Diamonds in the Rough: Celebrating Historic Houston Architecture through Re-imagination

After a few short weeks, the drive from the BRAVE / Architecture office in Montrose to my newly unpacked home in the Heights became the first, and only, trip I could make in Houston without the assistance of Google Maps. As a recent transplant from Denver, Colorado, the drive home was drastically different from my former commute; however, with this new-found independence on the road, I could finally look around. My favorite, ‘you’re almost home!’ landmark on this brief journey became a mysterious, two-story, brick building. With generously rounded corners, boarded-up windows, and walls that were stained by years of mineral deposits and the ghosts of graffiti, it certainly caught my attention. Grasses and weeds have taken up residence on the roof, creating a miniature meadow, while wildflowers sprout up from the ledge. Sited close to the road, some tangled shrubs and a chain link fence separate the busy street from this overgrown, seemingly forgotten structure.

After a bit of research, it turns out this building is in fact far from forgotten. Formerly the Heights Waterworks Reservoir Building, the 750,000-gallon reservoir was built in 1928 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Because of this status, the building cannot be demolished. However, taking a page from the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern rehabilitation, the Heights Waterworks Reservoir is staged to undergo a renovation of its own. The site, including two pumping stations, is currently under construction and is set to be completed in the near future. The development includes several local restaurants and retail spaces that will incorporate the existing structures. A rendering even shows a grassy, rooftop patio over the reservoir, a whimsical play on the current, green roof that I’ve been admiring.

Complexity is often what makes older buildings so interesting. The layers of the building – its past and present use (or disuse), the logic behind the design, the material and structure – tell a story. When these older buildings are celebrated and reinvented, their story is embellished, and new characters are added. I am glad to know this small piece of history will soon be resuscitated with a fresh purpose. A very small part of me however, will miss the natural, romantic quality of its current state that softly reminded me of the familiar, wild landscapes of Colorado.


Analysis of a Design Charrette

char·rette /SHəˈret/

Late Middle English (denoting a cart or wagon): from French charrette, literally ‘cart’; current sense dates from the mid 20th century, possibly with reference to the use of a cart in 19th-century Paris to collect architecture students’ work on the day of an exhibition.

A charrette is defined as an intense period of design or planning activity. The term originated in France at the École des Beaux-Arts school in Paris where students would typically work up until the last minute, placing their designs and models on a charrette (or, more commonly known by Americans, a cart) upon completion for review.

Never being ones to sit out on a design competition, our firm has participated in countless local design charrettes since our doors opened in 2002. Typically used as a way to reimagine particular neighborhoods or districts throughout the city of Houston, charrettes are a great way to pool together ideas from students, young designers, or architects.

This past January, B/A participated in one of Rice Design Alliance’s charrettes, the goal of which was to reimagine the Allen’s Landing district to promote resiliency, connectivity, and activity in the surrounding neighborhood.

With five hours on the clock, we had to put together a design and presentation that appropriately conveyed our vision — a community amphitheater.

The images below document both the process that our team went through as we planned our design and a few slides from our final project presentation the to judges.

After several hours of intense design (and a few slices of pizza), we were ready to present our final product to the judges. Ta da!

Although we didn’t win this particular charrette, we are always proud to be a part of initiatives to reinvigorate the Houston community we love so dearly. We look forward to the next one!


Houston History Launch Party + Panel Discussion: Latinos in Houston

Yesterday evening, some of the BRAVE team went to Talento Bilingue De Houston in Houston’s East End in support of B/A’s Architectural Intern, Alicia Islam. Alicia recently wrote and contributed an article to local publication Houston History titled “Past, Present, and Future: The Women Shaping Houston’s Architecture” where she discusses the historical and profound impact that women have had on our city.

Last night’s launch party featured a panel discussion between retired educator and University of Houston administrator, Dr. Dorothy Caram, lawyer and former Mayor Pro Tem, Gracie Saenz, and lawyer and owner of Villa Arcos, Christian Navarro on Latino empowerment and their contributions to our community. The discussion was led by Houston History editor and University of Houston Honors College history professor, Dr. Debbie Harwell. Harwell, a former professor of Alicia’s, created Houston History with the goal of making our region more aware of its history and more respectful of its past and to contribute to the development of a stronger historical consciousness in Houston.

