In 1976, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared that Houston was “the American present and future. It is an exciting and disturbing place,” one that “scholars flock to for the purpose of seeing what modern civilization has wrought.”1 In her account the city's distinctive character lay in its decenteredness, its seemingly limitless capacity for shape-shifting, and its utter lack of history. Like many observers then and since, Huxtable was struck by the experience of juxtaposition—of form, scale, type, and space—that was a consequence, in part, of the city's infamous lack of zoning regulations and its unapologetic accommodation of private real estate interests, particularly those of politically powerful developers. She was impressed by the city's sprawl—it then stretched over more than 500 square miles—and its size. Rapid growth since World War II had made Houston the fifth most populous city in the United States. Huxtable observed that the city's “values” were “material fulfillment, mobility, and mass entertainment”; she called its form “instructive and disquieting” but admired its “extraordinary, unlimited vitality.”2

Huxtable was not the only outsider impressed by Houston. In 1977, the Chicago-based journal Inland Architect dedicated an entire issue to the city and noted that, despite its recent pace of change, it was, in fact, “as old as Chicago.” The authors homed in on the city's magnetic appeal for architects and its increasingly international character. “Graduates of every prestigious university” followed money there and helped nurture an “intellectual architectural life” in the “frontier” town.3 Even if Houston was particularly American, much of the money that sustained its construction boom (with 30 million square feet of office space added since 1970) and attracted architects, had arrived via the global oil economy as “Deutsche marks, yen, pesos, and more.”4 Old and new, intellectually stimulating and unabashedly capitalistic, of the United States and also global—the Houston of these accounts was, as Huxtable claimed, marked by the prevalence of “surreal juxtapositions” and presented visitors “a continuous series of … cultural shocks.”5

The press attention devoted to Houston in the 1970s came at a critical period in the city's history and in the evolution of that architecture broadly, if somewhat vaguely, termed postmodern. Charles Jencks's definition of postmodernism is useful in contextualizing Houston's place in this era. Summarizing writings by architectural historians and others, Jencks declared in 1992:

Postmodernism means the end of a single world view and, by extension, a “war on totality,” a resistance to single explanations, a respect for difference and a celebration of the regional, local and particular. Yet in its suffix “modern,” it still carries the burden of a process which is international and in some senses universal. In this sense it has a permanent tension and is always hybrid, mixed, ambiguous, or what I have called “doubly-coded.”6

Jencks's definition is apt for Houston because its architecture and urban form were difficult to classify according to familiar urban patterns, even as important buildings there belonged to recognizable stylistic tendencies. (It was, for instance, an important locus of post–World War II Miesian and New Formalist modernism.) In a curious instance of “double-coding,” Houston was deeply embedded in global economic structures thanks to its influential oil industry, which, despite it homogenizing tendencies, helped finance the texts and buildings that shaped the city's pluralistic postmodern character. Any resistance to totality in Houston was a manifestation not of ideological war but of laissez-faire attitudes toward regulation and land use.

Postmodernism, as a historical designation, a style, and a theoretical stance, will be further debated and redefined as its era—the mid-1960s to the early 1990s—attracts new scholarship; yet it remains a useful term insofar as it suggests both change and continuity with problems and ideas that emerged decades earlier.7 Even as significant concerns of high modernist architecture—engagements with history, reform, material expression, and abstraction—endured after the mid-1960s, the social conditions that shaped architecture in the United States were different from those of previous eras. Beginning in the 1960s, new laws and ideas about land use, property ownership, voting rights, and access to public education and amenities helped push the country toward greater inclusion and reflected a growing tolerance, if not celebration, of differences among the general population.

The postmodern era in metropolitan Houston was defined by the interactions of architects, patrons, and commercial interests there and in Galveston, a smaller, island city 50 miles south on the Gulf of Mexico. Postmodernism, as attitude and style, coincided with a critical period in the region's history, when Galveston was reinvented as a historical city and Houston became paradigmatic of postmodern pluralism, informality, exuberant experimentation, and capitalist excess. Led by developers, shaped and theorized by architects and nonarchitects, reframed by photographers, and further transformed by a rapidly growing population, Houston was one of the centers of postmodernism in the United States. From the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, metropolitan Houston and Galveston constituted a multinodal locus of formal and theoretical experimentation. The writing of local architectural history became entwined with new theories inspired by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, while new works by some of the era's leading architects—Philip Johnson, Venturi and Scott Brown, Michael Graves, James Stirling and Michael Wilford, and Aldo Rossi among them—reshaped the cities. Photography and public festivals contributed to defining the region's postmodern character, as appreciation for architectural history and urban fabric blossomed.

The story of architectural postmodernism in Houston and Galveston is also significant for the role it played in laying the foundations for the region's social and political transformation, which coincided with an extraordinary demographic shift. In 1970, the region's population was overwhelmingly white and, as Inland Architect and the New York Times noted, politically and socially conservative. Imagined by architects through the politically progressive lens of postmodernist architectural theory but built through the mechanisms of liberal capitalism, Houston today has become one of the country's most diverse and inclusive cities, more attuned than most to problems of racial and economic inequality.8

Venturi and Scott Brown never embraced “postmodern” as a descriptor of their work, but their commitment to pluralism as an architectural and social principle binds them to the concept. As Venturi explained in 1978: “We can like Vivaldi and the Beatles and believe we need the same eclectic range of Pop and high art in our urban environments for the sake of variety and vitality. In a wide context, it's a question of is it vital, not is it great?”9 That approach to urbanism arose from the architects' research on vernacular and urban forms, which was ongoing when they arrived in Houston in the spring of 1969 as visiting professors at Rice University.10 Influenced by Venturi and Scott Brown's views on architecture and urban form, Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Peter C. Papademetriou presented Galveston and Houston as eclectic and pluralistic places in books and essays published before and after Huxtable extolled the cities' virtues to a national audience. Photographs by Paul Hester of the region's vernacular buildings and landscapes, many of which appeared in Papademetriou's publications, provided evidence supporting the architects' arguments.11 Earlie Hudnall Jr.'s 1970s and 1980s photographs of predominantly African American neighborhoods similarly showed Houston in new ways and illustrated its diversity in realistic yet sympathetic terms. Finally, the push–pull relationship between real estate development and historic preservation, along with a renewed interest in architectural classicism, helped make the region fertile ground for postmodern patrons such as real estate developers Gerald D. Hines and George Mitchell.12

At its peak, architectural postmodernism had many faces, and together, Galveston and Houston showed them all—from deep interest in architectural history to superficial interest in historic architectural elements, iconographies, symbols, and types. Monumentality, rendered in multiple registers in many materials, abounded in buildings scaled to freeways and parking lots and even in landscape design. Houston's nonexistent zoning and signage regulations, coupled with Galveston's tourist-oriented economy, gave rise to a regional landscape defined by an extraordinary variety of signs and symbols—from a colossal replica of the mask of Tutankhamen to a gigantic Saturn V rocket on the lawn at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Architectural humor and playfulness were plentiful. The region's relentless, sometimes irresponsible, often open-minded acceptance of the vernacular resulted, by the 1990s, in such pioneering works as Project Row Houses, which combined historic shotgun houses, contemporary art, and education programs for underprivileged youth.13 It also produced a gargantuan network of banal commercial strips and freeways. Glitzy ornament, including neon and nighttime architectural illumination, was used widely, as a reckless but fun, unintended allusion to the dynamics of production and consumption that drove the region's energy economy. The following account of the forms, forces, and figures that made Houston an “exciting and disturbing place” illuminates one important episode in the history of postmodern architecture and the mechanisms of architectural and social change.

Howard Barnstone and Architectural History

Postmodernism began on the Texas Gulf Coast with a book and an exhibition. In 1966, Houston architect Howard Barnstone (1923–87), who studied at Amherst and Yale before heading south in 1948, published The Galveston That Was, an illustrated architectural history of that city.14 Even after the devasting hurricane of 1900, Galveston had one of the finest collections of Gothic Revival, Victorian, neoclassical, and vernacular buildings (especially shotgun houses) in the southern United States. In its stylistic variety and richness, the city embodied the trajectory of U.S. architecture in the late nineteenth century, while its urban form and typologies reflected histories of immigration, maritime trade, and slavery and its aftermath. The Galveston That Was was remarkable not only for its unsentimental documentation of nineteenth-century Galveston as it looked in the mid-twentieth century but also for its ninety-three photographs by Ezra Stoller and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Stoller and Cartier-Bresson each created distinctive images of a vanishing world, one marked by instability, uncertainty, and loneliness. Stoller's moody shots set at raking angles, often framed by palm trees or live oaks, and his tightly cropped images of ornament and building materials emphasized the interdependence of the particular and the general, the part and the whole; his images offered a visual argument for the importance of architectural fabric to the city's character (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1

Ezra Stoller, John L. Darragh Residence, northeast corner, Alfred Muller, architect, Galveston, 1886 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph © Ezra Stoller/Esto).

