Nearly 9,000 kilometers separate Venice, Italy from Houston, Texas, and yet, both cities are bound by a simple connection: the coexistence of the urban fabric with the waterfront. This connection was brought to life this summer through The University of Houston’s exhibition at the Venice Architectural Biennale's Time Space Existence Event: RISKY HABIT[AT]: DYNAMIC LIVING ON THE BUFFALO BAYOU. Awarded the Global Art Affairs Foundation (GAAF) Award for Best Exhibition, the exhibition showcased the complexities and potential of the city's relationship with its waterfront. To better understand Houston’s waterfront and the changing relationship between the city and its river we visited the site ourselves. Read after the break to see what it’s like to talk a walk along the Bayou, and to find out what the Houston river project can learn from similar undertakings in Chicago, Des Moines, and Newark.
The bruised violet-blue clouds rolling across the endless Houston summer skies reflect off the waters of the Bayou beneath the Rosemont Bridge. A mere half-hour earlier, bright summer sunlight had washed the city in heat. The weather in Houston is tempestuous, intense and fickle, an unpredictable element, much like the explosive growth and development of the fourth largest city in the US.
The Buffalo Bayou, however, a slow-moving river winding serenely through the city, is one constant in the historical, cultural, and geographic landscape of the city. Further west, the stream transforms into an industrial waterway, a habitat suffering from the effects of urbanization, pollution, loss of wildlife, and aging infrastructure. But downtown, the Bayou provides refreshing contact with nature in a highly urban environment. A few droplets of water, threatening deluge, glance off the nearby stainless steel frame of a ten-foot tall statue of a kneeling man, part of artist Jaume Plensa’s Tolerance installation: seven silent sentinels of Harmony Walk and the Rosemont Bridge watching the city beyond and the waters below.
Aptly termed the Bayou City, the Buffalo Bayou is Houston’s “Mother Bayou.” Deeply meaningful as the origin of the economic and sociopolitical culture of the city, it has the potential to become Houston's beating heart. As the top shipping port in the nation, the river was at the forefront of Houston’s prosperity and development, however accompanying the city's economic flourishing and rapid growth were darker consequences. Suburbanization, the celebration of automobile culture, heavy industrialization, and large numbers of factories and refineries resulted in high levels of pollution, and complicated the issue of crafting a sense of identity. Historically in constant flux, Houston has undergone many distinctive personalities and characterizations defined by its shipping and railway industry, the transformative discovery of oil, and the Johnson Space Center. In truth, it is defined by all of these things, and more.
It is this concept of inclusiveness that drives the forward-thinking proposals for Houston’s future. This is evident in a number of measures, from the Tolerance sculptures to the belief that the stretch of the Buffalo Bayou from Barker Dam down to the Gulf of Mexico should be a sensitively designed integration of man and nature. The city is on the brink of reimagining its future, and the nature of the Bayou is an inherent factor in this recalibration.
At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the University of Houston displayed their project RISKY HABIT[AT] : DYNAMIC LIVING ON THE BUFFALO BAYOU. The project consists of three parts, each designed to address the river’s development at sequential scales, prioritizing both the delicate coastal environment and the quality of urban life. In his Curatorial Statement, the leader of the project Peter Jay Zweig calls for a waterline “that is not simply natural or artificial, but one that is a thriving, interdependent system that has many layers of geological, infrastructure, settlements and environmental processes that hold the future of man’s development.”
The first part, RISKY HABIT, operates at the scale of the 100 miles of the Bayou, from Barker Dam down to the Gulf of Mexico oil-rigs, and focuses on the overall experience of living on the bayou. Challenging factors include the imminent collapse of two city dams, the swift deterioration of wetlands, the toxicity of shipping channels, and the abandoned oil-rigs in the Gulf. RISKY HABIT proposes a multifaceted solution that emphasizes beautiful design alongside a focus on scientific innovation.
