Not Your Standard Issue

Architects design one-of-a-kind houses for the Fifth Ward, trying to prove that even lower-end houses don't have to be a cookie-cutter box

Mardie called her sister that night. "Can you imagine putting "Barton Hills' on your funeral wreath?" Mardie asked.

That, she thought, was the mark of a real neighborhood. The Fifth Ward was a very specific place, a place that defined people's lives, a place they're proud of. Mardie had come to love the Fifth Ward the way that she'd never loved a place before. She wanted to make it better, and newer, and nicer, and to open it to fresh ideas, but she didn't want to change it beyond recognition.

Michael Bell got a chance to move his heavy theory and big ideas into the real world.
Deron Neblett
Michael Bell got a chance to move his heavy theory and big ideas into the real world.
The glass house offers life within a rectangular fishbowl.
Courtesy Mike Bell
The glass house offers life within a rectangular fishbowl.

About three years ago, while Mardie was still immersed in Lyons Village, she gave a similar tour of the Fifth Ward to Michael Bell, then an architecture professor at Rice University. Like many academics, Michael gravitated toward heavy theory and big ideas. He'd recently finished co-editing Slow Space, a book of dense essays, each of which addressed "a transformed subject enmeshed in the ecologies of urban assemblages." One writer examined Heidegger's attitude toward technology; another congratulated architectural theorists for tackling gender oppression and the mind/body distinction.

It seems safe to assume that the mind/body distinction wasn't broached by the Fifth Ward buildings that Mardie showed Michael. He was riveted anyway.

He'd recently begun asking a big question, one that was surprisingly down-to-earth and can be phrased bluntly: Why are so many new houses awful? The answer, he'd soon realized, was economic. Architects tend to design expensive, make-a-statement houses, not those within reach of the average buyer, much less a low-income family. In part, that's because the builders and developers behind most houses are unwilling to pay for even basic architectural thought; they prefer to use their own bloated cookie-cutter plans, in which clumsy design lays waste to huge square footage. Michael found that the entire architecture bill for one Houston subdivision, Chase Ridge, totaled only $4,550; divided over 347 single-family homes, that amounted to a pathetic $13 apiece.

Worse, it seemed that federal policies might soon unleash a torrent of more sorry houses. In the Houston Chronicle, Michael read that the U.S. government might offer up to 25,000 vouchers to help low-income Houston families make down payments on single-family homes. The Chronicle suggested that the vouchers might start a land rush, and Michael contemplated the grim possibility of 25,000 ticky-tacky, ill-conceived houses cluttering the landscape and gumming up people's lives: American tax dollars at work.

What, he wondered, did a policy like that mean for architecture? And could anything be done to make those houses better?

Hope is an abstraction every bit as airy as the mind/body distinction. But pragmatic Mardie, and Lyons Village, and the Fifth Ward CRC, and the Fifth Ward itself, all seemed to suggest that a modest, everyday house could embody hope. And also that there might be hope for the modest, everyday house.

Michael and Mardie decided to put on a show -- or, to be precise, an architecture competition to design low-income houses. Exuberant, in the first flush of infatuation with the project, they rounded up institutional partners: the avant-garde art space DiverseWorks, Mardie's Fifth Ward CRC, Michael's Rice University, and the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County. The 16 architects' proposals would all be exhibited at DiverseWorks, and a panel of judges would pick six designs that the CRC would build.

In the invitation booklet issued to the 16 architectural teams, Michael laid out his ideas and challenged the groups to design houses specifically for the Fifth Ward, specifically for the voucher program. Photos showed the neighborhood's emblematic streets and buildings. There were photos, too, of the traditional-looking houses built by the CRC, and in an essay, Mardie noted that for the poor, the traditional American dream home, with its shutters and gabled roof, was an image of success. But she also noted that the people of the Fifth Ward hadn't been offered many architectural options. The architects were asked to offer other possible images, other kinds of houses.

To Michael's surprise, his and Mardie's fever spread. His academic projects had never before caught fire like that. "Normally," he says, "you do a lot of work to get people interested in architecture."

Many of the architects invited to participate were professors Michael knew at Rice, and the academics tended to emphasize concepts over practicality. Mark Wamble and Dawn Finley designed a BinderHouse that seemed less like architecture than science fiction. Mega-corporations rule the world, they posited; why not take advantage of that fact? They proposed that voucher recipients pool their money and build a factory to manufacture Klip Binders -- that is, a backbone to which Legolike units could be attached. A BinderHouse would be endlessly malleable; the homeowner could simply snap off the old living room and snap on a new one. Finley and Wamble imagined the mega-corps scrambling to sell industry-standard appliances and amenities. Igloo would market a Chillklip unit; Nike, a HoopShoot.

Of course Wamble and Finley didn't really expect voucher recipients to pool their money and live in Legoland; the idea was the thing, more important than its execution. For years Michael had worked in a similar fashion. Since 1988 he'd designed a dozen elegant, minimalist glass houses -- houses he never expected to see built, much less occupied. Michael thought of himself as an artist, and the houses he drew were more philosophical exercises than shelter for human beings.

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