Jumping K-Rails

June 22, 2009

THOUGHTS ON OUR FIRST SITE VISIT

Existing Conditions

Once, when I was about 13 or 14, we had some massive flooding out in Humble. Highway 59 was totally under water starting just north of FM 1960 going almost all the way to Kingwood. We lived in a neighborhood right off of the highway and I remember wading out to the freeway with my cousin. We just sat there in the middle of this concrete speedway.  It was quite the experience. Remembering walking along the deserted highway always brings to my mind Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, By The Waters of Babylon.  There was something powerful about being there, in that space, totally unprotected, small, and vulnerable. Maybe that is where this whole obsession started.

We made our first “official” site visit to our site on an early Sunday morning.  After consuming unhealthy amounts of caffeine, and recovering from the shock of finding other people actually awake at 7am on a Sunday, we made our way to the empty Northwest Transit Center Park and Ride.

Sunday mornings are lonely on the HOV lane. Thankfully, the HOV lanes are closed to traffic on Sundays, making them a bit safer to walk on.  Nonetheless, our site visit was still an adventure. The parking lot at the the transit center was empty, save for one forlorn looking car with the windows down. We weren’t sure if it had been abandoned or if it was serving as a temporary home.  Since the HOV lanes were in fact gated and locked, we found a high area of ground next to the road, and climbed over the K-rails. Some barrier.  Walking down the HOV lane though, we were all struck with the sudden fear: “is it really closed?”  Not to mention obvious trespassing issues. And then there was the homeless man sleeping next to a pile of boxes and wheelchair.  The intermittent wailing of police and ambulance sirens didn’t do much to ease our tension.

We’ve been looking at Alan Berger’s Drosscape recently. Dross. Scum. Waste. Inferior. Trivial.

Interestingly enough, the place we were exploring is featured prominently in Berger’s book.  Wasteful and trivial as it might be, for a few of us architecture students (and some like-minded professionals) these “inferior” urban spaces are the most fascinating. Alleys, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, highways – the leftovers. The appeal of residual space is far from conventional (in fact we’re often met with blank stares when any of us try to explain this project, followed by the inevitable “why?”).  Yet, these conditions, created without intention, are endlessly appealing.  These spaces appear as a result of our oversight, out of our lack of interest for what happens with the leftover space. Lonely and neglected, these spaces are often infinitely more interesting than the well-resolved, designed spaces around them.

Existing Conditions

Living in or near the city forces the highway into a prominent position.  While we don’t see them as a destination in and of themselves, our highways have become the most recurrent urban experience in our daily lives.  Maybe even more so in Houston. Houston is all about driving.  As Shannon Storey notes in a blog on OffCite.org, Houston seems to be a city that a car dreamed up, not a human.

And yet.

Maybe that is part of the appeal of these forgotten spaces around the highway. There is a complete disregard for the human scale. Walking around next to the giant columns, the space feels closer to some sort of ancient Egyptian hall for the gods.  It’s massive yet transparent, immense yet open, all at the same time. It’s hard to imagine someone not enjoying the space, listening to the sounds of cars whizzing past, almost like ocean waves, that suddenly get silenced by a birdsong. The complete absurdity of the place makes it seem as if anything is possible. There aren’t any rules here Alice.

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Our exploration seemed to catch the attention of many drivers who honked as they passed by. Apparently we were the Sunday attraction: a handful of weirdos climbing around the roadside tends to break up the monotony of the daily drive. We walked around the service paths and back to the large expanse of grass under 610, talking about the possibilities of a weekend market, or maybe even festivals where people could sit and enjoy the day shaded by 610.

After being sidetracked a few times by the re-bar and styrofoam that seemed inexplicably to be growing out of the ground instead of weeds, we headed back to the car, only to find out that yes! someone actually had spent the night in the car with the broken out windows at the transit center. And, oh! Are those security cameras?

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One Response to “Jumping K-Rails”

  1. […] Transportation, Site Visit] Posted by mariaoran Filed in Personal Thoughts, Site Analysis ·Tags: drosscape, […]

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