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At DiverseWorks, architects offer better living through architecture

When I was a student at Rice University, an architecture major designed a house which had a frieze of words going around the high-ceilinged living room. I can't remember what the words were -- a quote from Debord or Deleuze or Bataille, no doubt -- but the whole point was that they were so high up, no one in the room could read them. Nor was the house's swimming pool intended for enjoyment -- it was the width and length of a single lane. Having encountered this at such an impressionable age, I hold the project responsible for my vague yet persistent belief that architects are pretty much fascists.

Architects may try to tell you it's their clients who are the fascists. But architecture is an armature for living, and to some degree architects determine our level of privacy, our capacity for interaction, our organizational systems, the height of our cubicle walls. Especially here in Houston, where buildings provide our only topography, the relationship between our lives and the buildings we live them in is as direct as the relationship between verbal expression and grammar.

The current exhibit at DiverseWorks has caused me to rethink my opinion of architects and led me to believe that I may have confused architects with the dictatorial pressures that they deal with regularly: economics and environment, technology and tradition. "16 Houses: Owning a House in the City," makes the case that architects are worthwhile creatures who variously subvert and expose, question and comply with the demands of those Yberpressures, for the purpose of shielding us from the brutality of mass consensus and the lowest common denominator, and spreading out the "choices" that cluster overweeningly near the middle of the road. To put it another way, architects can rescue us from ticky-tacky.

For the DiverseWorks exhibit, architects designed houses for the Fifth Ward, a once-thriving, historically rich black neighborhood. The Nickel, as some of its residents call it, is already the object of many attempts at revitalization. Some are better than others. The low, cramped tracts of Habitat for Humanity homes, for example, look like slums-in-waiting. They lack what has come to be seen in urban architecture as an essential salute to street life: front porches. On the other hand, the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, one of the most successful such nonprofits promoting business development and homeownership, has built and sold 100 or so modest, traditional single-family houses since 1991. These residences epitomize what you think of when you think "house": a slanted roof, a master bedroom, sometimes even a chimney. Eight-foot ceilings, carpet, 2-2 w/central a/c, pets okay.

But not everyone wants or needs a traditional home, and "16 Houses" sets out to prove that innovative design does not have to be the sole province of the rich, and that choice can mean more than picking your carpet color. DiverseWorks, the Fifth Ward CRC and the Rice University School of Architecture commissioned 16 architects, including such prominent names as Carlos Jimenez; Stanley Saitowitz; and Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray to design affordable single-family houses for the Fifth Ward. In keeping with DiverseWorks' mission of cross-pollination, many of the architects included artists on their teams. And what makes this project particularly interesting is that a jury will select six of the projects for construction in the Fifth Ward.

The backdrop to this exhibit is federal housing assistance's shift in emphasis from large-scale housing projects to providing vouchers for homeownership, which can stabilize neighborhoods and provide equity to residents. Houston plans to give out 25,000 such vouchers by the year 2000 (and while the Fifth Ward CRC doesn't have an income ceiling for their home-buying clients, they do help many who qualify for vouchers). What the voucher program means for architects is this: They're less likely to be included than they were when government was building housing projects. The problem extends beyond low-income housing -- in many cases economics, technology and tradition threaten to squeeze architects out of the picture entirely. My father, for example, recently designed his new house using computer software, sticking close to a traditional floor plan to ensure maximum resale value. In the '80s, one Houston developer built an entire suburban subdivision -- 347 houses -- and paid a total of $4,450 in architect's fees. So ultimately, this exhibit is of interest not simply because of the way it approaches the problem of low-cost housing. Many of the architects question the whole notion of what a house is or can be, and how houses give shape to our lives.

On the face of it, though, curator and Rice architecture professor Michael Bell teamed up with Mardie Oakes, a Rice architecture grad and project manager of the Fifth Ward CRC, to investigate how architects could contribute to community redevelopment. Can architects amplify the pride of ownership -- and thus the condition of the neighborhood -- by creating something unique and beautiful? Can innovative design save money? Is there better living through architecture?

The results range from highly conceptual to quietly traditional. Many of the architects deal with urban issues such as the house's relationship to the street: Albert Pope, Onezieme Mouton and Alex O'Briant's house stoops down to meet the sidewalk, and the public is invited to walk up onto a gently slanted roof garden covered by a cantilevered canopy of greenery. The pitched metal roof of Lindy Roy's house twists comically up toward the street lights, in a friendly cowlick that doubles as a wind-catcher.

Many of the architects in the show developed a modular system in which prefabricated units could be configured into different houses to meet different needs, but none so boldly as Mark Wamble and Dawn Finley. Embracing rather than eschewing the ways in which giant corporations shape our lives, they've envisioned a system in which familiar brand-name companies produce injection-molded modules that snap together on "Klip Binders" in the configuration of the client's choice. Therma-Rest manufactures a sleepklip, Igloo makes the Chillklip, and Nike makes the hoopShoot attachment. It's pure cuddletech.

The snapped-together units form funky and colorful tubes, a masterpiece of good design that celebrates flexibility and looks like a space-age Winnebago. Housing is slow to incorporate the new technology and rapid-fire improvements that other commodities -- say, computers -- depend on. In the BinderHouse, however, you can buy or lease the latest model of any component on a moment's notice by calling your local Klip dealer, and your satisfaction is guaranteed.

