Can it really be that postmodern architecture has become historical? With the early works of postmodernism having reached the 50-year mark, by the standards of historic preservation and academic architectural history, the historicity of postmodern architecture is undeniable. Even the most recent postmodern buildings, built in the early 1990s, seem to belong to a different era. From the vantage of 2020 — a year whose historical significance is immediately legible — it is tempting to look back at postmodern architecture with a tinge of nostalgia, just as the buildings invited us to do when they were new. The photographs that follow, by Ben Koush, of some of the icons and less-appreciated gems of postmodern Houston are vivid reminders of the variety and vitality of this architecture in one of its centers.
Looking back, we can see that the roots of much of what is hard and hopeful about 2020 were put down in the decades before, years that coincided with Houston’s explosive growth and its astounding transformation from a fairly conservative, white and black Southern city, to a fairly liberal, multi-cultural, multi-colored, global city. Writing in 1976, Ada Louise Huxtable declared that Houston was “the American present and future,” the city that “scholars flock to for the purpose of seeing what modern civilization has wrought.” It was “an exciting and disturbing place.”
Houston is arguably the paradigmatic postmodern city. In the 1970s and 1980s, with its nonexistent zoning regulations, untroubled acceptance of commercial signage (no matter how ugly), and unapologetic accommodation of the automobile, as an urban landscape it had few rivals in disregarding the norms of good urbanism. And that was just during the daytime.
The city’s reckless delight in consuming energy gave rise to an unparalleled night-scape of illuminated buildings, typified by prominent, permanent neon signage and roofline delineations, as well as one-off events like 1986’s lightshow and concert Rendez-Vous Houston, in which downtown buildings were the set and stars. The event cemented the 1980s skyline’s reputation as the best anywhere, day or night. Fewer than 20 years after the major additions of Heritage Plaza and Republic Bank Center, downtown Houston began appearing in courses at Ivy League universities as an embodiment of the forms and tendencies of the age.
The roster of major architects to shape the postmodern metropolis is impressive, by any standard. Philip Johnson, Michael Graves, James Stirling, and Michael Wilford are among the very most famous, while Taft Architects, Arquitectonica, and Scott Ballard are just three of the slightly-less known. In 1969, as visiting professors at Rice, and as they were beginning the research that culminated in “Learning from Las Vegas,” Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown taught an influential studio. Among their contributions in later years were the 1974 Action Plan for the Strand, which ignited Galveston’s rebirth under George Mitchell’s patronage, and the Children’s Museum of Houston.
The chief apologist for Houstonian postmodernism was Peter Papademetriou. In a series of texts in major architectural journals and in the 1972 architecture guide published by the Houston AIA chapter, he presented a framework for understanding the city using the principles of postmodernism as he had absorbed them from Venturi, who had directed his thesis at Yale. Working with photographers, particularly Paul Hester, who shot buildings while leaning out of Papademetriou’s car, Papademetriou argued that Houston’s marvelous, if messy, amalgamation of high and low forms set in a vast and undistinguished landscape made it a “city of becoming,” and claimed that its “fluidity of development has provided a potential of an environment of pluralism.”
Postmodern architecture has been widely critiqued as an embodiment of Reagan-era consumption and capital concentration. It has been faulted for masquerading as popular and democratic while serving elite, and often patriarchal, interests as the profession remained overwhelmingly white and male. The buildings on the pages that follow — nearly all of them built for highly privileged clients — would seem to justify these critiques. Indeed, Houstonian postmodernism owes as much to developers including Gerald Hines, the oil industry, and the medical/educational-industrial complex as it does to architects. And we can now, perhaps for the first time, begin to recognize who was excluded from those worlds.
But when understood in their urban context, the buildings here also represent something else. They came as a relief in the midst of acres of new neo-Georgian mansions and dreary ranch houses. Indeed, breaking free of Miesianism and New Formalist infatuations, by the 1980s, the city seemed finally to find itself in postmodernist irreverence and playful manipulations of forms and color. Postmodernism was a salutary antidote to affluent Houstonians’ long-standing obsessions with good taste, even as their own houses often embodied the same principles of eclecticism that undergirded postmodernist formal invention.
