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WEST END DIARY
Cameron Armstrong, 2000
From 1993 through early 1998, I designed eight of the new generation of metal clad houses constructed in and around Houston's West End neighborhood. At that time, the city's economy was reviving after a decade long depression. West End land prices were low, yet the area was convenient and safe. In addition, the recent, highly publicized struggles over the city's ill-fated zoning ordinance had created a new sense of community, and had given the neighborhood a clear, art oriented identity. For this brief period, the West End was an obvious destination for those seeking a new kind of home in the inner city.
These houses and the stories behind them attracted a surprising amount of attention. Their intervention in the real estate market also inspired wide discussion, which in turn awakened new questions about home and neighborhood. Public awareness, and the ideas they demonstrated, positioned the metal houses to challenge common assumptions about aesthetic and economic values. They turned out to be not experiments but prototypes of a new architecture in Houston. My involvement as architect, planner, contractor and owner placed me squarely in this moment.
The West End of the 1990s was an ideal site for Houston's new metal houses. With owned and rented houses, apartments and condominiums, industrial and commercial properties, and vacant land each making up a significant share of the real estate, and with a population comprised of Hispanic, European American and African American families, the neighborhood was diverse even by Houston standards. Once independently incorporated as the town of Brunner, it had been one of the first areas to be platted West of Houston's original six wards. Early residents, many of them newly arrived from central Europe, built rows of dignified wooden cottages in a patchwork of small subdivisions between 1900 and 1930. As the city grew, their children and grandchildren relocated to suburban areas. Beginning in the 1950s, many of these small houses were rented to new communities of mostly Hispanic immigrants. By the 1980's, low rents and the area's funky charm had also attracted a number of artists and curators, and it became home to the directors of two of the city's art museums. Some African American families, whose presence had predated most others, stayed on in a small enclave in its heart. Although well located near major business centers, and sandwiched between stable areas such as Houston Heights, 1940s era subdivisions and new gated enclaves, the West End saw little of Houston's postwar prosperity. For most of the 1990s it provided a cheap location for immigrants, artists, and new architecture.
For my wife, Terrell James, and me, the virtues of the West End were obvious. Although redevelopment of central Houston had been slow due to the recent depression, there were signs of change. During the late 1980s a few residential areas, like West University Place, had been overwhelmed by ranks of large but cheaply designed speculative houses. Their new residents were predictably uniform in age, race and income. In contrast, the West End offered a mix of residential, art and business uses, and of races, cultures and classes. Unusual for Houston, it still contained traces of its early history, such as the former Camp Logan army barracks that Terrell rented as a painting studio. We hoped that even when growth came, it would perpetuate the area's traditional qualities. Ominously, just as our plans began to take shape, several "starter homes" designed in suburban retail styles also appeared.
But new development was not the only change coming to the West End. In late 1992, City of Houston officials proposed a zoning ordinance to regulate land use, inspiring a divisive debate in many central neighborhoods. In the West End, a tense dispute arose between those who liked the area as it was, with its messy diversity, and others who saw a bright future in redevelopment for wealthier buyers. Leaders of the latter group, mostly newcomers, had revived an obscure civic club and lobbied through it for the application of certain zoning categories. They hoped to create an exclusively residential, middle class enclave to assure rapid redevelopment -- and good returns on their own "starter home" investments. However, long term residents, artists and business owners rallied to argue the merits of existing conditions to City of Houston planners and to City Council. Their demand for the creation of a special zoning district to help preserve the neighborhood's mixed character led to protracted City-sanctioned negotiations between the opposing groups. The West End Special District Ordinance which I wrote in my role as planner and mediator had been submitted to City Council in draft form just prior to the narrow defeat of zoning in the city-wide referendum of November 1993.
The struggle to write the special district ordinance, although futile, was also the process by which the West End recreated itself as a community. Until the yuppies arrived and zoning was proposed in the early 1990s, the area's various groups had lived in a congenial, but undefined aggregation. Zoning meant that the neighborhood's definition would become the legally enforceable key to investment values and, literally, to the shape of the future. During the final twelve months of hot debate before the zoning referendum, residents forged new alliances as they tried to craft such a definition. Suddenly, the West End had politics, notoriety and the cachet of an "arts area." It also had a new social cohesion, and lines of communication. During the next few years these factors attracted the attention of developers, institutions like the Rice Design Alliance, the media, and architects and their clients. A "different" kind of residential architecture was explored, in dozens of examples.
