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"This was our old building," said Mardie Oakes. She was driving down Lyons Avenue, where weedy lots alternate with tumble-down buildings, and she pointed to a rickety heap that seemed supported mainly by its faux-stone facade. "I used to have squirrels in my office there," she said. "And I'd find mice in my briefcase."

She sounded wistful. She'd just left the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation's new office in the State Farm Insurance building, a tidy brick low-rise that could occupy any suburban shopping strip in America. The new office gave the CRC credibility, Mardie said; home buyers had been spooked by the ramshackle old place, worried that they might be dealing with a fly-by-night scam. Still, she had freaked about the move. The State Farm building was too nice, too generic. The old place embodied something about the Fifth Ward, something she worried about losing.

Not that Mardie is a fan of urban decay; in fact, she fights it, and she's proud of her victories. She drove further down the street to Lyons Village, sometimes described as "Houston's first mixed-use development"; Mardie called it "my baby." From the street, the brick Lyons Village looked like something copied from a small town's Main Street, the front building appearing like a series of individual sub-buildings, each in a different color of brick, each with commercial space on the first floor, apartments on the second. Mardie punched an entry code into the security box at a side gate, then cruised slowly through the back parking lot. She pointed out a playground, and two more apartment buildings behind the one that faces the street, and the homey potted greenery that surrounded some of the apartments' doors. "Plant people," she said fondly.

Mardie began managing the Lyons Village project in '96; it was her last semester as a Rice architecture student, and she was an intern for the CRC, a nonprofit developer dedicated to improving the Fifth Ward. Lyons Village gave Mardie a crash course in real-world building: She bought the land, pried environmental clearances from the various bureaucracies, and made the endless drives to and from the title company. She oversaw the construction, cramming eight months of work into six. At night, she ground her teeth to the point that she needed serious dental repairs. "About a million dollars' worth," she said.

But in the truck, she was smiling, and her teeth looked fine. She still worked for the CRC as its "special projects manager," and Lyons Village had been roundly praised as a success; because of it, the Fannie Mae Foundation awarded the CRC a $35,000 grant for excellence in the production of low-income housing. The complex holds two dozen four-bedroom apartments, Mardie explained proudly; the CRC leases them to very-low-income families for $375 a month. "And the places are nice," she exulted. "They're new! They have nine-foot ceilings!"

"Nice" and "new" aren't words often associated with the Fifth Ward, a mostly black neighborhood not far east of downtown; "poverty," "crime" and "at-risk" come up more often. The median annual income stalls out at $8,900; 62 percent of its residents live below the poverty line; nine out of ten schoolkids qualify for subsidized lunches. Empty buildings and vacant lots punctuate the commercial streets, a reminder that during segregation the Fifth Ward thrived. The existing businesses run mostly to dingy mom-and-pop operations, grim little grocery stores and cheerless liquor stores. There's no McDonald's, no Fiesta, no Target, no Wal-Mart. It's turf where national chains fear to tread.

But as she drove, Mardie talked mostly about what the neighborhood has, not what it lacks. She's amazed by the Fifth Ward's sense of history, and not just the Black History Month kind of bragging material, full of hard-won achievements and famous offspring (Barbara Jordan, George Foreman, Arnett Cobb). What particularly interested her is the neighborhood's small-scale, deep-rooted personal history, the way that, in the middle of the city, lives are intertwined in a small-town way. Families stay for generations, and in the CRC's office, Mardie would overhear clients introducing themselves to each other, then working to establish the connection they assumed must exist. They'd ask questions like "Didn't my mother go to high school with yours?" That always blew Mardie away. She's white, and grew up in Barton Hills, a south-of-Austin "village" where even the streets are privately owned. In the suburbs, people don't ask questions like that.

With the air of an architectural historian, Mardie pointed out shotgun houses, explaining how the long, skinny form makes great sense in steamy Houston; they're all about ventilation. She drove past sculptor Jesse Lott's studio, checking to see what "creature" might lurk outside. She admired the tropical flowers in people's yards, noting how this most urban of neighborhoods feels green, lush and rural. The drainage ditches are open; the grass flows to the street, uninterrupted by curbs; an occasional dog trotted across the road.

A while back, Mardie said, she went to the funeral for "Lucky" Evans, who'd bought his house through the CRC. Lucky had worked at the shoe-repair shop down the street from the CRC's office, and on top of his casket, a mourner had placed a very specific tribute to his life: a pair of gleaming shoes. On the funeral wreaths' ribbons, "Fifth Ward" was spelled in glitter.

Mardie called her sister that night. "Can you imagine putting "Barton Hills' on your funeral wreath?" Mardie asked.

