Chapter 7: Texas – Civilization
THE HOTEL CLOCK read 7:34 A.M. Headlights were glaring through the room's windows. This is no small deal, a half-awake brain reported; we're on the twelfth floor.
The guest wrapped a towel around himself, gingerly parted the drapes, and peered out the floor-to-ceiling glass. The searing high beams were just hanging there, slung beneath the belly of a yellow-and-white helicopter, floating at eye level across the way. The chopper had loomed out of a gray morning, bringing a commuter in to a pad on top of a ten-story parking deck. On closer examination, it turned out the parking structure onto which the helicopter was settling sported concrete accent spikes, like castle battlements. It also flew two orange wind socks, like knights' standards.
This was before the guest's first cup of coffee.
But the rest of the vist was no less extraordinary. Just below, outdoors, on what was the fifth level relative to the ground, twelve canopies the shape of mushrooms, boldly striped in red and white and yellow and green, spanned spa tables. They clustered in pods around a heated pool giving off wisps of white steam. A man sat down and stripped to his bathing trunks for a dip. He took off one of his cowboy boots. Then he took off one of his legs. He plunged in and smoothly started the breast stroke. Sure enough. One of his flippers ended at the knee.
Just beyond the primary blue water through which he knifed was an alfalfa-green padded track. On it jogged a solitary blond, in black-and-fuchsia aerobic tights and gold jewelry. The track circled a faceted smoked-onyx barrel vault. The skylight was over an ice rink. Four levels below. Which turned out to be actually in the middle of a mall.
Up on this roof, an unadorned tan cube behind the green jogging track housed ten air-conditioned University Club tennis courts. The tennis courts were on the same level as the sixth tier of that parking structure with the helicopter still on it, its blades turning languidly. To the left, soaring out of sight, was the handsome black glass of the sixty-four-story Transco Tower, the tallest building in the world outside a traditional downtown.
New noise interrupted the guest's reverie, noise from behind, to the north. A second helicopter, with red and white blades, burst into sound straight overhead. Skids up, it lighted next to the first, directly opposite this twelfth-floor room. A crowd gathered around it. The guest's dazzled stare was broken.
How did it get to be 8:04?
Room service, please? Coffee. Lots of coffee.
The stunning juxtapositions of this panorama are all part of a place called the Houston Galleria. It is a megastructure surrounded by one of the largest Edge Cities in the country—now, appropriately enough, simply known as the Galleria area—west of Houston's downtown. But more important, the Galleria raises questions that will resound across America well into the twenty-first century.
If Edge City is our new standard form of American metropolis—if Edge City is the agglomeration of all we feel we want and need—will these places ever be diverse, urbane, and livable? Will our Edge Cities ever be full of agreeable surprises? Will they ever come together gracefully?
Will they ever be sociable places found by struggling students to be spirited? Will they ever yield memories treasured forever by the traveled? Will they ever be delightful places about which love songs are written?
If the future is Out There, will we ever get good at it?
The answers to these questions are of no small moment, for as we push our lives into the uncharted territory of Edge Cities, places like them are becoming the laboratories for how civilized urban America will be for the rest of our lifetime. Therefore, the battles that swirl to form these places are battles being waged over all our futures.
Texas is a wonderful place to ponder where the ancient concept of civilization intersects with that of Edge City, because so much of Texas is utterly new: history is being made there every day.
It's a wonder the Texas Historical Commission can keep up. But it does. In the middle of one Edge City in burgeoning North Dallas one can find a formal bronze historical marker dedicated in 1988. It reads, in part, "Jack St. Clair Kilby, an engineer at Texas Instruments (TI) . . . on September 12, 1958, demonstrated the first working integrated circuit to TI personnel in the semiconductor building on this site. This conceptual break-through . . . led to the development of the microchip."
If the very world that we now view as standard, tied together by wafers of silicon, was invented in an Edge City—in Texas—there's no reason there shouldn't be more bronze plaques waiting to be laid out there in the future. Perhaps the new ones will mark breakthrough efforts to create an innovative, humane, livable, and brand-new kind of city. Perhaps someday there will be a historic marker out in front of the Houston Galleria. Here, future chroniclers may say, a social revolution was pioneered in high-density mixed use. The Galleria, which started to evolve in the late 1960s, was the first place to bolt hotels to the sides of a mall, the first place to have office towers rise from the middle of a mall, the first place to put a darkly wooded prestigious dub on top of a mall. And this was in addition to the skating rink at the bottom of the mall. These hotels and pools and skyscrapers and courts and shopping areas and promenades and multilevel parking and helicopter pads connect intricately, in dense combinations never before achieved in America outside a downtown. Ages and occupations mix in a fashion approaching that Holy Grail for urban planners: the twenty-four-hour city. Sleepy-eyed skaters arrive for their before-work lessons at 5:30 A.M. As youngsters twirl and glide in colorful tights on the ice at midday, people on three levels stop to watch. "It's a human mobile," one observer notes. At night, from the rooftop bar with the hot jazz-rock band that attracts a suit-and-tie crowd that is 70 percent black, you can watch a gigantic spotlight revolve on top of the Transco Tower. It's a scene straight out of Batman. All this, of course, in addition to a view from a hotel room that can compel a visitor to stare out the window for half an hour, transfixed by the variety and drama of the human enterprise.
How many urban areas are there in the world that can claim all that?
The truth, however, is that the Galleria is uncommon. When it comes to hopes for civilization evolving in Edge City, there are many reasons for deep caution. At least one of these caveats is our definition of words like "urbane." The dictionary is not of much help, referring to areas that possess civilities, courtesies, and amenities. But what does "amenities" mean? Edge Cities are terrific at delivering amenities—when amenities can be measured numerically and flowed to the bottom line. Safety. Jogging trails. Day care. Fountains.
The difficulty arises when this civilization produces a landscape that purports to "have it all"—and there's still something obviously and desperately missing. When it comes to "urbanity," I think of the mark of this something-else as "urban mine canaries.
Small songbirds used to be carried down into nineteenth-century coal mines as safety devices. These canaries were very sensitive to poisonous gases. If one died, you knew quickly that there was something wrong with the atmosphere of the place. Just so, civilization has mine canaries in all the best urban places. They are small in themselves. But they test for something far larger. Everybody has his or her own list. Mine includes secondhand bookstores; cobbler shops with craftsmen who know how to take apart and carefully fix good boots; fine, cheap, authentic restaurants of exotic ethnicity, like Ethiopian; and bistros where you can nurse a glass, people-watch, and read all afternoon if you choose. None of these places makes any real money; none will ever become a mall cliché, like Victoria's Secret or Banana Republic. They are so fragile, their existence so precarious, that if they fail to thrive, that tells you something ominous about the quality of an Edge City environment.
This something-else quality, in turn, helps determine whether Edge City will ever join the ranks of history's renowned and beloved urban places. Whether Edge City will ever be the place we take visitors to show off our shining new city on the hill. Whether Edge City will ever be inspiring. Whether it will be a place we cherish.
To arrive at a short-hand for this something-else, I offered historians and designers this query: If Edge City is the future, will it ever turn out as well as Venice?
Venice is venerated by American urban planners as a shrine to livability. But my question, as it happens, is not as outlandish as it may sound. The uproariousness of today's Edge City is nothing new; wildness is pretty much standard for a metropolis in its early stages. All American cities looked like amorphous boom-towns at the beginning, reported the historian Siegfried Giedion. He described Chicago, "America's boldest testing ground of the 1880s," as "looking like a gold-rush town."
Nor is the apparent chaos of so many of our Edge Cities peculiar to our time and place.
"Oh, yeah, Venice was bizarre. In more ways than one," said Larry Gerkins, Ohio State professor of the history of city planning.
"Out sitting in its lagoon. Highly unusual. There was no over-all plan for Venice. There was nobody sitting down, saying this is the way it'll be. It happened over hundreds of years. People were driven off their farms and found themselves on tidal flats, and had to live with it. At the time, the concept was that ownership of land equaled political power. Depending on what land you controlled, you had producing farms and serfs. In time of war, suddenly a group of people found themselves sitting out on the middle of a sand spit. Ain't no land. Ain't no serfs. So they were going to have to develop mercantile power. It changed Western Europe. Banking. Trading. They couldn't be dependent on land. It opened the door into the Renaissance.
"They built the firmaments one at a time. They were respecting the deep spots—that's how the Grand Canal came about. That's where the channel was deep enough. It just kind of grew with time. Delightful thing.
"They were 100 percent mercantile, just as in Edge Cities. Had the only really sizable marine force when the Crusades started. Made a hell of a lot of money shipping people over to the East. The Piazza San Marco was not planned by anyone. It evolved over hundreds of years. Each doge made an addition that respected the one that came before. That is the essence of good urban design—respect for what came before. Over the years, you build something that you couldn't build all at once. "But remember, it was dry landers forced out into a lagoon, looking for a place they could defend. They were forced to build a city unlike anything that had ever been built before."
Full disclosure: no matter how hard I tried to be fair, more than once, traveling around the country, I found myself in deep despair that the Edge Cities I was looking at would ever amount to anything physically uplifting or beautiful. But when that happened, there always seemed to be some thoughtful people around who would, in effect, repeat to me Gerkins' advice: Calm down. Take deep breaths. These Edge Cities are only ten or twenty years old. It took Venice five hundred years to become what it is today. Our new Edge Cities are works in progress. It's just beginning to dawn on us that they are cities. The reason you think places like London and Paris are so wonderful is that you don't see all the mistakes. That's because the people who built those places have had time to tear down all the miscalculations. Time is of the essence in city building. Give Edge Cities time before you lose your composure.
In Texas, however, it is easy to see how one might arrive at an acute ambivalence punctuated by active anxiety attacks. David Dillon, the art historian who writes on architecture for the Dallas Morning News, recalls driving the dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design out to one Edge City rising due north of downtown Dallas.* Dillon finds the area fascinating.
He calls it the Blade Runner Landscape.
Blade Runner is a cult-classic film in which the idea of what Los Angeles might be in the year 2019 collided with that cinematic genre best described as swirling hypercolored lovingly cybernetic punk. And, indeed, Dillon named well this North Dallas Blade Runner world. There is so much to it that the best way to absorb everything that's going on is in a convertible with a completely unobstructed, wraparound, sixty-mile-per-hour view. At its heart, just above the LBJ Freeway, the North Dallas Tollway is quite high off the ground—three or four stories or more. It undulates sensuously—and then the barrage on the senses begins.
