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

She grins and shrugs, resigned to the rocks. "That's the biggest pain for architects," she says. "Letting someone else's vision take over."


Talking about "Seven Houses," you often hear people say that one house -- or seven, or 16 -- won't change anything. But one house, Michael points out, can shape the life of a child who grows up in it. And "Seven Houses" has changed Mardie and Michael.

The Fifth Ward gets ready for at least a partial face-lift. Here: The "Domestic Topographic Package."
The Fifth Ward gets ready for at least a partial face-lift. Here: The "Domestic Topographic Package."
Mardie Oakes, amazed by the Fifth Ward's sense of history, wants to change it, but not beyond recognition.
Deron Neblett
Mardie Oakes, amazed by the Fifth Ward's sense of history, wants to change it, but not beyond recognition.

Michael is teaching at Columbia in New York. The queries he now puts to his students are very different from the ones he used to explore in his glass houses -- and very similar to the ones he asked in the "16 Houses" invitation. Why isn't design considered important in the average American house? If you count the cost of building roads, do we spend more on our cars than our houses? How do government programs shape our homes?

The project also has propelled Mardie elsewhere: In January she'll enter Harvard Business School. Her mission, as she sees it, is to learn how to finance large housing projects. " "Seven Houses' isn't going to change anything," she says. "But what if we did 70? or 100?"

For the last few months she's been trying to photograph all her favorite spots in the Fifth Ward, and to train the replacement who'll take over the projects that she's leaving behind. She says she'll fly back to visit, often, as the houses are being built. She says it as if she were swearing to keep in touch with a friend or lover.

Wednesday was supposed to be her last day at the CRC. The night before, her head was full of unfinished business: a different lot for the InSideOutSide House, the low appraisals on Keith's and Michael's houses that would require extra financing, and a million other things to remember to tell her successor. Her old tooth-grinding habit returned, and she woke up with an $1,800 dental emergency -- expensive, painful proof that she hadn't quite let go, that she wasn't quite willing to let someone else's vision take over. She was excited about Harvard and her new high-concept project in life, but at the same time, she was reluctant to start, unwilling to leave the place where she'd built a professional life and a personal history. The Fifth Ward felt like home, and to Mardie, "home" meant a lot.

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