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photo: Morris Malakoff

“We’re striving to continue Downtown’s transformation,” Bob Eury says.

On a clear winter day, the Houston Downtown Management District executive director and Central Houston president sits in a Houston Center high-rise conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a breathtaking panorama of an unmistakable Downtown skyline.

The spectacular scenery includes historic architecture such as the 1947 Art Deco City National Bank Building designed by Alfred C. Finn and the 1913 Stowers Building (future home of Aloft Houston Downtown operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts), alongside sparkling examples of new development such as the 2011 LEED Platinum Certified BG Group Place at 811 Main St. designed by Pickard Chilton.

The ambiance that commingles past and present renders a suitable environment to hear Eury talk about the future of Houston’s core which is just outside the windows: Main Street Square.

While doing so, Eury remembers what it was like to arrive in Houston back in 1974 when he left a post as director of Community Planning Studies for the Urban Studies Center at the University of Louisville to attend graduate school at Rice while also holding a position of researcher at Rice Center (later Eury would become VP of research development for Rice Center). 

Eury’s wife, Gayle, would regularly take the bus to work at the Battlestein’s Department Store, which was located in Downtown on Main next to what is now the new JW Marriott. In the 1970s there was still eminence of the golden days of the 1940s and 1950s when the area near the 1000 block of Main Street was considered Houston’s premier retail center. Main Street was home to a bevy of department stores such as Foley’s, Sakowitz, Neiman Marcus, Battlestein’s, Isabell Gerhart, Palais Royal, Oshman’s, Walter Pye’s and Woolworth’s, plus movie theaters, restaurants and other upscale boutiques.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, as the bulk of retail activities relocated from Downtown toward the suburbs and The Galleria, the spirit of Main Street moved away from mainstream amenities. The bubble bursting in oil, real estate and banking sectors in the mid 80s created an economic downturn in which reinvestment was rendered extremely challenging. It was during this climate that Eury, along with Houston civic leaders, spearheaded Central Houston — the goal of which is to encourage development, cultural growth and other improvements in the city’s heart.

Main Street, as a concept nationwide, is the idea that one strategically central thoroughfare could serve as a vital hub, home to retail and leisure gathering hot spots, that defines the zeitgeist of blossoming cities, villages and towns. One could argue that this interpretation of Main Street has eroded over time, partly due to neighboring cities expanding into one another akin to an intermingled Venn diagram, and partly due to the urban sprawl that saw more retail destinations established to accommodate the redistribution and spread of residential areas.

“Houston’s Main Street is more than a corridor,” Eury explains. “It’s an economic development connector that adjoins all sorts of interests, including academic with the University of Houston and Rice University, the Texas Medical Center, the Downtown business district, recreation, sports, entertainment and arts with the Museum District and the Theater District — it’s part of a larger vision. Few cities in America have a Main Street as long as ours.”

It took the collaboration of many partners to begin talks about a larger strategic plan that would act as a catalyst for change. Eury knew that no corporate partner would invest without a solid blueprint that would address everything from the traffic mayhem that, according to Eury, welcomed 1,600 buses per day down Main Street, to decay and lack of cultural and leisure activities. Part of that larger strategic plan included the creation of key spaces to engender public engagement to bring back life to Downtown.

“The ongoing question became: What do we do with Main Street?” Eury recalls. “We tried to encourage people to visit through activities and improvements. However, all of us who were on a mission to revitalize Downtown knew that we couldn’t operate independently of Metro.”

The one critical element that would propel this vision became an overhaul of public transportation. Houston’s car-loving culture needed an attitude adjustment.

The traffic solution and inception of a new destination

Prior to the start of the three-year, locally funded, $324-million construction project, Houston had been without rail service for 64 years. On Metro’s 25th birthday and Mayor Lee Brown’s last day in office, the rail officially launched service in 2004 just in time for Super Bowl XXXVIII, hosted at Reliant Stadium. The major sporting event, related happenings and preparations for a heightened level of tourist activity helped build urgency and momentum for reinvestment in Downtown that was already in the works.

Alongside the expected opening of the Main Street Metro line, Central Houston Civic Improvement announced the inception of Main Street Square. Completed in 2004, Main Street Square bloomed as a transformative $8.9 million project that converted a single-lane traffic portion of roadway between Walker and Dallas streets into a pedestrian plaza with historical significance.

In May 1942, Main Street Square was the site where 1,000 Houston men volunteered for U.S. Navy service to avenge a ship sunk by the Japanese Imperial Army. Cheered on by an estimated 200,000 spectators, the inductees marched onto Union Station en route to San Diego for training. Woolworth’s, also located  in Main Street Square, was a site of lunch counter desegregation.