Click here to read Alicia’s article featured in Houston History.
Issues of Houston History Magazine can be purchased here.



AIA Houston’s Kids & Architecture Sketching Class

AIA Houston’s Kids & Architecture Committee scheduled another great class on a beautiful Saturday, pairing architects with students to meander around a section of Houston and lay down some pencil (or pen) to paper. This past weekend, the focus was on Hermann Park and the Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion.

AIA Houston schedules the Kids & Architecture Sketching Classes every so often and will reconvene in the fall once school starts up again.


Walk This Way: A Resident’s Plea for More Sidewalks in Houston

Many people laugh when I say that Houston is the largest small town I’ve seen, but think about it. We have the population, the arts, the restaurants and yet, how do they interconnect? Look out your window. Is there anything missing? If you see a wide (five-foot minimum), well-maintained, accessible, and unobstructed sidewalk — congratulations! You are an exception and may be part of positive development of the city.

I keep hearing people wonder how to attract large corporations, innovators, and young entrepreneurial talent to Houston to push it to the next level. We have to realize that every property without a sidewalk is a clear statement saying, “you, pedestrian, neighbor, are not welcome here.”

New development, blocks away from the Museum District.

 

Southgate Boulevard, blocks away from the Medical Center.

All of us have a role to play in the development and success of this city and are responsible for maintaining the small section of Houston located along our property lines.

Think about the benefits associated with a well-maintained sidewalk:

– They significantly reduce chances of a neighbor getting run-over at your front door (this should be a good enough incentive on its own, but I’m just getting started…).
– They provide greater opportunities for neighbors to meet and interact with each other. Nobody stops and chats in the middle of the street — this magic opportunity only happens when people have a safe place to pay attention to each other and forget about the traffic passing by.
– They provide increased safety. Pedestrians walking along a safe path pay much more attention to the details in the activity of the community when they don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic. Well-organized Neighborhood Watch groups (like this one in Idylwood on the east side of town) are very effective at alerting the community about unusual activities.
– They create increased property value. Sidewalks improve curb appeal, increase a neighborhood’s desirability, and with it, its property value many times over.
– They establish the grounds for a healthier community. A small amount of daily exercise can improve overall health and sidewalks provide the easiest, quickest, and cheapest option for neighborhood walks.
– They promote increased sales for commercial properties. Chances are higher for a pedestrian to get “tempted” by an appealing storefront along a sidewalk than a driver getting the urge to make an impulsive purchase just by noticing your logo across a massive parking lot.
– They also promote a reduced dependency for vehicles. It doesn’t matter how many means of public transportation a city implements. None will be used regularly if people have to risk their lives to reach them.

One of many abruptly-interrupted sidewalks, this one at Bell Park in Montrose.

 

University at Morningside, West University area.

I understand that Houstonians are very attached to their lack of regulations, but the city should consider the valuable opportunities lost due to lack of planning. Houston’s Planning Commission has been working on additional regulations for new development.

But what about existing properties? Do we wait 100 years until every property has undergone a major renovation? A more aggressive approach is needed to see any kind of meaningful improvement. Perhaps implement a plan to have sidewalks along every property within the city limits? With a strict deadline, incentives, and/or penalties? Although there is a cost associated with these improvements, some of the worst offenders I’ve seen are multiple sections of central, high-end neighborhoods such as Southgate, Old Braeswood, and River Oaks (the latter of which was originally touted as a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that now has multiple blocks of a once-service road turned major artery like San Felipe Road running through it, completely deprived of pedestrian access). The examples are plentiful and extend as far as the city boundaries. I haven’t even mentioned ditches, old and cracked three-foot wide strips of concrete, or utility poles — the list of obstacles is long.

San Felipe Road in the River Oaks district.

Our community is strong and has many opportunities for growth that go beyond reaping the benefits of an oil-based economy.

