Last night, Art Attack attended a sort of sneak preview of the busy schedule of events and programs surrounding Houston 175, a months-long celebration of Houston's history since its founding by a couple of shysters, the Allen Brothers, on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, just weeks after the defeat of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
The opening reception for an exhibit at the Architecture Center Houston (ArCH) came just days before this Sunday's "birthday bash" at Market Square Park, which the Mayor will attend as honorary chair of the proceedings. The mayor's office, in fact, could not spare much in the way of funding for Houston 175, so an impressive coalition of nonprofits stepped up to make it all happen. Over the next couple of months, a history conference will be held and a half dozen more exhibits will be mounted across the city focusing on themes like education, arts, medicine, sports and commerce.
The focus on architecture at ArCH tells a familiar story about Houston's architectural legacy, from the indifferently erected clapboard houses that originally emerged from the prairie, to the adoption and blending of styles from the East Coast and Europe without much consideration for our bayou-city contexts, to the eventual triumph of the modern and then the eclectic. Underlying all that story is our city's relentless demolition of its architectural heritage, not only a regrettable loss but also a vital feature of Houston's living character today. Indeed, about a third of the images on exhibit were of buildings that don't exist anymore.
The exhibit divides into a number of useful if overlapping categories: first, modern, sacred, civic, shelter, beautiful, shop, culture, tall and exotic. Sally Jones, who brought her architect friend to attend the exhibit, says that she is already familiar with the work of the curator Barrie Scardino and architectural historian Stephen Fox, who contributed to the show and "who both make a major contribution to our city in documenting our architectural history, both civic and residential."
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The reception was certainly populated by friends and colleagues of the hosts and the board of Houston 175. Anyone who's taken even a glancing interest in Houston's architecture will be familiar with most of the show already, as most of it features a sort of "greatest hits," especially in the categories of civic, residential, cultural and eclectic architecture. Expect to find plenty of Philip Johnson, and "Here's the Beer Can House!" and "Look, honey, there's Jones Hall!"
To balance that, we also find an excellent record of Houston's lost architecture as well as plainspoken interpretive texts and captions that helpfully provide a big-picture context to Houston's often bewildering hodge-podge of building styles.
For folks just getting started learning about architecture, the exhibit provides an indispensable introduction. The ArCH space is open to the public during business days, and many of the featured buildings are within walking distance, so it would make a great first stop in a self-directed tour. And while it isn't listed on anyone's walking tour, be sure to start with that enormous oak tree right outside the ArCH offices. That used to be Houston's Hanging Tree. (ArCH also offers guided walking tours starting in September.)
Through October 29. For information, visit www.aiahouston.org or call 713-520-0155.