Comment of the Day: When Nothing Is Better Than Something

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHEN NOTHING IS BETTER THAN SOMETHING “. . . this is Houston, where most people think that something is better than nothing (like a WalMart). If you live here long enough, you learn the hard way to stop expecting much from local developers — even those who build amazing things in other cities. They don’t bother here, mostly because they don’t have to. No zoning, no planning, no architectural or design reviews, hell the 4th largest city in the land doesn’t even have an architecture critic on staff anywhere (only food and arts critics in H-town), so no bad reviews — just kudos from the press for ‘at least’ doing something. Houston has become the land of ‘at least’; at least they built something; at least it’s not an empty lot anymore; at least . . . Empty lots are underrated.” [Jon, commenting on Hanover’s Next Apartment Tower for BLVD Place]

23 Comment

  • Hey now! Wal-Mart actually is better than nothing. They sell chorizo in deli meat form! You can’t get that at Whole Foods; and if you could, it’d be three times as expensive per ounce.

  • Jon, you have summed up the Houston experience perfectly… With one glaring exception… IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, BUY IT. ;)

  • Really? What a silly comment. The people that truly want some architectural gem out over every single structure built are in the extreme minority. The populace wants function over form. Also, in every city in every wave of architectural trends, the majority of buildings are following a style trend. Usually only a handful of buildings in each trend are the landmarks of a style and all the others are playing off of it. This doesn’t mean the “lesser” buildings are horrible in any means. It’s just ridiculous to measure development success by the subjective appearance of architectural styles.

  • I definitely can’t argue with Jon’s observations about Houston’s “race to the bottom” design ethic. All you have to do is drive around Rice Military to see that in action. I’ve never seen a worse looking mish mash of architecture anywhere in the world–and I’ve been a few places.

    However, I don’t necessarily agree that top down zoning, planning, and/or architectural design reviews result in “better” or more livable cities. Bureaucracy certainly doesn’t create good art or good architecture: it simply adds costs.

    True, Houston is one of the ugliest major cities architecturally and development-wise that I’ve ever seen. But the flip side of that coin is that Houston also has one of–if not THE–most vibrant construction, development, and real estate markets in the entire country.
    Building an ugly townhouse, an ugly strip center, and ugly apartment building, or an ugly office tower creates the same amount of jobs, takes the same amount of materials, and creates the same amount of opportunities as building something pretty. And though I think deep down–all things being equal–though we’d all certainly rather have “pretty things” around us if possible–at the end of the day, we’d rather have a job, we’d rather have an affordable home, we’d rather have a stable economy, and we’d rather have OPPORTUNITY…. And Houston has all of those things in spades–largely because of (not in spite of) the lack of zoning, planning, and architectural review that Jon bemoans.
    The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

  • I agree with Jon. He hit the nail on the head. You can use this blog as a case in point. Just go to previous threads, for example the proposed Audi shop at Greenbriar. I assume that a large portion of the folks who frequent this site are more interested in development and architecture than the average Houstonian. But the discussion on that thread was 90% about the quality of service of a BMW dealer, rather than the design/variance issues associated with the proposal. If a majority of Houstonians actually cared about these issues we probably would not have seen the over McMansionication of West U or the Monster-Mediterranian-Townhouseification of the inner loop.

  • Why should anyone be satisfied with what the “populace” wants? How do you even know what the populace wants? It’s not the populace who build buildings anyway–it’s developers. We tend to settle for less in this city because that’s the way it has always been (not really, but history is so rapidly erased that it seems so). But if a person doesn’t like mediocrity, I say shout it to the rooftops. So what if the populace wants crap (which I question)?

  • The same zoning boards that create nice uniform rowhouses also recoil and poor red ink all over things like “the beer can house” and would retch if something like the Menil invaded the nice uniform row of craftsmans. Houston does allow all sorts of things to be built without aesthetic regard, but that leads to more interesting designs that say a Chicago zoning board would have tolerated. While I appreciate the aesthetics of good designs and like things like historic districts, you do lose something when you lock areas into a period look and constrain architecture to certain rules.

