Pretty Vacant: The Trouble With Houston's (Newly Award-Winning) Skyline

Forbes Traveler has a new list up -- called alternately "the 13 greatest urban silhouettes" and "the world's most stunning city skylines."

Here is what makes a skyline great, according to the article:

It has to be more than merely memorable, it must have some exceptional characteristics: It not only should be instantly recognizable but, from the traveler's perspective particularly, it should be an enticing view of great buildings and monuments. If it's really special, you want to be a part of it.

Gotham tops the list, as you might expect, especially when you learn that the list was compiled by New York architects Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat. And it is no surprise to find among the international cities on the list places like Dubai, Hong Kong, Toronto and Sydney, nor Frankfurt, one of the few European cities to sport an American-style skyline. Paris and London both make the cut for their magnificent, mostly low-rise vistas. Other American cities cited: San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago, which for our money is America's most impressive.

Pittsburgh is one of the two big shockers on the list, and our very own Bayou City is the other.

Here is what Stamberg and Aferiat had to say about us:

Houston has the Transco Tower and also Pennzoil Place, two towers that kiss. And all three are Philip Johnson buildings. [T]he bizarre thing about Houston is that you can have a 50-story building next to a one-story building, for an entire city block, so you have these sort of large holes that exist between the towers.

Indeed, there is a large hole between Transco Tower and the rest of the skyline -- a 5.5-mile-wide one, according to Google Maps.

At any rate, we are none too thrilled to be cited in this list, mainly because we have long found our fellow Houstonians to be way too smug about our skyline. It's downright cultlike -- have you ever tried to buy a postcard of Houston? Almost none exist that are not pictures of the skyline -- at dawn, at sunset, crowned by booming fireworks, by darkest night. With the eclipse of the Astrodome's Eighth Wonder of the World status, the skyline has become our sole expression of place.

None dare question its magnificence; few dare air the thought that just possibly, like an old overgrown forest, Houston's "canopy" has smothered the sort of interesting undergrowth true cities need to thrive.

It's not just the fact that we have lots of skyscrapers. Lots of cities have even more than we do. What's atypical here is that aside from Dubai, we have the worst public-transit system of any of the cities on this list. All those towers are filled with workers who brought their own cars to work, often solo, and all those cars have to go somewhere. So those "large holes" Stamberg and Aferiat referred to are filled in often as not by either surface parking lots or garages, which are convenient for the workers, but godawful wastes of space for people trying to enjoy themselves downtown.

(And then there are the tunnels -- the root system in our forest analogy. Our too-tall trees are sustained by underground nourishment, and little remains on street level save for dead space.)

Contrast street-level downtown Houston with any of the other cities on this list save for Dubai. Limiting ourselves to the cities we've actually been to, we have seen that Manhattan, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Chicago are chock-full of shops, taverns, vendors and restaurants, and all those things attract people, and those people have fun downtown seven days a week. What's more, they can get there easily without having to bring their cars and look for parking, which is always a hassle or dangerous or both here every day save for Sunday, when it is free and easy because downtown is perhaps the loneliest place in Houston on the Sabbath.

Especially on weekends, despite huge improvements in the last two decades years (notably Discovery Green, Bayou Place, the Houston Pavilions, and the sports facilities), Houston is a dead zone of corporate "plazas," barren parking lots, blank walls, shuttered storefronts, and parking garages. There are whole downtown streets given over to almost nothing but parking from the bayou to the Pierce Elevated; hell, save for the blessed exception of Discovery Green, the eastern half of downtown is little more than an immense, sun-baked parking savannah.

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Much of the street-level retail is closed all weekend, as is everything in the tunnels. Downtown Brownsville, Texas -- another place we've seen for ourselves -- is livelier than Houston's.

But dang, all them big ol' buildings sure do look purty from a long ways off. Even New Yorkers say so. And evidently that's all that matters.

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