In creative and sometimes-successful reinterpretations of classicism or the 1920s avant garde, the shedding of old hangups coincided with the growth and growing diversity of the city, and a general loosening of old bonds. What was obviously wrong about some postmodern buildings — the scale of their elements, or the garishness of their colors, or their abuses of history — made it possible to see the city in total as at least a little less awful, or perhaps even, in the words of Venturi and Scott Brown, “almost all right.” If real architecture could be so irresponsible, maybe it was okay that Houston didn’t follow the patterns of respectable cites elsewhere.
As the little sibling of Italian Mannerism and the delightfully out-of-scale creations of certain Victorians, Frank Furness foremost among them, postmodern architecture signaled an opening up — something Houston, with its influx of capital and immigrants (whether they were from Pakistan or Princeton or both), was well poised to do. Fusing insight and ridicule, in 1980 Philip Johnson observed: “I like Houston, you know. It’s the last great 19th-century city…. People aren’t afraid to try something new. Unlike a few other cities which I won’t name, where you can’t build anything without bringing down all sorts of committees and protests and small-minded people to interfere.”
According to sociologist Stephen Klineberg’s research, the Houston of 2020 is broader minded than it has ever been. It is the city, after all, where a Nigerian-born Muslim basketball star turned a 1928 neoclassical bank building into a mosque, and a white televangelist turned the basketball arena where he played into a megachurch. In Houston, postmodernism’s culture of accommodation does seem to have paved the way for the making of a city that embraces more readily than most Venturi’s exhortation-framed-as-preference for the “difficult unity of inclusion, rather than the easy unity of exclusion,” even as profound gulfs of privilege and power remain. The Houston of the recent past encapsulated the “both/and” instinct at the core of theoretical postmodernism. Recognizing what is present and absent in these photographs, and reflecting on who has been lost and what has been gained in 2020, we remember that this was the city of both Gerald Hines and George Floyd.
Since its earliest days, when it was shaped by William Ward Watkin and Ralph Adams Cram, the Rice University campus has counted as one of the major works of architecture in Texas. The quality and scale of its buildings expressed bold institutional ambitions, helped make Houston seem like an actual place, and introduced a sophisticated vocabulary drawn from a wide range of Mediterranean sources that served as a model for later architects.
In the late 20th century, the university again embraced its historic role as an architectural patron, hiring some of the period’s leading architects. Whereas Cram had struggled with developing a language for “a level and stupid site,” in a place with “no historical or stylistic precedent (not even that of Old Mexico),” and with “no ideas proposed by President or Trustees,” postmodern architects contended with the challenge of designing distinctive new works on a beloved historic campus. Like Cram, the most agile postmodernists drew creatively and broadly from history, and quite often interpreted Rice’s palette of materials, colors, and patterns to great effect.
At the University of Houston, Philip Johnson took a different approach in his scaled-up homage to Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, on the exterior. His evocation of early 20th-century commercial or retail spaces in the multi-story atrium revealed a prescience about the fusion of consumer culture and higher education in decades that followed.
Where Architects Dwell
Architects’ own studios and houses (or those of their parents) have long been sites of innovation and experimentation, and Houston has an impressive variety of such works from the late 20th century. William F. Stern’s own house deftly combined references to its neighbors, including the gray bungalows near the Menil. Its uncompromising compositional clarity and discipline reinforces for us the “modern” part of “post-modern,” while its respect for context and acknowledgement of climate typify the later movement’s accommodating impulses.
Academic postmodernism’s delight in juxtaposition, scalar surprise, and pictorialism was embodied by the jumble of buildings that comprise the Phillips Studio and Townhouses, designed by a student of Colin Rowe. Here, a rather complex program was smashed into (or grown from) a 1920s house and wrapped around a corner in Montrose. The ensemble includes two row houses (one of which has a swimming pool in the living room), a garden house, an extraordinary collection of protrusions and recessions, and a colorful and irreverent entry.