California Spanish-tile-covered Asian postmodernist buildings. Pink bronze reflective glass. Unintended intimacies: town houses built right up next to the elevated speedway. A vaguely British office castle with an enormous archway cut right through the middle of it—a portcullis eight stories, count them, eight stories high. Blue reflective glass. The Marriott. Unfinished cement walls. A Mercedes symbol four stories high, right next to a place that calls itself Leather Land. Women in expensive silk shirts whipping by in jacked-up Ford Ranger 4 X 4 pickups. A starkly green field full of alfalfa. It's all so close, so immediate, so reeling. The North Dallas Athletic Club with the American flag, the Texas flag, and the American flag again. Billboard: VANTAGE BEATS MARLBORO. A sign that says LAST FREE EXIT. It points to a flyover that is uplifted by highway sculptures in cruciform. They are so huge, they would be worshiped by the Toltecs. The toll plazas, by contrast, try to be cozy. They are made of wood and have shake roofs. Corporate America: Digital. The Hilton. An office building with both crinkled multiple corner offices and curved glass, with the word on the top—oxy—right up against the highway as it dips and churns. The Galleria with its Westin Hotel, featuring barrel tops centered on circular windows, and Marshall Field's. And Macy's. And parking garages matching the curve of a ramp as it swirls around like the frozen contrail of a jet fighter on the attack. Dark male brown marble facades, meant to connote not just wealth, but old European wealth. Stop and Go Fax Send and Receive Service. More homes right up against the elevated highway. Gold-bronze-pink windows. Something called the Grand Kempinski. With the Grand Kempi's nightclub. Crystal Wood Town Center, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, J. C. Penney. Taiwan!—"A Chinese Restaurant in Dallas." A roll of curved horizontal glass off an office slab in a series of waves exactly repeated by a roll of water falling beneath it. Atria Steel pylons carrying the power, ah yes, the power. A billboard: MAKE YOUR NEXT DATE A TWO-BAGGER. Two people pictured, each with potato chip bag over head. Billboard: SO MANY MESSAGES, SUCH LITTLE TIME, METRO CELL CELLULAR. Billboard: PICK UP THE PHONE INSTEAD OF THE PIECES. FIRST STEP CRISIS PREVENTION CENTER.
After a few miles, the landscape begins to recede. A man finds himself exhausted, having drunk deeply from the cup of astonishment, gasping for words beyond a simple bellow of' "¡Yo, arriba!" The word "surreal" has no juice left to it. It no longer has the power to punch up the workings of the unconscious mind as manifested in dreams: irrational, noncontextual arrangements. I want to put a bag over my head and pick up a cellular phone to call the 800 number that beckoned so seductively in that ten-foot-high script, to talk intensely to whoever answers—about crisis.
Dillon, nonetheless, seemed surprised to report that the Harvard dean, whom he described as "probably an eight or nine in terms of enlightenment," did not join him in the spirit of inquiry and the rolling back of intellectual frontiers when confronted by the Blade Runner Landscape. Instead, the dean went into the intellectual equivalent of the fetal position. And he apparently did not emerge from brainlock until he was taken off the plane back East.
The dean's reaction is instructive. It explains a lot about how our Edge Cities have ended up the way they have.
When I started reporting on Edge Cities, one of my first genuine surprises was to discover just how little architects usually have to do with the appearance of these places. The height, shape, size, density, orientation, and materials of most buildings are largely determined by the formulaic economics of the Deal. It was stunning how completely it was the developers who turned out to be our master city builders. The developers were the ones who envisioned the projects, acquired the land, exercised the planning, got the money, hired the architects if there were any, lined up the builders, and managed the project to completion. Often, it was the developers who continued to manage and maintain the buildings afterward. The works of the design professions were very much ancillary. Even officials of the American Institute of Architects ruefully conceded the point. Architects were lucky if they got to choose the skin of the building.
Oddly enough, this turn of events seemed to suit a lot of designers and planners just fine. Their hearts were not in Edge City. They were elsewhere—usually in elegant projects to rejuvenate the old downtowns to aristocratic days that were so long ago that the designers could only have read about them in books. One of the reasons that the benefits of their design prowess were so frequently missing in Edge City, I discovered, was that an astounding number of these design professionals, especially the older ones, were themselves missing from Edge City. They not only regarded the suburbs as sprawl gone morally wrong. They considered these places and the people in them so banal as to be utterly remote from their experience and interests. They viewed themselves as having a higher calling—trying to find someone to pay them to define space in ways that relate man to his environment with fresh insight and artistic vision, perhaps. It was not so much that these designers had been banished from playing a role in the major decisions about Edge City. As often as not, they had exiled themselves.
In the midst of reporting this chapter I was asked to address the American Institute of Architects, which was holding its convention in Houston. After the talk, one architect came up and basically said, Okay, fine. I want to examine an Edge City; how do I get there. Well, I said, you get into your car and head straight out Westheimer until you see more big buildings than in downtown Copenhagen, at which point you start cruising around. And he got this stricken look on his face. Car? he asked. Car? My God, he said. Can you get a cab in this town?
Now I do not mean to derogate this man's sincerity in any way. But a building designer who comes to Houston for a convention and does not rent a car is not part of the solution; he is part of the problem. In a culture like America's, in which more households have a car than have a water heater, he is not being morally pure. He is being willfully and aggressively ignorant of the stone-cold realities of the late twentieth century. Going to Houston and not renting a car is like going to Venice and not hiring a boat. It is missing the point.
Nonetheless, this man is not alone among his peers. In the late 1980s, when I wanted to find out what was going on in Edge City, I could rarely turn to architects and planners for insight. They often were not even curious about the place. Instead, I had to turn to the people who were actually bulldozing the landscape to get any straight answers.
Why did you think this project was a good idea? I'd ask; the banker. Why did you put that building there and there and there? I'd ask the developer. Why didn't we build a railroad over there? I'd ask the engineer. Excuse me, sir, would you explain just what, exactly, you thought you were doing?
Their answers were startling; they seldom had anything to do with lofty urbanologists' theories about the ways people "should" live, and cities "should" be arranged. But this was not because they had no answers. Quite the contrary. Edge City, as it turned out, had an exquisitely fine-tuned logic. Indeed, as soon as one saw Edge City the way the people who were building it did, a magnificent panoply emerged. The developers had spent lifetimes laboring to uncover what they regarded as the verifiable, nontheoretical realities that govern human behavior. They had then gone out and built an entire world around their understanding of what Americans demonstrably and reliably valued. Their unshakable observation was this: if they gave the people what they wanted, the people would give them money. The crazy quilt of Edge City made perfect sense if you understood the place as the manifest pattern of millions of individual American desires over seventy-five years.
The developers viewed Edge City the same way they viewed America itself. as problem-driven, not ideology-driven. In this way, their perspective was quite the opposite of the designers'. The planners seemed to think that human behavior was malleable, and that nobody was better equipped by dint of intelligence and education than they to do the malleting. They believed that the physical environment they wanted to shape could and would shape society. The places they would like to plan would lead, they believed, to fundamental, welcome, and long-overdue changes in human mores and human attitudes.
The developers saw it just the other way. They saw Edge City as very much the product of society. They viewed themselves as utterly egalitarian observers, giving people what they repeatedly demonstrated they desired, as measured by that most reliable of gauges: their willingness to pay for it.
Edge City, of course, is that land of such apparently contradictory postmodernist future visions that both realities are probably accurate. After all, Winston Churchill once wrote, "We shape our houses, then they shape us."
But of the two camps, it is clear that the developers with the common touch, who thought they were merely responding to the people's will, are the ones who have had far and away more influence on the world that now surrounds us than have the theoreticians and designers. For this they all may take both the credit and the blame.
Forget commodity, firmness, and delight. Those are the three qualities that were thought to embody excellence in city building according to Vitruvius, the Roman architect of the early imperial period who wrote the only text on architecture to survive from Greece or Rome.
Forget zoning. "There is no zoning, only deals," Sam Lefrak once said. He ought to know. Lefrak was such a savvy developer that he got the University of Maryland geography building named after him.
Those are sideshows. Edge City is built the way cities always have been built. It is shaped by the most powerful forces unleashed at the time. If the Pope shaped Rome and the doge Venice and Baron Haussmann the grands boulevards of the Champs-Elysées, the marketplace rules Edge City. Its most devoted acolytes are the developers. "They are the Medici of the twentieth century," agreed one Houston planner.
Well, then, who are these guys? Again, I found the answer surprising. Development is very much a participatory sport in this country. Giant national firms like Trammell Crow are the exception. The typical story of a developer is that he—it is almost always a he—was something else first: a lawyer, a broker, an engineer, a contractor. The more developers this person dealt with, the more he realized that there was nothing that they were doing that he couldn't do, too. Except that they were making far more money. So he joined the party.
The most important thing to understand about developers is this: these guys are not rocket scientists. If you devote a lot of energy to conspiracy theories about them, you may be missing the point. It's not that they aren't into greed. The stuff developers do all day, like talking to bankers, is debilitating and degrading; it would make no sense unless there were abundant money in it. It's not that they can't be devious. Some have proven capable of felonious quantities of guile. And it's not as if they are self-effacing. Everybody in the building trades, including the architects and planners, is an egotist. They aspire, after all, to change the world.
Still, developers are the kind of people who carry around brochures of their projects as if they were baby pictures. They love the places they build. The first thing they do when they start talking about their efforts is to start chopping the space in front of them with their arms, building castles in the air. By and large, this is not an introspective collection of people. A very few in this brotherhood are genuinely brilliant. But a gathering of the clan—including their cohorts the bankers, builders, and brokers—resembles nothing so much as a fraternity fervently committed to varsity athletics.
The more I talked to these people, the more I became convinced that there are not that many legal, technical, or practical reasons that almost anyone with the brains to read this far into a thick book couldn't get into a partnership and go out and build a quarter-of-a-million-square-foot office building tomorrow, if he was willing to devote his life to that. It is not as challenging as subatomic physics.
