three-hour line for a hunk of smoked brisket is normal and believe that wearing a t-shirt proclaiming your community’s weirdness establishes your bona fides. (I have news for you, my sleeved and goateed friends: Alief, my little corner of Houston, is about 157 times weirder than Austin, and there’s never a line at the Bundu Khan Kabab House.)
Our usual response to these jibes is something akin to civic Tourette’s, as we bleat out all the reasons why we’re worthy of approbation: “Space City USA! Art Car Parade! Lesbian mayor! Galleria! Beyoncé! Beyonnnnceeé!”
Stop. Take a deep breath. We is, as Frank Zappa reminds us, what we is. We’re the city that got the replica space shuttle, not the real thing. We’re the city with the enormous aquarium-themed restaurant that for some reason features White Siberian Tigers as its main drawing card. We’re the city of strip malls and drive-thru margarita joints, of heavyset old dudes riding Rascal scooters festooned with NRA decals, blithely obstructing rush hour traffic on Beechnut. We invented the silicone implant, and we’re not afraid to use it.
This is our town. Accept it. Hold it close, and let the exhaust fumes carry you to someplace warm and sweet and slightly purple at the edges. Don’t listen to the critics. Everything is okay. Everything is good.
On the other hand, as Vin Scully (the baseball announcer, not the respected architecture historian) says, “Good is not good when something better is expected.” Maybe we could change a few things. Maybe go to the symphony, or use that treadmill, or build a skyscraper that is both aesthetically satisfying and sensitive to the scale of the street. Maybe we could try a little harder. But who has the time, when there are Rascals to dodge and white tigers to ogle and Waterwalls to contemplate?
Besides, I hear that fake space shuttle is AMAZING.
You've read Part I, now read Part II.