That, she thought, was the mark of a real neighborhood. The Fifth Ward was a very specific place, a place that defined people's lives, a place they're proud of. Mardie had come to love the Fifth Ward the way that she'd never loved a place before. She wanted to make it better, and newer, and nicer, and to open it to fresh ideas, but she didn't want to change it beyond recognition.

About three years ago, while Mardie was still immersed in Lyons Village, she gave a similar tour of the Fifth Ward to Michael Bell, then an architecture professor at Rice University. Like many academics, Michael gravitated toward heavy theory and big ideas. He'd recently finished co-editing Slow Space, a book of dense essays, each of which addressed "a transformed subject enmeshed in the ecologies of urban assemblages." One writer examined Heidegger's attitude toward technology; another congratulated architectural theorists for tackling gender oppression and the mind/body distinction.

It seems safe to assume that the mind/body distinction wasn't broached by the Fifth Ward buildings that Mardie showed Michael. He was riveted anyway.

He'd recently begun asking a big question, one that was surprisingly down-to-earth and can be phrased bluntly: Why are so many new houses awful? The answer, he'd soon realized, was economic. Architects tend to design expensive, make-a-statement houses, not those within reach of the average buyer, much less a low-income family. In part, that's because the builders and developers behind most houses are unwilling to pay for even basic architectural thought; they prefer to use their own bloated cookie-cutter plans, in which clumsy design lays waste to huge square footage. Michael found that the entire architecture bill for one Houston subdivision, Chase Ridge, totaled only $4,550; divided over 347 single-family homes, that amounted to a pathetic $13 apiece.

Worse, it seemed that federal policies might soon unleash a torrent of more sorry houses. In the Houston Chronicle, Michael read that the U.S. government might offer up to 25,000 vouchers to help low-income Houston families make down payments on single-family homes. The Chronicle suggested that the vouchers might start a land rush, and Michael contemplated the grim possibility of 25,000 ticky-tacky, ill-conceived houses cluttering the landscape and gumming up people's lives: American tax dollars at work.

What, he wondered, did a policy like that mean for architecture? And could anything be done to make those houses better?

Hope is an abstraction every bit as airy as the mind/body distinction. But pragmatic Mardie, and Lyons Village, and the Fifth Ward CRC, and the Fifth Ward itself, all seemed to suggest that a modest, everyday house could embody hope. And also that there might be hope for the modest, everyday house.

Michael and Mardie decided to put on a show -- or, to be precise, an architecture competition to design low-income houses. Exuberant, in the first flush of infatuation with the project, they rounded up institutional partners: the avant-garde art space DiverseWorks, Mardie's Fifth Ward CRC, Michael's Rice University, and the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County. The 16 architects' proposals would all be exhibited at DiverseWorks, and a panel of judges would pick six designs that the CRC would build.

In the invitation booklet issued to the 16 architectural teams, Michael laid out his ideas and challenged the groups to design houses specifically for the Fifth Ward, specifically for the voucher program. Photos showed the neighborhood's emblematic streets and buildings. There were photos, too, of the traditional-looking houses built by the CRC, and in an essay, Mardie noted that for the poor, the traditional American dream home, with its shutters and gabled roof, was an image of success. But she also noted that the people of the Fifth Ward hadn't been offered many architectural options. The architects were asked to offer other possible images, other kinds of houses.

To Michael's surprise, his and Mardie's fever spread. His academic projects had never before caught fire like that. "Normally," he says, "you do a lot of work to get people interested in architecture."

Many of the architects invited to participate were professors Michael knew at Rice, and the academics tended to emphasize concepts over practicality. Mark Wamble and Dawn Finley designed a BinderHouse that seemed less like architecture than science fiction. Mega-corporations rule the world, they posited; why not take advantage of that fact? They proposed that voucher recipients pool their money and build a factory to manufacture Klip Binders -- that is, a backbone to which Legolike units could be attached. A BinderHouse would be endlessly malleable; the homeowner could simply snap off the old living room and snap on a new one. Finley and Wamble imagined the mega-corps scrambling to sell industry-standard appliances and amenities. Igloo would market a Chillklip unit; Nike, a HoopShoot.

Of course Wamble and Finley didn't really expect voucher recipients to pool their money and live in Legoland; the idea was the thing, more important than its execution. For years Michael had worked in a similar fashion. Since 1988 he'd designed a dozen elegant, minimalist glass houses -- houses he never expected to see built, much less occupied. Michael thought of himself as an artist, and the houses he drew were more philosophical exercises than shelter for human beings.