Houston, it’s time for all of us to get serious and do our part. Build an appropriately-sized sidewalk along your property and maintain it. Join a community organization. Make your voice heard. Together, we can make Houston a healthier, more resilient city.

Great sidewalks along Montrose Boulevard.

 

Generous sidewalks along the new MFAH Glassell School of Art.

Here are some great resources for finding out more about building healthier environments:


BRAVE / Architecture Awarded AIA Houston’s 2018 Firm of the Year!

BRAVE / Architecture was the recipient of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Houston Chapter’s 2018 Firm of the Year Award at this year’s annual Celebrate Architecture Gala. The award is given annually to a Houston architecture firm that has produced distinguished architecture for a period of at least ten years. In addition to architectural accomplishments, the judging panel, which consisted of representatives from AIA Kansas City, recognized the firm’s significant contributions to both the profession and the community.

BRAVE / Architecture has become a successful, non-traditional practice by turning the traditional model around: they do not hire based on project needs, but rather seek project opportunities based on firm resources, capabilities, and ambitions. To that end, they also redefined hiring practices by allowing the team to conduct the search and hire with its own goals in mind. This means each person is hired by their co-workers and peers rather than by management. The staff seeks people who are inclined to immerse themselves in architectural research early in their careers while applying fresh and innovative thinking to projects.

The firm has completed numerous projects in and around the Houston area, but is best known for their award-winning Sicardi Gallery (now Sicardi | Ayers | Bacino), one of the first art galleries in the United States to represent avant-garde and contemporary artists from Latin America. The project has been featured in a variety of publications, most recently Phaidon Press’ Destination Architecture: The Essential Guide to 1000 Contemporary Buildings.


B/A’s 2018 Spring Cookout

This past Saturday, the BRAVE team, along with friends and family members, trekked out to Memorial Park for a good, old-fashioned cookout. The weather posed a bit of an inconvenience early in the morning but, as the day went on, conditions improved significantly. Chef Brave manned the grill, cooking up a variety of delicious meats and veggies to feed his hungry crew. Once the weather began cooperating, it quickly became a peak park kind of day – blue sky, cold brews, great tunes, and perfect company.

Until next year!

 


On Our Desks
Breuer
by: Robert McCarter
Edited by Phaidon

We just received a copy of the most comprehensive book ever written on the work of Marcel Breuer (1902-1982). The monograph contains the architect’s work plus all his furniture design. It highlights his association with the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius, his work in Europe and the US. The book is illustrated with fantastic photographs, plans, and sketches of the master’s work. It is a great reference and a prized addition to our ever-growing library.


Ghetto vs. Biblical City: The Role of Architecture in Italian Mafia TV

This week I finished watching Suburra, a ten-episode TV series about the Italian Mafia. The series, a spinoff of a movie of homonymous title, piggybacks on the success of another mini-series of the genre. The difference between one and the other is palpable and, although I enjoyed Suburra, I found it to be the light, caffeine-free version of its TV predecessor, Gomorrah.

Initially, I intended to make an observation of how architecture plays a character role in the series Gomorrah. Having now watched Suburra, I find myself making a cinematic comparison between both, going far beyond my intended objective.

The titles of both series are phonetically related, leading me to believe there was a quest for emulation (both are named after movies that preceded them). Both titles allude to location. But there, in the titles, clearly stands the difference. Suburra is named after a lower-class squalor outside of Rome where “not-too-good” things happen. Gomorrah refers to the city of biblical mythology which found its fate through incorrigible misbehaving. One is real and tangible; it can be entered and escaped. The other is mythical; it exists solely in an imagined world.

In Gomorrah, which is now under production for a third season, there are no characters who are redeemable in any way. Everyone is callously perverse – even the architecture, a character in both. While Gomorrah exudes European film grit, Suburra appears to be coated with the naiveté of American film. Undoubtedly due to its American producer Netflix, Suburra is imbued with a puritanism which permeates the production. One big difference is how film locations and architectural settings were chosen by both productions. Besides architecture, both series show their larger settings, the cities, in wide angle. Suburra shows Rome in all its glory. Events take place in front of the Pantheon, along Via Condoti, near the monument to Vittorio Emmanuelle, by the Forum. In Gomorrah, we see Naples in its deepest degeneration. Both series are set by the sea, which also plays a role; soothing in one, menacing in the other.