  • Just hold on there, Robert Boyd. If you disagree with ‘their’ taste, the populace might just ask you to move to Dallas.

  • Jon, you are right on target. Those comments echo the exact words of our Montrose-area community association prez about the Post Properties’ apartment mega-complex now under construction at Richmond and Spur 527.
    Post applied the same ho-hum cookie cutter design and nixed the earlier mixed-use plans. But it gets wild “praise” merely for replacing an empty lot with something more than another strip center. Sad standards, indeed….

  • The Houston “Establishment” in this case the developers and the governmental folks who approve development issues, do not focus enough on the negative impact that a project may have on the area. They focus much more on the positive impact that the project will have on the developers pocketbook and the positive impact on city tax coffers. There are numerous cases throughout the city were this is starkly true.

  • If you don’t like it you can move.


    Craig the Native

  • Cheap and abundant land is more than anything at the heart of why Houston gets the bottom of the drawer designs from architects. In big cities with very little available land (high raw land prices), developers are under big pressure to deliver a jewel that will draw people in to pay the premium associated with the cost of the land and new construction. The big new office tower, retail development, residential development, mixed use or whatever, has to be the talk of the town in order to get people to pay higher rents or purchase prices. In Houston, the land prices are rock bottom compared to other large cities. Developers can make a nice profit just by building something that is only better than was there before.
    And the resulting dearth of good architecture also means that whatever is new is better by default. The boring new low rise apartment complexes are obviously better than the boring old garden style apartment complexes of the 70s. The boring new strip malls are better than the beat up old strip malls.
    This may work fine for those in the energy industry who are just in Houston to make their money before moving on to the next job or retirement. But a city can only go so far as a giant dry erase board. Eventually, Houston may lose out to other cities who have better planning and design and quality of life. Being inexpensive did not keep United in Houston.

  • “If you don’t like it you can move.


    Craig the Native”


  • Craig the Native:
    I did move. Only I still don’t like it.
    It’s not the cure-all you think. What now?
    Elizabeth the Native (Memorial Southwest, 1970)
    P.S. Has anyone ever noticed how in disaster movies, at some point in the first third or so as the threat ratchets up, they say something like, “Houston’s gone” or “They destroyed Houston” – and the moment never has much dramatic punch?

  • quick, someone name me one metropolitan area in the US with better looking architecture than Houston and with the same average family income. i don’t think anyone will be surpirsed to find that most folks in this country spend dramatically more than we do on housing.

    the populace gets what the populace can afford. any developer looking to spend additional funds for a design-inspired building will have to guarantee an added profit to account for the added risk. In a city like houston with plenty of land for redevlopment and cheap housing aplenty, that’s not exactly an easy model to follow. sure, you can find some hip rich folks with money to burn on a designer building, but that’s a small and tight market.

    i see now that Old School just typed out the same junk i’m saying anyways so i’ll stop here.

    i just wonder why on earth folks are concerned more about the quality of architecture than the quality of living in this city. we still have shitty roads, atrocious public services, appalling transit options, and the list goes on from there. when i see new developments, i ask only how it will improve the standards of living for the average houston household, not how much it does/doesn’t benefit me or the scenerey on my drive home from work at night. hopefully this is all the city review board is concerned about as well. when we have a rich, fully functioning city, then people will have the incomes and money to blow on better architecture. we’re not there yet though.

  • Joel, your challenge wasn’t hard enough. Left the continent entirely (bye, Craig). Lagos, Nigeria, Widely-Acknowledged Hell on Earth, with its 15 million plus actual (not “official”) residents…
    … appears from this vantage point to be prettier than Houston.
    I wonder if the source of Lagos’ dynamism is Niger Delta oil production, or their non-zoning (like Houston, right? – ‘cuz y’all are always saying that – it’s not the East Texas Oil Field or the Golden Crescent that’s responsible for Houston’s prosperity, it’s the fact that Craig can put a strip parlor next to a Baptist church. Maybe they can do that, too, in Lagos, Nigeria?)

