Houston

I visited Texas, Houston a few weeks ago. Flying towards the great American continent from across the Pacific ocean in clear blue skies, I got to see many cities from miles above.

The sheer size of the land is absolutely incomprehensible. The highways arching across into the distance, as far as you can see from 10 000 km high in the sky are so immaculately straight; almost like zippers connecting two ends. It’s as if the two pieces of land were never connected before the construction of the highway: the highway is a quintessential part of the landscape.

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The land itself is very carefully sectioned. The perfectly perpendicular hedges separate different colored lawns crowned with bogglingly large houses and of course, an outdoor pool.

As the airplane approaches Houston, the land becomes even flatter. It’s a humungous piece of cloth, a two dimensional, perfectly flat image below. The systematic segmentation of the land is only disrupted by the uncontrollable curvature of the meandering river. The river seems like the only natural force in the oh so meticulously sectioned multicolor landscape of farms and crops. The river has a life of its own. It meanders, curves, and veers so instantly, at such sharp angles, as if to intentionally muddle the cartesian plane imposed upon the land. It’s a restless snake wrestling to break the cage.

In this vast landscape that shrinks the personality, the river is a comforting view. Even from so high up, the land is overbearing and oppressive with its unfathomable size too unreal to comprehend at human scale. Its stability and system defy the fickle nature of the human soul, it’s size is too massive for a body to claim. It’s big, flat, and tasteless.

The city centre of Houston is visible in the distance indicated by its few skyscrapers: the human attempt to overlook this vast land, a weak and useless effort to defy the dictum of nature. Why build up so high when space is so abundant? The city center is a cowardly accumulation for gathering people, for hiding from the infinite space behind concrete or glass walls, for building artificial limits to define territory in the fearful vastness.

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I remain just as unimpressed with the Houston city centre when I experience it as a pedestrian. The hopeless attempt to construct artificial boundaries is so inefficient; the city ends up duplicating the oppressive scale of the landscape surrounding it. When experienced on foot, it takes ages to walk from one street to another, immensely restricting any journey for encountering various parts of the city. The city is built for speed, not space. Time provides the scale, not volume. Hence, the city becomes more and more tolerable as the spectator gains speed. Switching from walking to cycling significantly improves the Houston experience. Even better, for a truly authentic view of Houston, switching to a vehicle just as out-of-human-scale as the city itself: a 4×4 or a minivan with bullhorns adorning the front is ideal. Or an Uber.

So the overall landscape; the systematic fields and the city of speed, construct an inescapable continuity. When trying to assemble this place, the city planners have replicated the very thing that makes the natural landscape of Houston astonishingly daunting to the spectator: scaleless spaciousness.

Then how do you convert such a huge land into a place to call home? Certainly not by Cartesian division or unsettling expansion.

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Perhaps as a native to the much smaller scale of pedestrian European cities, I am overly critical of the 4th largest city in the US. Perhaps elevating the scale to fit that of the landscape is not a method of claiming a delusional dominance over nature, but simply adapting city life to the resource around. Either way, returning to London and seeing the meandering hedges of farms followed by the curvature of the streets and the revelation of the crammed, gray, humanely ugly yet admirable metropolis is a relief. It may be gray and it may be rainy, but at least it’s built in human scale. Its home and its mine to discover.

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