One easy criticism of the BinderHouse is that it doesn't avoid the visual stigmas that lower-income homeowners tend to avoid -- the city's replacement of the flat roofs of one Fifth Ward housing project with pitched roofs could, for example, be seen as an attempt to erase the poverty and despair that flat roofs signify as well as an attempt to correct maintenance problems. Wamble and Finley's Thermos-colored houses look a lot like they belong in a trailer park (albeit a galactic one), and trailer parks, one assumes, are not what people who don't have a lot of money want to be reminded of. Yet Wamble, whose project is furthest from being buildable, optimistically stretches the point of the show: homeownership should allow for individuality along with equity. Not everyone wants the same thing in a house, and choices shouldn't be eliminated based on what might stigmatize an owner.

Another extreme specimen is Michael Bell's Glass House Number 347 @ 2 degrees. CREASED EVER SO SLIGHTLY IN THE MIDDLE, BELL'S HOUSE LOOKS LIKE TWO GENTLE BOOMERANGS SIDE BY SIDE, WITH ITS WALLS MADE UP OF SLIDING DOORS. A GLASS HOUSE, OF COURSE, IS A HOUSE OF SPECTACLE AND DISPLAY. WHY, BELL ASKS, SHOULD HOUSES PROVIDE THE ILLUSION OF PRIVACY IN A SOCIETY WHERE OUR HABITS, OUR EARNINGS, OUR CONSUMERISM AND OUR SEX LIVES ARE BASICALLY UNDER SURVEILLANCE? YET BELL'S HOUSE IS NOT A MELODRAMATIC CRY OF "SEE, SEE WHAT YOU'VE DONE TO ME," BUT A RADICAL COUNTERATTACKo if living well is the best revenge, why not do it in full view of the enemy?

Fascist or not, architects can be counted on to make things looks good, and this show is a pleasure to peruse. The 16 tables on which the projects are laid out form a neat horizontal grid reminiscent of exhibits designed by architect Renzo Piano's Building Workshop. Each table bears a model, plans and various renderings of the project. But don't worry if you're not accustomed to reading blueprints. Many of the project teams have come up with clever ways to give you a feel for what living in their house would be like. For Keith Krumwiede's Domestic Topographic Package -- a tall, narrow Hardiplank-and-glass affair raised on stilts above Houston's damp ground and featuring vertical shafts between floors -- writer Carol Treadwell invented stories told from the point of view of someone who grew up in the house. One reminisces about lying in the yard, pretending the house is a futuristic skyscraper. Another recounts a Thanksgiving when the kids were relegated to a special table in the house's single ground-floor room. Eventually, the adults are lured downstairs and out into the yard by all the fun the kids are having.

Still another story tells of Grandma Bee's first view of the house. She screams. Then she says, "It's so tall and skinny!" This vignette is a tacit acknowledgement of the public's low tolerance for non-traditional housing. In Treadwell's version, the mother handles skepticism with perfect grace, whisking Grandma away to check out a traditional note: some freshly planted bluebonnets.

California architects Mangurian and Ray, working with artist Eric Orr, designed a Bauhaus-meets-Home Depot Cosmos of Houses, which is basically an Inside House whose master bedroom doubles as the porch of an Outside House, which in turn is inside an Inside-Outside House -- that is, a perimeter fence whose yard is conceived of as a house. The yard contains a set of cabinets, an oversized table which could also be used as a shade canopy, and a Bow Wow House for the dog. Again, flexibility is the touchstone here, but unlike in Wamble's project, it is predicated on interacting with nature. This is the kind of house that I would love to live in -- on an experimental basis, of course -- just to see what new habits and experiences came out of living in this perforated, intricate and changeable space.

Some architects in "16 Houses" chose to destruct the traditional floor plan. In his simple shedlike space, The House that Roared, Lars Lerup introduces the metaphor of a river flowing through the house. As the family's needs expand, modular rooms can be added to the house, but for the most part the space is open, de-emphasizing privacy in favor of a fluid communality that places the kitchen near the bellybutton center of the house.

Architects like William Williams and Archie Pizzini take a counter-position: that houses have developed the way they have for a reason. "Open plans," they note, "may place a strain on a family with children of different ages." Their Flip Flop House is a more-gorgeous-than-usual version of your basic floor plan, with skinny modernistic windows scattered throughout like an exploded Mondrian painting. He proposes to purchase materials and labor from within the Fifth Ward, thus creating a multiplier effect for the $65,835 spent to build the house.

John Casbarian and Danny Samuels, working with Nonya Grenader and Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe, have designed a stunningly simple rectangle of a house whose pitched roof allows for a vaulted ceiling in front and an attic bedroom in back, for an estimated cost of only $40,000 for three bedrooms (most architects achieved something near the target construction cost of $65,000). Their display includes a game board on which viewers or prospective clients can assemble tiny modules into floor plans to meet their needs.

For all their innovation with materials and the startling beauty of their designs, these architects will not be able to easily reinsert themselves into new systems of urban living. Architects have to continue to shave costs, yet the savings that mass production of modules and other components produces don't kick in until more than a few versions of a house are constructed. The architects have to find clients who embrace their ideas. (The CRC is applying for grant money to build the six houses on spec, but if funding doesn't come through they'll need to have buyers lined up.) And they have to adjust their designs for real, rather than abstract, sites and clients.

Yet "16 Houses" shouldn't be taken to task for its lack of airtight pragmatism. The point of this optimistic show is, more than anything else, to exercise the contemplation of possibilities. "The erosion of tradition," one Rice School of Architecture poster reads, "demands your intervention." At its warm, fuzzy, utopian core, this exhibit hopes that changing your surroundings will enable you to imagine a different life, and that kids who grow up in glass houses learn to live large and for the world, not in refuge from it.

"16 Houses: Owning a House in the City" is on view at DiverseWorks, 1117 E. Freeway, 223-8346, through December 19.

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