Figure 1

Ezra Stoller, John L. Darragh Residence, northeast corner, Alfred Muller, architect, Galveston, 1886 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph © Ezra Stoller/Esto).

Figure 2

Ezra Stoller, Galveston News Building, detail at entry, Nicholas Clayton, architect, Galveston, 1883–84 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph © Ezra Stoller/Esto).

Figure 2

Ezra Stoller, Galveston News Building, detail at entry, Nicholas Clayton, architect, Galveston, 1883–84 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph © Ezra Stoller/Esto).

Cartier-Bresson's images, on the other hand, conveyed Galveston's social dimensions. His pictures often included one or two people, seemingly unaware of the camera. Some conversed, others walked down the street or up steps (Figures 3 and 4). Their bodies and casual dress were juxtaposed with the city's historic buildings in ways that conveyed both architectural scale and the passage of time. Cartier-Bresson's subjects included black and white residents, and nearly all were working-class. Like Stoller's, his images conveyed a sense of slowness, stillness, and decay. Collectively, the work of these two photographers problematized the relationship between past and present. Appearing the same year as the first edition of Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Barnstone's text, with Stoller's and Cartier-Bresson's photos, similarly evoked complexity and contradiction, and even echoed Venturi's subtle, significant preference for “black and white, and sometimes gray,” not “black or white.”15

Figure 3

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Sawyer-Flood House, detail of bay window at front entry, 1962, architect unknown, Galveston, ca. 1879 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum Commission 65.237; © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos).

Figure 3

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Sawyer-Flood House, detail of bay window at front entry, 1962, architect unknown, Galveston, ca. 1879 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum Commission 65.237; © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos).

Figure 4

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Commercial Blocks, South Side Strand, 1962 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum Commission 65.243; © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos).

Figure 4

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Commercial Blocks, South Side Strand, 1962 (Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was [New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966]; photograph, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum Commission 65.243; © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos).

The photographs' temporal juxtapositions would have been heightened for viewers who saw them in the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where they were exhibited at the end of 1965, just prior to the publication of The Galveston That Was.16 The book was a collaborative project between Barnstone and MFAH director James Johnson Sweeney. With the museum's Cullinan Hall (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1958) as a backdrop, the photographic contrast between sleepy Galveston and fast-paced, cosmopolitan Houston would have been dramatically evident. Miesianism and the disappearance of visual and social differences in architecture were among Venturi's targets in Complexity and Contradiction, and in his foreword to Barnstone's book Sweeney framed the exhibition as a plea for regional distinctiveness. “Today in art, as in living generally,” he wrote, “we are faced by a major imperative: the need to fight constantly against the steadily increasing temptations to conformity.”17 Historic cities like Galveston, defined by strong regional character, were bulwarks against the flattening effects of internationalism.18

Sweeney believed that what was at stake was American individualism and variety.19 As a core value upon which commercial capitalism rests, individualism was one of the ideas that linked preservation and postmodernism on the Texas Gulf Coast. Under a plan designed by Scott Brown, the next decade saw entrepreneurs converting historic buildings in downtown Galveston into tourist destinations. Sweeney's resistance to homogeneity anticipated similar points made by Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour in Learning from Las Vegas.20 Their attention to the commercial vernacular landscapes of late capitalism emphasized the individualist impulses underpinning democratic consumer culture in the United States during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Writing from the elite world of the museum, rather than the ordinary world of Main Street, Sweeney declared that “a museum's duty is to point out the expressions of the individual in his struggle against conformity.” He recalled “the winter Sunday Howard Barnstone first drove me around Galveston and we decided that the Museum of Fine Arts had a major duty to perform in focusing attention on this example of civic individualism on the Gulf Coast and to record it … before the Galveston that was no longer existed.”21 Significant differences separated billboard-laden Main Streets from the decaying mansions and commercial buildings of nineteenth-century Galveston, yet these forms were linked theoretically in The Galveston That Was by an emerging postmodern embrace of difference, irregularity, and local character.

Peter Papademetriou and the Theory of Houstonian Architecture

To be sure, the Gulf Coast had plenty of commercial signage and ordinary architecture like that recorded in Learning from Las Vegas. These landscapes were documented by Houston-based photographer Paul Hester, who participated in Venturi and Scott Brown's Rice University studio before switching to photography.22 At about the same time, Peter Papademetriou and William T. Cannady, who both taught architecture at Rice, were publishing essays on Houston in Architectural Design and Domus.23 Coming from Yale, where Venturi had directed his thesis, Papademetriou trained his eye on the cacophonous Houston landscape.

Papademetriou was among those who shaped the first theories of twentieth-century Houston architecture.24 Chief among his texts was his edited volume Houston, an Architectural Guide (1972). With photographs by Hester and William Lukes and a geographical scope that reached to Galveston, the book identified major buildings and proposed a way of understanding the sprawling metropolitan landscape. Through the lens of postmodern theory, it brought together history and a chaotic present. As Papademetriou noted in the foreword, “No serious effort has ever been made to document buildings in Houston.”25 Rather than attempting to catalogue every significant work, he and his collaborators presented the city as a sequence of juxtapositions. “We felt it was important to be inclusive, since the complexity of Houston and the key to an eventual understanding of it undoubtedly lie in being aware of as many facets of its story as is possible.”26 Calling it “the city of becoming,” Papademetriou wrote: “Houston's fluidity of development has provided the potential of an environment of pluralism. In this way, the city is symptomatic of our very age, one in which there are no exclusive truisms about how to live.”27 The pluralism that Papademetriou identified was reflected in Hester's and Lukes's photographs, the subjects of which ranged from old and new high-style buildings to vernacular structures to commercial signage.

In 1974, in a brief essay in Domus, Papademetriou extended his theorization of Houston as a postmodern city and laid out an analytical framework though which the growing metropolis might be understood in pictorial terms. “Houston, the expanded city of mass culture,” he wrote, “allows the hinterland to become part of the foreground itself, thereby creating an ambiguity about what is special and what is typical in terms of public experience or urbanity. Commonplace begins to merge with the monumental.”28 Papademetriou was perhaps the first to articulate the visual and symbolic effects of the city's late twentieth-century sprawl and nonexistent zoning.29 Arguing for the value of “vulgarity” as a critical lens through which to interpret the metropolis, Papademetriou saw in Houston's often ugly and ordinary landscape an opportunity. The coexistence of contextual, vernacular buildings with those he called “brash” and “ostentatious” had the potential, he said, to “provide a wedge to break into a new sensibility, one which may encompass the lack of a hierarchical value system, pluralism, shifting priorities [and] change.” He predicted that “confrontation with the dialectic of vulgarity and the evolution of aesthetic standards appropriate to the formal problems of the new emerging city” would give rise to a “new architectural form, changing concept of style, and revised notions of monumentality and public places.”30 He effectively proposed that Houston was not merely a symptom of unregulated growth but a locus of generative potential. Its value to architects—who had been concerned with the problem of monumentality since the end of World War II, and with questions of form and style for much longer—was on the cusp of being realized.

