• Magic Island, a restaurant with magic shows, at 2215 Southwest Freeway, Houston (1984).

The year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of photographer Paul Hester’s long-term project to create a visual record of Houston. In honor of this achievement, the Rice Media Center — with a lot of assistance from Hester’s wife, professional partner, and archivist, Lisa Hardaway — has hosted a large retrospective of his work, “Business & Pleasure: Fifty Years of Photographs by Paul Hester.” Although Hester is professionally an architectural photographer, his interest is not strictly in buildings. He has always had an equally strong curiosity about urban space generally and how people live there. For the past five decades, Houston, a vexing combination of “stim and dross” (to use the poetic term coined by Lars Lerup, past dean of the Rice School of Architecture), has been his continual inspiration. The photographs on display amply demonstrate this. (It should be noted, however, that Hester’s relationship with his muse is somewhat fraught. That he moved to rural Fayetteville, Texas, 95 miles northwest of Houston, in 1994 and now commutes when necessary for work suggests how Houston can be hard to love even by those most dedicated to it.)

Hester’s experience, first in architecture and then photography at Rice University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, helped to fix his interest in buildings and the urban environment of cities. He studied architecture until his senior year, when he switched to photography. It is not a coincidence that, very shortly before he did, the Franco-American art collectors and cultural patrons Dominique and John de Menil relocated their freewheeling Institute for the Arts from the Catholic University of St. Thomas to Rice. In the spring of 1969, they hastily erected a metal-clad shed designed by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, grandly named the Rice Museum, to host a large travelling exhibition, “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” In 1970, they commissioned the same architects to design a similar-looking building next to it, the Rice Media Center, for photography and film classes. Although Hester liked the architecture program well enough, he was lured by the siren call of the de Menils. When asked why, he grins and says the de Menils and their cohort were simply “way cooler” than anyone else in Houston at the time.

In the architecture program, however, Hester also studied with some interesting folks. In 1961, Bill Caudill became the director of the architecture department at Rice. Caudill’s mantra was exhaustive research. His architectural firm, CRS, was innovative for the systematic methods it used to produce designs. Many of the concepts they developed, like “problem seeking” and the “team approach” are still standard practice in architectural firms today. At Rice, Caudill encouraged staff and students to look at the contemporary, suburban city with curiosity rather than hostility. In the 1964-1965 Rice University General Announcements, for example, the description of the architectural program read:

The Department of Architecture is fortunate to be located in metropolitan Houston, the South’s largest city. The city offers students a wide range of professional associations and cultural activities. The Houston area is characterized by rapidly expanding population and accelerated building activity. The Department uses the city as a teaching laboratory, and its great variety of architectural examples — past, present, and under construction — as case studies.

During Hester’s junior year in 1969, he was in the now legendary “Learning from the Westheimer Strip” studio taught by a young architecture professor fresh from Yale, Peter Papademetriou, Caudill’s most recent hire. Co-teaching the studio was Papademetriou’s thesis director, Robert Venturi, and his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown. This studio was part of the groundwork that led to Venturi Scott Brown’s seminal urban study, “Learning From Las Vegas” (1972). Shortly after he graduated, Hester, along with photographer William Lukes, worked with Papademetriou on Houston’s first architectural guide, which was published in 1972 on the occasion of the American Institute of Architects annual convention in Houston. The guide was unprecedented (and scandalous) because, at Papademetriou’s insistence, it included not only individual landmarks designed by prominent architects, but also seemingly sub-architectural pop and vernacular buildings. What’s more, nearly half the guide was composed of extensive photo essays depicting the various sections (many decidedly not upper, or even middle, class) of the city in an effort to make Houston more comprehensible as the complex urban entity it is. Hester says he “learned” Houston from driving around endlessly while working on the guide.

In the years that followed, Hester continued this grand, but undeclared, documentary project as the photographer for a diverse series of publications about Houston’s built environment. In addition to the architectural guide, these included, “Icons and Eye-Cons: Signs in the Houston Landscape” (Houston Public Library, 1978), “La Arquitectura: Spanish Influences on Houston’s Architecture” (Houston Public Library, 1979), “Our Ancestors’ Graves” (Houston Public Library, 1980), “Houston in the Round: Panoramic Photographs of the City, 1903-1983” (Houston Public Library, 1983), “Contemporary Texas: A Photographic Portrait” (Texas Monthly Press, 1986), “Liquid City: Houston Writers on Houston” (Corona Publishing, 1987), “The Elusive City: Photographs of Houston by Paul Hester” (Rice Design Alliance, 1998), “Rice University: An Architectural Tour” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), “Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston” (University of Texas Press, 2003), and “Houston’s Silent Garden: Glenwood Cemetery, 1871-2009” (Texas A&M Press, 2010).

Another major outlet for Hester’s work has been Cite: The Architecture + Design Review of Houston, the journal published by the Rice Design Alliance beginning in 1982. Hester was among its co-founders and took on the role as its official unofficial photographer. Cite was published in a large tabloid format, in part to accommodate Hester’s many photos. In 2017, the 100th issue of Cite was published. Its main feature was a 50-plus-page spread, “Houston As Is: 100 Photographs by Paul Hester.”

Hester’s work is characterized by its deceptively casual manner, perhaps a carryover of his pop-inflected education. Perspective is not always corrected; horizon lines are frequently askew. People pepper the pictures. Bystanders often look directly at the photographer, wondering, smiling, or smirking. The subject matter tends toward the ordinary (a word Hester likes) rather than the exceptional. Chamber of Commerce-approved landmarks seldom appear. Photos are taken at all times of day, often with the sun glaring or under cloudy skies, instead of at the magic sunset hour. Hester rarely moves the camera beyond eye level. The effect is that everything appears as it is. It seems natural. The photographer is not present. The pictures on display show Houston quietly going about its business for the past 50 years. Hester elaborated his artistic philosophy in an exchange with Austin architect David Heymann, FAIA, in 2017:

I wanted the images to be representative of the whole, not to be unusual or atypical or even special. I wanted to record the typical or even common aspect of the place — not common as in lower-class, but what the area had in common with itself. At the same time, I hope these pictures that come from the ordinary will be redeemed and seen as if for the first time, by a visitor, to be both of the ordinary and, simultaneously, out of the ordinary.
Hester’s work, when seen as a whole, is transformative. It transcends its everyday subject matter and starts to get at the heart of living in the contemporary, suburban American city. This quality, demonstrated over many decades and continuing today, is what distinguishes the work and positions Hester as such a critical resource in trying to make sense of the bits and pieces that are Houston.

Ben Koush, AIA, is an architect in Houston.

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