For the Fifth Ward, Michael designed Glass House @2°, the most livable in his series of glass houses, but he thought of it, too, as a "query." The vouchers, he believed, urged their low-income recipients to disappear into the suburbs and live like middle-class people -- or, as Michael puts it, "to assume the cloak of the normative." But why hide behind bourgeois brick walls? Why not force the world to take a good, long look at your disenfranchised self? Besides, isn't privacy a fiction nowadays? And doesn't glass work both ways? Doesn't it allow the occupant to gaze back at the city -- in a way, to embrace and own gleaming downtown Houston?

Glass House @2° is basically two rectangular glass boxes, connected like conjoined twins by a short passageway. One box contains the living room, dining room and kitchen; the other, two bedrooms and a bath. Each of the long outer walls curves the tiniest bit. Occupants of other glass houses might feel that they live inside a fishbowl. The occupants of Michael's would eat dinner under a magnifying glass.

Michael's concessions to the real world were, like his house, minimal. A bamboo fence would surround the yard, and some of the bedrooms' outer walls were opaque, so that a visitor approaching the front door wouldn't have a clear view of a couple tangled in bedsheets. But the long walls separating the bedroom from the backyard were not only clear and curved, like the living area's, but situated above an outdoor reflecting pool. In bed, the occupants were not only under a magnifying glass but in front of a mirror.

The architecture firm Studio Works is based in Los Angeles, but its principals, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, are also academics and sometimes taught at Rice. They, too, took a radical approach to the idea of shelter: Why make a huge distinction between indoors and outdoors? they asked. But their InSideOutSide House made the question seem less like a philosophical exercise than a romp. Many of its exterior walls could pivot open, expanding a room to include a grassy courtyard at a moment's notice. In the master bedroom, a TV was embedded in a swinging wall. The occupant could lie in bed, watching the news -- or, if the weather was fine, swing open the wall, pop open a lawn chair and watch from outside. The kitchen expanded to include a built-in outdoor barbecue grill, near a nifty little greenhouse. Even the outdoors looked a bit like the indoors; in a back courtyard, Studio Works drew an overgrown table, tall enough for people to stand in the shade underneath; and they proposed to outfit the outdoor spaces with quirky furniture, like a chair-on-a-skateboard that could be quickly rolled inside in case of rain. For the family's dog, they designed a BowWow House.

Among such high-concept company, Deborah Morris's garden house seemed shockingly conventional. Deborah, who teaches at the University of Houston, is a principal in Morris Gutierrez, a little firm that happily accepts projects as humble as a bathroom renovation, and her down-to-earth, easy-to-build design can be read as a mild rebuke to some of the competition's wilder schemes. Her L-shaped house looks cleanly modern but not shocking; it's a descendant of familiar Texas forms, such as the shotgun house, the ranch, the bungalow and the dogtrot. The most striking thing about the place is its garden -- a feature that ultimately would display the wild creativity of not the architect but the gardener.

Deborah knew that other architects would find her house decidedly unhip, even (shudder) "cute." She didn't care; she cared more about the potential home buyers, and rather than challenging them, she wanted to offer what she thought they wanted, at a price they could afford: three bedrooms, two baths, good ventilation, good design, nothing wild.

Deborah and her Morris Gutierrez colleagues stayed late at the office to build the model. They ate pizza and drank wine, and just to provoke their severe, head-in-the-clouds colleagues, they made the model downright adorable. Green tea leaves formed its lawn, and sprigs of artsy-craftsy dried flowers stood for fruit trees. Sunflower seeds, their tips pointed skyward, indicated plants. The bushes were cut from loofah sponges.

Forget the philosophical questions, the model seemed to say. Here's a nice place to live.

Michael wanted the show to be perfect, and on opening night, at 5:45 p.m., he helped Emily Todd, then the executive director of DiverseWorks, mop the exhibit room's floor. The exhibit itself, he thought, looked great. Each of the 16 models was laid out on a specially built table, and each table formed one side of a square; the effect was like looking at four city blocks. Slides of the real Fifth Ward would be projected against a wall -- photos of the real here-and-now serving as a backdrop for the architects' dreams.

By 7:30 p.m. DiverseWorks was packed: Roughly 900 people showed up. The crowd was notable not just for its size but for its composition. Besides DiverseWorks's usual core of black-clad art lovers, there were Fifth Ward residents and other non-artsy civilians simply interested in affordable, well-designed houses. Once again, the project had taken Michael by surprise. He watched, fascinated, as people smiled or grimaced at the models, imagining what it would be like to live in that.