Papademetriou's interpretation of Houston's architecture in postmodern terms helped define a significant shift in the city's architectural history and image. Houston first attracted national attention for qualities that were the opposite of those Papademetriou identified. In 1959, less than fifteen years before Papademetriou's Guide appeared and only seven before The Galveston That Was, Barnstone and architect Burdette Keeland Jr. organized the exhibition 10 Years of Houston Architecture at the city's Contemporary Arts Museum. In the show's catalogue, architectural historian and tastemaker Henry-Russell Hitchcock, referring to the Miesian buildings that were its focus, wrote, “Any of the buildings in this exhibition could have been erected and would be admired anywhere in the United States or Canada—many of them, for that matter, anywhere in the Western World.”31 These works of glass and steel were made immune to the hot, humid climate by air-conditioning and were anything but vulgar or vernacular. Hitchcock advanced the myth of Houston's historylessness and, like others, cast the city as futuristic, predicting that Miesianism would long prevail there. “With little or no building tradition to lean on hitherto,” he wrote, “in the last ten years a direction has been found and firmly asserted.”32 International Style modernism, in his account, had made the city respectable, tasteful, and significant, as indeed the presence of Hitchcock's essay was intended to signal. That Barnstone, along with Papademetriou and their colleagues, would invent a counternarrative soon after confirmed the city's flexible and nondogmatic character, one eminently responsive, as Hitchcock also implied, to national trends.

John Staub and the Prehistory of Postmodern Houston

Papademetriou provided a theoretical basis for interpreting Houston's visual and experiential cacophony, but it was Barnstone who gave Houston an architectural history. In 1979, with the help of Stephen Fox, Jerome Iowa, and David Courtwright, he wrote The Architecture of John F. Staub, the first book-length treatment of a Houston architect. Published by the University of Texas Press, with a foreword by Yale's Vincent Scully and dedicated to the philanthropists and arts patrons Ima Hogg, Nina Cullinan, and Dominique de Menil, among others, the book oozed academic and social respectability, but it was important for many other reasons.33 Staub's oeuvre was defined by the often large houses he designed for wealthy white Houstonians from the 1920s through the 1960s, many in new automobile-oriented subdivisions built for affluent residents.34 In cataloguing Staub's career, Barnstone documented significant houses of Houston's elite families, further cementing the status of the buildings and their owners. The book's implicit fascination with the links between architecture and class reflected the influence of recent postmodern social theory. As Barnstone wrote, “Staub's adoption by Houston's elite is not surprising. The taste of the Best Oil Money was restrained, as was Staub's. The basic Staub house—simple yet elegant, expensive but never vulgar—perfectly matched their self-perception.”35

Through his explanation of Staub's architecture and its social meaning, Barnstone located Houston in canonical architectural history, providing a prehistory of Houstonian postmodernism. He exposed the ways in which wealthy Houstonians, many of whom were conscious of the dearth of refined local culture (of the sort that Hitchcock wrote about), used architecture to reinvent themselves and their city.36 Barnstone's analysis centered on Staub's contributions as an architect who worked in the “eclectic manner.” His deeply researched and compellingly argued text traced architectural eclecticism in the United States from the eighteenth century to the Arts and Crafts movement of the mid-nineteenth century, through various aspects of Victorianism and revivalist styles. From there, it addressed the 1920s debates in architectural criticism and described Staub's training in the Beaux-Arts tradition under Harrie T. Lindeberg, who had worked in the offices of McKim, Mead & White. This hagiography placed Staub, and by extension Houston writ large, in a respectable line of theoretical and formal transmission and reception.

Barnstone wrote that Staub learned “to avoid perpetuating historic types, instead recombining selected elements into a unique creation.”37 He identified in Staub's architecture a “regionalist manner” appropriate to the city and best exemplified by Hogg's sprawling estate, Bayou Bend (with Birdsall P. Briscoe, 1927–28) (Figure 5).38 Bayou Bend unambiguously conveyed the high social status of its owner through its siting, massing, and arrangement of historicist elements, but its complex elevations reflected what Barnstone identified as Staub's “distinctive attitude toward accommodation” and his characteristic “formal manipulation of dialectical oppositions.”39 The building was among Staub's “Latin colonial” houses, its character defined inside and out by the deft combination of regional vernacular elements. As Stephen Fox later observed, Bayou Bend “condensed southernness” through forms derived from sources stretching from Baltimore to New Orleans, even as its Palladian plan evoked colonial houses of New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Staub's most postmodern move, however unwitting and avant la lettre, was his decorative use of chimneys.40 Some of his stacks were unconnected to hearths, existing only to express a Houstonian fantasy about fireside rituals associated with class and comfort, which were at home in northern, Anglo contexts, but would have been absurd on the steamy shores of Buffalo Bayou most days of the year. After World War II, Hogg herself directed the reconfiguration of her house into an eclectic assortment of period rooms when she transformed it into a decorative arts museum, inventing schemes for the interiors as late as 1971.41 These provided the settings for the display of her collection of decorative and fine art created between 1620 and 1876—dates charged with mythological and historical significance in North American, especially Anglo-American, history.

Figure 5

John F. Staub and Birdsall P. Briscoe, Bayou Bend, Houston, 1927–28 (photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2014; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Figure 5

John F. Staub and Birdsall P. Briscoe, Bayou Bend, Houston, 1927–28 (photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2014; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Postmodernism as developed in Houston and elsewhere shared with Staubian eclecticism, as Barnstone defined it, an interest in history and the distillation and reuse of architectural elements to convey mood. Barnstone's account at points used the same vocabulary that Venturi did in Complexity and Contradiction. Words such as paradox, assimilation, and accommodation were familiar to readers of architectural history and theory in 1979, not as historical terms but as contemporary ones.42 Barnstone's claim that Staub did not abandon “stylistic allusions to the past” and that his work was “inflect[ed] by the articulation of circumstantial conditions” could have described Venturi's own work.43 Barnstone showed how one of the city's most important architects used history to invent architectural character in a place imagined to have little of it before he arrived. In the process, he helped make Houston safe for postmodern architecture and, unintentionally perhaps, exemplified the city's distinctive capacity for self-invention and reinvention. Unsurprisingly, Barnstone's scholarly work on Staub coincided with his own reinvention as a postmodern architect.44

The Action Plan for the Strand and the Rise of Historic Preservation

Houston's and Galveston's postmodernity manifested vividly in print, as the texts by Barnstone and Papademetriou demonstrate, but it was increasingly evident in planned and built projects as well. One of the most notable of these was the Strand District Comprehensive Plan, published as the Action Plan for the Strand and proposed as a framework for the rehabilitation of Galveston's most important and historic commercial street.45 The Strand's impressive late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century brick and iron buildings were vestiges of Galveston's history as Texas's one-time largest city and one of the nation's major ports (see Figure 4). Developed chiefly by Denise Scott Brown, the plan was commissioned in 1974 by the Galveston Historical Foundation, a nonprofit preservation organization, to which Scott Brown had been recommended by Taft Architects, a Houston firm that designed many postmodern buildings in the 1980s and 1990s. Completed by the summer of 1975, the Action Plan envisioned a six-block section of the city reinvigorated by residential, commercial, industrial, and public buildings; the conservation and adaptation of historic buildings for new purposes; and the introduction of easy-to-read, graphically bold signage, including banners, historical markers, and “pictorial signs” with photographs of historic local buildings (Figure 6).46 The Action Plan fused appreciation of history with vernacular typologies and techniques. It also marked the rise of historic preservation as a major concern on the Gulf Coast. The plan was one of many projects Scott Brown undertook or served as an adviser for throughout the United States during the 1970s, part of wider efforts to reinvigorate Main Streets and save historic buildings. Such attention to downtown Galveston was in part a response to Barnstone's book, but new federal tax laws passed in 1976 supporting the rehabilitation of historic structures helped fuel these preservation efforts.47

Figure 6

Denise Scott Brown, illustrations for the Strand District Comprehensive Plan, Galveston, March–June 1975 (The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown).

Figure 6

Denise Scott Brown, illustrations for the Strand District Comprehensive Plan, Galveston, March–June 1975 (The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown).

The same year Scott Brown completed her plan, the Community Planning Division of the Houston-Galveston Area Council published a historic preservation guide. Directed toward “you, the interested citizen,” this was a how-to manual that explained the mechanisms for identifying and designating historic resources and the institutional structures that supported preservation. It stressed the economic and practical benefits of preservation but was notable for framing preservation in civic terms. Readers learned that the “historic preservation process should be a vital element in every community's overall decision-making” and were implored to assume active roles in local preservation efforts. Like Sweeney and Papademetriou, the guide's authors understood documentation of historically significant buildings as a means of affirming difference and defining character. “We are continuously relating, consciously and unconsciously, to … history in search of an understanding of our identity,” they wrote.48

In retrospect, it comes as little surprise that this wave of interest in historic preservation, with its concern for civic identity—a postmodern theorization privileging pluralism and vernacular typologies—followed the enormous social and cultural transformations of the 1960s. Indeed, the significance of the preservation movement and Texas Gulf Coast postmodernism comes into sharper relief when we recall that both emerged soon after passage of landmark civil rights acts and the end of legally sanctioned segregation and voter suppression in Texas. If Barnstone's book documented the end of one era, it also heralded the beginning of a new one, manifested through Papademetriou's work and Scott Brown's Action Plan for the Strand.

