Carol Isaak Barden is a one-woman real estate revolution intent on changing the way development is done in Houston.
After careers as a Houston socialite (the '80s oil downturn turned her coach into a pumpkin) and a Manhattan-based travel writer (until 9/11 temporarily grounded travel journalists), she came back to her adopted hometown with a big idea.
What does Houston lack?
Which style does Houston most conspicuously lack?
And what was Barden going to do about it?
Well, of course: develop townhouses that were works of modern architecture—designed by modern architects—to a market niche that Houston townhouse developers would tell you didn’t exist.
Carol Barden proved them wrong. Launching into partnership with accomplished young architect Allen Bianchi, she built a pair of slender, freestanding houses in the West End, two doors down from a halfway house. Sleek, simple, minimal: they sold for what seemed, by the standards of the neighborhood in 2002, astoundingly high prices—before they were even finished.
Barden and Bianchi built two more houses around the corner, then three across the street from the first two. Each time, eager buyers snapped the houses up while still under construction. Barden had proved her intuition in the hard world of entrepreneurship, where sales are truth: There is a market for modern architecture in Houston.
Success with those early projects made conventional financing feasible and it encouraged Barden to go to stage two of her vision: commission different architects to design single-family houses as well as townhouses.
Super cool Houston architects Scott Strasser and Erick Ragni have now designed three projects for Barden. Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen of Seattle (where Barden is from) designed the laid-back Wabi Sabi House in the Boulevard Oaks neighborhood. And François de Menil of New York was architect for a pair of sculptural houses in Temple Terrace published in Architectural Record, the most widely circulated American architectural journal.
Strasser Ragni designed Barden’s newest house, the Tree House, completed in August. It’s a two-story, 3,500-square foot (plus garage) single-family house, located on a city block in Montrose that seems to have one of every kind of building on it. Yet in this very Houston setting, your overwhelming impression of the Tree House—inside and out—is one of serenity.
The subtlety for which Strasser and Ragni are famous, their expertise in placing windows to frame just the right view, their deft proportions and intriguing spatial offsets imbue this simple house with emotional depth. It’s here that you realize what makes Carol Barden different from other developers. It’s not about style. It’s about how it feels to live in this house, on this lot, on this block, in this neighborhood.
Barden’s career as a developer has not been without its learning curve (yes, she admits, you do learn from your mistakes). Nor is she the only developer in Houston who has demonstrated that there is a market for modern design (the architect-developers Larry S. Davis and the brothers Chung and Choung Nguyen have also built distinctive projects they designed).
But as one sees townhouse developers in the West End doing schlock knock-offs of Barden’s early Bianchi projects, you realize that white stucco wall planes are not ultimately what set her houses apart. Barden is capable of making judgments about how something looks, what a space feels like, how cabinetry is put together, where materials should come from.
She has convictions about what is, and is not, right. She has something to teach her architects about how people want to live and what they look for in a house. But at the same time, she respects the value that architects, other design professionals, and craftspeople bring to her houses. That’s why, in contrast to what most residential developers try to achieve, Barden’s houses and townhouses don’t stand out, their stylistic singularity notwithstanding. They fit in.
Barden and her architects are transforming Houston, one house at a time, from the kind of city where stylistic effusion and material chaos mask dull mediocrity into the kind of city that, as the Tree House shows, is lively, urbane, engaged, and has a soul. It’s the kind of city, and the kind of house, you want to live in.