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

Keith Krumwiede's tall, skinny house sold next -- to Diane Barber and Karen Niemier, the couple he'd pitched it to at DiverseWorks. The Reverend Harvey Clemons Jr., the longtime chairman of the Fifth Ward CRC, has said that he'd like to see "Seven Houses" jump-start a Fifth Ward arts district, which would "ensure that the community is vibrant and diverse for years to come." Certainly, artsy Diane and Karen will diversify the neighborhood. They are white; they are not low-income; they now live in Montrose. Before "16 Houses," neither of them knew much about the Fifth Ward.

In other cities, Diane and Karen might be seen as interlopers. In Washington, D.C., you used to hear about "The Plan," the supposed white conspiracy to drive blacks out of the District. Gay men and artists were said to be the shock troops of gentrification; once they established a beachhead in a black neighborhood, property values skyrocketed, and high property taxes and wall-to-wall whiteness inevitably followed.

Of course, in racial matters as in many things, Houston is blessedly more laid-back than D.C., and in the Fifth Ward, invasive whiteness, gentrification and skyrocketing property values seem laughably far away. Diane and Karen are eager to make a good impression on their future neighbors, and so far, the neighborhood has welcomed them. One weekend a few months ago, after examining their lot on Schwartz Street, they drove around, exploring the unfamiliar streets. Near a dead end, they accidentally lodged their car on a railroad track.

Aida de Hoyas is ready to transplant her garden into the yard of her new house.
Aida de Hoyas is ready to transplant her garden into the yard of her new house.

The car refused to budge. It was near dusk, and well, it was the Fifth Ward, famous as the toughest ghetto in Houston. Diane and Karen began to worry.

After ten minutes or so, a man appeared. "You're having trouble?" he asked. He left, and a few minutes later returned with a Suburban, a chain and a posse of helpful neighbors. In minutes, they yanked the car free.

Diane and Karen thought: You wouldn't see kindness like that in Montrose.

In early October the CRC's receptionist paged Mardie. Four or five times a month, after hearing a brief explanation of the "Seven Houses" project, a buyer would express interest in seeing the plans. Mardie trudged to the office's lobby, bracing herself for rejection. Usually the buyers wanted the standard-issue American-dream house, not an architectural statement; they wanted their homes to comfort them, not challenge them.

The receptionist had paged Mardie because this particular prospect, a single mother, had rejected one of the standard two-bedroom plans; she wanted three bedrooms. Mardie showed her drawings of the InSideOutSide House and ran pleasantly through the litany of its oddball features: the swinging walls, the overgrown table in the backyard, the indoor-outdoor kitchen that includes a barbecue grill. Mardie was in sales mode; she did not use the word "goofy."

The woman asked only one question: It does have three bedrooms?

Yes, Mardie said.

I'll take it, she replied.

Mardie was stunned. Two weeks later she still wasn't sure whether to count the encounter as a sale. She didn't know whether the buyer understood how radical the house was, and before anything permanent was signed, Mardie wanted Studio Works to discuss the plan with their potential client. It's one thing to sneak a wild design past an appraiser. It's another to foist it onto an unsuspecting occupant -- someone who doesn't understand that in the event of a sudden thunderstorm, she'll have to close the walls.

Glass House @2° will require a similarly intense commitment from its occupant. In Michael Bell's drawings, the house is furnished with sleek black shapes; the effect is futuristic and hard-edged, a minimalist's dream, an android's pod, Darth Vader's meditation retreat. Obviously most people don't live like that. After a while, you suspect, even a committed aesthete would be tempted to backslide, to soften the place with a fluffy rug or hide behind a wall of curtains.

For that reason, Mardie found a different kind of potential buyer: not a would-be occupant, but a philanthropist and arts patron. The deal hasn't been closed, and it's not yet clear how the glass house will be used. Mardie thinks it might become an office for an arts organization; Michael hopes it could host a series of artists-in-residence. He likes the idea that the front living area, with its endless glass wall, could serve as an artist's studio; a studio would be interesting to look at, an exhibit worthy of Michael's display case. An arts organization's desks and filing cabinets thrill him less -- but at least the landlord could ban curtains.

Mardie thinks it'll be fascinating to watch the occupants move into the seven houses and make them their own. With the Venturi houses, she's seen the tension between an occupant and the architect's intention: At one point, the buyer of the electric-yellow house wanted to paint the place brown. Mardie and an architecture professor performed a kind of intervention, using a book of Venturi's work to convince the buyer that changing the color would hurt his property values. Now, she says, the same buyer is tired of mowing, and wants to cover the lawn with rocks.

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