Lars Lerup at Wurster Hall
Playing to a big, friendly crowd, Rice Professor Lars Lerup acknowledged his Berkeley roots in a lecture on Wednesday night, 7 March, centered on his new book on the Houston cityscape, One Million Acres & No Zoning (Architectural Association, 2011). Stanley Saitowitz, a self-described “Lerupean,” introduced the speaker by noting his impact at Berkeley as a teacher and mentor. Indeed, the hall was packed with his ex-students, Saitowitz among them. Like him, many are now fixtures in the architecture community in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
Lecturing semi-extemporaneously, using book excerpts as a guide, Lerup walked the audience through his understanding of Houston as “neither a city nor a suburb,” best viewed and understood while moving through it—the perspective of time geography advocated by Torsten Hagerstand, he added, expressing a debt to the geographers.
Polycentric, driven by what he called agglomeration economics—location theory by another name—and subject to unwritten rules that have led inexorably to sprawl, Houston is nonetheless ripe for rethinking, he argued. Among its defects are the paving of its bayous (by the US Army Corps of Engineers), its developers’ affection for the cul-de-sac, and the voracious nature of its centers, which as they expand constantly pressure the lower-density residential areas that surround them. Among Houston’s virtues are the tree canopy that shades many neighborhoods and helps the city breathe, and the dynamism that, with the addition of high-speed rail, it should increasingly share with the other cities in the Texas triangle, like Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, and San Antonio.
Dynamism is a theme for Lerup, a Swede by birth but an American by choice. He still has the successful immigrant’s optimism about his adopted country, now coupled with a genuine love for Houston, a “city apart” from all others. It is best understood in a metabolomic sense, he said: the way forward for Houston is to think of it as an organic whole, embracing its unzoned self-management as a better means than zoning to build on its strengths and undo its defects.
Restoring its bayous, for example, would acknowledge their inherent need to meander and the richness of their microenvironments. Undoing the cul-de-sac format of its subdivisions—the real building blocks of the city, he felt—and separating the cars from the houses, could overcome the American tendency to create distance by knitting neighborhoods together as places for walking and encounter.
In his introduction, Saitowitz mentioned the range of Lerup’s published work, including Building the Unfinished, which describes a through-block group of cottages just down the street from my house in north Berkeley. Like a novelist, Lerup draws imaginatively on his life’s changing settings. In doing so, he makes certain points again and again: that the city is architecture’s real context; that architects, focused on the one percent as clients, have missed the much larger opportunities of the everyday; and that because a city is an organism, zoning imposes a false and reductive order on it, like paving the bayous. Houston is a force of nature, so it needs to be free to evolve as a living thing.
John Parman did fire research with Lars Lerup at the CED in the 1970s and was his neighbor in Berkeley episodically until 1990.
Lerup’s latest book is best obtained from William Stout Books, which has it for $40, whereas Amazon wants $113 (and the Architectural Association, via Amazon UK, declines to send it to a US address).