Docomomo US National Symposium
Houston, Texas - March 13-16, 2014

The Docomomo US 2014 National Symposium program included a schedule of events and speakers covering modern architecture and preservation efforts in Houston and throughout the state of Texas, as well as a key discussion on the challenges of preserving sporting stadiums and the addition of the Houston Astrodome to the National Register of Historic Places. Some highlights of the week included a presentation by the architectural historian Stephen Fox, modern passive design solutions, modern architecture archives and preserving the ephemeral. 

Its famously incessant growth notwithstanding, Houston retains a rich modernist heritage at all scales, the city’s can-do entrepreneurial spirit personified. Examples include prominent work by Philip Johnson (Menil House, 1950, The University of St. Thomas, 1958, and Pennzoil Place, 1976), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (expansions to The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 1958 and 1974), Renzo Piano (The Menil Collection,1987, and Twombly Gallery, 1995), and a multitude of mid-century modern residences by local and regional practitioners.

Extant works by locally-based architects range in size from the diminutive but astounding ‘Googie’ Penguin Arms apartment house (Arthur Moss, 1950) to the truly iconic Astrodome (Hermon Lloyd & W.B. Morgan and Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson, 1965). While Houston has lost many notable historic structures, including modernist classics, there is abundant evidence of successful preservation efforts as well as threatened modern buildings and sites, with futures still to be determined.

Houston is apt to strike visitors as a city of extremes, an impression to which its torrid climate, flat terrain, great distances, and lack of apparent order contribute. As June Arnold caused a character in her novel, Baby Houston, to exclaim when trying to describe the city: “Houston is a mess.” It is and it always has been. That is its scandal and its charm. Houston is a city that appears chaotic yet is easy to inhabit, that is expansive, welcoming, and unpredictably violent, that preserves the accessibility of a small town even though it has become the fourth largest city in the United States. Visitors are appalled by the tawdriness of Houston yet entranced by its flashing skylines and the profusion and luxuriance of its live oak trees. Exaggerated contrasts, inexorable humidity, and the Texan penchant for overstatement imbue Houston with a larger-than-life intensity that can be overwhelming. But it is exciting too. For the 20th century has been a time in the city’s history when energy and dynamism were not only the source of its industrial wealth and an attribute of its incessant mobility, but constituent elements of its civic psyche.

Stephen Fox, excerpt from Introduction, Houston Architectural Guide, 1990