Carlos Jiménez’s studio also has multiple kinds of spaces that the architect has modified repeatedly. Its postmodernism resides in the evolving program and spaces, and in the gentle but prominent blue of the stucco exterior, inspired by the Houston sky.
Eugene Aubry replicated the restrained character of neighboring houses and acknowledged them with a steep roofline, but rejected conventional fenestration patterns and axial symmetry, adding some fun with a pronounced stair-step gable.
Space of Belief
Finding appropriate forms for, and shaping the character of, religious spaces were two of the major architectural problems of the postwar period. The questions provoked by the demise of academic historicism, the historical fact of genocide and nuclear warfare, and widespread changes in individual experiences of faith and organized religion remained at the end of the century.
The Kagan-Rudy Chapel and Chapel of St. Basil contend with the architectural challenges posed by these questions in different ways. The former serves as the outdoor chapel at a Jewish cemetery. Here, the Star of David is marked on the floor in tile, its elements enlarged nearly to the point of abstraction. Columns capped by abstracted ionic capitals define a central hexagonal space and support an exposed concrete structure whose austerity reads not so much as a polemic about surface and materiality, but as a restrained attempt at materializing the experience of feeling stripped bare by loss.
With slices and dices, the Chapel of St. Basil deconstructs and reconstructs the characteristic elements of church architecture, and, in its handling of above-the-altar illumination, borrows a device from Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel, on the MIT campus. Like many architects since the 1950s, Philip Johnson and his colleagues relied heavily on light to do the work of expressing religiosity. A tilted cross incised in one wall, with small, nearly abstract depictions of the Stations of the Cross below, reflects the lessons on the value of austerity taught by works such as Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp. But in the context of the high modernism of the campus and high Catholicism of the client, they almost read as a challenge to orthodoxy.
“Icons and Eye-Cons”
In 1978, Peter Papademetriou and Paul Hester created a small book about signage entitled “Icons and Eye-Cons: Signs in the Houston Landscape.” Many of the signs in the book were both icons of vernacular commercial landscapes and “eye-cons” — sculptural beacons behaving, in the language of Venturi and Scott Brown-ian postmodernism, almost like “ducks.” Longtime Houstonians may recall, for example, the giant hamburger at Prince’s Hamburgers or the rearing stallion in front of Stelzig’s Store, both of which appeared in the book.
Fascination with linguistic and figural puns drove much of Venturi and Scott Brown’s research and practice. At the Children’s Museum of Houston, they created a building shaped consciously in the image of “iconic” cultural centers, with its exaggerated corner-facing, would-be temple front, and one that delighted with its “eye-cons”: the colorful “carya-kids” that appear to support the side awning and wink at those who know about caryatids.
Houston’s most iconic icon, other than the downtown skyline, is Transco Tower, a building that, like the flag planted on the moon, proclaimed that commercial development was moving west in a big way. As its great Gotham-esque beam cuts through the clouds of so many humid nights, the dramatic light recalls art deco buildings and the great age of skyscrapers. The waterwall near the base, framed by tripartite arches, is likewise a beacon, but, in the post-Harvey age, it has taken on an unintended and unsettling double-coding. Like a landscape painting by J.M.W. Turner, Koush’s photograph of Transco from the freeway at sunset captures the building’s drama, heightened by the interminable vastness of concrete and powerlines, the context in which it is most often seen.
They (Re)built This City…With Townhouses
Who knew that Houston was a city of townhouses? Howard Barnstone gave the first masterclass in townhouse design when he created the Vassar Place Apartments in 1965. For a city that rarely hesitates to tear down an old building if there is money to be made by replacing it with a new one, or (better) with several, and has a hard time defining its relationship to density, the townhouse really is the perfect type.