Keith Krumwiede, yet another Rice professor, had recently moved from L.A., and Houston's flatness depressed him. People want views, he thought, and in the Fifth Ward, a three-story house could show the downtown skyline -- a cheap feature that would look expensive. To cut the usual costs of building something tall, he and his design team at Standard, TX proposed to perch the house atop stilts and use a pre-engineered steel frame. For ventilation's sake, they made the flat-roofed house long and skinny, like a shotgun, but even skinnier than most: only 12 feet wide in most places. To fight claustrophobia, they added a cantilevered box to extend the second-floor living room, and let a big vertical shaft stretch all the way up to the roof, so parts of the room were two stories tall. The Domestic Topographic Package, they called it. Some admirers thought it looked like a beach house.

Diane Barber, DiverseWorks's director of visual arts, had enjoyed working with Keith. At the opening, she introduced Keith to her partner, litigation manager Karen Niemier. The two women told him how much they admired his tall, thin house. Keith joked that they should buy it. He wasn't entirely kidding: Even academic architects yearn to see their projects built.

The panel of judges was intentionally split between neighborhood representatives and architecture mavens, and in January, when they announced the six houses they'd chosen for the CRC to build, the range was as wide as you'd expect. The neighborhood representatives preferred relatively familiar forms, including Deborah's cute garden house; the mavens favored the high-concept designs, such as Glass House @2°. Keith's Domestic Topographic Package fell somewhere in between, as did William Williams and Archie Pizzini's Flip-Flop House, which also looks something like a beach house. Flip-Flop is distinguished mainly by its elegant, skinny windows, arranged across the walls like so many framed pictures.

The judges also chose the Peavy, designed by Carlos Jimenez. Carlos is known for pure, tranquil buildings in bold colors, and he approached this project much the way he approaches any other; purity, tranquillity and bold colors aren't inherently expensive. "Budget," he says, "doesn't limit the imagination."

But it does limit size. Carlos wanted to use durable, high-quality materials, so to keep costs low, he kept the house small. The average new house now weighs in at a whopping 2,225 square feet; the Peavy, at 1,100, is less than half that, but still holds three bedrooms and two and a half baths. Less square footage means less maintenance and lower utility bills, Carlos points out. To lower the water bill, he designed a cistern to collect rain that falls on the roof; the runoff can later be used to water the house's yard and garden.

Lindy Roy focused on cutting air-conditioning costs. The windowed front wall of her three-bedroom house opens entirely, so air can flow freely from the porch into the two-story, ceiling-fanned living room. The house's memorable roof aids the process, with a triangular section cresting upward to catch the breeze. The result looks a bit like Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame-du-Haut and a bit like an open-faced Howard Johnson's.

A week after the six were announced, the Fifth Ward CRC added a seventh house to the list: Studio Works's InSideOutSide House. The design, Mardie thought, was especially appropriate for the Fifth Ward, where people often hang out in their yards. It even looked a little like the houses that result from decades of homemade additions. The design managed to combine innovation with a feel for the Fifth Ward -- the combination that Mardie had always hoped was possible.

Michael's part of the project, the bright-ideas stage, was mostly finished. "16 Houses" had become "Seven Houses," and now, it became Mardie's job to make them real.

The CRC already was attempting a project that melded architectural ambition with low-income housing. Under Mardie's watch, University of Houston professor Drexel Turner led student volunteers in building two houses designed by Robert Venturi, the famous postmodernist. The two-story houses, with front porches, looked like updates on the homey Victorians you see in the Heights and Montrose. Their colors, though, were striking: One was electric blue, trimmed in dark blue; the other, neon yellow with orange-sherbet trim.

Volunteer labor kept the price of the Venturi houses low, but the slow pace of construction drove Mardie mad: The students had classes on weekdays and couldn't work then. And obviously, though the houses were supposed to serve as prototypes, a for-profit developer couldn't expect to cut costs with volunteer labor.

"Seven Houses" would be different: Everything would be paid for; success wouldn't hinge on charity. And maybe then developers would pay attention.

The two Venturi houses sit near the corner of Gillespie and Schwartz, near the southwest corner of the Fifth Ward, a couple of blocks south of I-10's juncture with U.S. 59. The Fifth Ward CRC owned many empty lots near Sweeney Park, and the micro-neighborhood seemed like a reasonable place to introduce experimental architecture to the Fifth Ward. The lots weren't directly across from or beside more traditional houses; the architect-designed houses could form their own artsy clump. Had the houses been plopped into existing neighborhoods, buyers might have felt awkward, stigmatized as "the weird one" on the block. And besides, existing neighbors might resent the change in their street: Mardie hated the idea that each morning an old lady's kitchen-window view of a wild new house might make her feel like crying. On the CRC's stretches of Gillespie and Schwartz streets, there would be no one to look out the windows and be shocked -- nobody but other occupants of other new houses.

