Edifice Complex

I've always been amused by Bob Lanier's story that he started the Houston Image Group because he discovered, while on a trip out of town, that Houston has a bad reputation. I mean, was it the man's first time out of the city? And what was Lanier's vision of Houston, a tropical paradise crisscrossed by grand parkways and sectioned into development-ready plats?

But then again, it is difficult to formulate a coherent sense of the place where one lives, particularly if that place is Houston, where you can look up from your steering wheel and see that a small metropolis of apartments has gone up overnight, and you can't remember what was there before. That's why "The Elusive City" is such an apt title for an exhibit of Paul Hester's architectural photographs, which were taken over the past 20 years for Cite, the magazine of the Rice Design Alliance.

Looking at these pictures -- basically illustrative, if technically crystalline, architectural shots -- one can easily say, "Oh, that's El Paso," or "Looks like Vegas." There's the giant hydroponic produce section of a Fiesta food market; the swimming pool atop the Galleria; and the Shady Lady All-Nude Show, with the fishnetted gams of a world-weary vaquera flanking either side of the door -- all of which make me want to comb through back issues of Cite just as much as does the requisite interior of Dominique de Menil's house or the photograph of the Alley Theatre's downtown ramparts.

Some of the photographs document the kind of quotidian surreality Houstonians have long since come to ignore: King Tut calmly surveying the Southwest Freeway, a strip joint that's actually called The Pink Pussycat, or the wavy railings of the McKee Street Bridge. Others are records of destruction: the rice elevators, the Shamrock Hilton, the wildly lit Memorial Baptist Hospital. All crumble into rubble, their innards as exposed as the skyline from Allen Parkway. If architecture is a city's biggest commitment to what it is, then what does it mean, Hester's photographs ask us, to see these behemoths erased?

-- Shaila Dewan

"The Elusive City" is on view through December 3 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

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Shaila Dewan