Beyond being known as an oil and gas boomtown and the stomping ground of urban cowboys, Houston does not have a clear identity despite being poised to overtake Chicago as the nation's third-largest city. It seems to be one of those cities — Atlanta is another — that is mainly set up for business travelers. It can be a nice place to live and work (a relatively strong economy being the chief selling point these days), but a lousy place to visit.
For example, when Houstonians are asked for recommendations by visitors, they struggle to come up with things to do and sights to see. Exhibit A: One of the city's most popular attractions is the Beer Can House, a bungalow sheathed in more than 50,000 flattened beer cans. Lone Star cans are particularly prominent. It's cool, but not exactly the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge or Disney World.
One reason Houston is not much of a tourist destination is that it has some of the country's worst pollution (the city received an "F'' on air quality from the American Lung Association last year), thanks to its millions of cars and more than 100 chemical plants and refineries that line the ship channel that leads to the Gulf of Mexico. Another drawback is Houston's ramshackle freeway system — a nightmare for an out-of-town driver. If you miss a turn, easy to do because of the confusing, often nonexistent road signs, it is hard to backtrack and find your way amid the many one-way streets.
Visually, the city is a weird mix of ugliness and beauty on a swampy plain. Mostly, it looks like an endless, unzoned sprawl of muffler shops, check-cashing joints, palm readers, parking lots and chain-link fencing. But tucked away from the traffic jams are leafy neighborhoods like River Oaks, the ritzy enclave west of downtown, where Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine were neighbors in Terms of Endearment. Memorial Park on a Saturday teems with runners, golfers and tennis players.
Look up and you'll be dazzled by the Houston skyline, which features an array of iconic Philip Johnson-designed spires, such as the trapezoidal Pennzoil Place downtown and Williams Tower, which juts 64 stories above the famous Galleria, the ultimate suburban shopping mall.
These surface aspects of Houston faded when I experienced its vibrant cultural scene. I was here last month, mainly to take in Wonderland, the Frank Wildhorn musical that premiered in Tampa in December and is now at the Alley Theatre. I wanted to see what changes had been made in the show, but I also was eager to learn what Houston is like.
I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps in compensation for the gritty external reality of the city, an imaginative inner life flourishes in its downtown cluster of performing arts venues and the museum district just a metro ride away.
I stayed downtown at the Lancaster Hotel. It's a pleasant, old-fashioned sort of place, but its principal virtue is location, less than a block from the Alley; Jones Hall, where the Houston Symphony plays; and the Wortham Theater Center, home to the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet. In addition to Wonderland, I was able to walk from the hotel to the opera company's new production of Tosca, with Patricia Racette making her smashing debut in the title role, and the symphony's performance of The Planets — An HD Odyssey, with Holst's orchestral suite accompanying a video presentation.
The big event was the symphony's program, conducted by music director Hans Graf and taken the next week to Carnegie Hall and performing arts centers in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. It's built around an astonishing documentary film by Duncan Copp featuring NASA images, including photography from rovers and satellites, with computer graphics.
Holst composed his beloved seven-movement work in 1914-16 (it does not include Earth — nor Pluto, which was not yet discovered) with mythology more in mind than the celestial orbs themselves, but the music was still deeply evocative in conjunction with Copp's film. (The one part of the film I could have done without were the talking heads, a group of NASA scientists who had nothing really interesting to say.) The opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War was awesome, with closeups of the planet's reddish surface. Venus, the Bringer of Peace featured a surreal kaleidoscope of blue, green, orange and yellow. The rings of Saturn were jaw-droppingly beautiful.
I attended the opening night, one of four sold-out concerts, and it was a gala occasion, featuring boosterish remarks by Annise Parker, the openly lesbian mayor of Houston elected in December, and astronaut John Grunsfeld. "We believe space is part of Houston," said Grunsfeld, who presented Graf with a baton that was taken for a ride on the space shuttle Atlantis. "NASA is part of Houston and the Houston Symphony is part of Houston." The Johnson Space Center, a favorite tourist destination, is about 25 miles south of downtown.