The ease with which the development game is entered does not by any means suggest that it is trivial to succeed as a developer. The number of ways that our hypothetical quarter-of-a-million-square-foot building could erupt into fiasco are limited only by imagination. One hotshot, musing about three people he knew who were big-time developers before the economic downturn of the 1970s, swore this was true: one of them is selling newly manufactured Brazilian "antiques" to Europeans; another is pushing Vietnam-era airplanes to developing countries; and a third is peddling Malaysian oil futures.
People who are consistently successful as developers, by contrast, surviving both boom and bust, have special gifts of character. Not the least of these is their ability routinely to roll the dice with millions of dollars on the table and then sleep at night.
But by and large, developers as a breed have only one specialized skill not generally available in the population: they have the ability to do fairly high-level arithmetic, in their heads, while talking about a completely different topic. What developers do, fundamentally, is run the numbers. And the most impressive number they run is the one in which they manage to divide extremely large dollar figures by 43,560, which is the number of square feet in an acre. By so doing they can and do reduce much of human experience—quite accurately, as it turns out—to the Deal.
I'll never forget David Hunter, one of the first developers I ever interviewed back in Virginia. He was bulldozing hundreds of acres of forest around a lovely stream called Little Rocky Run for a subdivision. I had found the forest delightful in its erect state, so I was keenly interested in his reasoning. Especially because he was touting his massive subdivision as a "planned community."
How was it "planned"? I asked him.
I still find Hunter's answer memorable because it so thoroughly blew away any liberal-arts preconceptions I may have had about how things get built in our world. Hunter basically said: Planners? Architects? Say what? Here's what happened. And he started running the numbers. It was like a mantra. Like a Gregorian chant:
"Anybody knowledgeable about the sewer system knew that there was only one place growth could go, and that was west, and there were only two roads heading west, Route 50 and Interstate 66. There was this triangle of roads that the county plan said was supposed to be a mall, but there was a zoning battle between DeBartolo and Taubman, and Taubman won, and so the mall went two exits east. The area could not support both. That's when I saw the possibilities for this watershed. There were four thousand acres in the shed, okay, and there were eight or ten major owners holding twenty-two hundred acres. They had held the land for ten or fifteen years.
"That land at the time was investor land. Not farmland. Just investor land. It's in that holding period where it's too expensive to farm and not yet matured to the point where it's developable. It was all wooded, yeah. All of it was wooded.
"The first obstacle to overcome was the sewering of the watershed, which took some $3 million in funding from the consortium of eight owners, especially from one guy who had four or five syndicates that owned probably 30 percent of the land. So I came in and bought about four or five hundred acres from him at $ 10,000 or $ 12,000 an acre with no sewer.
"These areas are already zoned, but 75 to 8o percent of the density was all within one half of the watershed. So if you took this four thousand acres, the density here is one to two on two thousand acres and down here it's like probably four to five. Dwelling units per acre, yeah. Okay. This P.S. is a pumping station. The county gave us that approval. The second line of approval was a matter of formality.
"Now up here was where the county was having problems. This is where the court suit was; this is where the septic fields were failing. A long ways from here to here, two or three miles. The county had budgeted like $800,000 with some kind of an escalator in it and later on the amount of it was like a million-four. And they were going to avoid sewering all this area and do a forced main here and go over into a sewage treatment plant over here. And then let's say a million dollars of expenditure would serve this little area right here. well, they got a little bit of flak on that.
"Then the Housing Authority got involved and over here was a little underprivileged area called the Louis-Lincoln-Vannoy area. So they got the Redevelopment Housing Authority in there with some matching federal funds, they came up with a dynamite program. Two million-eight, okay, and they bought eighty acres over here and this was a spray system. And they were going to go down here and spend this $2.8 million to serve forty-six houses, which meant that it was somewhere in the area of $40,000 to $50,000 a house and they were worth about $20,000, okay. So they had a fight on that.
"Well, I proved to them that I didn't have to go there and there was a gap, but I also knew they had this million-four, okay. So with the million-four I did a civic duty here of simply at cost I extended the line from here to here which was virtually no benefit to me and I fumbled around with getting reimbursed for $850,000 Okay.
"That was done on the basis that this would be reimbursed by the county, coupled with these two people right here agreeing to run the line from here over to here, and the Housing Authority to go from here down to here and then to give back or do whatever they wanted with about $2.3 million in money, okay, because it only cost them $500,000 so they had all that money left and they still owned eighty acres down there.
"So that's really how the whole thing came about." I was breathless. I scarcely knew where to start.
"The controlling thing was sewers?" I cautiously generalized about his "planned community."
"Yeah. Not traffic, no, no This was, let's say it started in 1979 and was in operation 1983 over a four-year period. And I started buying the land in 1978. Really what I had was eleven hundred units, and Little Rocky Run now is about twenty-five hundred units. So I had purchased eleven hundred units and of those, seven hundred were town houses. What it's zoned for, yes."
I was still struggling to catch up. "You don't think in terms of acres; you think in terms of units?"
"Yes. Zoned units. There was a couple of hundred acres and this equated to X number of units. So Little Rocky Run started out as eleven hundred units of housing, seven hundred town houses, three hundred single family. And, you know, a couple of curious things started occurring. These people who had participated in bringing in the sewer did not want to be in a development mode whereas it would change their tax situation. They kept saying, 'Won't you buy the property? Won't you buy the property?' Finally what happens I end up taking them over. Then a lady owned this and then I bought that and then a Mr. Jenkin owned this and I bought that, okay, so it just kept going right on down."
I was reeling. As it happened, a contractor had ruptured a transcontinental natural-gas transmission pipeline nearby only the previous week.
"Thank God it wasn't your bulldozer that hit the pipeline," I said fervently.
"That's exactly right. That's right," agreed Hunter. "That pipeline runs right through here and right over here is where it was hit. Right there. I don't think it's even a thousand yards, I think we're talking a thousand feet. I'll tell you what, it's awful close. That is Sunset Ridge that they evacuated. Here's the elementary school over here."
Weak-kneed, I responded, "I see."
Years later, David Hunter's recitation of the facts of life remains a classic vignette of the way our world is shaped, really. It also shows why the Law of Unintended Consequences governs our built world. Both the developers and the planners are plagued by the same problem: they repeatedly face disconnects between their actions and their consequences. Edge Cities that are devoted to automobility end up traffic-choked. Places that tout their "amenities" and "quality of life" end up so contrived that the mine canaries of urbanity struggle to survive.
The big problem with the developers is that they follow the numbers. Yet there are few market mechanisms that make the connection between what they build and all the social consequences. The game is not set up that way. The developers tend to their own projects and hope that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" will clean up the consequences, rewarding good and bankrupting evil. If the net result of all their actions is perceived as chaotic, the response is, well, any market in full-blown operation—whether it be a souk in North Africa or a real estate play in east Texas—can be mistaken for anarchy.
And they are not wrong. Historian Robert Fishman claims that all urban forms when new—whether they are the streetcar suburbs of a hundred years ago or the Levittowns of forty years ago or the Edge Cities of today—evolve this way:
- First, planners of genius comprehend what makes them tick.
- Then, speculative builders of less candlepower get the general idea and try, approximately, to replicate it, slowly and incompletely.
- Finally, individual property owners continually upgrade their places. They look around at what other people are doing, decide what is good or bad, eliminate discordant elements, and bring their community closer to what is perceived to be the ideal. "We might hope that a similar process is now at work in the postsuburban outer city," Fishman writes.
Yet the time scale of developers is unnerving.
"Developer" is an interesting word for these people. The dictionary says it means one who causes something to become fuller, who causes it to unfold or evolve, who makes it stronger or more effective, who causes it to progress. Yet developers are rarely rewarded for taking the long view and looking at the big picture. They all know the histories of the "new towns" of the 1960s and 1970s: they almost all went broke. Some, like Reston, Virginia, ran through several corporate owners. The one in the Houston area, The Woodlands, signals to developers only a perverse lesson. For all its charms, they say, the only reason planning on that scale did not go bankrupt is that The Woodlands was backed by an oil company, an outfit with deep enough pockets to wait ten or twenty years for a payout.
It is this short horizon that is at the root of that frequently heard call: what Edge Cities really need is more planning. But the role that planners have played in the development of these places is, if anything, even more disturbing than that of the developers. At least the developers' claims for their social worth are modest. At bottom, they attempt only to create wealth. The planners, by contrast and by definition, proclaim much more. After all, they call themselves planners. This suggests at least some larger vision of human affairs. That is why people hire them. It also suggests that their plans will reliably produce social good; that there will be a general relationship between their intentions and the cold, hard results.
An examination of the real world, however, suggests that the facts are far more troubling. Precisely because planners believe their goals are lofty, when their crystal ball shatters, the crash can be heard for decades. The world moved on July 15, 1972, for example. That was the day the city fathers of St. Louis blew up with dynamite the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. The design, which followed the foremost architectural theories of its day and had won an award from the American Institute of Architects, was so utterly unlivable, even by the standards of the wretched of the earth, that Class A explosives were the only solution.
Take for a more grand example Las Colinas, west of downtown Dallas. It is one of the most planned, long-horizon Edge Cities in the world. It will be half a century before this place is built out.
In the central plaza of Las Colinas, there are nine bronze mustangs, forever wild and free. Each seems to be balanced on, at most, one foot, in water calculatedly splashed by jets to appear, for the rest of time, as if cast up by the ponies at a dead run. A plaque nearby, entitled "The Mustangs of Las Colinas," memorializes them. In part, it reads:
These horses bore Spanish explorers across two continents. They brought to the plains indians the age of horse culture. Texas cowboys rode them to extend the ranching occupation clear to the plains of Alberta. Spanish horse, Texas cowpony, and mustang were all one in those times, when as sayings went, a man was no better than his horse, and a man on foot was no man at all.
Like the longhorn, the mustang has been virtually bred out of existence, but mustang horses will always symbolize western frontier, long trails of longhorn herds, seas of pristine grass, and men riding free on a free land.
These sculptures—they have tremendously ridged veins and a nice deep hollow ring to them when rapped—are huge. Each is one and a half times life size. The most endearing are the two colts, one of which appears to be leaping into the water as if off a tall bank.
And they are much loved. One warm Mother's Day, a daddy could be seen standing his daughter on his shoulders so that the child could pet a big bronze nose eight feet off the ground. The number two colt has a mane that seems to be turning colors. All the other animals have a patina of dark green. This pony, which is just short enough for its top to be easily reached by human hands, has been rubbed so often, affectionately, that its mane has turned to gold.
