In Praise of Kitsch

Houston is the town too busy for taste, where the only relevant question is, "Does it look cool?"

By Cort McMurray May 4, 2015

Several of David Addickes's giant presidential heads

Image: Flickr

Houston is the town too busy for taste, the town that loves its big gestures and its shiny things. From Heritage Plaza downtown, a nondescript steel and glass skyscraper that for reasons inexplicable sports an ersatz Mayan temple on its roof, to J.J. Watt—pitchman, sackmaster, shimmering gift from the Hall of Odin—Houston is a haven for stuff that’s enormous and loud and just a little bit goofy. Clutch City? Nah, man. We’re Kitsch City. 

This is not a criticism. Houston is the most refreshingly honest metropolis in the state, maybe the entire country. We like what we like. We is who we is. We ain’t too pretty, we ain’t too proud, we might be talking a bit too loud, but that never hurt no one, am I right? 

Consider our neighbors: Dallas is the Hyacinth Bucket of cities, its veneer of culture and breeding hiding chaos, all grit and grime and gridlock, to say nothing of the eerie jack-o-lantern visage of Jerry Jones. San Antonio’s entire economy is based on a couple of mediocre restaurants along a glorified drainage ditch, and the citizenry’s unreasoning veneration of an ancient, crumbling pile that should have been dismantled and forgotten years ago. But enough about the Spurs.

Heritage Plaza and its faux Mayan temple

Image: Flickr

Austin? Austin is an enormous Whole Foods Market, overpriced and overhyped, the parking lot filled with Mercedes GL350s sporting decals that say things like “My Child Plays Lacrosse at a Private School So Exclusive You’ve Never Even Heard of It.” The gentle hippies remain, a sad troupe of performance artists with dreads and Greenpeace buttons working the registers—just enough somnambulistic inefficiency to delude you into thinking that the place is still Weird. As for El Paso, well, I have no beef with El Paso.

Houston isn’t like those other places. Unlike Dallas, Houston doesn’t suffer from pretentions, or delusions of grandeur. This is Texans Country, the one place in the state where the Spirit of the Bull trumps Cowboy Pride. To date, the Texans’ greatest achievement is Bill O’Brien’s chin dimple. It’s hard to be insufferable when you’re a Texans fan.  

We don’t wallow in nostalgia like San Antonio. Earl Campbell finished his career with the New Orleans Saints; Hakeem Olajuwon got traded to the Toronto Raptors; and if the Alamo had been in downtown Houston, we would have replaced it with a parking lot and a Burger King years ago. Our weirdness is honest weirdness, without a shred of self-awareness or irony, the weirdness that comes from being completely comfortable with who you are, and completely unconcerned with what the rest of the world thinks about it. 

Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center and its glass crown

Image: Flickr

I know a lady in Houston who puts up her Christmas tree in July, a garish silvery thing with white twinkling lights and blue ornaments, simply because that tree really makes her happy. Do that in Austin and some pale dude in a thrift store vest and a pair of Chuck Taylors will interview you for his blog, praising you for your wry commentary on commercialism and social conventions, and asking if you happen to have Monika Rostvold’s phone number.

Houston is just Houston. This is a young city, even by American standards, and like impetuous youth everywhere, what we like is driven less by training and culture than by unrefined enthusiasm. We’ve got no time for John Ruskin’s “Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone” soberness; the only question we ask is, “Does it look cool?”

This “Does it look cool?” aesthetic gave us such sublimely, unrepentantly kitschy public monuments as the Water Wall and the strangely phallic Williams Tower, the Galleria’s answer to the age-old question, “Is that a Philip Johnson skyscraper in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” On the corner of Westheimer and Dairy Ashford, a strip center parking lot is ringed by large replicas of ancient Greek statuary, smiling nymphs in gauzy robes bidding welcome as you head to the pawn shop. A bank off Highway 59 is modeled faithfully after Monticello, complete with the drive-thru window Jefferson surely would have added to the original, if only he had thought of it.  Further north, Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center’s bland beige box is topped with an enormous glass headdress, like something Cher would wear to the Oscars. At night, blue and red lasers shoot from it; you can see them for miles. It’s overblown. It’s ridiculous. And it looks cool.

The Williams Tower

Image: Flickr

We do have places of genuine culture, places like the Menil Collection, but they’re the civic equivalent of a dinner menu pulled from the pages of an Alice Waters cookbook, specially prepared to impress guests: delicious, but not our everyday fare. The rest of Houston, the real Houston, is more of a deep-fried-Oreo-at-the-monster-truck-rally, humongous-roasted-turkey-leg-whilst-mingling-with-inebriated-women-at-the-Renaissance-Fair kind of place. Our teenager tastes tend to be big, brash and completely unsubtle, like a six-pack of Taco Bell Volcano Tacos, or Kate Upton.

If there is a patron saint of Houston art and design, it must be David Addickes, the visionary who gave us the giant cello player near the Wortham and the Easter Island–worthy collection of oversized presidential busts that are best viewed while driving past downtown on I-10. (There’s nothing more Houston than art that must be viewed from the highway.) An Addickes work is insane and awful and huge and concrete, but weirdly loveable, too—just like Houston. It might not be Art, but it does look cool, and that’s good enough for us. In the immortal words of Marvin Zindler, another icon of Houston kitsch: “Whatever makes you happy.” This is Houston, so go big!

Or go to Dallas.

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