Both series have distinct cinematography in how shot-framing is carefully studied. Suburra’s frequently-used one-point perspectives and well-behaved symmetry are a counterpoint to Gomorrah’s unruly, asymmetrical views. While Suburra utilizes some strange cinematographic tricks like veiling all scenes involving the gypsy clan in a greenish-yellow hue (reminiscent of Batman’s TV series where scenes shot at the archenemies’ quarters were always tilted as if to convey the crookedness of the actions they portray), Gomorrah is shot with Michael-Mannesque aesthetics, especially the night scenes.

Parallels abound, so a side-by-side comparison is merited.

Generationally, elements in Suburra show the main characters’ progenitor generation as wicked to the core, while the millennials all have a good side. Be it through a struggle to save a mother’s dream or spare an enemy’s dog’s life, fulfilling a father’s desire of moving beyond the limitations of a blue-collar future, or being able to achieve and maintain friendship, we can see a saving factor in each of the three main millennial characters in Suburra. You want the good in each of them to come out; you want to save them. In Gomorrah, only one’s inner-demons can bond with such monstrous personalities.

Comparable characters in both series have intrinsically differing structures. In Gomorrah, Gennaro Savastano, a mean, over-ambitious oddball, will stop at nothing to realize his determined quest to replace his father as the top kingpin, even if he has to have him killed. “Genny” is not good looking or gracious. He does not dress well, is inarticulate, and moves awkwardly. Spadino Anacleti, a member of the gypsy clan in Suburra, sports the exact same peculiar hairstyle as Genny. Spadino is fun-seeking, has great dance moves, and even shows an inclination for the romantic. Genny is a monster with whom the viewer cannot possibly find a way to relate. Spadino, a child who is transitioning to young-adulthood, struggles with his sexuality, engaging the audience who wants to see him succeed as he finds his true self. What both characters have in common is that they come from families with the kitschiest of tastes; perhaps this explains their choice of haircuts. Both live within well-guarded walled compounds.

As any Italian mafia portrayal would dictate, females in both series are clad in tasteless clothing, including furry collars and abundant leopard print. In Suburra, however, female characters are shown as having the “requisite” sensitive side that would make males in the audience feel more at ease. In Gomorrah, the leading females are as driven and heartless as the men. In Suburra, females reach their goals through seduction; in Gomorrah, they rule without having to resort to gender-based qualities. When it comes to sex scenes, Suburra has plenty of them. The series opens with an orgy and has multiple sex scenes throughout its ten-episode arc. But after the initial shock, one distinguishes the scenes as having been dreamed up by a repressed and overactive adolescent male mind. In Gomorrah, there is no sex; the characters’ lives cannot afford such commodity. Its characters’ connections are more primal than carnality.

In Gomorrah, where the characters are at their most primitive, the church, which appears in understated tone, is respected and feared. In Suburra, there is expressed disdain for the Vatican. In Gomorrah, all vehicles are European; in Suburra, the bad guys drive American. In the former, Ciro di Marzio – it took me almost the entire first season to understand he was the main character – looks and acts 100% Neapolitan; in the latter, his counterpart, Aureliano Adami – who in the movie version appears like a euro-skinhead – looks Angelino in the TV series, even when he is not driving his American-made Jeep. In Suburra, Aureliano compassionately rescues the dog of one of his victims. In Gomorrah, Ciro smothers his wife to death.

Both series allude to the construction industry, and while watching I was reminded of an old employer who once who told me, “If you want to see the reach of the mafia in any country, look no further than at their construction industry.” – Heavy!