But behind the mustangs, the high-rise office towers of Williams Square loom. The surfaces are hard and cold. The plain across which the horses seem to gallop is made of corporate marble. Not a sliver of grass is to be seen.
This is far and away the most inviting landscape in Las Colinas. Yet it is full of ironies. For in Las Colinas, the freedom and individualism the mustangs represent appear as extinct as the horses themselves.
In few urban landscapes in America has planning been so lavishly funded. "What they did, planners in old cities look at trying to do and despair," one academic critic observed. "It's rare to see something executed at that scale with that degree of meticulousness and expense. Nothing was done on the cheap out there."
Yet the dominant feature of this place, in which twenty thousand of the affluent live and sixty thousand work, is walls. The walls separate the people on the inside from the people on the outside. They separate people within Las Colinas who can afford a $500,000 home from those within Las Colinas who can afford only a $200,000 home. Chain-link fences topped by two stretches of triple-strand barbed wire, meeting in a V, separate children from the waterways around which they might think to hunt for frogs.
Las Colinas is a landscape in which spontaneity has been utterly tamed. Every master-planned one of its twelve thousand acres seems to gleam, in an eerie sort of way. Its not just the office towers, although they are featured in the opening credits of Dallas. The golf courses gleam. The endless gold fixtures in the bathrooms gleam. The robot monorails gleam. So does the polished mahogany of the Venetian water taxis, the geometry of the BMWs and the Mercedeses, the uniform trim on the shoulders of the Mexican fishing minute cigarette specks out of the water features, and the heavily carved cathedral-weight doors that false-front the parking garages. They all gleam. This is not so much a community as a simulation of a community. When a raucous grackle starts chattering in a tree, you look up in honest wonder to see whether it is really a bird, or whether they've wired the trees with speakers and are running a tape. In front of the Four Seasons hotel, there is a jogger whose hair will be bouncy and moussed, forever. Her earphone headset keeps her entranced, permanently. She is the ideal athlete; she never sweats. She is a statue. In every detail, right down to the trademark on her Nikes, she is absolutely perfect. Because what has been subtracted is life. Gary Cartwright, in Texas Monthly, wrote of Las Colinas:
"There is no hint of the tawdry, the profane, no residue of grit or squalor or sweating masses. It is Disney World for the affluent. In fact, when executives from Disney World visited the development a few years ago, one of them commented that it was a shame of Walt couldn't have lived to see the real thing."
Indeed, in its determination to conquer the unexpected, Las Colinas is as deliberate and premeditated as an interstate inter-change. Its vistas resemble nothing so much as its neighbor, the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport.
This is not urbanity. Molly Ivins, the Dallas Times Herald's premier Texas observer, noted of this monument to planning, "There is something inorganic about Las Colinas, something utterly unspontaneous. I get the feeling there is nowhere you can get a bowl of banana pudding." It no more matched her vision of civilization than did the Blade Runner Landscape match the standards of humanity of the Harvard dean.
How did this happen? How did urbanity fall between these cracks—between chaos and the control junkies? How did we end up missing most of the benefits of design?
The marketplace is the place to start rounding up the usual suspects, since that is where the developers worship. There is no question that in an Edge City, the introduction of any institution that might be equated with civilization is totally and at root dependent on the Deal.
The issue, then, that is central to Edge City is whether the market is an efficient way for people to communicate what they really want, or whether it is a debased and degrading caricature of humanity that leaves out everything that is valuable about the human condition.
This is a stimulating subject for debate. But here is what I found striking about so many planners, architects, and other design professionals. They were not much interested in the question. They did not much understand the marketplace. Nor did they care to. Often they dismissed it as wearisome. I found this curious. Someday, someone will write an intellectual history explaining why so many highly educated building professionals ever thought it was a good idea to neglect the landscapes in which the vast majority of Americans lived, worked, and played. Especially at a time when that's where most of the construction was being done. But it is undeniable that its effect has been perverse. This shunning by the designers has not caused Americans to change their habits, nor has it imbued the world with charm, nor has it gained these professions much in the way of lucrative work. If the mine canaries of civilization were having a rough time in Edge City, I couldn't help wondering to what extent that was a function of anything inherent in Edge City, and to what extent it had something to do with the intellectual absence of so many people I had always viewed as the guardians of our built environment.
Jack Linville helped put it in perspective.
"What the architects and the planners, the trained professionals, all b elieve is that Edge City is wrong. It all goes back to the Costs of Sprawl report. The whole concept is—the suburbs growing is the wrong way to develop. That what you really want to do is protect the vitality of downtown. So everything you do is aimed at bringing people back to the CBD [central business district]. Get them back downtown. Get them back into the vibrant areas. Things happening after dark in the downtown. Make sure they have that wonderful city vibrancy.
"The forces at work in our society are much stronger than that. So the planners and architects got way out in left field trying to fight against a surge that is just overwhelming."
Linville once headed the research foundation of the American Planning Association. He is now president and chief executive officer of a Houston-based design outfit called The Office of Pierce Goodwin Alexander and Linville. (When I talked to Linville, his company was performing the sorely needed redesign of Washington National Airport.) Linville's manner is chronically open, sunny, aw shucks, and down home, as befits his firm's roots. The experience and opinions of Texans when it comes to civilization nonetheless are of considerable significance. Since most urban areas west of Kansas City are a function of history after 1915 and the emergence of the millionth Model T, these people have been thinking much longer than people in the East about life as we will know it in the twenty-first century.
"I came here, I was running this research program at Rice Center, teaching at Rice in the School of Architecture," Linville said. "One of the things we did was this study for a group of developers out on—the Katy Prairie, it was called. It was the one that was probably the fastest created anywhere." (This means Linville was a founding father of one of the quintessential Boomer Edge Cities: the West Houston Energy Corridor.)
"The other study was the study of the South Main Center area, which was an in-town area, Rice University, the Texas Medical Center. It was old; it had big trees. It was saving and revitalizing an in-town area." (That is, it was an Uptown Edge City.)
"It was the same group of people—the same young architecture students, graduate students, early professional people working on both studies. And the perception in the architectural community was that what we did in South Main was really good. And what we were doing in West Houston was selling out. To the suburbs. Because you are so indoctrinated to believe that cities are the old downtown areas. You go to London, you go to Paris, they're all tight, they're close, you're in. There's a lot of vitality there. A lot of vibrancy. There are also a lot of problems. Far greater problems than we're going to have to deal with in our new American cities. Like poverty, crime, sanitation, sewer systems falling apart.
"It is a totally different way of living. In Paris, you've got roughly six million people living on maybe a hundred square miles, an area that would fit inside Loop 610 here [the inner beltway]. We have about 200,000 living inside that area. We've got three million people on three thousand square miles. The people in the United States are not going to live the way the people in Paris live. They will not live in a thousand-square-foot apartment and raise a family and go out and get the loaf of bread and the jug of wine and walk down the street and live their whole lives within one square mile. That is not the way Americans live. They have a different level of freedom, a different level of expectations. There's still a lot of Daniel Boone left in America.
"I don't know what the people in Paris want. But what they have is a very very small amount of space that is theirs, and a lot of public amenities. What we have is a huge amount of space that is ours and that we control, and very little in public amenities. We have much more individual life styles. We have our own excellent interior spaces. We have our own park. It's right out back. The yard.
"The architects and planners—the design community—has a lot of disdain for the kind of things that middle Americans want that lead to the development of our Edge Cities. You don't create a Paris with them. You can't even create a London this way. Just not going to happen. Not going to be."
This is the trap that leads some designers to dismiss the value of the marketplace. The intellectual ambush works like this. Okay, say these architects and planners, let us assume for a moment that Americans are not fools. Nevertheless, they live in ways that fly in the face of everything we cherish—like the re-creation of a traditional Paris or London.
How can this contradiction possibly be resolved? It must be that the reason the American people have followed this path is that they have been forced to live in such a terrible style. It can't be that they like it. It must be that capitalism enslaves them, and the developers give them no choice.
The problem with this surmise, of course, is the evidence that there is no such thing as a mass market anymore in America. If anything, the economy's entire thrust over the past four decades has been to offer paralyzing levels of choice. Ever more highly specialized, even individualized niche markets are the rule. This is especially true in housing. People with money can live in this country in just about any fashion imaginable—including, if they so choose, in yeasty, artsy, diverse, walkable, renovated neighborhoods in the center city.
Even more telling is the evidence that it is by no means merely American capitalism that is producing Edge City. You get the same result from Chinese communism.
Immensely different political, economic, and cultural systems-with vastly different attitudes toward government planning, home ownership, tax deductions, and freeways—are producing startlingly similar results. In the late twentieth century, urban areas worldwide are growing Edge Cities.
Canada is a particularly interesting place to watch Edge Cities flourish, because it is, in many ways, the control experiment for America. Despite draconian government controls that American planners only dream of, despite an emphasis on mass transit and a relative lack of freeways, despite vibrant and bustling and safe urban centers, despite a relative lack of racial problems, and despite there being no suburb-enhancing tax deductions for home mortgages, downtown Toronto has only 46 percent of its area's market. Almost a dozen Edge Cities are growing up around it.
Paris has that awesome concept, an Edge City designed by de Gaulle-era French bureaucrats. It is called La Defense, and has been described as so inhuman as to be the only stop on the Paris Metro system where it is more inviting to stay underground. Still, it, more than downtown, is the corporate and economic capital of France. It bristles with more than forty office towers occupied by the likes of Elf, British Petroleum, IBM Europe, IBM France, NEC, Colgate Palmolive, Hitachi Metals, Fiat, Peugeot, Credit Lyonnais, and Le Figaro.
In addition, the Paris area has five Greenfield Edge City sites on its fringes: Cergy Pontoise, Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, Evry, Melun-Senart, and Marne-la-Vallee. Only the first two have gone much of anywhere, and, just as in America, they are west of downtown, where the rich people live. The French have figured out what it takes, though. They are building the La Francilienne outer beltway (Route A87) to assist Edge City development. And in the master stroke, thirty-two kilometers from downtown, just east of Marne-la-Vallee they have located—Euro Disneyland! Sure. If it worked for Orlando, no reason it shouldn't work for Les Grenoudles.
