Sunday, November 05, 2006

houston nesting pt1: a sense of place

This is output for a research project I've been working on with Katy and Jean. We were discussing with Clover Lee possibilites for creating a compendium of Houston ad-hoc urbanism and she told us we weren't allowed to use the phrase "sense of place" without defining what it mean, in Houston. This is what I came up with, in three parts:

1. Main Narrative

In Houston, place is not created out of a physical homogeneity or
dominant spatial characteristic; rather it emerges out of a shifting
array of collusions between program and what Lars Lerup calls
"megastructures"-- part infrastructure, part ecosystem. These
multivalent operators create space in ways more geological or
ecological than traditionally urban. In this way Houston can be viewed
as a landscape rather than as a city. Edges are blurred, as the
immediate situation is determined by the combination/collusion of
these megastructures: the freeways, plantings, vacant lots, and ad-hoc
use networks, along with even the prevalent humidity and drainage
problems-- a more elemental than sociological awareness.

2. Operators / Megastructures

freeways (bridged and trenched) bayous main drags train right of ways
tunnels sewers

swamps live oak canopies weeds cut lawns anthills city parks stray dogs

skyscrapers vacant lots megabuildings/complexes (stadiums + churches)
parking lots

museums tattoo parlors coffee shops business districts entertainment
shopping education civic

rain haze flood smoke heat chill/damp

3. Subsequent Definition: the Manipulation of Accessible Space

Nearly all space in Houston can be defined as private. However, there
are allowances. These range from the open (Menil) to the highly
perscriptive (the Galleria). However, there are always backwaters
within these systems of access, urban liminal zones with an ambiguous
sense of ownership-- someone is surely watching, but do they care? The
characterization of space by its mode of survallience and control has
replaced the notion of civic discourse through open public spaces.
This is not only in Houston. Even in more traditionally urban cities
such as New York, city parks and streets are policed and controlled
more tightly and delicately than ever before, reducing the idea of the
"public" to another nuance of access control. The traditional notion
of a "free space," in our fearful and litigious society, may have
become totally apocryphal.

Up next: pulling apart a moment?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The public space / private space distinction is often presented with too much emphasis placed on ownership. Somehow we allow ourselves to whole-heartedly accept that a public park is the epitome of public space and at the same time we delve deeper and deeper into the nuances of privately owned space, always with this tacit acceptance of public=park in our minds.

If we allow ourselves to critically remove this aspect of ownership from the private/public distinction (it's in the words, right, but perhaps it's not where the discussion is now), we might be able to better analyze access and space and what you call here "free space." To support this move away from ownership I suggest that most publicly owned space has many of the same kinds of controls that we find in privately owned space. The access of an individual to publicly owned and operated infrastructure (whether it be the freeway, city hall, or the public park) is arguably as restricted as in privately owned space as a rule, across the country. So, when Houston is studied, as in your research, and one finds a lack of spaces that fit this antique notion of publicly owned and therefore accessible spaces, one is presented with the opportunity to show how Houston is, in many ways, arguably as free or public as any other place in this country.

I believe this is what your texts begin to do.

In talking about access, one must invariably talk about barriers and, in Houston especially, distance. If we think about our society as expanding (like the universe) we can see how are lives can be defined by distance and containment. Everything gets smaller and farther apart. Commute distances grow and communities compartmentalize. Privacy is exploded and the parts held back become smaller and smaller. We mourn for our diminishing and spreading world and we try to carve out larger enclaves that are more contained, and in doing so we only continue the proliferation of barriers. Do people who live in gated communities know their neighbors any better than those who don't? Does security stop at the gate or with the camera?

We can talk about scales of access.

In any case, Houston is a perfect example for the potential that so-called private spaces have for actually being as accessible and open as so-called public ones. Of course, in order to speak about accessibility this way, one must no longer consider the public as a vaguely complete and inclusive group. One must consider accessibility as it relates to distinct compartmentalized groups or even individuals. Otherwise, the discussion fails to include the myriad other barriers circling around and penetrating local access to space.

Guess I'd better stop. Looking forward to seeing the rest of your research.