Photography and the Postmodern Reimagination of Houston

Photography was a critical tool in defining Houston during the 1970s and 1980s. Its capacity to transform the everyday into art and to vividly illustrate differences in scale and texture made it particularly useful to Papademetriou, as it had been for Barnstone. Into the 1980s, Paul Hester's photographs of familiar landmarks and ordinary landscapes presented the city in ways that echoed and reinforced Papademetriou's concept of a “dialectic of vulgarity” and the potential of such a dialectic for shaping new conceptions of monumentality and style.

One such image was Magic Island (1984), which Hester shot from the roof of a restaurant and entertainment venue of the same name (Figure 7). In the left foreground stands a copy of the head of the mask of Tutankhamen, perched atop a low rooftop platform. King Tut overlooks the access road and main lanes of a broad freeway that recedes endlessly into the background. Telephone poles, billboards, and undistinguished commercial buildings line the road at intervals. The mask is presented here as kitsch, but Hester also used it as a device, of the kind familiar from seventeenth-century European landscape paintings by artists such as Claude Lorrain. The viewer's eye is led into and through the composition by forms set roughly diagonally to one another across the picture plane, while a linear element, the freeway, runs from foreground to background. Hester here reworked that convention to suggest that monumentality in Houston resided in expansive voids and in obvious monuments that were also obviously vernacular. But unlike early modern landscape paintings, his image contained no harmonious, visually satisfying end point. Rather, it rendered picturesque what architecture critic David Dillon, writing of Dallas freeways, called the “open-ended city.”49

Figure 7

Paul Hester, Magic Island, 1984 (© Paul Hester).

Figure 7

Paul Hester, Magic Island, 1984 (© Paul Hester).

At the same time, Hester's contemporary Earlie Hudnall Jr. created his iconic photographs of Houston, many of them shot in Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards, historically African American neighborhoods that had undergone substantial disinvestment since the 1960s and grappled with drug trafficking during the 1980s. Hudnall came to Houston from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1968 to study art at Texas Southern University under painters Kermit Oliver and John Biggers.50 Hudnall first focused on painting, but, interested in photography since childhood, he soon accepted a position as photographer for the Model Cities Program, a federal initiative lasting from 1966 to 1974, part of the Johnson administration's Great Society and War on Poverty programs. The Model Cities Program sought to address the failings of urban renewal projects in various cities by supporting planning processes that included substantive citizen participation. Hudnall later recalled that his experience of seeing different Houston neighborhoods as part of his work led him

to relate to Houston as a very rural and modern city, as well as somewhat of a Western city. Coming to Texas I was thinking that I was going to see cowboys and Indians and horses and all of that. But working for the Model Cities Program the blanket was pulled back, and the real Houston was revealed to me: Fourth Ward, Fifth Ward, Trinity Garden, the Hispanic community and all of that.51

Fourth Ward, immediately west of the downtown core, was one of the city's oldest neighborhoods and site of Freedmantown, established after the Civil War. It remained a predominantly African American neighborhood when Hudnall photographed there. Fifth Ward, northeast of downtown and also a historically black neighborhood, had by the 1970s lost substantial population and investment. Trinity Gardens stood outside the urban core and was developed as part of a New Deal homeownership program for low-income Houstonians.

Hudnall is best known for his portraits, but his photographs of vernacular buildings and neighborhoods and their occupants, like Hester's, showed Houston and its people in impressive new ways. The photographer's description of his work lacked the postmodern jargon that Papademetriou employed, yet his photos similarly widened the lens through which the city could be viewed. Hudnall's Flipping Boy of 1983 (now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) is among his best-known works (Figure 8). Like Cartier-Bresson and Stoller, Hudnall made urban change his subject. A line of two-story wooden row houses, all in need of paint, stands close to the sidewalk and street along the composition's left side. In the background rises the three-building office complex known as Allen Center (1980), with the 50-story Three Allen Center Building at center. At the end of the street sits the long, concrete-framed Allen Center parking garage. In the right foreground, an African American boy stands on his hands with his back to the camera as his lower legs and bare feet flip back toward the viewer. A young girl, also African American, stands on the sidewalk and looks toward the viewer while neighbors look on from a nearby porch.

Figure 8

Earlie Hudnall Jr., Flipping Boy, 1983 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum purchase; © Earlie Hudnall Jr.).

Figure 8

Earlie Hudnall Jr., Flipping Boy, 1983 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum purchase; © Earlie Hudnall Jr.).

An eloquent record of daily life in Houston, the photo juxtaposes aging houses and new skyscrapers in a way that also seems strikingly polemical. The gleaming towers of the new Houston, seen nightly as a backdrop for local news programs, offer stark contrast to the neighborhood street scene shown here, one unfamiliar to many Houstonians, especially white ones. Hudnall invited viewers to reconsider their vantage points and made people who had long been made invisible by white power structures in the segregated South the subjects of his art. Flipping Boy merged “the commonplace with the monumental,” much as Papademetriou suggested Houston's urbanism did, and indicated the social and racial dynamics of the city's architecture. Under billowy cumulus clouds, the children in Hudnall's picture addressed Houstonians of all colors and ages through the universal language of play, in an image that captured the shared experience of thriving in the city's heat and humidity. Hudnall's photograph merged the vernacular, the monumental, and the universal, alluding to inequities but holding out the possibility of a more pluralistic city. By 1988, if not earlier, the MFAH began collecting Hudnall's work, and his photographs appeared in solo and group exhibitions beginning in 1981. The public visibility of these photographs, especially the portraits of African Americans that included geographical indicators in their titles, such as Mother with Sons, 3rd Ward, Houston, Texas (1973), made it possible for large numbers of people to reconceptualize the city culturally and geographically.

From the 4th Ward depicted the same block as that shown in Flipping Boy, but on a different day and without children (Figure 9). It served as the frontispiece for Robert D. Bullard's Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust (1987), a sociological study of the city focused on housing, economic mobility, environmental pollution, and law enforcement inequity. Invisible Houston was one of the first histories of Houston to foreground African Americans' experience through accounts of slavery, urban migration, segregation, and architecture.52 Hudnall's opening photograph illustrated the inequities between black and white Houstonians that the text documented. Additional Hudnall photographs appeared throughout the book. Where Cartier-Bresson and Hester alluded to the dynamics of race and architecture, Hudnall made them explicit. Together, Flipping Boy and From the 4th Ward expressed the tension, ambiguity, and double-coding that Jencks identified as characteristically postmodern, embodying the emergence of a pluralistic understanding of the city.

Figure 9

Earlie Hudnall Jr., From the 4th Ward, 1986 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by Marion and Joe Mundy, 90.517.3; © Earlie Hudnall Jr.).

Figure 9

Earlie Hudnall Jr., From the 4th Ward, 1986 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by Marion and Joe Mundy, 90.517.3; © Earlie Hudnall Jr.).

Triumphal Postmodernism

While Hudnall and Hester made visible the latent social and cultural politics evident in Papademetriou's and Barnstone's work, elsewhere in the 1980s these concerns were subordinated to other priorities—the celebration of surface, effect, and glitz. In the process, postmodernism was reformulated from a critique into a style, and architecture and late capitalism became thoroughly interwoven.53 In Galveston, postmodernism and preservation became further entwined, while Houston ballooned and boomed until the price of oil dropped sharply in 1982. For most of the decade, wealthy Houstonians underwrote a new era in beach house building in subdivisions located ever farther down the island from Galveston's historic core. Meanwhile, the rebirth of the Gulf city's center in the 1980s, under the patronage of native Galvestonian-turned-Houston-based oil tycoon and real estate developer George Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, relied on the rehabilitation of historic buildings to stoke economic revitalization. In 1974 Mitchell opened a huge exurban residential and commercial real estate development, the Woodlands, approximately 30 miles north of downtown Houston, with planning assistance from Ian McHarg. Mitchell also purchased and restored numerous historic buildings in Galveston, helping to realize aspects of Scott Brown's plan and making the downtown a significant regional tourist attraction.