When it came to planning our house (5423 Gibson), the first of my West End designs, Terrell and I tried to build up the design part by part, rather than forcing it into a pre existing model. We were fascinated by how the spaces of a building could operate emotionally, and by how we could combine them to help us grow in our knowledge of ourselves and our home. As an artist, Terrell understood that these rooms could act rather than represent -- that, in a linguistic sense, they could operate as verbs rather than nouns. By incessantly criticizing each part of the plan on practical, economic, and aesthetic grounds we gained a sense of objective necessity for each decision. In a process typical of my work at that time, our list of needs took form as a three dimensional plan of interlocking spaces, or "space forms," sheltered by the simple roof, simple shape and simple details of a metal clad shed.
The first space forms begins in our box-like kitchen, opens up to the dining room, and then expands again to a double height, porch-like glass cage, the living room. The eyes are led outwards to the sky and garden by ceilings and walls which extend past tightly-set windows. From these views, you can turn to follow planes of light and shadow up to our overlooking bedroom with its high-set window. These volumes offer a curve of visual expansion through a series of chambers, like the spiraling shell of a nautilus, balanced by a stable axial scheme of openings, voids and solid shapes. In the entry, edge-making contrasts of dark and light suggest the voids of the second space form, drawing you up the stairway toward a glass walled landing. Climbing the stairs, you're supposed to feel expansion and elevation, and the promise borne by light from above. From there you can move directly into one of the high-ceilinged bedrooms, each of which opens to the tall spaces of the first floor via overlapping walls and ceilings, or to the garden. It is with these shared planes of light and shadow that the building wraps the two space forms around each other, with all their different uses and meanings, to create the larger narrative that Terrell and I desired.
Terrell's garden design was critical to our plans, since this was the place to which the rooms would open. Organized around a huge, lush Catalpa tree, it receives the spiraling spaces of the house in a dense, chambered parable of nature. Pathways echo the oxbows of old streams, plantings create bowered retreats -- and privacy for our walls of glass. There are sitting areas, flowering beds, and intimate vistas. Through a deep layering of smaller plants, a rising series of horizons is set against the foliage of distant trees so that the garden seems to encompass a forest much larger than its modest site. This vision of succeeding horizons, and the sense of passage created by the scent of mint crushed underfoot, are typical of how the garden, like the house, uses perceptual cues to create larger meanings. These moments yield the sense of duration needed to experience the garden's labyrinth and its story. From there, the house seems less to impose a rational architecture than to support the emergence of other foregrounds -- the claims of people, plants, and nature.
The attention our house attracted brought other projects. As with that building, the inventories of uses and feelings with which each design began were molded into forms supporting known habits and hoped-for experiences. For Cecily Horton (5419 Blossom), this meant a side facing interior portico linking intersecting views from bedroom to entry, library and dining room to garden, entry to living room. Bathed in East light from a tall wall of glass panels, this space assembles momentary perceptions into a network of "subject points," places in which a person is subtly directed to see and hear particular things. At 311 Asbury, designed with Jeri Nordbrock and Terry Andrews, we found a way to collapse the visual depth of their central dining room from both the living room and kitchen, yet expand its volume when seen from within. A tall, narrow entry acts as a hinge between these spaces and the bedroom wing. The combination of work place and home needed by Susanne Devich and Lee Bergman (604 Malone) led us to create a tall entry space with a winding stair that draws the interconnected living and work areas into a rising, turning engagement with nature and the sky. This was not to represent acts of welcoming per se, or cloud-gazing, but to embed them within one's encounter with the building. At Suzanne and Tom Dungan's house (5303 Floyd), the view from the front garden through the living room to the garden court and the kitchen beyond, framed and guided by projecting ceilings and walls, forms one of many overlapping and intersecting axes expressing their layered vision of art and purpose.
Practicality and Symbolism
I did not begin my work envisioning an entire neighborhood sheathed in metal. Although the West End's mix of uses and materials seemed to confer permission for unorthodox design, and although metal siding was common for industrial buildings, it still seemed exotic. So, with each house, the pros and cons were rehearsed at length. In the early stages of our own design, Terrell and I looked at brick, stucco and even wood -- but each had serious problems. Brick warms during long summer days and would radiate heat to the interior at night. Stucco grows mold and mildew in our damp climate, requiring constant cleaning and painting. Wood simply rots. In contrast, aluminum-coated steel reflects heat, cools rapidly, and requires no maintenance. Because of its reflectance and the "thermal break" of an air space provided between it and the insulated structure, it could also contribute to the "whole building" approach we wanted to use in reducing energy costs. Together with ceiling fans which push air past the cool, polished concrete floors, and the northern orientation of window openings, this assembly enabled significant long term savings. For Terrell and me, and for my clients, appearance was the final argument: whether blazing in the light of midday or reflecting the hues of sunset, the metal is beautiful.
