Monday, November 5, 2012

Architecture expert Stephen Fox serves as a tour guide

"Why would I?" he answered: a joke, delivered with a smile that I could sense over the phone, but in a tone of voice that snapped the subject closed. In his world, refinement and good taste are absolutes, unsullied by postmodern in-the-eye-of-the-beholder notions; he yearns for the perfect balance of tradition and innovation, for perfect proportions, for thoughtful detailing - in short, for beauty, though he avoids such loosey-goosey words. [...] there is no app for The Guide. The current state of affairs, he states glumly in The Guide's introduction, "suggests that the architectural epoch of the 1970s and '80s - the period of Pennzoil Place and the Menil Collection - was an exceptional high point in the city's history, rather than marking the attainment of a permanent state of grace." There's the Museum of Southern History (formerly the Museum of Confederate History, T-26), modeled on Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest; and what was to have been Southern National Bank's headquarters (T-27), a reproduction of the lawn at Jefferson's University of Virginia. First slaves, then prison labor, worked the cane fields; when even prisoners became unavailable, German and Moravian workers were lured in from nearby counties to settle what was very much a company town. [...] suddenly, astonishingly, we arrived at 806 Lakeview (T-1), a rambling, elegant country house designed by William Ward Watkin, the founder of Rice's architecture department. W.T. Eldridge, one of the founders of Imperial Sugar Co., built this, the company town's only large house, in 1928; it looks like an expanded version, Fox said, of the faculty club Watkin designed for Rice. First Colony really was the first of its kind: Developed by Gerald D. Hines Interests and the Royal Dutch/Shell Pension Fund, the development seemed determined to define itself as something elevated far above the hard, dirty work of refining sugar; and also utterly different from the messy, ruleless sprawl of Houston. Everything will always be 'nice.'? As in many of Houston's suburbs, buyers had financial incentives to use the builders' undistinguished stock plans. In a wiggy fountain, a bronze Stephen F. Austin, in actual history a measured statesman, bestrides a rearing horse, apparently crossing a raging river; next to him, another horse appears to be drowning. For me, everything began to blend together - until we turned on Palm Royale Boulevard, lined with humongous red-brick houses from the last couple of decades, most with turrets, all slight variations on the same nouveau-riche theme. "Pure kitsch," Fox pronounced the onion-domed cultural center, built in 2008 and 2011: a conglomeration of Ottoman geegaws that, if you were in the mood, might be amusing.

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