Sydney, Australia, even without a beltway, is seeing Edge Cities emerge. The largest is North Sydney, the fourth-largest office market in Australia, marked by Amdahl, Arthur Andersen, Mobil Australia, and Qantas. It is across the Harbour Bridge from downtown.
Land-ownership patterns in London are influenced by the legacies of both feudalism and socialism in ways that are un-imaginable to Americans. London's physical plan dates back more than two thousand years. Its environmentally protected Green Belt, which runs from twelve to twenty miles wide, was specifically created by planners to limit the dispersion of urban functions. The London area has a well-developed, fully integrated rail system. The Underground is the oldest subway system in the world.
But it also has the M25 beltway, and thus Edge Cities have leapfrogged the Green Belt to rise twenty and thirty miles from the center of London along the M4 motorway heading west, with good access to Heathrow Airport and tony residential areas, the M11 heading toward the technology magnet of Cambridge University, and the M1. The M20 is coming on strong because it is the main road link to the Eurotunnel entrance in Kent. As a result, the greater London area is now more than a hundred miles across, reaching out toward Bristol and Dover. It sprawls across as much land as does greater Los Angeles. London's outer Edge Cities, meanwhile, have the same share of their market as do Chicago's.
The Canary Wharf area on the Isle of Dogs in the Docklands has demonstrated once again that Europeans can produce new urban environments that are every bit as hard, sterile, and contrived as Americans'. Not only that, but they do it in a place where they don't even try to move cars! Quite an accomplishment.
In fact, there is that group of perverse American design professionals who have labored in the Edge City vineyards. They are watching the evolution of European urban areas with small smirks. They, of course, have been lectured at their entire lives about how great European cities are. But they have a sneaking suspicion that these European sites are living off the leftovers of their soul—the stockpile of ambiance they built up before the twentieth century. They note with interest that when Europeans build new, they don't build more charming places reminiscent of old Paris, old Rome, old London. Their modern stuff is frequently worse than our urban landscapes. Check out the mainland side of Venice. Many of the high-rise apartments ringing Paris and London have all the Stalinist charm of the Cross Bronx Expressway. In Amsterdam, in 1989, they were still holding symposia at which one of the key questions was: "Should architects take consumer preference into consideration in the design of housing?"
Edge Cities are a function of growth, these Americans point out. It is their conjecture that the major "advantage" European urban planners have had up to now is a relative absence of it. What happens to these places, they wonder, when it becomes clear that computers and telecommunications mean heavy cables and heavy heating, ventilation, and air conditioning? In North America, which has always had a harsher climate than almost all of Europe, this was not a big adjustment. In old European buildings, in which central heating was until recently considered optional, this is a challenge.
What happens when it becomes clear that would-be world financial centers need office floorplates of at least twenty thousand square feet? A full-service trading floor needs at least that much space to produce the all-important eye-to-eye contact. That space is standard in American Edge Cities. There is no such space in old European downtowns.
What happens when it becomes clear that there is a connection between more affluent populations and a desire for more individual transportation, despite every imaginable disincentive? say the designers.
Oh. Not had much luck handling those problems in your old city before?
These professionals basically believe that if American urban areas have problems, one of the foremost is that they have had the dubious privilege of wrestling with the future first. Their sneaking suspicion is that Americans are doing as well as anybody when it comes to struggling with these forces.
Actually, what they deep down believe is that they are doing orders of magnitude better. For when they look around, they see that it's not just European urban areas that are displaying these patterns. Bangkok is throwing the classic Edge City motif east of downtown in the Pathoylotah Road area. The Central Plaza Edge City on the expressway that runs northward to the airport is going tech—home to Toshiba and Hitachi. The hotel? The Hyatt Central Plaza. Djakarta is seeing the same sort of thing out the long straight arterial to Menteng called 'Tamarind, as well as to the east in an area called Tibet. Even in desperately poor Karachi, the action is between downtown and the airport. In Mexico, on the west side of Guadalajara, in the Plaza Del Sol, the first mall in Latin America, you hear people say they never go downtown anymore. In Puebla, east of Mexico City, and Morelia, to the west, you see white-collar office towers around malls equipped with fast food so that you don't have to go home for lunch. Seoul is trying to force Edge Cities at two locations: Bundang, about twenty-five miles south of downtown, and Ilsan, about twenty-five miles northwest. Even in China, in Tianjin, Beijing's port, all the development is moving out to the ring road. "I see a lot of similarities in terms of physical development between Asia and the United States," reports David Dowall of the University of California at Berkeley. "There's a lot of copying going on in terms of architecture and land use. Incomes are going up so fast, auto ownership is increasing at breakneck speed even though they have these punishing tariffs. In Bangkok a stripped-down BMW may cost you $50,000. People still buy."
Nevertheless, there is tremendous resistance among design professionals. Few appear interested in seeing whether there may be something intriguing to be made of this new pattern.
"An Edge City, as I see it, doesn't have enough people of diverse interests and variety and sufficient concentration of talent to make a particular civilization sparkle, to produce great centers of excellence like the Manhattans or Parises or Londons, Romes or Moscows or whatever," Jonathan Smulian insisted. "Sad, sad."
Smulian is British both by birth and manner. He is an architect and urban planner who has practiced from Bogota to Lahore to Cairo. He is now where the action's at, in the belly of the Beast, the Houston Galleria area. Yet he is hardly a convert to the place.
"Most people do not appreciate the compactness and the high densities of cities," Smulian admitted. "I do buy that. Yes. I can tell you that every Frenchman would like to have his little villa outside Paris. Every Londoner I can think of would be only too delighted to have his little house out in the countryside. It's not an American characteristic by any means. It's a people characteristic.
"People went to cities for one reason only. Survival. Survival in terms of opportunity to find work. Survival in terms of opportunity to get better education and health care and because they perceived that in farming, manpower is becoming less and less important.
"The move to the cities wasn't because of greater diversity and interest and fascination with urban life. To this day the people in the slums of these cities—however poor and miserable you may think them—have a better chance at survival than somebody living out in a rural area farming his own little patch. That's why they're there in the city. Not because of any other reason. Even those people would rather be out in the countryside."
Okay, I said, since you understand that, then what would you do for Houston if you were handed a magic wand? You have just been named God. Go for it. What do you do to create a great place, a civilized place?
"Well, straight off the top," he replied, "I would increase dramatically the real residential population, the people who are dependent on that area if not for their employment then certainly for their everyday social and recreational activities. There would have to be sufficient demand for smaller, less individual residences. But give me 100,000 people and I'll make your Edge City into a place that's worth being in. And not 100,000 suburban dwellers living within a mile or two miles. I want them living right here. I'd raise the gasoline tax by 300 percent. I'd raise the price of automobiles enormously. I mean I would just limit movement. I'd limit movement completely and there would be a massive rush to live near your work, your social or commercial activity. And then I would put enormous costs on parking. I think just take transportation alone, you could change these places dramatically."
Fascinating. What Smulian would do, given vast powers, is force Americans to live in a world that few now seem to value. His prescriptions may or may not have merit. But meanwhile, there have been some developments in the marketplace that may be related. From 1978 to 1985, enrollment in college planning programs dropped 20 percent. Doctors and lawyers enjoy near monopolies in their professions; architects control a mere 30 percent of their market—the market for the design and execution of buildings. Contractors and engineers are viewed as far more sane.
Why is that? I ask Donald R. (Chip) Levy. He is the senior director for professional development of the American Institute of Architects. Why is it that architects and planners cling so tenaciously to their traditional solutions, no matter how often they get their teeth kicked in?
He says, You want me to go into that on the record? Are you out of your mind?
After negotiation, he says, "Well, I just want it to be really clear that I'm speaking about a very ancient and noble profession, that architects are well intentioned and, in large part, beleaguered keepers of the flame. Some of the holes in the feet of the profession have been put there by the hands of architects, but most of them have not."
Okay, Chip. So where did we go astray?
"We are finally admitting that the era of the architect as large-scale functional sculptor may no longer be a viable career path. That was the ideal?
"Yes. That was the ideal. You expand a city to be an exhibit of sculptures, if you will. A crown made of many jewels. The strain between the academic community and the architectural practitioners runs to the effect that practitioners say, I don't know what you're doing but these kids can't architect to save their necks. They can't design buildings that can be built. They don't want to spend lots of time on the boards doing the drudgery of architecture—window details. They have no field experience. They don't know how to boss around construction crews and perform site inspections and lots of the real honest-to-God workaday stuff that architects do They know the economics only in the most cursory and academic kind of way. They got into the business to design the big beautiful buildings and to solve social ills. Solving social ills is still very much part of the game, yes. They see social planning, city planning, building planning, all being one large kind of integrated process. It's 'architect as visionary.'
"They end up with a bias against Edge City because it's a community in spite of planning, not because of planning. They see the subservience to the automobile. They rail against it rather than tryw how to think about it. In no one place or in no consistent stream throughout that process are you taught about finances and business and the development process and how to work with the bank. That's very much an along-the-way kind of thing. Development ethic or even theory is not a real part of the program.
"The academics, meanwhile, say, 'It's not our job to produce sawn-off baby architects.' The academics say that it's their job to produce people with the great foundations of the big ideas and the technical skills. See, there's a lot of ego in the artistic process, and architects consider themselves artists. We tend to value the art more than the technology. Sneering, I think, is a little overdone. Condescend? Yes. I mean, in your industry the people who write the big novels or the definitive biographies are different than the people who crank out the obits and the want ads."
Okay, so why did they try to run John Portman out of' the fraternity?
Levy rolls his eyes.
John C. Portman, Jr., is the godfather of Edge City design. He changed forever the way American cities work and look. He is the architect who, in 1967, developed the first of those classic Hyatt Regency Hotels with the rooms all around the edge and the enormous thirty-story atria in the middle, with their hanging gardens and crystal elevators and their ziggurats. But even before that, he celebrated the enclosure of ever larger and more lavish megastructure environments, such as Atlanta's Peachtree Center. His efforts like the Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Renaissance Center in Detroit have been major hits with the public and widely copied by other builders, lending credence to his claim to be "the people's architect." But he is viewed in many architectural circles as the Dark Side of the Force—as guilty of apostasy.