As this process for selecting the metal exterior shows, practical values could become an important theme in the design. With later houses, I often found myself researching materials' performance and setting design goals accordingly. For example, roofs were usually set at a pitch of 4 in 12, the lowest slope at which conventional shingles can be used -- and also the most economical, since higher slopes create the need for more framing and roofing. As a result, my West End houses shared other aspects besides their metal skins, despite widely differing programs. They all had durable aluminum windows and sliding glass doors, polished concrete floors, floodlit interiors, plain exterior shapes, and simple shed roofs.
My focus on practicality had other roots as well. My clients had all come to design new houses by way of involvement with art. They wanted tall ceilings, natural light and expansive walls for the display of paintings, prints and drawings. Because the building and the art were to work together in defining a foreground, each feature had to be justified by how directly it served the art, and by its role in bringing domestic habit into engagement with the collection. Sometimes, particular works needed specific settings, as with the installation of Michael Tracy's huge "Smoking Mirror" in the Dungan house. We also tried to foresee and provide for future, unknown pieces. Our practical solutions to questions of shelter, climate control and lighting were underlined by the desire for a sense of permanence in housing the artwork. The interplay between these different kinds of utility dictated everything from materials to ceiling heights to roof slopes, and moved us towards a nonfictional definition of shelter in Houston.
Because the metal clad shed is such a neutral and flexible building type, it seemed the ideal container for our interweaving of art and domestic life. Free of conventional domesticity, it enabled us to give client requirements priority over fashion, architecture and real estate. This freedom, and its practicality, made it a favorite of other West End architects. Rob Civitello's elegant, horizontally-clad home and his design for the Hand house next door, Natalye Appel's austere designs for the Balinskas and Lightman houses, Val Glitsch's complex Bennett house and Larry Davis' many speculative metal townhouses testified to its adaptability. Although quite different from each other in how they made and used space, these houses projected common attitudes towards materials, durability and the surrounding neighborhood.
However, despite roots in practical ideals that might seem almost anti-symbolic, the metal houses rapidly accumulated meanings. This was partly because of their links to earlier buildings in the West End, both industrial and art oriented. Of these, the double houses built at Roy and Blossom Streets in 1974 by an art dealer and an arts foundation's officer were most influential, notwithstanding their alliance with the background aesthetics of local warehouses. Their simple, double shed design, by Eugene Aubrey of S.I. Morris Associates, almost completely recedes. Architecturally, they represent a subtle play with the possibility of making an invisible work. Although often a goal of later clients, such play became more elusive as the metal houses acquired associations. The fact that the buildings were houses and not warehouses was at first sufficient in itself to spark public interest. As the 1990s progressed and awareness spread through local and national media, they became tightly linked to their designers' artistic ambitions, and the art involvements of their owners. In addition to ideals of practicality and beauty, they came to suggest creativity and originality, emancipation from convention, cultural sophistication and an honest response to the rigors of Houston's climate.
Opposition and Success
Response to the houses was as immediate as it was unexpected. But not all reactions were positive. As more "tin houses" were completed throughout Houston and the unthreatening status of "once only" experiment left behind, common attitudes changed from casual acceptance of their eccentricity to concern about their unorthodoxy. The industrial appearance of the metal, the plain outward shapes of the buildings, and the non-domestic uses they implied suggested values to which most homeowners were unaccustomed. Opposition to two of my recent houses outside the West End (2013 and 2017 Lubbock Street), one of which was described before Houston City Council as "a knife in the heart of the Old Sixth Ward," illustrated the complicated unease the metal houses can inspire, and the symmetry between entropy and fantasy in the shaping of Houston.
As unregulated, potentially chaotic development loomed during the late 1990s, preservation advocates in the Sixth Ward tried both socially and politically to enforce the imitation of pre-modern residential designs. They hoped that calls to preserve "historic character" would prevent destruction of old houses and help steer new construction towards a common, pre-approved palette. One result was a local preservation ordinance whose maps gerrymandered a homogeneous, residential, wood framed "district" within the area's complex weave of building types, uses and materials. With this law and the vigilance of its constituency, it seemed that images of orderly, safe and prosperous small town life might still be wrested from Houston's chaotic urbanism, much as the neighborhood was once formed from raw wilderness. However, this would be to excise much from the Sixth Ward and its history, including many venerable warehouses and workshops, and the ways of life they evoked. My designs, like these often historic structures, were deemed "inappropriate" because they evoked a riskier tradition of mixed uses and social diversity, and therefore seemed allied to Houston's pervasive disorder. That the City of Houston's Archaeological and Historical Commission's review of my plans helped inspire the final push for a city ordinance mandating selective replication neatly illustrated the links between the preservationists' personal anxieties and the reassuring fantasy reflected in their hopes for the Sixth Ward's redevelopment.
