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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 ArchNewsNow.com – 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 nweinstein@q.com.

 

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