His first sin was that his exuberant American design yawps turn life inward toward the air conditioning and away from the beastly streets. But on top of that, he went on actually to build his own buildings. He stopped waiting around to find a client to put up the buildings he wanted to build and started putting them up himself. As recently as the 1980s, AIA chroniclers explain, it was considered a gross breach of ethics for an architect to have an equity interest in the buildings of his own design. It was thought that an ownership interest would encourage the cutting of corners. The public's interest would not be kept foremost. It was cause for formal censure. Portman broke through all that. He became—gasp!—a developer. His conduct eventually inspired other architects to adopt a more hands-on attitude toward city building, but not before he was summoned to a high inquisition before the AIA priesthood.
Explains Levy: "Architecture had for years been seen as a gentleman's profession. It's an interesting avocation and a wonderful combination of art and science. It's very easy to get so involved in making the beautiful building come true that you can go out of business. To this day, I know architects who'll do a couple of development projects to make enough money, and they'll practice architecture until their money runs out and then they'll do another couple of development projects to make some more cash.
"The people who could practice over the long haul were able to ignore the vagaries of commerce—they were gentlemen. If it took five thousand hours to do a building that had been budgeted for only four thousand hours, they could afford to spend a thousand hours for free because they didn't have to make a living. They had independent incomes.
"I mean somebody like Jefferson, who is held to be the first American architect—he spent the latter part of his life building and rebuilding and unbuilding and overbuilding Monticello. It was only because he had money and education and prestige and had traveled to Europe to see Palladian buildings—only because of his gentlemanly status that he could exercise his architecture. Had he been a cobbler, he probably couldn't have been an architect.
"The marketplace? I think we're a lot better at it than we used to be. I think it's a kind of benign myopia. It's been said that architects are business people who lose a little on each project and try to make it up in volume.
"Capitalism is a wonderful system and it's given us the ability to have these little toys and to eat good lunches. But in this culture you can justify nearly anything—nearly anything—if you can make a buck at it. Therefore, decisions that are based on business precepts rather than esthetic precepts will have primacy. And they can be countervailing forces, yes. Business can get in the way of art. People are drawn to architecture for the art of building beautiful spaces that house well the human enterprise.
"I think there is a real difference between art and business. Traditional architecture is on the side of art, not on the side of' business."
Fine, responds art historian Dillon. No argument, none at all. But even if you revere art, what sense does it make that "all of our models for urbanity and cities and what they mean are all nineteenth-century models? Even though if you look around Dallas and Houston, you have a hell of a hard time figuring out exactly how those would fit.
"If you pick up all of the current literature on cities, every one of them has the model with one downtown. Where all the tall buildings were. Where people lived close to work and where there was this street life and it's Hudson Street or something. Most of the discussion about cities is still very much imbued or infected or infested with that kind of thinking. Therefore it's very difficult to come to terms with the reality of a place like Dallas. Our parent is Los Angeles; it's not Boston or San Francisco. Our next of kin are Albuquerque and Phoenix and Atlanta.
"I'm interested in this part of the country because it attempts to come to terms with certain realities like the car and the garage and the freeway. I can make a case for a downtown as essentially a tourist, entertainment, and business center. It's not what we would all have as the best of all possible worlds. But it's more realistic—the notion of a downtown as one of five or six specialized districts. Sort of picking out this part of the urban pie—maybe no housing or very little housing; maybe very little shopping. Maybe all of the other stuff will go out somewhere else. Houston's already that way, you know.
"But when I say things like that, it's oh, no, the worst possible thing. It's kind of a blindness. I spend a fair amount of time in architectural schools around the country. You look at what students are drawing and what they're being taught, and you see the house for the collector or an art museum. A big one a few years ago was some project for the Berlin Wall. Students need a passport to see the sites that they're designing for.
"In the meantime this other stuff is all around them, and nobody's addressing it, because it's too difficult. It's not a traditional design problem. It's not about buildings necessarily; it's about spaces and landscapes."
Indeed, I came to wonder about parking lots. They're the most ubiquitous built form in Edge City. Why are they so ugly? Could there conceivably be something inherent in Edge City parking lots that requires them to be that way? Or is it simply that most designers have not considered them worthy of study? Gas stations from the 1930s, after all, are now thought of as neat, and worth preservation. I wonder what will happen when certain strip shopping centers get old enough and unfashionable enough to not be worth bulldozing. (In Texas, developers say, a building "don't wear out; it uglies out.") will they end up being renovated by artists who suddenly realize what a wonderful big, cheap space an old K mart is? After all, somebody had to be the first to have the brainstorm of turning an old brick warehouse or textile mill into condominiums. I wonder what these new places will look like.
In Houston, in recycled neighborhoods such as Montrose, and the Village, near Rice University, gas stations are becoming florist shops, and old theaters are becoming bookstores. But not a lot of that has happened yet nationwide. "It's just outside the pale of the traditional nineteenth-century image of urban—which is about street, block, and square," says Dillon. "I mean, that's the kind of architecture that is history. Yes, it's history.
"Suburbs are all just dismissed as seas of anonymity. That's scary to me, because you can't define the problem. Design professionals want to have nothing to do with these places; they have almost no interest in them.
"Sort of like a 1950s way of thinking, as though nothing ever happens out there."
"I don't think we were social revolutionaries," Gerald D. Hines demurs. "Developers are not leaders of the trend. People who are point men get killed. You want to be out in front of the market a little bit. One step. But you're not out there five steps ahead. You hope. You better not be. Survival is the most important thing for a developer."
Disclaimers aside, Hines conceptualized at a higher level than most of his clan. He attempted to reconcile the automobile with the requirements of urban amenities. He invented the Houston Galleria.
This is how he figured:
Americans are individualists. The automobile is the finest expression of transportation—individualism ever devised. Edge Cities never succeed financially without accommodating the automobile. However, parking lots spread buildings apart. The farther apart buildings are, the less willing people are to walk between them. The fewer people there are within walking distance of any one place, the less able that place is to support civilization as measured by the existence of restaurants and bookstores. Therefore, individualism in the form of the automobile, fights the formation of society and community and civilization.
Hines, by examining the apparent chaos of Edge City and building the Galleria, found a way to address the problem. To be sure, this part of Texas is never going to be confused with the Left Bank of Paris. When pairs of battle choppers start slowly sweeping the sky over the Galleria area in muscular, deliberate arcs, the locals glance up at the Cobras with their weapons platforms akimbo and say, "Guess George is coming home." This area is home to enough unabashed mercantilism to make a Renaissance Venetian blush. The Houstonian complex, where President Bush maintains his Texas voting address, is a five-minute drive away.
Nonetheless, the Galleria area is evolving. The best restaurants in the Houston region are there, not downtown. A newspaper poll revealed that the most beloved place in the whole urban area was the six-story, Philip Johnson-designed water-wall sculpture and park right next to the Transco Tower. And society has rewarded Gerald Hines for his insights into the human condition. To get to Hobby Airport, where he parks his white Cessna Citation III jet, Hines drives a chocolate Ferrari Pinin Farina 400i with a speedometer that winds out to 180 miles per hour. His offices in the Transco Tower look down not just on the Galleria, but on traffic helicopters.
The Houston Galleria area is larger than downtown Amsterdam, or Cologne, or Denver. Twenty-five years ago, the land on which it stands was only a prairie with a one-room schoolhouse on it. By any rational assessment of attempts to create a whole new urban world from scratch, what is there today is not all that ragged. How did this come to be?
"I don't think anyone could honestly say they knew at the time about the effects of density," says Louis S. Sklar, the Galleria's overseer for Gerald D. Hines Interests. "The equation was a very simple one: the driving force was a refined version of greed."
The land cost so much that most of it had to be covered with leasable buildings if the project was to be economically feasible. That meant that parking had to be multilevel rather than surface, which drove up the cost even more. It was so high, in fact, that the Galleria was forced for economic reasons into a conceptual breakthrough: diversity.
Hotels and office buildings were incorporated because the different kinds of people they attract were needed for the package to make money. And the parking arrangement worked, Sklar says, because it is "all weather-controlled, it's pleasant, there's activity, it's safe, there's no third-party violence, no potholes, no curbs to step off, no cars to splash you, there's plenty of parking, it's free, it's clean, it's well lighted, and you don't have a choice. "That should come first. You don't have a choice."
To students of human behavior like Hines, what is going on in Edge City is no great mystery.
"We felt we were just following a trend of making people more efficient. That's why we were the pioneers of mixed use. If you have everything in one place, you minimize your travel time. That's why high-rise apartments will really never succeed.
People are creatures of convenience. They want to park next to their house. They don't want to go into a garage and walk up into a high-rise. Can't bring my groceries into my back door. I have to jog on the asphalt, the concrete jungle. Give me a choice, and I'm going to go out to suburbia. They's why Edge Cities are developing. People say, 'I can have both. I can work and live in my twenty-minute span.' "
Hines and Sklar say that the real trick to the 45-acre, 3.9-million-square-foot, 11,263-parking-space Galleria is that it has gone through an aging process similar to the old downtowns. Buildings of various eras and visions are adjacent to each other, offering layers and textures. "The Galleria will never be fin-ished," says Sklar.
Notes Sklar, "We weren't just doing architectural fantasies, nor were we backed up with a family fortune that would allow us to develop thirty or forty acres and see whether anybody came or not. Everything we did had to meet the test of the market.
It's good. It causes compromises. The difference between success and failure—soul or no soul—has a lot to do with both our incremental approach and whether or not you stay on top of the market."
Some architects and planners have come up with exciting visions of how to bring civilization to Edge Cities.
One idea getting a lot of attention is that of Peter Calthorpe of San Francisco. He proposes that "pedestrian pockets" be built. These would be dense, walkable centers, a quarter of a mile in radius, with mixed use: residential, jobs, shopping. Citylets, if you will. They would be dotted throughout the otherwise thinly developed suburban landscape, and linked together by light rail until they formed a web.
There is, unfortunately, not yet anything like them built. So it's tough to imagine all the Unintended Consequences that may ensue. The plan, for example, would require significant government involvement, both in setting the site of the "pockets" and in paying for the light-rail lines to connect them. That would be a challenge. But the idea of alternating high, walkable densities with low, car-oriented ones does sound promising. In principle, it would be like the Galleria, only open-air, and with housing.