Galveston's Mitchell-led renaissance peaked with the Mardi Gras celebration of 1986 and the building of seven “Fantasy Arches” along its route. Conceived by Mitchell's publicist, Dancie Perugini Ware, and paid for by Mitchell and another Houston developer, J. R. McConnell, the arches constituted, briefly, perhaps the most spectacular collection of postmodern architecture in the United States. Their architects were Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman, Cesar Pelli, Charles Moore, and Helmut Jahn, along with Texans Boone Powell and Eugene Aubry, the latter a former partner of Barnstone. Ware invited the architects to participate after seeing an 1881 photograph in Galveston's Rosenberg Library that showed four arches built to celebrate Saengerfest, a German musical competition held in the city that year. With this link to the city's history and their typological connection to ancient Roman commemorative arches, Galveston's Mardi Gras arches were temporary centerpieces built to decorate the setting for a great party.

Each was distinct, but collectively the arches embodied several major tendencies in postmodern design: classicist historicism, assemblage and ephemerality, bright color, and overscale symbolism. Tigerman and Graves created works of ponderous neoclassicism with decorative symbols. Tigerman's incomplete arch, with its headless, sliced-through figure of the Vitruvian man, suggested the fracturing of humanist traditions, while the enormous five-pointed star of Graves's arch was a quintessentially postmodern “both/and” gesture (Figures 10 and 11). The star had been used in every version of the state seal since 1836 and was especially visible in 1986, the sesquicentennial of Texas's independence from Mexico. Graves's star acknowledged the sesquicentennial as an important Texas event while implying that the pomposity of the commemorations lacked proportion.

Figure 10

Stanley Tigerman, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 10

Stanley Tigerman, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 11

Michael Graves, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 11

Michael Graves, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Other arches abstractly or figuratively referenced nautical and coastal vernaculars filtered through a deconstructivist lens. Jahn's abstract sculptural work and Moore's “beach house” both used wires, netting, and drapery in a manner reminiscent of Frank Gehry's 1978 modifications to his house in Santa Monica, California (Figures 12 and 13). Like Graves, Jahn and Moore revealed structure but emphasized color to articulate architectural and decorative elements. Pelli's and Aubry's schemes—whether inspired by the wooden frames of ships, the nets of fishermen, the skeletons of fish, parchment paper for cooking them, or the tissue paper lining baskets of fried fish—emphasized tectonics and the relationships of parts to the whole. Aubry's playful design included a fish whose head hung out over the edge as if it were about to slip into the street (Figure 14). The arches were so popular that another, designed by Aldo Rossi and funded by George and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, was built in 1990. It included four red-and-white-striped pylons set on giant yellow-orange cubic bases that read as abstract hybridizations of buoys and lighthouses (Figure 15). At one end of Rossi's pavilion-like structure stood the wiry frame of the arch, a scaffold-like form that called to mind the offshore oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 12

Helmut Jahn, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 12

Helmut Jahn, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 13

Charles Moore, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 13

Charles Moore, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 14

Eugene Aubry, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 14

Eugene Aubry, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 15

Aldo Rossi, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1990 (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 15

Aldo Rossi, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1990 (Galveston County Daily News).

The only arch still standing—now a Galveston icon—is Boone Powell's (Figure 16). Compared with the other arches, it combined strands of Mardi Gras and postmodernism more thoroughly. With its overscale paired arches, keystones, and medallion on a spindly frame, Powell's gate playfully reinterpreted signature elements of the nearby Leon and H. Blum Building (Eugene T. Heiner, 1879), which Powell and Carolyn Peterson had recently restored and transformed into the Tremont House, a Mitchell-owned hotel (Figure 17). Powell's design acknowledged the ancient triumphal arches that inspired Ware but updated these with pink, yellow, and turquoise, along with bright colored lights. The result was perfectly suited to late twentieth-century seaside tourism and reflective of the era's newfound appreciation for historic architecture.

Figure 16

Boone Powell, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986. Left to right: George Mitchell, Stanley Tigerman, Cesar Pelli, Dancie Perugini Ware, Helmut Jahn, Michael Graves, Boone Powell, J. R. McConnell (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 16

Boone Powell, Fantasy Arch, Galveston, 1986. Left to right: George Mitchell, Stanley Tigerman, Cesar Pelli, Dancie Perugini Ware, Helmut Jahn, Michael Graves, Boone Powell, J. R. McConnell (Galveston County Daily News).

Figure 17

Eugene T. Heiner, Leon and H. Blum Building, Galveston, 1879; restored and renovated by Boone Powell and Carolyn Peterson as the Tremont House, 1985, detail of central pediment and windows (author's photo).

Figure 17

Eugene T. Heiner, Leon and H. Blum Building, Galveston, 1879; restored and renovated by Boone Powell and Carolyn Peterson as the Tremont House, 1985, detail of central pediment and windows (author's photo).

The Fantasy Arches helped reignite tourism in Galveston and put the city on the cultural map. Outsiders quickly recognized their significance for contemporary design, the innovative approach to urban revitalization they represented, and their place in a long history of Western architecture. The arches appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine and were the subject of a small but well-regarded exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 1987–88.54 Titled Arches for Galveston, the show accompanied a larger exhibition on the history of monumental arches, and New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman praised it as the “more engaging of the Cooper-Hewitt's two … offerings.”55

Powell's and Rossi's arches reveal their architects as particularly attuned to Galveston's built fabric, its intricate mix of scale and color and its varied historical forms. The Blum Building may have been Powell's most direct influence, but he surely knew the Galveston News Building on Mechanic Street (Nicholas Clayton, 1883–84) (Figure 18). That building's façade was covered by concrete panels between 1970 and 1995, so no one attending Mardi Gras in 1986 would have glimpsed its former splendor. But Ezra Stoller had photographed it for The Galveston That Was, and his images conveyed Clayton's capacity to discipline forces and forms in the service of a rich and complex composition (see Figure 2). Stoller emphasized the building's abstract geometric decoration and the textures created by repeated and juxtaposed forms: pyramids, rectangles, and inset spheres; exaggerated elements and scale shifts; and a vibrant, polychrome palette. Such elements, which defined the Galveston News Building, were also common to postmodern architecture. For those who had known “the Galveston that was,” Powell's arch linked past and future, punningly and seriously, standing as a gateway to a new era in the island's history.

Figure 18

Nicholas Clayton, Galveston News Building, Galveston, 1883–84 (author's photo).

Figure 18

Nicholas Clayton, Galveston News Building, Galveston, 1883–84 (author's photo).

If Rossi's pylons recalled coastal structures, they, like Powell's arch, also evoked a building that had vanished from Galveston's landscape. Clayton's Beach Hotel of 1882 was an enormous Victorian resort whose fussy roofline and large octagonal red-and-white-striped dome appeared in The Galveston That Was, accompanied by Barnstone's description (Figure 19):

Clayton let himself go in a blaze of color; this applied particularly to the roof. This was painted in giant Sienese stripes of red and white. … Color on the beach was not only advocated but put into practice by the Galvestonians of the eighties. … The structure itself, ornate with grillwork and numerous gables, was painted a delicate mauve, the eaves a golden green. A triumph of the architect's art was the dome, which was painted such a variety of colors as to be almost dazzling.56

Figure 19

Nicholas Clayton, Beach Hotel, Galveston, 1882 (photo ca. 1895; courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston).

Figure 19

Nicholas Clayton, Beach Hotel, Galveston, 1882 (photo ca. 1895; courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston).

Rossi's and Powell's arches underscored the degree to which postmodern forms were shaped not just by classicism but by many historical languages—just as some postmodern projects were affected by the loss of historic architecture. The influence of Victorian eclecticism like Clayton's on postmodern works in Galveston was paralleled, for example, in Philadelphia, where Frank Furness's buildings inspired Venturi. It is unsurprising that historically minded architects like Powell, Rossi, and Venturi responded architecturally to the loss of unmodern-looking late nineteenth-century buildings at a time when cities throughout the United States were tearing up historic fabric for modernization schemes.

