• Thom Mayne, seated at center, acted as a consultant for UH studios that focused on urban issues, taught by Peter Zweig, Matt Johnson, and Jason Logan. Photo by Linda Zweig.

What does the near future of Houston hold? Will driverless cars crisscross the highways functioning as mobile offices, hotels, and cafes? Will migration patterns of drones dot the sky delivering packages based on peak consumer seasons and online flash sales? How can sustainable energy and its infrastructure gain momentum to coexist in tandem with oil production? Can we imagine a city where zoning overlaps and interweaves?

Houston, infamously the only American city without zoning, a large petrochemical industry, downtown interstitial spaces, and a delicate bayou network prone to flooding, was intensely and ambitiously studied, mapped, and reimagined in studio courses spanning three semesters and a summer in Los Angeles with pin-ups at Morphosis, the office of  Priztker-prize winning architect Thom Mayne, FAIA. He acted as a consultant to the studios taught by three University of Houston College of Architecture faculty members — Peter Zweig, FAIA, Matt Johnson, and Jason Logan.

“The Hines College of Architecture and Design has long declared the city as our laboratory,” says Dean Patricia Oliver, FAIA. “In a sense, we have a responsibility to study the challenges our city faces. We anticipate that there are insights, or moments of inspiration, that might shine a light on a potential issue and its solution, that might inspire Houstonians to act to make our city better.”

The professors worked with a cast of almost 30 rotating students who began by tackling complex issues: vacancies in the central business district and patterns of occupancy and development; the growth of concentric, sprawl, satellite, and genetic cities creating their own centers; innovative green energy sources, research, and remediation; democratic housing; repurposing parking spots; consumer logistics; flooding and post-disaster urbanism; natural and manmade ecological solutions; the future of the ship channel and ports; regional transport and mobility; and the implications and opportunities of a lack of zoning.

As Mayne said in a speech to the students: “Luckily, architects have massively different roles in the real world. There is no clear notion of what architecture is at this point in time, and you’re going to have to decide at some point what you believe it is. You’re going to be moving through this maze and I’m going to show you my maze, as I keep asking you questions about yours.”

In addition to founding Morphosis, Mayne was the executive founding director of the Now Institute, a think tank for urban research, strategy, and speculation at the University of California, Los Angeles, which is Oliver’s alma mater. He flew into Houston for various crit sessions and also invited the students out for a summer studio in LA, where they toured LA architecture studios, including Frank Gehry’s, and the construction site of Mayne’s personal house.

Eui-Sung Yi, a principal at Morphosis and Now Institute director, also worked with the students in LA and Houston as their projects developed.

Johnson’s studio dissected Houston into three phases: protection, remediation, and activation. “We engaged with the urban through the notion of energy networks and spatial configuration,” Johnson says. “There’s a balancing act between the conceptual and social issues.”

In Logan’s studio, the focus was on the lack of zoning and how it could generate exceptional forms of urbanism and architecture.

Zweig’s studio examined downtown vacancies and how emerging technologies, such as drone release stations and driverless cars, could create a new tower typology.

Oliver worked to procure Mayne as consultant to the school and, with Zweig, flew to LA to make the initial meetings.

“I thought Thom would be interested in Houston since he has been very focused on urbanism,” Oliver says. “In our college, we had just finished a project with Buenos Aires, Delft, and Tulane University where we investigated the impact of living on a delta.”

Oliver and Zweig brought Mayne the books they published on the delta project, “Risky Habit[at]: Dynamic Living on Buffalo Bayou,” which won the Global Art Affairs Foundation Prize at the Venice Biennale in 2014, besting 100 architects, two Pritzker Prize winners, and 40 countries.

“With the rising seas and climate changes, we are entering a new age,” Zweig says. “Humans must learn to live with the natural environment in a sustainable way.”

The student work will be exhibited at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin from June–July 2017. Mayne, Gerald D. Hines, and Wolf Prix will participate in a symposium there on June 24. A studio book is forthcoming in the fall.

Florence Tang, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer, manager, and journalist based in Houston.

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