  • To the posters above that follow the idea that, hey, Houston has cheap housing and affordable land values, so who the heck cares if we get all pretty gussied up buildings because my house doesn’t cost as much as something in Boston: that’s a bit of a circular argument. Land, and consequently, home prices in Houston ARE cheaper than most of the other big US metro areas, but if you work for an employer with offices nationwide, they know that too and your pay is most likely less than the guy working in the Los Angeles office. About 20 years ago, I worked for a big national outfit that was expanding in the Northeast. Can’t tell you how many people would take a transfer to New York or Boston just to get the cost of living adjustment. Then, as soon as their 12 months were up, they would put in for a transfer back to H-town, and of course would keep their now higher salary. My point being that if you work in a high value real estate market, your salary there usually will reflect that.

  • thanks for the added comments, but i’m still going to tie it all to incomes. houston has a smaller creative class than other cities that are more renowned for their architecture. this smaller distribution of high incomes will of course feed back into less capital for city resources and development. united didn’t leave houston because all the chicago peeps couldn’t move to htown and buy a beautiful mansion in the woodlands for the same price as their crappy condos, they didn’t want to come to houston because it can’t offer the same cultural options and higher standards of living available there. perhaps they were concerned with their ability to pull in ivy league candidates to Houston.

  • Wow I feel special, Joel – I’m ivy-league, creative AND I live in Houston! want to take my picture? should I apply for combat pay?

    Seriously, I don’t think Houston lacks a ‘creative class’ and Swamplot is proof – you can’t swing a dead feral cat without hitting a architecture student & folks will go to blows over Hardie siding. It’s just that developers rule and developers do the least possible. Demand is/has always been there and they don’t HAVE to produce ‘gems.’ People will consistently pay top rents to move to the same old 700SF apt. Oooh this project has 8’ doors. Oooh wine storage. Oooh a dog-wash room. Oooh a bike shower. All minor amenities which don’t really add value or change the cramped tenants’ quality of life but DO get them to sign a lease. Cheap materials abound and the place will be replaced in 25 years.
    Is it because Houston grew up in the nuclear age that it has this ‘Nothing Is Permanent’ vibe? Anyway, it results in, you know, almost nothing particularly permanent.

  • What’s with the Houston inferiority complex? I just moved to one of those meccas of culture and planning, Philadelphia, from Houston, and let me tell you, Houston is far more livable and pleasant.

    If it doesn’t conform to your taste, get yourself a place that does.

  • Lagos is NOT prettier than Houston, regardless of vantage point.

    Houston is big on functional buildings, as opposed to architectural gems that look great but are useless for performing productive work. The Middle East has some truly cool buildings that look great. However, you can’t build efficient office space in a round building. Or a building that has nooks and crannies on all the exterior surfaces. Or a building that comes to a point on each side. If you ave money to burn, cool is great. If you are trying to make money, a square or rectangular building is your best bet.

    The buildings of Lagos look pretty orthogonal to me, Ross. I think they’re on to that.
    Perhaps the question should be, what will Houston look like 7 million people from now?
    The original poster revealed himself to be sensitive to beauty, and so had to be stomped on. He has a long road ahead living in Houston.
    Houston’s growth has slowed perhaps, but only for a time. Is there a magic number, population-wise, when even the haters might admit it’s time for a little urban planning? A few buildings of permanence? Or will being really hellish be a point of pride, as it will demonstrate, as ever, that Houston is Open For Business?

  • The 1970’s-1980’s were a creative period for Houston architecture, so the region can prosper and be architecturally significant at the same time.

    Pennzoil Place
    Republic Bank
    The Menil Collection
    Orange Show
    Transco Tower, etc…

    No reason we can’t do it again. Some of you have forgotten that we were internationally renowned for a period of time…seems almost inconceivable today.

    Just reading the cynicism on this thread from the usual suspects (Niche, kjb), one can tell that for many, the “race to the bottom” architecturally is of no concern to their ilk…

    (Not that these posters have any input or power, mind you, but they do roughly represent the mindset of today’s -out-of-town- bankers and frankly, local engineers.)

    We have a terrific architectural community ready to move past today’s ugliness, but I’m not optimistic…

    Chicago did it, Miami and Dallas at least try, but…