Home Despots

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?

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Shaila Dewan