by Doug Milburn
Vittoria Alliata, an Italian Marxist
writer, came to Houston and saw an "archipelago of monads" which seemed to her a
dumping ground of capitalism. The artist
Christo wanted to build a block-square
pyramid of oil drums 400-feet high downtown. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable got beneath the obvious but superficial similarities to Los Angeles and concluded that the city was unique. Billy Graham concluded that Houston is "more sinful than Hollywood." Painter Dorothy
Hood perceives here a rare focus of powerful creative energies.
Whatever Houston is, it drives visitors
to superlatives, either positive or negative.
With its extremes of growth and decay, urban sprawl and inner-city congestion,
Houston seems to function as a sort of universal mirror, offering the visitor an accurate reflection of whatever sensitivities and
prejudices that visitor carries about.
One senses that it is a basic error to
say that Houston is anything, because what
Houston is, is what it will be tomorrow,
and what Houston is tomorrow is what
Houston will be the day after that. Much
of the change is exploitative and rapinely
commercial, in the grand human tradition,
and much of it is probably sinful (though
not in the sense Graham intended). But
some of the change is just as surely the
change that accompanies creative growth.
Call it an adolescent, pubescent city. For
a comparable period of rapid creative
change, one might with profit compare
Venice at the time of its flowering into
what we know as Venice today.
The Los Angeles surface is there,- and
it is real. It is easy for the casual visitor to
see nothing but that. But unlike Los Angeles, which has become its own best parody,
Houston is such a young city that it is still
developing its personality.
Consider three basic facts.
1. Houston has no zoning laws.
"Neighborhood integrity" exists in many
parts of town only to the extent that you
can so expand your moral and aesthetic
sense in order to see its unity. In one
small area (1200 block of W. Alabama)
there is a 60-year-old neo-classic mansion,
a Philip Johnson International-style quadrangle, an Australian art gallery (formerly
a Conoco Station), a "U-Totem-m" drive-in
grocery, Sister Roberts' Palm Reading Parlor, Studz Adult Newsstand and a little
boutique specializing in aids for the sexually insecure.
At worst, the result is an urban mess
such as Angelinos have rarely aspired to. At
best, the result is a city of continuing surprises. Example: one morning recently,
people in the Montrose area awoke to find
that a well-known patron of the arts,
Domenique de Menil, had scattered six
large Tony Smith sculptures on various lots
she owns around the neighborhood.
2. Houston is a major seaport, third
largest, behind New York and New Orleans. Fifty miles from the ocean and a seaport? It happened like this: In 1900, Galveston was the largest and fastest growing
city in Texas. It seemed headed toward
the Texas version of Manhattan Island.
That vision ended with the Great
Storm of 1900, a hurricane which submerged the entire island and killed 8,000
people. Given the abundance of mineral
and agricultural resources in the state,
Texas needed a major port, but obviously
it somehow had to be safe from the direct power of Gulf hurricanes. What to do.
Well, you move inland from Galveston by
converting little Buffalo Bayou into a ship
channel. The channel opened in 1916 and
brings ocean-going vessels to within a mile
of downtown Houston. (Buffalo Bayou, by
the way, is the tiny stream just north of
PAGE 30 NOVEMBER 18, 1977
Pennzoil Place: architect, Philip Johnson
the Convention Center.
3. Houston has three large vocal minority communities in addition to the
powerful feminist organizations here:
black, chicano and gay. The white, male establishment is still very much in control of
the city on many levels;but the movement
of growth and change is already well-
Now, the sights. If you really want to
know about the Astrodome, the Space
Center, etc., drop by the Chamber of Commerce in the 1100 Milam Building-they
have plenty of that sort of information.
For cultural starters, you might drop
in at the Alley Theatre (corner of Milam
and Louisiana), where, during the conference you will find a juried show of art by
Houston women. The theater itself is a
local legend: 30 years ago Nina Vance
rented an abandoned fan factory in Montrose and started a theater which eventually became Houston's first equity house.
By the early 60s Vance's high standards
had made the Alley a Houston institution
with a national reputation. Local money
combined with Ford Foundation funds
created the new Alley, which is actually
two theaters, one a large stage, the other a
duplicate of the small, in-the-round arena
where Vance originally brought her theatrical vision to life.
Diagonally across from the Alley
stands Jones Hall (corner of Texas and
Louisiana), the over-booked center of symphonic, operatic and balletic activity in
town. Step inside for a look at Richard
Lippold's magnificent sculpture, Gemini 2,
suspended from the ceiling of the lobby.
Philip Johnson designed the two
black, skewed monoliths called Pennzoil
Place (corner of Rusk and Louisiana-as if
you could miss them). Then there's One
Shell Plaza-the largest poured concrete
structure in the world covered with who
knows how many tons of travertine. Close
study of the exterior of the Shell building
reveals rather subtle curvatures, both vertical and horizontal, in what a first glance
seems to be just another rectilinear phallus.
Check out one of the elevators, which collectively form a tragic little joke. Some
designer stipulated that the elevators
should be lined in unseamed leather. Because of the size of the cubicles, a worldwide search was undertaken to find cattle
large enough to provide hides for the elevator walls. We understand that what you
see is pretty much all that's left of a certain herd of unusually large Belgian
While you're in the Shell building,
you might want to descend into the Tunnel System. Strangely, downtown Houston
rests on a honeycomb of shiny new plastic-
walled, orlon-carpeted tunnels. Reason:
Stan Musial once observed that Houston
has three seasons—summer, followed by
July, and then August. Of course occasional northers do find their way this far south.
But most of the time the weather does
range between balmy sub-tropical and total
steam-bath. What could Houston's affluent
downtown air conditioning addicts do but
go underground and build tunnels connecting all their new buildings with their new
parking garages? If you can manage to see
the whole complex as some kind of weird,
antiseptic, capitalist toy, the tunnels and
gj associated buildings are fun to wander
> about in. (There are lots of your typical
5 ultra-special-purpose boutiques in the tun-
^ nels-for example, The Hang Ten Nails,
3 a shop specializing in pedicures for surf-
> ers—that sort of thing).
2 The Hyatt Regency Hotel (corner of
"» Dallas and Louisiana) has a 30-story lobby
and a revolving restaurant with reasonably
There's sure to be plenty happening at the National Women's
Conference, and you're not going to want to miss any of it. But you
can't be everywhere at once. We can.
Sara Lowrey, Maria Sanchez and Sharon Speer of KPRC-TV will
be on the floor every day. Then, they'll give you a complete look at
what's been happening every evening on our 6:00 P. M. newscast.
At 9:00 A.M. on Friday, November 18, we'll present a one-hour
special called "Are You Listening?" hosted by Martha Stuart.
Add to that the Big 2 News Conference, where well interview one
of the more important delegates, and you'll see Channel 2 is the best
place to get an overview of what's going on.
After the day's sessions, settle down for a while. Turn on 2. Watch
what happened. Then get ready for tomorrow.
WATCH SARA LOWREY, MARIA
SANCHEZ AND SHARON SPEER,
KPRC-TV NEWSPERSONS, WITH
FULL CONVENTION COVERAGE
ON BIG 2 NEWS AT 6.