Venturi had anticipated how allusions to history and the production of spectacle as popular entertainment might coincide in Houston. In 1978 he created two designs for a proposed nightspot called Nichol's Alley Jazz Club. Neither was realized, but the project reflected the research that he, Scott Brown, and Izenour had undertaken in Las Vegas. Nichol's Alley was to stand on a commercial strip, and Venturi described the design as a “decorated shed, with a duck on top.”57 His client had requested that the building include a “big boat,” and so in the first design he projected a wide, low box with classicizing elements, crowned at center by a gigantic three-masted ship, five stories high (Figure 20).58 This exterior was abandoned in favor of a boatless classicizing design that Venturi described as a “museum—a symbol of a museum whose Classical pediments and pilasters and capitals are picked out in neon, blinking alternately, and whose niches contain figures of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton instead of Raphael and Rembrandt.”59 The interior was to have been even more spectacular and would have included a performance space that Venturi described as being

like an eighteenth-century court theater. The Rococo ornament on the balconies will be in neon, and the ceilings of both rooms will be vast screens containing changing rear slide projections of great paintings appropriate for a museum. But this will be better than a museum because the projections will be bigger and brighter than original art, and you can smoke and drink and touch in here.60

Figure 20

Robert Venturi, design for Nichol's Alley Jazz Club, Houston, 1977–78 (The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown).

Figure 20

Robert Venturi, design for Nichol's Alley Jazz Club, Houston, 1977–78 (The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown).

Houstonians never got to visit Nichol's Alley, but Venturi and Scott Brown's Children's Museum Houston (with Jackson & Ryan, 1989–92) did become a destination for the city's youth (Figure 21). Instead of Joplin and Morton, flat, bright sculptures of children functioning as caryatids and telamones supported a long colonnade on one side of the building; an overscale, concave temple front in bright yellow marked the main entrance on the corner. In the great hall a long series of ornamental arches were suspended from the ceiling and painted to form a color spectrum.

Figure 21

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates and Jackson & Ryan Architects, Children's Museum Houston, 1989–92 (Children's Museum Houston).

Figure 21

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates and Jackson & Ryan Architects, Children's Museum Houston, 1989–92 (Children's Museum Houston).

“Icons and Eye-Cons”

The 1980s saw the creation of many “icons and eye-cons,” as Papademetriou called Houston's signage in the 1970s.61 The Rice campus itself became a case study in academic postmodernism, with major buildings by Michael Graves, James Stirling and Michael Wilford, Robert A. M. Stern, and Cesar Pelli reflecting the nationwide boom in building for higher education, even as Houston's economy fluctuated through the early 1990s.62 Across town, at the University of Houston, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, with Morris Aubry Architects, reworked Claude-Nicolas Ledoux's proposed House of Education at Chaux (1773–90) as the university's College of Architecture (1986). Residential and commercial buildings also contributed to the city's postmodern character and the gradual reurbanization of its core. Miami-based Arquitectonica, for instance, brought playful, planar, polychromatic forms to Houston's back streets in clusters of boxy town houses that reworked elements of orthodox modernist formalism (Figure 22). In 1985 the firm refaced a one-story commercial building, the Zephyr, with black tile parallelograms, gold spray-painted aluminum window frames, and flexible S-shaped crimson-colored drainpipes. That decade Taft Architects reinterpreted classical and vernacular forms in a variety of building types. Among the firm's works was the Mixon House (1984), notable for its organization of formal and informal spaces, exaggerated elements, scale shifts, and pair of front-loading garages.

Figure 22

Arquitectonica, Haddon Townhouses, Houston, 1983 (author's photo).

Figure 22

Arquitectonica, Haddon Townhouses, Houston, 1983 (author's photo).

One of Houston's largest buildings, opened in 1987, was also one of its most characteristically postmodern. Like an enormous vessel run aground, the 1.5-million-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center sat at the east end of downtown. Here, as at the Pompidou Center in Paris, but with more restraint, exoskeletal construction and aestheticized mechanical fixtures recalled the technophilic gestures of the 1920s avant-garde. Prominent ventilation stacks evoked the steamship funnels beloved by Le Corbusier and the Vesnin brothers (as in their 1923 proposal for the Soviet Union's Palace of Labor). The Convention Center's architects used red, white, and blue paint to differentiate elements and to draw attention to the relationship of part to whole; their choice of color palette also energized the building by signifying both Texas and the United States.63 With its elevated, building-length rear loading dock running parallel to Highway 59, the Convention Center was both wondrous and mundane. The east façade was obviously and unapologetically the back of the building, but it was also profoundly contextual: from the southbound lanes of the freeway it almost looked possible to drive onto the building (Figure 23). This organization of building and roadway called to mind Le Corbusier's futuristic urbanism and captured Houston's car-centric character, visually merging architecture with high-speed traffic.

Figure 23

Mario Bolullo, with Golemon & Rolfe Associates, John S. Chase, Molina & Associates, Haywood Jordan McCowan, Mosely Associates with Bernard Johnson, and 3D International, George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, 1987, rear façade (author's photo).

Figure 23

Mario Bolullo, with Golemon & Rolfe Associates, John S. Chase, Molina & Associates, Haywood Jordan McCowan, Mosely Associates with Bernard Johnson, and 3D International, George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, 1987, rear façade (author's photo).

By 1990, Houston had perhaps the most impressively postmodern skyline of any city in the United States. Its new skyscrapers and the Convention Center gave the downtown a visual vitality and variety rare among North American cities. Houston real estate developer Gerald Hines's portfolio of postmodern buildings became a model nationally for commercial real estate investors seeking to combine great profits with great design. Hines built Johnson/Burgee's celebrated late modern Pennzoil Place in 1975, and in 1983 completed the firm's 56-story, 780-foot, pink-granite-clad RepublicBank Center (with Kendall/Heaton Associates) (Figure 24). The bank's roofline consisted of three giant stepped volumes, each with spindly finials. The building generally recalled the Gothic Revival tendencies and setback massing in skyscrapers of the 1910s–30s. Inside, the banking hall, lobby, and concourses achieved monumentality through references to ancient and modern Roman architecture: a vast multistory space defined by rows of aqueduct-like segmental arches, monumental rounded arches, granite-clad piers that Mussolini might have commissioned, and a pair of huge, granite-clad escalators (Figure 25). Four years later, Mohammed Nasr and Partners designed the Heritage Plaza skyscraper (Figure 26). At its crown, the stepped decorative patterns, corbeled arch, and temple-like apex were inspired by Maya buildings that the architect had seen in the Yucatán. These elements introduced to the skyline another distinct historical allusion, even as the structure's blue reflective-glass shaft resembled tall office buildings rising in many places during that era.

Figure 24

Johnson/Burgee and Kendall/Heaton Associates, RepublicBank Center, Houston, 1983 (photo by Ken Lund; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 24

Johnson/Burgee and Kendall/Heaton Associates, RepublicBank Center, Houston, 1983 (photo by Ken Lund; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 25

Johnson/Burgee and Kendall/Heaton Associates, RepublicBank Center, Houston, 1983, interior (photo by Edward Burtynsky; © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto).

Figure 25

Johnson/Burgee and Kendall/Heaton Associates, RepublicBank Center, Houston, 1983, interior (photo by Edward Burtynsky; © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto).

Figure 26

Mohammed Nasr and Partners, Heritage Plaza, Houston, 1987 (author's photo).

Figure 26

Mohammed Nasr and Partners, Heritage Plaza, Houston, 1987 (author's photo).