Whether you prefer them staggered with turquoise bands or tall with oversized neo-Palladian ornament, or you like planes with palm trees, Houston has a townhouse for you. And many of them even have front-loading garages (or carports), because you wouldn’t want to walk. Like no other building type, the proliferation of the townhouse presaged and provided for the densification and demographic change that began in the postmodern period and has continued since. Something of the character of that change, and the exuberance of the era, was expressed in the irresistible vitality of works by Arquitectonica, whose buildings look the way 1980s pop music sounds.
Pediments, Pyramids, and Pylons
As Houston spread and sprawled, so did postmodern architecture, all the way from Montrose to Sugar Land, to Webster and Clear Lake. In infill houses, such as Alan Hirschfield’s Helmet House, which he likened to a Teutonic knight, and in the adaptation of the building at 2402 Commonwealth by SIR Architects, architects used bold geometries and contrasting colors and materials, sometimes along with grates, with relish.
There were few gables that rivaled those at the Kumar House or Piper’s Meadow Community Center, the latter set in an early-’80s subdivision just off of Interstate 45. The gigantic stripped classicism of these buildings recalls another planned community, by Ledoux, at Chaux, 200 years earlier. The relentless triangularity of the Kumar House and the community center summon the even more strident classicism deployed by Charles de Wailly for revolutionary purposes in his scheme to convert Sainte-Geneviève into the Panthéon. Less might sometimes be more.
From West U to Clear Lake, postmodernism thrived in large houses commissioned by affluent clients. It went together with the city’s physical and cultural changes and, by the 1990s, reflected the style’s absorption of a wide variety of historical references and many colors. The Frost-Suki house, owned by a pulmonologist trained in Newfoundland and a nephrologist born in Khartoum, revisits the streamline and zig-zag phases of art deco at the same time. It pulls black-and-white checkerboard patterning off the kitchen floor and onto a string course, sandwiched between buttery yellow and popsicle pink planes, with a little green for garnish.
Peter Waldman’s Wetcher House spreads out over more than 5,000 sf in an enclosed garden and has country-club golf-course views. With its many materials and idioms, it is an avant-garde-techno-arts-and-crafts dream, with turquoise accents. Extensive woodwork; multiple balconies and openings to the exterior; black-painted steel used ornamentally and structurally; decorative colored tile; lots of glazed brick, including a staircase reminiscent of the one in Bruno Taut’s pavilion at the 1914 Deutsche Werkbund exhibition: The house puts us in mind of… almost everything that happened in 20th-century architecture. Among the gems is a glazed, upper-story porch, accessible from the exterior by a large, sculptural metal staircase that Waldman described as a Trojan horse.
At the Fall of Night, This City’s Made of Light
No discussion of postmodern architecture, or the 1980s in general, is complete without some mention of colored lights, and especially neon. By channeling what is good about Miami Beach, Arquitectonica challenged the presumption that commercial centers set in oceans of parking have to be awful. With Mesa, they created a monument to suburban consumption, whose main tenant now is, fittingly, a tanning salon. This was classicism-via-modernism updated for the masses: a monumental staircase; the geometric solids turned into voids; giant planes, curved, stepped, or wavy, saturated in color; and a grand terrace providing glorious views of the Richmond Strip, delineated and energized by neon.
After Rendez-Vous Houston, the most important public festival of 1986 was Mardi Gras in Galveston. We probably wouldn’t remember it much were it not for the arches George Mitchell commissioned to decorate downtown. The idea belonged to his publicist, Dancie Perugini Ware, who was inspired by arches built for the city’s 1881 German musical competition. Ware arranged for contributions from Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman, Charles Moore, Helmut Jahn, César Pelli, Eugene Aubry, and Boone Powell. (One by Aldo Rossi was erected later.)
True triumphs of postmodernism in their ephemerality, irony, myriad historical allusions, sense of play, and unabashed complicity with real estate development, the arches made national headlines and were the subject of a small show at the Cooper Hewitt. Only Powell’s remains, with its marvelous colored lights, reminding us of a vanished era, and, in 2020, holding out the promise that one day we will party in the streets together again.
Kathryn O’Rourke is an associate professor of art history at Trinity University.