Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



Book Review: "One Million Acres & No Zoning": Lars Lerup's Outrageous Encomium to Houston Instructs and Infuriates

This isn't some dryly academic reconfiguration of trendy urban planning theory. I recommend it for the intrepid.

By Norman Weinstein
August 18, 2011

There is a great deal to be said in favor of a literature about urban design written by poets walking the streets of their cities. Baudelaire did exactly that for the Paris of the 19th century. And Jane Jacobs, who likely would have blushed at the thought of herself as a pure poetic soul, was surely richly poetic in crystallizing her vision of an ideal American city through the metaphor of an everyday pedestrian street ballet in front of her West Greenwich Village residence. The thing is: anyone heavily armed with poetic license or not, doesn’t have to stretch far to wax poetic about Manhattan and Paris. But suppose you study cities and want to bring your poetic sensibility to someplace utterly unthinkable in those terms when we think of romantic and lyrical city images? Let’s consider the poetic patina of Houston.


Houston??? Oil City. Smog City. Bush Republican City of Ambition? Who would want to critically examine Houston in any positive light as an example of a new urban form? Lars Lerup, architect/educator and homme de letters, is the man. As his outrage of a book title, One Million Acres & No Zoning, suggests, he’s going to lead us on a visionary – not walk – but high speed drive through a million acres of Houston, Texas, untainted with zoning.


I like the sheer preposterousness of what Lerup has done in his book. He opens by clearly identifying his project as “a record of the journeys, fantasies, nightmares, speculation, and hopes proved by the city I call home.” He’s alerting us that this isn’t some dryly academic reconfiguration of trendy urban planning theory. In fact, “the journeys, fantasies, nightmares” seems to evoke Baudelaire, the poet-flaneur, dogged walker of Parisian streets letting himself meditate on urban fabric step by lyrically imaginative step. As for “speculation and hopes” – that sounds like an idealistic professor of contemporary urbanism talking. I’m not convinced by how those speculations really speak to Houston in 2011 – or any city I know anywhere. Here’s why.


In a chapter entitled “The Self-Organizing City,” Lerup approvingly quotes Bob Schultz, a young Houston developer, who reflected on a developer’s work as comprising a particular mix, a set of constraints consisting of competition, financing, rules, politics, and market, to explain how Houston developers make key decisions. That sounds clear and true of many American cities. Here is where Lerup and/or Schultz take the five facets of urban development: “Each of these points is autonomous. Competition has no understanding of financing and visa-versa&hellip”


This would imply that the politics and economics of any large American city can exist in a disconnect! This seems to flirt with a utopian, politically libertarian view that citizens of cities can self-regulate even one million acres without (or with minimal) zoning with at least a respectable chance of success. The key is what Lerup calls “oil thinking,” high-risk investment thinking. Forgive the pun, but my problem with “oil thinking” is that it is slippery, particularly for those living saddled to a bottom-of-the-barrel lifestyle. Through applications of what I consider the dubious application of analogies from biology and new physics – Houston residents are not bees regardless of how the city hums and traffic swarms, anymore than they are subatomic particles in a force field – Lerup walks a fine line between speculation and theory, unregulated free-market development come what may, and a measured play of regulation and deregulation. Although Lerup waffles between this being a book only about Houston vs. a text with applicability to other large cities, I think it is ultimately a book about a brilliant Houston architect/engineer/urban planner’s wishes for a new kind of city, unlike anything he encountered in his homeland of Sweden or in the San Francisco Bay area during his years of teaching at Berkeley. No more shining cities on a hill for this America, least of all in Texas.


In the grand, maddening journey of this compellingly odd book, Lerup has written a rowdy, roiling, and reckless anthem to Houston as representative of a city where smart developer-risk will usually somehow triumph in terms of the “big picture” of an efficacious and livable and flexibly growing city. I’m dubious. But what a rousing, fanciful, and intelligently designed irritation this book is to my most cherished shibboleths regarding urbanism. If that kind of provocation is your cup of tea, here is your brew. I recommend it for the intrepid.