Then there was the urban village idea as practiced by Scott Toombs in his Princeton Forrestal Center. On the north end of the New Jersey Edge City of U.S. Route I, he developed a dense, walkable, outdoors-oriented place that was meant to be a magic small town of the twenty-first century. Offices were located above shops, and there were restaurants and a hotel, and people could walk everywhere, but there was still plenty of parking on the streets and in the decks at the exterior of the village. There were flags and bands and it was really neat. It was not unlike New Canaan, Connecticut, in fact, where Toombs had his main office. Only it was built from scratch.
There were a few unresolved problems. One was that there was a real village not far away. It had the benefit of having taken centuries to evolve. It was called—Princeton. It was a more inviting place to be. Another problem was that Toombs's village had no people actually living in it. There was no residential development. Another was that the priests of the market—the bankers—were not all of the same church. It is a given that those who understand office real estate deals rarely understand retail deals, and those rarely understand hotel deals. This is a problem that also afflicts Galleria-style solutions. Toombs, unfortunately, ended up with a consortium of eleven lenders, all of whom had to agree in order for him to correct any flaws that might crop up in his scheme. That turned out to be a recipe for rigidity. This division of expertise among financiers is a genuine problem for mixed-use places. It is not easily fixed. It makes some people wonder whether mixed-use developments have any future at all.
But another, more serious, problem is that other attempts at creating "urban villages" have been put together by designers who are so addicted to planning and control that they make anarchy look inviting. They validate Robert Venturi's command: "Messy vitality over obvious unity." Their places never seem to come alive, for there is no easy way for them to evolve. In South Hadley, Massachusetts, Graham Gund designed a place across from the campus of Mount Holyoke College called the Village Commons. It is sort of an idealization of what New England would have been like if the original settlers had had air conditioning and Evian water. The Village Commons, like Forrestal Center, has been hailed in all the right design magazines. But this "first postmodern New England village" is the kind of place where a battle went on for months over what kind of sign the hairdresser could have outside his shop. It seems that the hair-dresser saw the interior of his place as sleek and hip and full of shiny surfaces and loud music. He wanted to continue this kicky motif on a stylized white, gray, and scarlet logo outside. The protracted fight was literally measured in inches over how far outside his door he could carry his design into the exterior controlled by Graham Gund. The question is, Is this any way to create life? Did villages really evolve under strictures like this any place other than in The Scarlet Letter?
Another innovation in the Village Commons is that it includes homes over the shops. But it turns out that mixed use does have its limits. Not everybody, as it happens, considers it swell to be paying premium rents to live over an emporium that attracts drunken undergraduates.
Meanwhile, Paolo Soleri is still out there in the desert in Arizona building Arcosanti, last anybody checked. A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, he has for decades been putting together a megastructure meant to be an environmentally benign architectural blueprint for the future. But he keeps talking about things like eschatology, the branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of mankind, and nobody can understand a bloody thing he says, so he has had little practical influence.
The ideas of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Miami have achieved the greatest publicity. They lead a movement that claims the answer for twenty-first-century cities is—surprise!—a radical return to the nineteenth century. Their version, though, is more sophisticated and plausible than most. They are banking on the idea that Americans' nostalgia for white-picket-fence small towns can be manipulated. They think if you give Americans a product that reminds them of what communities used to be, as opposed to cul-de-sac suburbia, you can slip into these places all sorts of things that planners view as highly desirable, like streets laid out on a grid, and walkable environments, and—most important—relatively high densities.
The real contribution of Duany and Plater-Zyberk, however, may be that they recognize and manipulate market mechanisms. First, they studied small towns in the South built before the 1940s. They concluded that a community of genuine variety and authentic character could not be generated by a single designer. Therefore, if they wanted to produce something that was not just another subdivision, the key was in writing and administering a master plan and a zoning code, as often as not at the behest of a developer.
Their conclusion is that they should control the overall patterns: the size of the lots, the narrowness of the streets, the relationship of houses to the street, the relationship of houses to one another, how and where the cars will be parked, the alignment of streets, the creation of a downtown-like center. If they get all this under control, they feel, imaginative people can be trusted to take care of producing the rest of the community themselves.
Dozens of Duany-Plater-Zyberk projects are in the works, but so far only one of their places has a substantial number of buildings up—Seaside, Florida, which is an eighty-acre develop-ment on twenty-three hundred linear feet of the Gulf of Mexico due south of Alabama. It took Duany and Plater-Zyberk two years to write the code for that place. It mandates arcades and porches and walkways and alleys and, yes, white picket fences, all to encourage a lively street life. It invites skinny widow's-watch towers so that everybody will have a view of the water. Outbuildings are favored on the back of the building lots, so that rentals will ensure a mix of ages and incomes. There is a premium put on how lively and innovative building plans can be while staying within the code.
The ideas of Duany and Plater-Zyberk all sound marvelous and promising, especially when Seaside is compared with most of the Florida strip wilderness that surrounds it. But their concepts are tough to evaluate at this stage other than theoretically, since Seaside is possibly anomalous. It is a resort community that does not require much parking.
The aspects of their ideas, however, that offer the most hope are, first, they understand why people like to live the way they do in suburbs. Second, they have codified a generic version of their new-old-town ideas into something they call the Traditional Neighborhood Development, or TND. It is packaged so that a jurisdiction can easily vote the whole thing into law as a pattern that mandates mixed-use developments designed as small towns. And third, their ideas encourage flexibility; they attempt to strike a balance in which only the truly important things come under rigid control.
In the days of the past century, when it was thought that the universe was a vast piece of clockwork, chaos was feared because it was the exact opposite of the machine, notes the urban designer Patricia L. Faux. Those were the days in which urban planning as we know it was born. It was expressed in the perfect street grids of the nineteenth-century downtowns.
As we approach the twenty-first century, however, physicists view the world through the prism of relativity and quantum mechanics, and "chaos" is the name of a new paradigm. The workings of a babbling brook or a column of cigarette smoke or the weather cannot be expressed in mechanistic linear equations; the apparent chaos of these complex structures is actually expressive of a higher order, the kind of order from which springs that most nonlinear of all phenomena—life itself.
Our methods of planning, however, are still in the old, mechanistic mode, in which people try to leave nothing to chance. Especially if they have to face bankers. "The world of Disney is the ultimate example of this sort," Faux notes. "It is a vision of total safety, where every need is met. It is an egomaniac's version of what a community would do to itself if it had the time. It's spooky. It's false. It is predictable, not real. It is not what a community builds. There are no little mom-and-pop stores. Parks are used as buffers. Their function has been changed. They are not places for people to congregate; they are places to keep people at bay."
In short, in this kind of planning, spontaneity is choked off at exactly the point in our lives when, in civilized places, looseness and flexibility seem to be the key. Edge Cities, after all, are places that can metamorphose so fast as to be almost unrecognizable from one year to the next. They are nothing if not monuments to change. And in this way they are reflective of the society that produced them. We live in a world in which people have difficulty forecasting wisely enough to park their retirement funds competently for two years. Pity the poor planner, then, when he figures that a rail line should go from here to there and by the time it is built his decision looks ludicrous; development has followed a wholly different pattern. "The very dynamism of our society produces these disjunctions and screw-ups, which are practically unavoidable," muses Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution. Some planners have questioned whether it is possible to do urban planning in a society that reveres market forces. Others have asked, seriously, whether it is possible to do urban planning in a society that reveres the individual.
But they go too far. Planning clearly has value. During the oil crash of the mid-1980s, the housing markets in Houston that prospered were those which were master-planned. In addition to The Woodlands, there are four primarily residential developments that are huge—each totaling thousands of acres, and each roughly twenty-five miles from downtown Houston. These five had 11 percent of the market for new homes in the early Ig8os, and a 45 percent share by 1990. "In periods of uncertainty, there is a flight to quality," noted Roger L. Galatas, president of The Woodlands Corporation. "Neighborhoods that are fraught with foreclosures don't look too good. People want to see that the places were well planned. They look for a more manicured landscape, a more formal landscape. They want to see an existing presence in the marketplace, not signs saying `Coming in the Future.' "
Cultures do evolve, as the AIA's Chip Levy points out. "Thomas Jefferson said that we might as well expect a man to wear the coat that fit him as a child as to remain ever under the regimen of his barbarous ancestors. If cultures do not progress, they will die. And therefore, by extrapolation, the plan that is put in place which serves you well today may not be germane in the mid or distant future. And we ought not to expect it to."
It's not as if turmoil is going away. Louis Sklar, the Galleria overseer, points out that retailing is up for grabs: chains are going bankrupt or are being acquired at a dizzying pace. Retail is a major ingredient in Edge City, yet it's "hard to know who the players are anymore. Are we going to end up with only a few major department store companies that are both competent and solvent going into the latter part of this decade?"
Sklar sees the turmoil in the oil markets, and what that does to global stability, and thinks that "sooner or later, after all the political trading is done and some presidents don't get re-elected, we're going to end up with a program that lessens dependence on foreign oil. People are still going to have their cars. Even if they are powered by ozone or who knows. But it's going to cause some major changes."
Then—as an object lesson in never projecting the present into the future in a straight line—there are some people, like planner Jack Linville, who think that we may have built all the Edge Cities we are going to for a while.
He looks at the building binge we've been on and sees little unmet demand for a whole lot more of anything—office space, industrial space, even homes. The baby boom, with its unprecedented creation of new households, after all, has crested. He thinks that our future may involve taking a pause, and a deep breath, and figuring out what we've gone and done. At that point the task would be to start filling it in and tinkering with it and making it work.
That would be a blessing. As Sklar points out, one of the main reasons older cities may be more pleasing than our new ones is that in the older places "we don't see any of those failed experiments. Because they're gone. In any reasonably affluent society, as time has passed, all the eyesores have been spruced up, fixed up. The raw cut through the mountain is landscaped. The bare concrete wall gets a brick facing or vines. The billboards eventually come down."
Houston itself is a monument to that. "Houston is much funkier than people think," says John Ashby Wilburn, editor of the Houston Press, the arts and entertainment weekly. "When I first came here, I just felt like I'd stepped off the edge of the world, that I'd made a horrible mistake. In New York, everything is so above the surface, you see so many things because everything is so squeezed together. It took me a year to realize that (a), there were interesting people here, and (b), I could find them. You do bump into them, but it takes longer, because they're farther apart."