The apogee of Gulf Coast postmodernism was a giant event that, in typically unregulated-Houston fashion, united architecture, urbanism, the space program, civic boosterism, a rock concert, and abundant traffic. Eight years earlier, for Nichol's Alley, Venturi had proposed projection and the manipulation of familiar forms to create a playful fusion of high art, music, and popular culture. On the night of 5 April 1986, a much larger version of that vision was realized when 1.3 million people crowded into downtown for Rendez-Vous Houston: A City in Concert, an electronic concert and light show orchestrated by French musician Jean-Michel Jarre. The event made the skyline, with its many new buildings, the star of the show while also honoring the astronauts who had died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger two months earlier (Figure 27). The event layered commemoration, popular entertainment, and architecture in a singular but recognizably postmodern manner. As the price of crude oil tumbled that year to 1974 levels, the concert expressed a new kind of civic optimism that drew its vitality from the arts, the city's diversity, and its capacity for combining high and low in the service of self-reinvention.64 Like the city's new buildings, the concert embodied Philip Johnson's observation of 1980: “I like Houston, you know. It's the last great nineteenth-century city. … People aren't afraid to try something new. Unlike a few other cities which I won't name, where you can't build anything without bringing down all sorts of committees and protests and small-minded people to interfere.”65

Figure 27

Houston skyline during Rendez-Vous Houston, 5 April 1986 (photo by Patrick Burke; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 27

Houston skyline during Rendez-Vous Houston, 5 April 1986 (photo by Patrick Burke; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Texas Gulf Coast Postmodernism mattered not only because of the region's numerous architectural exemplars but because it provided a theoretical framework for understanding a large, vibrant, chaotic, and highly diverse U.S. city that did not fit the patterns of older, northeastern and midwestern ones. In 1960, Houston's population was 70 percent white and 20 percent African American; by 2016, the metropolitan region was 31 percent white, 42 percent Latinx, and 19 percent black, with the difference made up of Asian Americans and other groups.66 Commenting in 2019, one sociological report noted that “one of the most consistent and consequential trends [documented over thirty-eight years] … is the continuing improvements in support for immigration and the increasingly positive attitudes toward Houston's diversity.”67 Architectural postmodernism has been criticized for reifying capitalism, patriarchy, and elitism, and it certainly did those things on the Gulf Coast.68 But Houston's characteristic attitude of flexibility and open-endedness, and, most profoundly, its commitment to what Venturi called “both/and,” reshaped postmodernism even as postmodernism helped to reshape the region, contributing to a segregated southern city's evolution into a place of greater tolerance. Postmodernism made Houston seem “almost all right.”69

Alongside sociological data, the built evidence of this change abounds in numerous examples of reuse and new construction. For instance, in 2004–5, the Houston Summit basketball arena (1975), where the Houston Rockets once played, was reborn as an evangelical megachurch. Lakewood Church is the center of an international empire run by the white televangelist Joel Osteen, whose weekly sermons are broadcast in more than one hundred countries.70 Meanwhile, in 1994, the year Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to their first National Basketball Association championship, the Nigerian-born ballplayer purchased a 1928 neoclassical bank building in downtown Houston and converted it into the Islamic Da'wah Center; the building retains its significant historic elements and now houses a mosque, a center for interfaith dialogue, and a large library of Islamic texts (Figure 28).71 More recently, the city has seen the rise of new buildings that, while lacking postmodern irony, continue to rework historical forms and use culturally coded signs to convey meaning in new contexts. An example is the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Gong Holy Palace (Chao Design Force and Cisneros Design Studio, 2002), built for the Tien Tao Association, a Chinese religious organization (Figure 29). Dominated by a giant gold geodesic dome centered on a white cubic base, the palace recalls Joseph Maria Olbrich's Vienna Secession Building, while the glazing and dramatic diagonals of its exterior stairs evoke Konstantin Melnikov's Rusakov Workers' Club in Moscow (1927–28). The Templo Regional de la Luz del Mundo (Enrique González, 2005), meanwhile, is a bright-white neoclassical structure on a Palladian plan with a large golden dome (Figure 30). It faces a major freeway and serves members of Houston's Spanish-speaking Pentecostal population.

Figure 28

Hedrick & Gottlieb, Houston National Bank, Houston, 1928; converted into Islamic Da'wah Center, 1994 (photo by Patrick Feller; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 28

Hedrick & Gottlieb, Houston National Bank, Houston, 1928; converted into Islamic Da'wah Center, 1994 (photo by Patrick Feller; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 29

Chao Design Force and Cisneros Design Studio, Chong Hua Sheng Mu Gong Holy Palace, Houston, 2002 (photo by Robert Kimberly; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 29

Chao Design Force and Cisneros Design Studio, Chong Hua Sheng Mu Gong Holy Palace, Houston, 2002 (photo by Robert Kimberly; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license).

Figure 30

Enrique Gonzáles, Templo Regional de la Luz del Mundo, Houston, 2005 (author's photo).

Figure 30

Enrique Gonzáles, Templo Regional de la Luz del Mundo, Houston, 2005 (author's photo).

To be sure, in social terms, Houston remains in many ways culturally, racially, and economically fragmented, but at the same time, it displays a pronounced openness and diversity. As Venturi wrote in Complexity and Contradiction, architecture has a “special obligation toward the whole, because the whole is difficult to achieve.”72 Like his double-coded formalist designs, his words reminded readers that architecture “must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.”73 The intellectual frame on which so much that has been called postmodern hangs may have been built on the U.S. East Coast during the 1960s, but in few places is its legacy more visible than on the twenty-first-century Texas Gulf Coast.

Notes

1.

A portion of the research discussed in this article was previously presented in a lecture at the Galveston Historical Foundation; I thank W. Dwayne Jones for that opportunity, and Stephen Fox for his kind encouragement and suggestions. This essay is dedicated to David B. Brownlee. Ada Louise Huxtable, “Deep in the Heart of Nowhere,” New York Times, 15 Feb. 1976, D1, D36.

2.

Huxtable, D1, D36.

3.

Nory Miller, “Hustling, Bustling Houston: It Ain't Whistling ‘Dixie,’” Inland Architect 21, no. 7 (July 1977), 6; “No More Community for SOM,” Inland Architect 21, no. 7 (July 1977), 15; “Lone Stars—Howard Barnstone and Karl Kamrath,” Inland Architect 21, no. 7 (July 1977), 16.

4.

Miller, “Hustling, Bustling Houston,” 6.

5.

Huxtable, “Deep in the Heart of Nowhere,” D36.

6.

Charles Jencks, “The Post-modern Agenda,” in The Post-modern Reader (London: Academy Editions, 1992), 11.

7.

On the characteristics of postmodern architecture and its relationship to politics in the 1980s, see Mary McLeod, “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism,” Assemblage, no. 8 (Feb. 1989), 22–59.

8.

Stephen L. Klineberg, The 2019 Kinder Houston Area Survey (Houston: Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University, 2019), 15–19, https://kinder.rice.edu/sites/g/files/bxs1676/f/documents/KI%202019%20Houston%20Area%20Survey%20Report.pdf (accessed 9 Jan. 2020). On the limits of Venturian postmodernism's effectiveness in fostering change, see Dianne Harris, “Complexity and Complacency in Architecture,” in Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty: On Robert Venturi's “Gentle Manifesto,” ed. Martino Stierli and David B. Brownlee (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2019), 130–41.

9.

Robert Venturi, “Learning the Right Lessons from the Beaux-Arts,” in A View from the Campidoglio: Selected Essays, 1953–1984, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, ed. Peter Arnell, Ted Bickford, and Catherine Bergart (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 88. This text, published originally in Architectural Design 49, no. 1 (1979), 23–31, was based on a lecture Venturi gave in May 1978 at the Architectural Association in London.

10.

Ben Koush, “Exhibition Review: Shooting Stim and Dross,” Texas Architect, Mar./Apr. 2019, 21–25. I am grateful to Ben Koush for generously sharing his bibliography on Venturi and Scott Brown's connections to Houston.

11.

On Hester and Papademetriou, see Koush, 22–23.

12.

On Hines, Mitchell, and other developers, see Joel Warren Barna, The See-Through Years: Creation and Destruction in Texas Architecture and Real Estate, 1981–1991 (Houston: Rice University Press, 1992).

13.

David Brown and William Williams, eds., Row: Trajectories through the Shotgun House (Houston: Rice University School of Architecture, 2004).

14.

Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was (New York: Macmillan/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1966). See also Stephen Fox, “Howard Barnstone, 1923–1987,” Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston (Fall 1987), 18–21; Michelangelo Sabatino and Stephen Fox, “Howard Barnstone: Mid-Twentieth-Century Architecture in Houston and the Crises of American Liberalism,” Arris 25 (2014), 48–63. On Barnstone's writing in the context of modernism in Texas, see Kathryn E. Holliday, “To Be Modern in Texas: Lone Star Avant-Garde,” in Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone, ed. Barrie Scardino Bradley, Stephen Fox, and Michelangelo Sabatino (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020), 97–117.

15.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 2nd ed. (1977; repr., New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 16. On the intellectual-historical context of Venturi's manifesto, see Joan Ockman, “Robert Venturi and the Idea of Complexity in Architecture circa 1966,” in Stierli and Brownlee, Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty, 78–97.

16.

The exhibition, titled Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ezra Stoller for “The Galveston That Was,” Text by Howard Barnstone, ran from 30 November 1965 to 9 January 1966.