Assigned their lots, the architects began the painful process of editing their original plans to fit the real-life construction budget. Originally the "16 Houses" invitation book had urged that the houses cost the same as the Fifth Ward CRC's other new single-family homes, somewhere between $36,000 and $82,550.

That's an impressively low number, and a hard one for architects to approach. According to the Census Bureau, the average price of a new single-family home weighs in at a hefty $203,000. And obviously that average home doesn't include much in the way of an architect's fees or ambitious building procedures; and because few of those homes are unique, economies of scale smile upon the builder. Usually architects' one-of-a-kind designs are the province of the wealthy. In California, the houses Keith had helped design had cost hundreds of dollars per square foot; for his Fifth Ward house, he wanted the figure to be $50. (Developers' tract houses often weigh in at $33.)

Naturally, many of the architects had been optimistic when first estimating costs. And to make matters worse, since the houses had been designed, Houston's building boom had radically increased the cost of construction. "This market's not kind to small, strange jobs," lamented Mardie. The CRC relaxed its upper limit -- $103,000, the top price for many low-income buyer subsidies -- but even that goal was difficult.

"Do we have to include air-conditioning?" Studio Works asked.

"Yes," Mardie said.

"How about heat?"

"That, too."

Mardie and a co-worker, John Reeves, scrutinized spreadsheets, on a search-and-destroy mission for unnecessary line items. Mardie, trained as an architect, hated to lose the designers' flourishes. She was sad to see the InSideOutSide House stripped of the BowWow House and the silly wheeled furniture, but happy that the swinging TV wall survived. With Keith, she discussed an obvious way to cut the cost of his plan: Remove the cantilevered box that hung off the living room. Mardie, Keith said, seemed more dismayed by the loss than he was. (Michael suspects that Keith is playing down his dismay. No architect, says Michael, ever compromises willingly.)

Four of the houses -- Deborah Morris's garden house, the Peavy, the Flip-Flop House and the InSideOutSide House -- will be sold for $100,000 or less. Others couldn't be brought under $103,000 without crippling the design; the CRC opted to not to make further cuts. Michael's Glass House @2°, for instance, requires one-of-a-kind, specially fabricated doors; Mardie laments that with shipping from California, they'll cost $20,000 all by themselves. Both Keith's and Michael's houses will sell for around $125,000 -- still much cheaper than the average new house, and affordable for a family making $30,000 or $40,000 a year.

In late summer Mardie began submitting the plans to appraisers. She worried: It's hard for an appraiser to guess what the houses might sell for, since there are no "comparables" in the neighborhood. Would he count a room without a closet as a bedroom? Would he accept her argument that a unique, architect-designed house is worth more than its tract-house brethren? Would he freak when he saw the InSideOutSide House's swinging walls? Would he care that the design had recently won a Progressive Architecture Award, the profession's version of the Oscars?

Banking formulas cap construction loans at 85 percent of the house's appraised value. (The other 15 percent is assumed to be "soft costs," which the builder can recoup when the house is sold.) So if the appraiser set the houses' values too low, the CRC would have to find additional money.

In early September the appraisals began trickling in. Mardie was jubilant that the InSideOutSide House passed muster: "They didn't appraise it at half value because it was goofy!"

Did they notice it was goofy?

"I think so," she said. "But I'm not pushing it."

"For sale" signs now mark the lots where the houses will be erected. In the description of Michael's Glass House @2°, Mardie opted for market-friendly understatement: "Lots of natural light."

She's especially pleased that some of the lots sport "SOLD" signs. The CRC can afford to build three of the houses on spec, but must sell the other four before it begins construction. Not surprisingly, Deborah's garden house was the first to attract a buyer.

The CRC doesn't require that its buyers already reside in the Fifth Ward, or that they qualify for low-income housing programs, but most fall into both categories. And most buyers want the kind of house that the CRC normally builds: a pleasant, traditional-looking place, with a pitched roof, a porch and trees -- a modest, American-dream sort of house, a notable sign of hope and prosperity in the Fifth Ward. Since 1989 the CRC has erected more than 500 of those houses.

Usually, when someone like Aida de Hoyas approaches the CRC, she expects to buy a house like the ones she's already seen in the neighborhood. But Aida, a Fifth Ward resident, is a gardener, and she liked the plans for Deborah Morris's house. Deborah personalized the plans a smidgen (Aida wanted a bigger kitchen, and she plans to use the third bedroom as a home office), and now, all that's left to do is the construction itself. Aida is ready to transplant her rosebushes and fruit trees.

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.

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.

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.

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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