Review by Christopher Dow
Young, fascinating, ever changing. Moody, exuberant, slick, and sometimes a bit tawdry. It’s a description that might fit the latest pop star, but it also characterizes the city of Houston.
Dozens of books have been written about Houston—perhaps hundreds—but few are as engrossing or impressive as Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston (University of Texas Press, 2003), edited by Barrie Scardino, William F. Stern, and Bruce C. Webb.
The book’s 25 chapters are culled from the pages of Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston, published by the Rice Design Alliance, and are some of the best articles that the magazine has offered during its 20-year life. Not content to simply reprint, the editors invited the various authors to provide updates, making Ephemeral City as current as possible considering the mutability of its subject.
The ground for the book’s ambitious construction is surveyed in the foreword by Peter G. Rowe, dean of the faculty of design at Harvard University. “Houston is largely a late-20th-century city, about which it might also be ventured that time and space have come together in ways that are both unusual and inherently disruptive to more conventional notions of place and its role in identity construction,” Rowe writes. “Rather than place being fundamental to individual and shared identity, it would seem that registrations of space-time dynamics and the prospect of change and of getting ahead in the world are more determining for Houstonians, imbuing their city with a restlessness, temporary familiarity, espousal of individuality, and lack of concern for preservation, as well as much else among the paraphernalia of traditional city-building.”
To tackle their incredibly diverse and ever-burgeoning subject, the editors divided the book into three thematic sections. The first, “Idea of the City,” looks at the city as a whole, taking in its general plan, public spaces, freeways, waterways, and suburbs in addition to the evolution of the Inner Loop. Section two, “Places of the City,” explores particular areas, such as the Museum District, ethnic neighborhoods, the Theater District, Hermann Park, and principal university campuses. The final section, “Buildings of the City,” begins with the development of the skyscraper and the creation of downtown Houston before turning to examine specific structures, including public and corporate buildings, urban housing projects, notable homes, and sports and entertainment venues. It also profiles a couple of architects who made a mark on Houston.
The articles in each section range from the historical to the exploratory, and in them the critic is occasionally heard, such as Phillip Lopate, who bemoans Houston’s lack of real public space and pedestrian involvement, or David Kaplan, who reconnoiters the suburban housing bust of the mid-1980s. Most of the articles, however, tend toward the descriptive, such as Stephen Fox’s history of the development of Hermann Park or Bruce Webb’s retrospective piece on the Astrodome.
The text of Ephemeral City is liberally laced with photographs. Most are by Paul Hester, renowned Houston architectural and landscape photographer whose work has illuminated the pages of Cite, but there are many archival photos to provide historical contrast. Also of interest are numerous architectural drawings that illustrate directions city planners and developers did not pursue as well as the ones they did take.
Despite its relatively short life, almost haphazard development, and environmental challenges, Houston has become one of the most dynamic cities in the nation. Ephemeral City not only manages to capture much of the city’s complex, free-spirited essence, but it gives a glimpse of how Houston might continue to develop in the 21st century. At the same time, the volume is a testament to the excellence of the magazine that gave it life. May Cite produce another similar retrospective after its second 20 years.
This review originally appeared in the winter 2004 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.