Thursday, August 6, 2009

Non-variegated skylines.

When I first visited Houston, it took me several hours to decide what seemed so strange when I was observing the skyline while coasting along I-10. Many people have remarked on the acentric nature of the metropolis, how a cluster of skyscrapers at what seems to be the downtown immediately devolve in importance from the presence of another neighboring cluster of skyscrapers, while a third or even fourth ostensible “downtown” looms in the horizon. This is all true, but even the biggest aggregation of tall buildings—the real, original downtown of Houston—seems funny looking on its own terms.

Many websites—Skyscraper City among the most popular—dissect urban skylines’ density and breadth, generally serving as a platform for a detailed discussion of urban concerns. Houston’s skyline seen here from City Data has a moderate degree of multi-dimensionality and thickness to be expected for a city of its size in which the major edifices stand on a variety of streets. (Compare this with New Orleans’ skyline, which seems quite impressive for its breadth from certain angles such as this one from Travelblog but has very little density, because a preponderance of the skyscrapers rest on Poydras Street.)

My own photos, taken from about the twentieth floor of a hotel, try to capture what still seems to be missing this portion of downtown Houston.

It’s a texture that’s missing.

For those of us who grew up in old northern cities (or at least older cities like Indianapolis), Houston’s skyline stands out for the glut of structures dating from the 1970s to the present: glassy cladding above all else, reflective of architectural fashion at the time that Houston began to swell in population to one of the nation’s major cities. One must always consider that Houston was a modest city even up the second World War; Modernism and Art Deco, as well as their associative building materials, are uncommon or often threatened in Houston and other Sunbelt post-war boomtowns. Compare this to New Orleans, which was the largest city in the South in 1900 and remained prominent through the Depression, when cities such Dallas and Houston started to overtake it.

The somewhat homogeneous texture to Houston’s skyline also correlates to a dearth of buildings between four and ten stories in height. Most Midwest and Northeastern cities peaked in the late 1900s, when hydraulic elevators were a pioneer innovation, neither fast nor particularly safe. Thus, buildings were often limited in height to the number of stairs people were willing or able to climb. Houston had a population under 50,000 in 1900, making it the 85th largest city in the country at that time. The proliferation of electric elevators in the 1880s finally allowed the emergence of the first true skyscraper, a 10-story structure in Chicago. As elevators became safer and more efficient in the next decade, buildings would soon surpass this height in Chicago and other cities.

But not in Houston. Though Houston’s leadership attempted to make it a port and railroad hub, the city’s rapid growth, which finally began in the 1920s, is predicated on petrochemicals. Without the logistical prominence of other rail and river cities, Houston lacks a strong warehousing identity. The result is what you see in the photos: high-rise Class A office space, spread thinly by the presence of low-slung, sprawling retail, hotel, and residential construction. This post is too simplistic to serve as a criticism of Houston—it is only natural that Houston’s skyline would look this way, and its lack of variegation in this regard is not a weakness but a reflection of its growth patterns. I have never visited Phoenix or Dallas but suspect that they would look much the same way. What some may denigrate in Houston for its lack of a middle layer of historic century-old buildings achieves a different kind of character through the amorphousness of Houston’s sundry business districts. Part of the city’s identity is that it has multiple business nodes that are often all visible simultaneously across the city’s flat topography. Whether these alternative downtowns are edge cities or ancillary economic clusters, they add a distinct character to the act of driving around Houston that old monocentric cities of the north simply cannot achieve.


Uri said...

These photos remind me of LA just east of LAX. Would be nice to get your take on LA's goofy skyline, which also has multiple cores (although it's polluted enough you can't always see the others...).

Separately, I was always under the impression that building height should be more or less correlated to land prices. I can understand why some expensive areas don't build up because of local preferences expressed in zoning laws, but I don't understand why areas like these in Houston aren't more consistent from block to block.

AmericanDirt said...

Good observations Uri. I'm sure if one engaged in hypothesis testing the correlation between height and land prices would indeed be strong; it's probably been done many times before. Some cities undoubtedly demonstrate a stronger correlation than others.

Among the factors that might weaken that correlation:
1. Technological limitations (i.e., prior to elevators buildings could only be as tall as was safe)
2. Geologic conditions - (i.e., the bedrock in Grenwich village prevents Manhattan from being a complete sweep of tall buildings)
3. Height Limitations - (DC of course, and Philadelphia had a gentleman's agreement until the 1980s)
4. Cultural Issues - (distaste for skyscrapers in general, concern of dark streets from shadows or disease spreading miasma)

Since Houston has no zoning but instead uses carefully articulated restrictions embedded into covenants that apply when property changes hands, widespread regulations are unlikely to influence the height of buildings in Houston. One big factor for both Houston and LA is the comparatively low usage of mass transit, so nearly all megatalls in the city have an accompanying parking garage of considerable breadth, spreading the distances between large buildings. Also, Houston's abundance of land (characteristic of all of Texas) means that even the central business distract can enjoy a rather cavalier use of space, since conservation is largely unnecessary. In fact, land is so cheap in Houston that other cities would probably demonstrate the correlation more strongly; the kurtosis on a Houston histogram with the CBD in the middle would probably be relatively small, or an almost "flat hump".

These speculations paint the Houston phenomenon with a broad brush, and I'm not sure how it would translate to a developer's sought-after Internal Rate of Return, but it does seem like automobile dependence may help to push out the distance between buildings. Examining the skyline in "Edge Cities" might provide an interesting cross-reference.

Ryan said...

Uri, you just said, "but I don't understand why areas like these in Houston aren't more consistent from block to block."
Could you please tell me this inconsistency? I never visit Houston before. From the picture, it seems so messed up and polluted.

AmericanDirt said...

Ryan, I'm not sure about the pollution (or the "messed up"), but Houston is more governed by neighborhood covenants than any other city in the country. Thanks for writing, and for at least trying to conceal the fact that you're promoting a product through your post.