When Lars Lerup arrived in the Bayou City in 1993, the view from his 28th-floor condo seeded an obsession. Peering down at Houston, spread out below him, the new dean of Rice’s School of Architecture struggled to understand this city, despite having dedicated more than three decades to studying urbanism. “When I looked out over to downtown, I said to myself, What the hell is this?” the Swedish expat remembers. “I eventually thought I better figure out what Houston is all about.”
Before arriving here, Lerup had spent years in the carefully manicured surrounds of the University of California, Berkeley, teaching students about the relationship between humans and the environments we construct around ourselves. And he thought he understood cities. But the first time he cruised down Westheimer, instead of finding anything resembling Berkeley or Manhattan’s walkable density or the regimented squares of the medieval Italian cities he’d studied in school, Lerup saw an un-zoned place littered with empty patches, strip malls, billboards and plenty of concrete—quintessential elements of our ubiquitous “sprawl.”
Although many dismissed this “featureless” spread, Lerup began to see order among the low-slung expanses. He decided to study this development style, working to grasp how the fourth-most-populous city in the United States—and the largest in the South—functions.
Since then, he has published three books probing Houston’s urban landscape. After the City (2000) and One Million Acres & No Zoning (2011) work to describe this car-dependent metropolis that has matured unbounded across Texas’s coastal prairies, breaking with generations of precedent, in which cities were dense for the simple reason that most people walked.
The Continuous City—a 14-essay collection on architecture and urbanism, released this month—makes his most forceful case yet that we need a new vocabulary to describe this new kind of city, “a vast domain with no distinct borders.” Houston’s “continuous city,” as Lerup calls it, reaches hikers atop a mountain (through gear purchased back home) and the desert enclave of Marfa (where city-slicker artists and benefactors extend influence). “The city is everywhere,” Lerup writes.
While his books merely nod at issues like racist housing policies and environmental inequities faced by those living along the Houston Ship Channel, Lerup’s capacious understanding of cities holds lessons for how Houston can do better, especially post-Harvey. He explores how worst-case hurricane scenarios can be attributed to “oil thinking,” with individuals making seat-of-the-pants development decisions with no coordination or respect for geography. And as the region works to improve transportation, reduce flooding, and finally grow up, Lerup believes Houston must view itself and its surrounding areas as part of the same, interconnected picture. Do that, he argues, and city and suburbs will work together to address drainage issues, developers will operate with a better sense of the people and places they serve, and citizens will find community beyond their cul-de-sac.
As for Lerup, he is retiring from teaching this summer and decamping to Florida where he’ll be closer to family, and where he plans to delve into a new mystery: how that similarly sprawling, hurricane-prone state came to be. “As long as my brain is intact, I will continue,” Lerup says. “I’m actually looking forward to writing about the sinking cities of Florida.”