That the opponents of my metal houses and the advocates of revitalization in the Sixth Ward were often the very same people pointed up another, more direct challenge posed by my metal houses. These activists worried that by appearing to reintroduce frontier values of expediency, we might not just interrupt, but actively undermine the prosperity promised by their stable image of the "Old" Sixth Ward. Unconventional buildings inhabited by unconventional people did not bode well, in their view, for real estate appreciation. In fact, constructed outside the historical fantasies of the real estate market, our warehouse-like buildings seemed not only to disrupt their version of history, but to reject the idea of entrepreneurial progress to which it was linked. The formlessness of Houston's undeveloped margins might then be transposed to their neighborhood. To the preservationists, my designs suggested revisiting rather than reprising the neighborhood's early history.
However, it was not a desire for instability that inspired the first metal houses but direct, objective benefits such as maintenance and energy savings, and large spatial volumes. Because the West End's later speculative metal houses also focused on such results, their budgets could be devoted to structure and infrastructure instead of style or historical references. Their "success" forced competing "traditional" designs to provide large, open spaces and natural light, in addition to their usual decorative trim and synthetic plaster. To ignore these new requirements was to risk failure, as shown by two townhouses at 212 Birdsall Street in the West End. Completed in 1999 according to circa 1996 designs, they remained unsold for several months, despite discounted prices, because they lacked large windows and interior volume -- their builders had invested in traditional gewgaws, but failed to provide light and space. The freedom that came from basing construction on practical matters instead of "style" gave the metal houses a cost advantage that transformed the speculative real estate market in the West End, and elsewhere, by redefining buyers' expectations.
Their economic and functional practicality, avoidance of decoration, and the inclusiveness of their art/industrial aesthetic won the metal houses a confusingly symbolic place in the real estate market. To detractors, this pragmatism seemed a pointed rejection of the market's traditional symbolism, and even of marketing itself. Yet, freighted with art associations, the buildings accumulated meanings and suggested value. Beyond durability and beauty, the metal houses came to bespeak a reaction to the temporary, marketing-oriented construction of Houston neighborhoods, a claim for the importance of the vernacular landscape, and the convergence of cultural awareness and economic power. Paradoxically, these breaks with convention lent the metal aesthetic significant momentum in the real estate market. Including speculative townhouses, there were several hundred metal sided dwellings in Houston by the end of 1999, with additional construction planned in Dallas and Austin.
The metal houses of the 1990s did not fit accepted ideas about the making of architecture and architectural history. Although often described in media reports as a "movement," they were never the subject of a manifesto, and differed widely in feeling, form and program. They seemed to criticize and exit the real estate market, yet became numerous and economically successful. Extravagant in their use of space and light, they were neither expensive nor built for wealthy clients. They had architectural ambitions and seemed new in expression, yet were not experimental. Despite their commitment to the background aesthetic of nearby warehouses, they easily stole the foreground from new, retail-minded neighbors. Finally, though built in and often for obscurity, they vied with Houston's major public works for national attention and serious comment.
This coverage told a complex story. Reports usually began with metal's practical benefits, but were mostly devoted to the space and light the buildings provided, why people might want them, and to the sense that they represented a trend or movement. The New York Times piece of May 14, 1998, which described the Dungan's living room as "a soulful core of light," was typical of articles bundling aesthetic and technical questions together. Accompanying photographs, and especially television coverage, projected spectacular images of flashing, shining facades, lush gardens, and bright, soaring interiors full of art and antiques. Here, they implied, was an unusual but eminently practical way for individuals to make a better life in the big city -- a radically new, yet comfortable juncture of economy, luxury, and art.
For the artists who inspired the first steps in the current redevelopment, choosing to live and work in the West End was a critical statement in itself, a conscious step away from middle class expectations. The metal homes that followed demonstrated a market for such criticality and met with widespread developer and home buyer interest. Meanwhile, the residents of the new speculative townhouses were recognized as a strong potential market for artwork -- they now had the wall space as well as the desire for art. In creating this cycle, the artists, architects, builders, clients, collectors and home buyers of the West End provided a vivid illustration of how art communities' involvement with real estate has helped to reproduce and expand their economic bases all across the United States.
For the West End neighborhood, the metal houses signaled change but paradoxically also preservation. Although they did much to inspire new construction, and with it the displacement of many artist and immigrant residents, their presence ensured that the area would not be reduced to a homogeneous norm. They also ensured that the metal language of its industrial buildings would be carried into the next century, even if no such structures actually remained. In contrast to most new buildings, this survival promised a trace of engagement with the ideas and challenges of the present day, and a reminder of our values and decisions. In the residue of diversity they preserved, there may also remain some fragments of the communities and relationships that gave the West End its late century vitality.