The second scale, RISKY HABITAT, focuses along a 2 mile stretch within Houston’s downtown, between the central business district and the ship channel, and seeks out ways of bridging a particularly bisected section of the bayou. Neglected warehouses, deteriorating infrastructure, and plots of brownfield characterize the East End along the bayou’s edge. RISKY HABITAT offers a vision of connectivity, fusing the divide between the concrete suburban neighborhood and the indigenous roots of the district. Nine new pedestrian, automobile, and hybrid bridges activate the industrial fabric of the East End with contiguous parkland, reviving the forgotten natural beauty of the city’s past and paving the way for a pedestrian-oriented, mixed use and sustainable model for future suburbanism.
The final layer of the proposal, INHABIT, targets the scale of 20 feet, focusing on the experience of living with facades. This layer addresses the design challenges of working in Houston’s volatile climate. In a region of extreme conditions, facades must adapt constantly and provide protection from the elements. The project suggests the idea of an intermediary interstitial space between building and Bayou through modular systems that utilize passive breezes and celebrate panoramic views, while mediating climatic and wildlife threats.
Though only a theoretical exploration, RISKY HABIT[AT] provides clear evidence of the pervading sense of optimism and hope of Houston as the city seriously moves towards a total revamping of its urban ecological corridor, joining a growing movement of cities rethinking the urban riverfront. Chicago, Des Moines, and Newark provide excellent case studies for the future of city and waterfront engagement.
CASE STUDY #1: CHICAGO
One of the most challenging and thrilling river projects is taking place right in the midst of the rhythmic heartbeat of historic downtown Chicago: Project Urban Canyon. Underway since the 1990’s, and surrounded by a “sacred canyon of architectural space,” the project reclaims the post-industrial space of the Chicago River for the public, and knits together a disconnected piece of infrastructure.
“One of the things I think cities can learn from this project is: if you can imagine it, you can build it,” Gina Ford, Lead Designer at Sasaki Associates, says in the video of the current Chicago Riverwalk project.
The updated Chicago Riverwalk will better facilitate an interaction between the life of the city and the life of the river by prioritizing the pedestrian with a continuous path that navigates through five blocks, each designed to celebrate a unique river typology: the Marina, the Cove, the River Theatre, the Water Plaza, and the Jetty. The project will include restaurants, cafes, an outdoor theatre, landscaped pedestrian and biking paths, and opportunities for kayaking, fishing, and swimming.
Chicago’s dense urban fabric along the river’s edge provides a highly unique set of challenges and constraints, including boating traffic, limited land space to work, fitting infrastructure where utilities, tunnels, and cables snake underneath, navigating two layers of roadway, bridges, water taxis, pedestrians, and motor vehicles. Since the introduction in 2011 of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s goal of making the city a better place to live, work, and play, a project like the Urban Canyon brings the promise of higher quality of life, resident loyalty, and future investment. As Principal in Charge Steve Hamwey cheerfully declared, “anything can be done.”
CASE STUDY #2: DES MOINES
Des Moines is another globally connected American city, an energetic and dynamic hub for the insurance industry, and a significant site for presidential politics. Through the 1980s, however, the city experienced a post-industrial decline, and was forced to shelve projects from the era of the City Beautiful movement. That has all changed in recent years.
Design firm Wallace Roberts and Todd (WRT) led the city’s effort to reclaim the Des Moines River waterfront, connecting downtown with nearby neighborhoods and uniting the city through one of its largest civic improvement projects: the Principal Riverwalk.
The project seeks to attract creative professionals as well as everyday citizens, by combining a significant attention to the arts with opportunities for public transportation and social interaction. Featuring a transit hub for bus services and light rail, bike and pedestrian trails, a sculptural pump station, and public art, garden design and various works by international artists and architects, the project is designed as a progressive step in moving the city forward responsibly.
The new riverfront connects the urban citizen with the water to both improve quality of life as well as foster social engagement and interaction and raise awareness for environmental issues. It has already attracted economic investment and revitalized existing organizations and projects in a sort of renaissance.