The ballet wasn't performing the week I was there, but I was able to take in a rehearsal of its next production, the Russian classic La Bayadere, choreographed by Stanton Welch, an Australian who has been artistic director since 2003. Next year the company will be moving into a six-story, nine-studio facility going up behind Wortham. With a $53 million price tag, this will be the largest U.S. dance center of its kind and impressive validation of the company, now the fourth-largest in the country with 53 dancers and an annual budget of $17.7 million.
One thing immediately apparent in Houston is the amount of money available to the arts. Playbills are filled with listings of foundation and corporate sponsors, household names like ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil Co., Continental Airlines, Halliburton and many more. Only New York has more Fortune 500 corporate headquarters than the 27 in Houston.
"It's important because to get that corporate money you need to be where they are,'' said Cecil C. Conner Jr., managing director of Houston Ballet. "When the headquarters are in your hometown, you've got much more ability to get to them, instead of it being just a local office that's got a minor presence and isn't the place that makes the decisions about corporate giving. It's really helpful.''
In return, Houston's business community — not always held in the highest esteem, i.e., the Enron scandal — gets a boost. "We help the image of Houston around the country and around the world because the arts are here,'' Conner said.
METROrail, Houston's light-rail system, opened a few years ago, and you can take its single line (more routes are planned) south from downtown along Main Street to the Museum District Station, which serves seven museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The Museum of Fine Arts has good collections of Renaissance and Baroque and impressionist masterpieces, but what I enjoyed the most on a bright, breezy Friday morning was going across the street to the Cullen Sculpture Garden to stroll amid works by Rodin, Giacometti, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and David Smith.
Houston has a lot of great outdoor art, such as Manila Palm, a silvery sculpture by Mel Chin behind the Contemporary Arts Museum. In nearby Hermann Park, "The Sculpture of Bernar Venet," a series of huge steel pieces by a French artist, is on display through Sept. 30. Many downtown office towers sport contemporary sculptures, such as the flashy Joan Miro construction at the entrance of the 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower.
My favorite outdoor sculptures in Houston are at the Menil Collection, in a residential neighborhood north of the Museum District. There's something unerringly right about Michael Heiz- er's Isolated Mass/Circumflex (#2), a long, meandering metal strip planted in the Menil's lawn, and Bygones, an arrangement of steel beams by Mark di Suvero in the adjacent park.
The museum was founded by John and Dominique de Menil (he was a French banker, her family owned the Schlumberger oil-drilling corporation) and designed by Renzo Piano. Since opening in 1987, it has been the cultural jewel of Houston, an elegant collection of mostly modern art, with free admission. Generous selections of paintings of Magritte and Ernst were up when I visited, as well as works by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko.
Rothko, whose color field canvases exert a mesmerizing, enigmatic pull, was commissioned by the de Menils to create a suite of paintings for a chapel, first for nearby St. Thomas College (which features Philip Johnson architecture), then when that didn't work out, for a site next to what became the museum. Opened in 1971, the Rothko Chapel is a squat, unadorned brick building that faces a reflecting pool and a Barnett Newman sculpture, Broken Obelisk, a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Admission is free. Inside the ecumenical chapel is a single space with benches, stacks of well-worn religious and meditation texts and 14 large paintings in shades of gray, purple, plum and virtually pitch black.
At 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, I was the only person in the chapel, save a couple of attendants, and it felt rather somber to sit quietly enveloped by the dark artwork. In some ways, I yearned for the Rothko paintings I had seen earlier in the Menil, with their luscious, pulsating colors. There was something almost scary about the chapel paintings — their blackness suggests the void, and it's impossible not to reflect that they were the artist's last project before he committed suicide in 1970 (not mentioned in chapel material). But the paintings also have an undeniable grandeur and serenity that evoke a powerful sense of spirituality.
The Rothko Chapel could probably use a facelift and even some rethinking of its presentation, but being there in the presence of those paintings was still an amazing, singular experience. If I was on a business trip to Houston and had time to visit only one place, it would be the chapel.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.