17.

James Johnson Sweeney, foreword to Barnstone, The Galveston That Was, 11. Sweeney's relationship to postmodernism is complex. In his positions at the MFAH and the Guggenheim Museum, he significantly expanded those institutions' holdings of works by internationally regarded modern painters. Marcia Brennan has demonstrated that his curatorial strategies were intended to promote an experience of modern art as “mystical.” Yet he was also fascinated by opposition, contradiction, coincidence, and play. Marcia Brennan, Curating Consciousness: Mysticism and the Modern Museum (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010), 2–18.

18.

Sweeney, foreword, 11.

19.

Stanford Anderson, “The ‘New Empiricism–Bay Region Axis’: Kay Fisker and Postwar Debates on Functionalism, Regionalism, and Monumentality,” Journal of Architectural Education 50, no. 3 (Feb. 1997), 197–207.

20.

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972).

21.

Sweeney, foreword, 12.

22.

Gene Fowler, “Business and Pleasure: 50 Years of Photography by Paul Hester,” Glasstire, 14 Jan. 2019, https://glasstire.com/2019/01/14/business-and-pleasure-50-years-of-photography-by-paul-hester (accessed 16 Jan. 2020).

23.

Stephen Fox, “Afterword: The Tradition of Architecture Criticism in Texas,” in The Open-Ended City: David Dillon on Texas Architecture, ed. Kathryn E. Holliday (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), 405–6.

24.

Venturi and Scott Brown taught several influential studios at Yale in the late 1960s, including one on Las Vegas in which research for Learning from Las Vegas occurred. For an overview of their teaching, see David B. Brownlee, “Form and Content,” in Out of the Ordinary: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates—Architecture, Urbanism, Design, ed. David B. Brownlee, David G. DeLong, and Kathryn B. Hiesinger (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art/New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), 46–47. Paul Hester recalls that he absorbed Venturi and Scott Brown's influence most from working with Papademetriou, with whom he studied Houston's Westheimer Street in the manner that Venturi and Scott Brown studied the Las Vegas Strip. Hester rode in Papademetriou's car, taking “pictures out the window, using long lenses to compress all the signs and billboards.” Paul Hester, email correspondence with author, 23 Feb. 2020.

25.

Peter Papademetriou, foreword to Houston, an Architectural Guide (Houston: Houston Chapter, American Institute of Architects, 1972), n.p.

26.

Papademetriou, n.p.

27.

Papademetriou, “Houston: The City of Becoming,” in Houston, an Architectural Guide, 1.

28.

Peter C. Papademetriou, “Memo: Dateline Houston,” Domus, no. 537 (Aug. 1974), 1.

29.

Papademetriou's texts were not Houstonians' only sources of information about the architecture of their city. In 1972, David Crane, dean of architecture at Rice University, founded the Rice Design Alliance to promote discussion of and interest in Houston's architecture and urban design through lectures and symposia.

30.

Papademetriou, “Memo,” 1.

31.

Henry-Russell Hitchcock, introduction to 10 Years of Houston Architecture (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1959), n.p.

32.

Hitchcock, n.p.

33.

Howard Barnstone, The Architecture of John F. Staub (Austin: University of Texas Press/Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1979).

34.

One of these neighborhoods was River Oaks. On its planning and development, see Cheryl Caldwell Ferguson, Highland Park and River Oaks: The Origins of Garden Suburban Community Planning in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

35.

Barnstone, Architecture of John F. Staub, 12.

36.

Stephen Fox made this argument explicit in his later book, The Country Houses of John F. Staub (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

37.

Barnstone, Architecture of John F. Staub, 4.

38.

Barnstone, 28.

39.

Barnstone, 29, 31.

40.

Fox, Country Houses of John F. Staub, 96. On “Latin colonial,” see Fox, 78–79. For a reproduction of Staub's brief essay “Latin Colonial Architecture in the Southwest,” which first appeared in Civics for Houston 1 (Feb. 1928), see Fox, 79.

41.

David B. Warren, “Ima Hogg and Bayou Bend: A History, the Interiors,” Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Bulletin 12, no. 1 (Fall 1988), 2–63. Hogg donated the house to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1957, and it opened to the public in 1966.

42.

Cite magazine, a publication of the Rice Design Alliance that first appeared in 1982, often documented and described Houston's architecture in postmodern terms. See Barrie Scardino, William F. Stern, and Bruce C. Webb, eds., Ephemeral City: “Cite” Looks at Houston (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).

43.

Barnstone, Architecture of John F. Staub, 32.

44.

On Barnstone's architecture, see Stephen Fox, “Barnstone's Practice,” in Bradley et al., Making Houston Modern, 39–63.

45.

Peter Papademetriou, “Report from Galveston,” Progressive Architecture, Dec. 1976, 26–27; John Morris Dixon, “Backstage along the Strand,” Progressive Architecture, Nov. 1978, 77.

46.

The signs that were eventually installed were designed by Taft Architects and inspired by Scott Brown's scheme. During the process of developing the Action Plan, Scott Brown showed leaders of the foundation some historical photographs of Victorian buildings along the Strand with prominent commercial signage. Peter Brink, remarks made during a symposium on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Action Plan for the Strand, Galveston Historical Foundation, Galveston, 5 May 2019.

47.

Brownlee, “Form and Content,” 73–77.

48.

Community Planning Division, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Historic Preservation (Houston: H-GAC, 1975), 1.

49.

Kathryn E. Holliday, introduction to Holliday, Open-Ended City, 13; David Dillon, “Why We Should Love Freeways: Dallas Was Built Not Only by Freeways but for Them—Made to Be Seen at 60 MPH with the Top Down” (1990), in Holliday, Open-Ended City, 117–24.

50.

On Biggers, see Alvia J. Wardlaw et al., The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1995); Ollie Jensen Theisen, Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2010). On Oliver, see Alvia J. Wardlaw and Kermit Oliver, Notes from a Child's Odyssey: The Art of Kermit Oliver (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2005).

51.

Quoted in Sarah Reynolds, Houston Reflections: Art in the City, 1950s, 60s and 70s (2018), 111, http://cnx.org/content/col10526/1.2 (accessed 11 Dec. 2019).

52.

Robert D. Bullard, Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987). For a more recent history of Houston in the first five decades of the twentieth century, see Bernadette Pruitt, The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900–1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013).

53.

Sabatino and Fox, “Howard Barnstone.”

54.

Robert Reinhold, “Fantasies Soar for Texas Mardi Gras,” New York Times, 10 Feb. 1986, A12.

55.

Michael Kimmelman, “Art: ‘Arches for Galveston,’ at the Cooper-Hewitt,” New York Times, 29 Nov. 1987, sec. 1, p. 84.

56.

Barnstone, The Galveston That Was, 126.

57.

Venturi, “Learning the Right Lessons,” 82.

58.

Venturi, 82, 84–85.

59.

Venturi, 84.

60.

Venturi, 84.

61.

Peter Papademetriou and Paul Hester, Icons and Eye-Cons: Signs in the Houston Landscape (Houston: Houston Public Library, 1978).

62.

Stephen Fox, Rice University (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001).

63.

Mario Bolullo designed the building with a large team of architects that included Golemon & Rolfe Associates, John S. Chase, Molina & Associates, Haywood Jordan McCowan, Mosely Associates with Bernard Johnson, and 3D International.

64.

Dermot Gately, “Lessons from the 1986 Oil Price Collapse,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 1986, no. 2 (1986), 237–71.

65.

Quoted in Phil Patton, “Philip Johnson: The Man Who Changed Houston's Skyline,” Houston City Magazine, Jan. 1980, 46. On Johnson's work in Houston, see Frank D. Welch, Philip Johnson and Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 36–38, 111, 161–75, 192, 197.

66.

Klineberg, 2019 Kinder Houston Area Survey, 15.

67.

Klineberg, 15.

68.

Harris, “Complexity and Complacency in Architecture”; Jonathan Massey, “Power and Privilege,” in “Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: A Fifty-Year Reception,” special book review section, JSAH 75, no. 4 (Dec. 2016), 497–98.

69.

Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 104.

70.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

71.

Kate Murphy, “A Slam-Dunk in Houston Real Estate,” New York Times, 6 Dec. 2006, C9.

72.

Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 88.

73.

Venturi, 16.