CASE STUDY #3: NEWARK
Like Des Moines, Newark’s urban riverfront project aims to revitalize the city and is strongly shaped by elements of social justice. A city routinely dismissed as “New York’s dirty kitchen,” Newark is, like Houston, a city that bears witness to its past as an industrial powerhouse. The Passaic River provided a base for industry, transportation, waste disposal, and water supply, and is one of the busiest ports on the East coast.
As the first city in the nation to hire a municipal planner in 1917, the urban fabric of Newark shows the ensuing progress of urban planning (often interpreted as the lack thereof) and provides visual evidence of the conflicting forces at play over the growth of the city. Damon Rich, Newark’s Planning Director and Chief Urban Designer, describes the passionate community activism and deep belief in environmental justice, shaped by the concentration of toxic industrial facilities, as a central component to the culture of the city. In addressing the neglected river on which the city had turned its back, art and design are used to raise awareness about complex issues of urban processes, injustices, social resources, and community involvement.
Identifying the target constituency provided a major challenge, inevitably highlighting issues of class and economic status that were inextricable from the urban project. However, prioritization of the river as a shared social resource allowed for creative measures of inclusiveness and diverse citizen involvement. The idea of using the project of the Newark Riverfront Park as a connective point for the city fostered a pride and ownership in its design. In a conversation with Urban Omnibus, Rich explained: “We try to find narratives from different parts of the city to inform our design choices. Sometimes that was as simple as using the same orange for our boardwalk as the school color of Weequahic High School, or looking for ways for this place to tell the story of the long struggle to create it. We think very seriously about how identity works in design terms, how to embed specificity into the design that links it in recognizable ways to the communities of the city.”
It is this inclusive and optimistic idea of connectivity, community, and beauty that creates a common thread between all four cities. While the UH School of Architecture’s RISKY HABIT[AT] project is only a hypothetical design proposal, it coincides with Houston’s very real move towards revitalization of the Buffalo Bayou. As the city begins to gain traction with its project, it can look to the success and creativity of cities such as Newark and Des Moines, and benefit from the enthusiastic and irrepressible attitude of Chicago. There are plenty of examples to learn and draw inspiration from, and an opportunity to encourage the spirit of inclusive and proactive riverfront renewal for future cities as well.
RISKY HABIT[AT] : DYNAMIC LIVING ON THE BUFFALO BAYOU is an exhibition created by the Gerald D Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston, in cooperation with Delft University of Technology, University of Buenos Aires, Tulane University. The following people contributed to its realization:
Curator + Exhibition Design: Peter Jay Zweig, FAIA
Design Studio: Peter Jay Zweig, FAIA (Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014)
Studio leaders: Jackson Fox, Lacey Richter, David Regone, Sam Goulas, Wells Barber
Faculty Critics: Tom Colbert, AIA (Spring 2013), Michael Rotondi, FAIA, Kulapat Yantrasast
Students, University of Houston: Jackson Fox, Lacey Richter, Yoelki Amador, Sam Goulas, Joshua Caluag, David Regone, Jeffrey Farr, Mustafa Kamil, Vishal Ghandi, Mohammed Gowayed, Erica Green, Dawit Rezene, Jonathan Maire, Edgar Rivera, Robert Mazzo, Julian Arango, John Smead, Natalia Sanchez, Chase Stanley, Clinton Marburger, Stephanie Wherry, Wells Barber, Siddhi Patel, Hugo de la Rosa, Victoria Perez, David Velez, Claudia Ponce, Chris Yoon, Aysha Rana.
Animation: Joshua Stanton Smith + PJZA
Glass: Cities by Norwood Viviano. Blown Glass
Fabrication: Eric Arnold + Stephen Gist, U of H. John Rigoni, Metal fabrication
Exhibition Funding: UPS, Inc., University of Houston Gerald D. Hines, College of Architecture, and Wilsonart International, LLC., A & E Graphics