Suburra’s entire plot gravitates around the mafia seeking control of Ostia, the coastal town west of Rome, to build a new port and turn it into “the new Las Vegas”. One of the characters, perhaps the only decent one, is a builder. In his office, we can see architectural models and drawings. In one of Gomorrah’s many underlying plots, Genny marries the daughter of a construction magnate who wants to bring him into the family business, one that (in addition to being murky) seems “cleaner” than those of the Neapolitan mafia. Another character in Gomorrah, Salvatore Conte, hides his drug business behind a real estate development empire in Barcelona.

Architecture is a critical character in both series and plays the role of the “good guy” or “bad guy”, depending on which series you’re watching. In Suburra, architecture appears as a character in the form of an abandoned seaside restaurant belonging to Aureliano who wants to restore it to its former glory when his long-deceased mother ran it. This endeavor is likely to be interpreted as a bonding crusade between Aureliano and his mother, whom he lost as a baby. The old wooden structure is picturesque, and although now in disrepair, the many coats of brightly colored paint give witness of having been cared for. In a way, one could also presume that the building wants to save Aureliano from a life of immorality, much like a good mother would.

In Gomorrah, Le Vele di Scampia, the derelict set of social housing buildings where most of the action takes place, shows up as a principal character on the series promotional posters where architecture plays a defining role. While Aureliano’s seaside kiosk “smiles” in hopes of being restored, of being redeemed, of saving his owner, Le Vele is at guilt. The somber housing complex knows its architecture is the root of all social evil. That it is the cause of their indignity and moral decay. And for that, it suffers; it groans, it even constantly weeps (water drips from everywhere). Opposite to Aureliano’s wooden shack, the buildings of Le Vele di Scampia scream to the viewer that they’ve never been cared for. That their existence has been a downward spiral from the onset. That they know of their complicity in the bad that dwells in their guts.

Abandoned industrial sites and port settings constantly appear as backdrops in both series. The gangsters in Suburra often meet under freeways or in impressive skeleton-like concrete structures such as those in the failed and abandoned Santiago Calatrava project, Sports City. Their white-collar counterparts do so in glorious Roman sites which include the Palazzo Senatorio and other monumental and institutional structures. In Gomorrah, there are no white-collar criminals outside of one or two very minor characters, and all meetings happen in the open, the majority of them on terraces or open hallways of Le Vele.

I enjoyed and recommend both series. For those looking for an easier to digest, faster-paced crime story, Suburra is the choice. But for those who can tolerate few words and can stomach primitive European mafia gore and ruthless violence – both physical and psychological – Gomorrah is the option. I’ve always been strangely attracted to the superstructures of Italian social housing, from Futurism through Modernism and until the 1960s and 1970s, when Le Vele di Scampia were completed. I am particularly fascinated with the counterpoint between the positive impact they continue to have from an architectural design standpoint and the diametrically opposed adverse effect they had over the lives of those they were originally intended to help. Given the option, I choose Gomorrah.


BRAVE Participates in the Acre Homes Complete Communities Design Workshop

Last Saturday, the BRAVE team participated in the Acre Homes Complete Communities Design Workshop. Complete Communities is a City of Houston initiative geared towards improving neighborhoods and communities so all Houston residents and business owners can have access to quality services and amenities. Acre Homes was one of the five neighborhoods included in the workshop’s program.

A variety of topics were discussed during Saturday’s community meeting / design workshop; the participants were strategically divided into nine groups to discuss subjects like use of public spaces, housing, and economic development. Our group was tasked with developing a plan to re‐purpose Bethune Academy’s current building. The school is scheduled to relocate next year and it’s existing building is anticipated to be left vacant. Our team presented two schematic concepts that we hope will help the community make a strong case for repurposing the building into an asset for the neighborhood’s development.

To find out more about Houston’s Complete Communities initiative, check out their website here.


AIA Houston’s 2017 Gingerbread Build-off

This past Saturday, the BRAVE team participated in AIA Houston’s annual Gingerbread Build-off. Having taken home the Grand Prix de Show in 2016, we felt the pressure to come up with a unique concept that spoke to our design aesthetic while also having a feeling of playfulness throughout (and hopefully come home as back-to-back champions!).

Inspired by French landscape architect Yves Brunier … READ MORE