Jennifer Womack can testify to that. One spring morning in the Galleria, at all three levels of the rails above the ice rink, people were stopped, gazing at this arresting brunette in a loose orange Reese's Pieces T-shirt and black Spandex tights. She would start at one end of the ice, dig in, and, at midpoint, she would achieve escape velocity and leap, spin, twirl, and then leap, and leap again, to spin to a stop in a bursting shower of ice flakes.
Phew, you could hear spectators exhale, explosively.
She would intently glide back to her precise starting point, eyes down, a study in concentration, and go through the same routine. Again and again. Two dark-skinned middle-aged gentlemen were among the spectators. They appeared to speak little English. They made hand gestures at the only other figure on the ice, a man who obviously was finding it all he could do simply to keep his rented skates under him. They twirled their index fingers as if mixing a drink. Go ahead, try a spin like that, they mimed. That gave everybody on the rails a good laugh.
Jennifer Womack, it turns out, once skated with the Ice Follies. Then she fell in love with a man in the "awl bidness"—the Texas oil business—and followed him to Houston. There she found herself in culture shock. She emphasizes the word "shock" with her light hazel eyes open wide. Home to her was the cool, laid-back land just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate, in Marin County. In Houston she was utterly lost. The different pace of life. How loud people spoke. The flat coastal plain. The Gulf heat. She is still able to recall in considerable detail sitting home for months, experimenting with air-conditioner settings.
That has changed, though. She has begun to feel comfortable in Texas. "Did you know that armadillos can jump?" she asked. But she doesn't think she could have made it if she hadn't stumbled on the Galleria and its rink.
She made friends there, on the ice. She found people with whom she had much in common.
"I owe this place my sanity," she says. "I found community here."
Trolling around within sight of the Galleria area's office towers, seeking out civilization—hunting for mine canaries, if you will—you discover that the 1980s' oil bust had interesting side effects on Houston. There was an explosion of intriguing ethnic neighborhoods—Vietnamese, Hong Kong Chinese, Salvadoran, Honduran, Iranian, subcontinent Indian. Houston was it bargain for immigrants in the 1980s. Cheap place to buy a house, buy an office building, start a business. Now that the place has bottomed out and is turning around, you find a plethora of diverse shops. Peel off the Southwest Freeway at Hillcroft, outside Loop 610, and there's a discount warehouse sari emporium.
Didn't used to always be this way in Texas.
Some things never change, though. The Texas Monthly crowd is especially high on a restaurant called the Bombay Grill, so that is where the crowd ends up for dinner. Those who know absolutely nothing about Indian cuisine let those who do order lamb shahi korma, chicken tikka masala, peas pullao, and a sauce called raita.
Mickey Kapoor, the owner of the place, then asks if the table would like "bray-yad." Eager to learn as much as possible about the exotic customs of colorful lands, the stranger in the crowd goes up for the bait like a marlin.
Certainly. Great idea. Now what, exactly, is "bray-yad"?
You know. Bray-yad. The stuff on either side of the meat in a sandwich? Slices of bray-yad? Pronounced in Texas the same as in southern India?
The next evening, somewhat more seriously, Kapoor talks about the countries he has lived in, and the cultures he has encountered, and what led a nice Hindu boy like him to try to bring civilization to an Edge City in Texas.
Bringing cosmopolitan, authentic, high-end Indian cuisine to Houston has provided him with more than his share of adventures, he acknowledges. There were all the people who wanted to know what kind of Indian restaurant his was. Navajo? Comanche? Then, when he was running the place called the Taj Mahal, there were the people who wanted to talk to Mr. Mahal, the short guy with the glasses. All the waiters learned to say, Oh yeah you mean Taj, and sent Kapoor out front.
For reasons that are inexplicable even now, the location of his first place was on the southeast side of Houston, on the way to the Edge City of Clear Lake-NASA, three miles from a saloon and dance hall called Gilley's. Remember the movie Urban Cowboy? Remember the mechanical bull? Remember the pickups and the shotgun racks? That was Gilley's. Real "Bubba and Skeeter country," Kapoor recalls, in his clipped Empire sing-song.
Yeah, I've really done my bit for civilizing this market, he deadpans. There was this redneck who sauntered up to Kapoor once as he was shopping for a car. Jabbing a middle finger in Kapoor's chest, he bellowed that he believed he'd located a "stupid Iranian." That indictment was a real hazard to your health in Texas at the time. No, sir, Kapoor explained, sir. "I am a stupid Indian, sir." Reincarnation or no, passing for a Persian was the last way Kapoor figured he needed to die.
But getting more serious, Kapoor notes there is a difference between a beautiful city and a beautiful society. Kapoor really hoped that this strip-shopping-center world he found himself in at the Bombay Grill was a transitory phase for Houston and for America. That it was part of an evolution toward a finer structure. "Things do happen by accident, but they do evolve to a higher form of perfection, which lends credence to the concept of God," he notes. "Because, you know, whatever we do, we are propelled forward by some natural forces beyond our comprehension and our immediate senses."
As far as he could tell, though, "we haven't changed much from the village concept except that these Edge Cities are self-contained little villages intertwined and interconnected and compacted into a larger thing called the metropolis. Eventually, in my mind, a perfect form of this would be that in a particular neighborhood everything should be so accessible that a final form will develop; even, I think, where you won't have to drive that much. You will work closer to home; you will have shopping closer to home; and it is only in cases of extreme necessity that you will do the traveling and commuting. The ecology, the air—taking all this in consideration, the sooner we go with this into areas where people work where they reside, or reside where they work, people can stay closer to home; it eventually will resolve some of the more troubling issues."
Right now, Kapoor feels, the reason his restaurant's neighborhood is interesting is that it is on a border between the fancy environs of the Galleria area and "the large and very sizable Indian community that lives within a five-mile radius. There are Indian grocery stores, Indian clothing stores, Indian appliance stores."
Indeed, you talk about cosmopolitan climes. No more than two miles from the Galleria there is something called the Fiesta Market. The simplest way to describe it is as a kind of Third World village market run by a sophisticated, knowledgeable, sympathetic, and sensitive American outfit with an organizational firepower reminiscent of Safeway.
The sign over the entrance to the Fiesta says WELCOME, then BIENVENUDO, and then goes on in five more languages in which not even the script, much less the alphabet, is familiar. This place is so international, so sophisticated, so diverse, that all the important signs are in English. Just English. The multilingual possibilities and combinations are just too hard. Nobody has enough else in common. Makes your head hurt.
Yet the prices are right, the selection stunning; and Fiesta has become a chain that is carving up market share left and right in Houston, even in Anglo neighborhoods.
Why is the Indian community out here? I ask Kapoor. Out past the Loop? Out past 610? Not in the older, denser areas? I thought Indians were accustomed to density.
"Density is something they would like to get away from," says Kapoor, who is Rajastham. He is from that tan, desert area between Gujarat and the Punjab, up against the border with Pakistan—not much farther from either China or Afghanistan than Houston is from Dallas.
"Yeah, sure. It's like privacy. In India you don't get a thing like privacy. There's no such thing. Because you live in a house with thirty other members of the family. But here, you get your first taste of privacy. It becomes very precious all of a sudden. Oh, yes."
The previous day I had chatted with Stephen Fox, who teaches at Rice, and who had just written the Houston Architectural Guide. We had been talking about what was wrong with Houston, and what had to be made right. And he, quite independently, mentioned that he had students from around the world, and the first thing he asked them to do was write a paper describing the architectural history of their home places.
He said he had been struck especially by the Malaysians, who described their place in terms that to him seemed idyllic. Tightly knit. Dense. Walkable. Surrounded by community that was generations thick and centuries deep. But it was they especially, he reported, who seemed most to love Houston. They were singularly articulate about the limits of where they came from. The stifling rigidity. The paternalism. Yes, Houston is nuts. But it's so much fun. There is such individualism. You have so much freedom.
"I take that for granted," Fox noted sheepishly.
I tell all this to Kapoor, who says, "The thing is that Americans—native-born Americans—I don't know whether they understand it, but they probably undervalue the elbow room they have. That is commonly known as freedom.
"The liberty that we have over here. It's not comparable with anything anywhere in the world. You cannot compare, not even Canada. Not England, not Germany. Not even close. The enjoyable thing over here is that you can express yourself. You can just be yourself. You can be left alone if you want to be left alone. Not so in even the more advanced or self-professed civilized countries of the world. And I have lived in ten or eleven of them.
"When I say Americans don't understand it, people ask what I mean. The basic things are taken for granted over here because they are just given to you at birth, like a kid given a Cadillac on his sixteenth birthday. You know, simple things like ten people can get together and start a political party if you want to You can deride anyone you want to You can write a letter to the newspaper if you want to You can just assemble on the street and start talking.
"You can start a business if you want to You can quit a job if you want to and get another one if you want to To an American these are everyday things. You can turn on the telly, turn on the radio, listen to any station you want to, read any newspaper you want to, adhere to any belief you want to To Americans these are like, so what is the big deal?
"Well, the big deal is that you cannot do this in any other place in the world. In England you cannot just go and start a business. I could never have a restaurant this big. First of all the hindrance would be getting a lease. They would want references. Money in the bank. Need everything cash up front. You have to belong to a certain class of people over there. "In New York, Houston, you can sell an idea and fructify the idea into something solid. Very, very different to do it any other place in the world.
"Civilization is not just physical attributes or the structure of buildings. It is the quality of life, the psychological impact. The evolution, I think, cannot be on the level of just the structure. It must be the people who live in the structure, too. How are we going to be thinking?
"What I think we must think now, about Edge City, is that this is screwed up. If this is evolution, then I'm happy. But if it is closer to the final product, then it is very scary.
"I am not saying that everything that is haphazard has to be controlled. It's not what you do, it's a state of the mind—being urbane. An urbane person, to me, is someone who, in a fire, can stand in line and wait to get out. Know which way things are going. Not just dress up and at the critical moment go bonkers. That is not very civil.
"Houston is already there. The one thing that impressed me about Houston when I came here twelve years ago was the basic friendliness. That `howdy' attitude they had. That they still do Even if they think my first name is Taj. If it comes from the goodness of their hearts, that is quite acceptable to me.
"It is a sense of community. You have to create the conditions. Create the environment, for someone to evolve to that final product.
"What are you wanting, eventually? A pretty structure? Or a pretty society?"