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at


More by Weinstein:


A Meditation on the Beauty of Zaha Hadid's Door Handle

Hadid's design issues a challenge: define beauty by lyrically playing with illusion.


Why "Greatest Hits" Lists by Architecture's Stars Should Be Mocked
Transferring the musical or cinematic "greatest hits" list mind-set to architecture is deleterious, and here's why.


Celebratory Meditations on SANAA Winning the Pritzker Prize


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism 
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.


Book Review: Talkin' 'Bout (Not) My Generation: Uplifting Gen X Architects Showcase Pragmatic Optimism
In "New York Dozen: Gen X Architects" by architect Michael J. Crosbie, the framing of each architectural firm is extraordinary.


"Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum": Bravura Example of an Architectural Documentary - Wright's Guggenheim Done Right
A look at great architecture as the product of the dance of the designer's intellect in an architectural film that doesn't miss a beat.


Book Review: A Shout Out for Leers Weinzapfel Associates: "Made to Measure" - Some Meditations on Rejuvenating Campus Architecture


Book Review: Diving into Architecture from Every New Angle: Reading Guillevic's "Geometries"
Why an obscure book of French poetry in a flashy translation goes to the heart of every architectural practice.


Book Review: "Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture": Marc Kristal crystallizes increasingly complex notions of transparency with a light touch.
Although most of the 25 projects discussed are well-known, they take on additional meaning in this sensitively curated selection. 


Book Review: "Visual Planning and the Picuresque" by Nikolaus Pevsner. Edited by Mathew Aitchison
A rediscovered manuscript unveils a portrait of the famed architectural historian as neglected urban designer. His commitment to the picturesque aesthetic for buildings and towns is as urgently needed as ever.


Book Review: How New Urbanism's Case Triumphs Best Through "The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary" by Dhiru A. Thadani
Thadani's oversized reference charms, infuriates, and enlightens.


Best Architecture Books of 2010
Ten books pointing the way to larger professional horizons


Book Review: "Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship": Yael Reisner exuberantly interviews architects about beauty
Any of you architects seen Mr. Keats Lately?


Book Review: Shedding Light on Concrete: Tadao Ando: Complete Works 1975-2010 by Philip Jodidio
Photographic presentation of a poet of light and concrete triumphs over lackluster commentary.


Book Review: Sage Architectural Reflections from Architecture's "Athena": Denise Scott Brown's "Having Words" distills a lifetime of theorizing and practice into practical and succinct guidance for thriving through difficult times
Brown's occasional papers trace a trenchant trajectory of learning from Las Vegas to learning from everything.


Book Review: Keeping the Architectural Profession Professional: "Architecture from the Outside In: Selected Essays by Robert Gutman" celebrates Gutman's legacy as invaluable outsider
Selected essays by a penetrating sociologist of architecture pose the kinds of tough-minded questions needed now to keep architectural professional on-track.


Book Review: "Design through Dialogue: A Guide for Clients and Architects," by Karen A. Franck and Teresa von Sommaruga Howard
A helpful communications primer offers case studies of winning collaborations between clients and architects, but as useful as this book proves, it leaves some uncomfortable questions about communication unaddressed.


Twilight Visions: Vintage Surrealist Photography Sheds New Light on Architecture 
An exhibition and book of photographs of Paris between the wars might just be the necessary correctives to the virtual sterility of digital imagery


Best Architecture Books of 2009 
10 crucial volumes from the classic to the iconoclastic


Book Review: "Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist" by Sven Birkerts and Martin Schwartz

A major architect in the history of Modernism finally receives recognition – and sundry asides about why Modernism never exited.


Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham 
To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis.


Book Review: "Everything Must Move: 15 Years at Rice School of Architecture 1994-2009" 
There’s a Texas flood of architectural ideas that gives ample evidence of an architecture school that unsettles pat assumptions. Who could ask for anything more?


Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz 
Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.


Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.


Best Architecture Books of 2008 
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy.






(click on pictures to enlarge)