• A weather system hangs low over central Houston. - photo by David Guthrie

In 2020, the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, in conjunction with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), launched the Course Development Prize in Architecture, Climate Change, and Society, calling upon professors from across the country to formulate pedagogy that grapples with these pressing topics. In March, Matt Johnson, AIA, and Michael Kubo, two professors from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston, were awarded the prize for their proposal, “Gulf: Architecture, Ecology, and Precarity on the Gulf Coast.” Recently, Texas Architect’s Sophie Aliece Hollis sat down with the winners to discuss their proposal and what they anticipate will arise from this distinction.

Sophie Aliece Hollis: Could you talk a little bit about the Course Development Prize and what exactly it requires?

Michael Kubo: The goal of the Buell Center and the Course Development Prize is to produce transformations in pedagogy at different architectural institutions across the country. So, their imperative is to look for innovative proposals that demonstrate a commitment from the administration to activate these changes so that these aren’t purely speculative ideas about things that you could teach, but that the winners of the prize will be committed, within a two-year framework, to actually teach it. 

Matt Johnson, AIA: And as a part of the application for the prize, we mentioned that we would probably put on an exhibition and may produce a book of the coursework. Part of the excitement for us is that there could be products that come out of this that extend beyond the life of the course itself.

The RFQ is centered around architecture, climate change, and society. Climate change design is a relatively new stream of thought in the practice. What previous experiences or interests led you two to embark upon creating a course around this subject matter? 

MJ: I have run several studios around questions of architecture, energy, landscape, and sustainability. Several years ago, I ran a studio with Peter Zweig, FAIA, and Jason Logan that looked at Houston as a kind of locus of petro-culture and the ways in which we might transcend that as we move into the future in terms of urbanism and architecture. I also conducted a traveling studio that visited northern Europe and Scandinavia, where we looked at the possibilities for transitioning energy and renewable energy landscapes with architecture and the ways in which architecture could actually work symbiotically with those landscapes.

MK: I am an historian, and a big part of that has been my interest in the longue durée of petro-culture over the last century-plus, much of which has established Houston and the Gulf Coast as a central site for the global era of petrocene. So, looking at what’s happening in Houston, for me, became part of this much bigger narrative about energy history, climate history, and all of those concerns centered on questions of environmental justice and precarity, especially now that I am in Houston seeing the on-the-ground effects that all of those things have on communities along the Gulf Coast, especially around the ship channel. 

So how did the two of you come together to enter the competition?

MJ: We were both interested in the idea of this continuum from the early and pre-history of oil and petro-culture through the present, where a city like Houston has been fundamentally configured by its relationship to the petrochemical industry in terms of sprawl, car culture, the lack of zoning, and so on, and looking forward through a projective lens in which we could explore what a future beyond oil would mean for the city of Houston. We were also drawn to the interesting ecology of the ship channel, which is relatively underexplored. The residential communities out there tend to be these neglected fence-line communities that are deeply affected by pollution and their relation to the neighboring industrial sites. So, we wanted to look at those communities as well, both architecturally and urbanistically, to see what the future holds for them.

MK: Matt and I had been talking about our shared interests for a while, and, at some point, we felt that they were intersecting heavily enough that it would be a good moment to explore how all of those things come together. We felt the best way to do this would be to blend our two different footprints in the program and create something that would cross over between active studio practice and more history/theory/criticism-grounded work.

And where did you all begin?

MK: We started to get to know and connect with a lot of the people who are doing work in different areas around all of this. There’s been a rise in studies of environmental history and environmental justice as a field. So, when we decided that we actually wanted to structure a pedagogical research project around it, a big part of the interest for us was to build up a community of people and start to connect the people working on these issues that may not currently be connected.

MJ: As we put the proposal together, we realized there was actually a lot of work being done: Air Alliance Houston, the Environmental Defense Fund, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), One Breath Partnership, and many other groups are already working very heavily on these issues, so our hope is to reach out to them and make this a much bigger collaboration that extends beyond the two-year timeline of the prize. 

What will the students’ role be within this broad collaboration?

MJ: We’re thinking of the super-studio as a kind of archaeology — we want to explore the Gulf Coast both physically and in a research mode. So, as a part of this, I imagine we’ll take a lot of field trips, perform field research, and spend time in a lot of sites closer to the actual coastline and among these industrial developments. We may take the students even further afield to Louisiana, or possibly travel beyond that. We want to create a body of research to draw from so that when students do begin to do more projective design work, there’s a resource base available and they’ll have both historical and anthropological knowledge to be able to pursue design work intelligently.

MK: Yes. And there are certain precedents for us in field work around the ship channel and Gulf Coast in general. TEJAS, for example, runs a “Toxic Tour” of the ship channel, which was incredibly eye-opening for me and hugely important in my own thinking about what you could do if you extended this thinking into pedagogy. Some years ago, Steve Rowell from the LA-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) taught at the University of Houston and published a book of field work after taking students out to see the ship channel and understand all the different industrial sites and their relationship to the broader structuring of the city. There’s also Kate Orff and Richard Misrach, the photographers who published a book called “Petrochemical America,” which is based on a huge amount of field work in Cancer Alley. 

So how will this course be different than all the work that is already going on?

MJ: While there are lots of people looking at the Gulf, I see it as a relatively underexplored region in academia. I think part of the reason for that is that there is not really a critical mass here of architecture schools and research institutions in the way that there is in, let’s say, the Northeast. Architects tend to start with the problems in their own backyard, and, while Texas has a number of fantastic institutions, they are just a bit more spread out. So, our hope is that, since U of H is only five minutes from the ship channel, it will be a logical and convenient place for us to begin a thorough exploration of petro-culture and carbon culture and to begin thinking about post-carbon urbanism.

MK: Matt is absolutely right about how little of this work has come into academia. These resources and organizations and bodies of field work that we are really interested in don’t appear on course syllabi; people are not assigning the book that CLUI published that was created by U of H students; they’re not sending their students on the Toxic Tour; Robert Bullard is not being invited to come speak in classes. It’s very much like the physical relationship between the ship channel and these fence-line communities to the rest of Houston: These bodies of work and the school are adjacent to each other, but they just aren’t quite as interconnected as they could be.

How will this “super-studio” benefit the architecture program at U of H?

MK: The College of Architecture and Design is really interested in developing a lot more of these collaborative frameworks, especially ones that bridge active studio practice and questions of history, theory, speculation. So the hope is that this is kind of a testing ground, not only for the topic, but also for the structure of this collaborative method. We would really like the College of Architecture and Design to become a center for these kinds of investigations, things that are about broader issues that extend far beyond Houston.

MJ: Definitely, and I think the pedagogy of architecture is kind of undergoing a bit of a crisis at the moment, trying to figure out what we’re supposed to teach in architecture school. I think that architects should be engaging directly with issues of urgency — climate change, borders, migration — but with humility. Historically, we’ve tended to exist in a bubble, and it’s important for us to reach out collaboratively to other professions and disciplines that have been dealing with these issues for a really long time. Architecture can certainly lend a hand, but trying to solve these problems entirely [through architecture] is a little bit out of step, I think. So, we want to address issues of climate change and development on the Gulf Coast, but collaboration is the primary mode in which we aim to do so.

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