A Preservation Question

The magic of metal: Deconstructing the endangered Tin House movement

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Stephen Fox
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Photo by Steven Thomson

Flying over Houston, distinct patches of reflected light can be detected from an airplane window. The shimmer derives from the city's quietly ubiquitous building material of ribbed metal. From the hard edges of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston to the Art League Houston, the material is among the unique elements that string together a veritable architectural movement in this sprawling city. 

Nowhere else is this pattern more apparent than in the residential West End (also known as Rice Military), a neighborhood bounded by Washington Avenue on the north, Memorial Drive to the south, and Durham Drive and Westcott Street to the east and west.

The phenomenon of building with corrugated metal first appeared several miles south of the West End. In 1969, John and Dominique de Menil commissioned architect Eugene Aubrey to design the Rice University Media Center to serve as a cultural locus on the college campus through film and photography. In that moment, the de Menil family ushered in an architectural movement in Houston.

At its height, the space played host to such international art stars as Andy Warhol and Roberto Rossellini, along with a loaned exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

For its use of corrugated metal, the center garnered the pejorative nickname, "The Barn." Due to its lack of continuity with Byzantine architectural vision, the Barn has always faced an uncertain future. The building is expected to be demolished as part of Michael Graves' master plan for the campus.

Dominique de Menil

Amid Houston's 1960s and 70s boom, the original Central European settlers of the West End abandoned the area that was initially a suburb in its own right, connected to downtown via trolley. The original rows of clapboard cottages were passed to a mostly Latino immigrant population.

Soon, local artists set up studios in abandoned metal warehouses and created site-specific works like the Beer Can House. The West End would become home to such Houston artists as Terry Andrews, Dan Havel, Jim Lames, Rick Lowe and Dick Wray.

Cultural crusaders followed the West End's artistic influx. Gallerists Ian Glennie and Fredericka Hunter were among the urban pioneers. Along with basing their Texas Gallery in the area, the duo commissioned Aubrey to design the first "Tin House" at 5100 Blossom St. The svelte duplex was sponsored in part by Dominique de Menil because loan agencies were too wary to endorse construction in the ramshackle neighborhood.

Explains Hunter, "It was definitely part of the development of humble materials that was going on in the art world: Robert Morris, Richard Serra, even Donald Judd — people using industrial, prefabricated materials fairly resistant to decoration."

For all of its minimalist "industrial chic" appeal, the tin house archetype was a culturally loaded model inspired just as much by the West End's preexisting metal warehouses as by Houston's lack of zoning codes.

"When Aubrey designed the first houses of corrugated sheet iron, it was his way of inserting those buildings in an unobtrusive way into this working class neighborhood that already had quite a few steel-faced warehouse buildings in it," architectural historian Stephen Fox tells CultureMap.

The art establishment firmly claimed the West End in the 1990s, with tin houses being erected by museum directors Walter Hopps and Linda Cathcart and curators such as Caroline Huber, Janet Landay, Bertrand Davezac and Cecily Horton. This intelligentsia migration, which encouraged new structures to blend in with the preexisting environment, differed from the tradition of real estate development in Houston.

"What's distinctive is it was the first time that architects looked at the vernacular landscape and extrapolated from it an architecture that drew from the area it was built in," says Fox. "It was a great way of respecting the existing neighborhood."

The nascent movement gained the attention of the nation's purveyors of architectural upstarts. "Houston seems to be ground zero for the new metal movement," read a 1998 article in the New York Times, which praised the West End architects for their ability to combine "futurist fantasy with down-home practicality," "elevate metal to residential art" and outperform the Houston climate on a budget.

The article waxed poetic on the tin house's intrinsic allure: "Sitting quietly, luminous and sleek in the 95-degree vapors, they seem at once warm and elegantly cool. This is the magic of metal, and though it may not be for everyone, it is a brave new front for homes."

An article in the Wall Street Journal noted the pleasing juxtaposition of the buildings' gray beside the lush greenery provided by the West End's old growth trees.

Indeed, the intense heat and rain of Houston's prolonged summers are no match for the tin house. The metal form implemented in the West End was in fact not tin, but Galvalume, a material developed in the 70s composed of steel coated in zinc, aluminum and silicon.

As it glows in the sunlight, Galvalume forms a sheath around the building's frame, effectively keeping the interior cooler. What's more, the corrugated texture ensures that a wall be half-shaded at all times.

The new community galvanized in 1993 to enact a special district zoning ordinance that would preserve the West End's distinctive cultural and ethnic milieu. The measure failed by referendum, making way for an onslaught of cash-hungry real estate developers eager to wedge stucco townhouses onto small lots.

Developers employed an indistinct pastiche of French, Tuscan and Spanish Colonial ornamentations on "starter homes" that encroached on the neighborhood's narrow streets, now strained by lack of parking and poor runoff.

Hunter moved her now-lionized gallery to the River Oaks Shopping Center and sold her half of the original Tin House to the Menil Foundation several years ago. The home served as a guest house for luminaries visiting the Menil Collection, but because of its deteriorating infrastructure and distance from the museum, the lot at 5100 Blossom St. has been leveled to make way for new townhouses.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the new property owner did not have a clue about the significance of that house," says Fox. "It points out that in Houston, it's land value, land value, land value. Anything that doesn't support that is liable to be demolished."

The notion of preserving a largely unrecognized architectural movement presents several complications.

"It was extremely poor construction," says Ralph Ellis, who manages the Menil properties. "We jumped on the opportunity to get out of there."

Hunter recognizes the ebb and flow of development in Houston, saying, "I mean, things move on. Look at what the movement's become. All of a sudden metal buildings went from being low-key and didn't stand out to being these things that are incredibly decorative. This was originally about low profile."

Historian Fox would argue otherwise. "Houston cannot hold on to its landmarks long enough to even recognize them as landmarks," he says.

"We're losing these small houses that really played a big role in Houston's cultural and architectural history. In a city like Houston, you either are nonchalant or you just burst into tears because it's so frustrating that to preserve your psychic well-being, you say, 'Maybe it's not that important.'"

"They're very important," Fox reiterates. "It transcends material limitations. Yes, they were cheaply built, but that was part of what made them so magical. And I think their very modesty is what made the houses so interesting architecturally, but also appealed in a very imaginative way to the next generation of architects who used them as models for new housing."

Among those architects is Cameron Armstrong, who wrote in an essay for the CAMH exhibition, No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston, "Only in the forgotten backwaters like the West End was memory still embedded in buildings, society still engaged with place."

Perhaps the Tin House movement became both the inevitable victor and victim of Houston's laissez faire real estate culture. Such an innovative movement could never take hold in another city because of building codes, but older cities may also enact preservation measures.

Explains Armstrong, "The tragedy of the West End was that the freedoms necessary for its site works would also assure their destruction in the next round of speculation."

He adds, "In principle, the artists' exploitation of the city's broad freedoms in their transformation of cheap, available properties, and even whole neighborhoods, can seem little different from the workings of the official real estate economy. Certainly, their libertarian ethos was no less rooted in Houston's myth of the entrepreneurial pioneer."

A strong initiative to protect the tin houses has yet to emerge. Ultimately, it will be the decision of developers to determine if an architectural movement that reached its peak less than 20 years ago merits preservation status.