Geographically, the original footprint of the George R. Brown Convention Center establishes Lamar and McKinney streets as major traffic routes running east and west. The intersection with Main Street provides the crossroads where the different sectors that furnish Houston with its economic and cultural strength meet.

Described as a civic outdoor room, Main Street Square was designed by Ehrenkrantz, Ecstut and Kuhn Architects (best known for designing Battery City Park in New York City) on behalf of Central Houston Civic Improvement. Fisher Marantz Stone, the firm that conceived the tribute to victims of the World Trade Center terror attack of 2011, designed lighting installations that swathed the setting with intimate accents and monumental markers. The METRORail and fountain water jets are the focal points of the square with the trains running through a 250-foot-long, eight-inch-deep reflecting pool. Thirteen jump jets with streams of water arc 40 feet into the air above Main Street and 39 smaller jets animate the perimeter of the pool. Rail stations are located on either side of the water features. Los Angeles sculptor Michael Davis and Houston artist Floyd Newsum created placemaking aesthetic elements that honored Main Street’s days of yore.

Programming is the answer: Art Blocks

A new $700,000 initiative titled “Art Blocks” by the Houston Downtown Management District aims to layer an ambitious public art program atop capital improvements to continue, reinforce and accelerate enhancements to the 900-1100 blocks of Main Street that began in 2002 with Main Street Square.

Among the physical upgrades, funded by the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, are granite sidewalk pavers, raised and decorative planters, LED street lights, a B-cycle station, stainless steel water fountains and enhanced landscaping.

“Art Blocks is our second wind in Main Street Square,” says Angie Bertinot, Houston Downtown Management District director of marketing. “Having lived with Main Street Square for 12 years, we’re coming back with lessons learned from other ventures to continue our work. What was lacking in Main Street Square was programming. What we recognized from public spaces such as Market Square Park and Discovery Green, for example, is that public spaces need to be highly programmed in order to foster public engagement and a connection with the community.”

Bertinot refers to the success of the revitalization of the historic Market Square Park, which last year celebrated its fifth anniversary since it was redeveloped into an active public space with ongoing cultural programming. Creative projects, installations and activities ushered in a new era of economic development that included business incentives for area pioneers, also encouraging more Houstonians to move Downtown and personally invest in the area’s gentrification.

Douglas Lawing, who’s an active participant and philanthropist in Houston’s art scene, is one of those Houstonians.

“People like to feel like they’re part of something,” he says. “No one likes to feel like an outsider, segregated. There’s something wonderful when you feel there’s an energy in your neighborhood as soon as you walk out your door — from activity, from people, from the residences around you. That’s why there’s renewed interest in living in city centers nationwide.”

Lawing, former executive vice president, general counsel and secretary at Copano Energy, serves on committees for Discovery Green, MATCH - Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among many others. For many years, Lawing operated a contemporary art gallery near Market Square Park. Lawing was asked to chair the Downtown District Public Art Committee for the group’s inaugural project.

When developing Art Blocks, the public art committee had to take into consideration works that have the prowess to command attention in a large pedestrian space, particularly one that is transitional in nature. How does one capture the imagination of a passerby who’s accustomed to thinking of Main Street Square as a foot-traffic esplanade and not as a final destination?

Considerations such as architectural elements, physical impediments, streetscape, purpose at different times of day, wind loads, light, building materials and engineering play important roles in curating an art program. While it may seem that opportunities are endless in a vast space such as Main Street Square, logistics complexities and limitations aid in narrowing the types of temporary works that can be exhibited safely and successfully.

“We’re looking for the whimsy in art that makes people smile,” Lawing adds. “At the same time, there must be characteristics that unite the collection together. While interactivity is often preferred in creating an engaging environment, what we’re looking for is a dynamic component — something that visitors will be compelled to interface with, even when they’re not in the mood to do so.”

With direction provided by the Weingarten Art Group, the initial roster of Art Blocks creatives was selected to mirror Houston’s principles as an innovative, forward-thinking international city brimming with creative energy. The program comprises three major installations: Color Jam Houston by Chicago-based artist Jessica Stockholder, más que la cara (more than the face) by artist collective YesYesNo and Trumpet Flower by Houston’s Patrick Renner and the Flying Carpet collective. The fourth component is a large marquee that will showcase a rotation of large-scale art billboards by four regional artists.

“Several of the artists that we approached for this special project have a sense of placing their work among architecture,” says Weingarten Art Group principal Lea Weingarten. “This is a very different space than a park or museum.”

The series of temporary art commissions will begin in March 2016 and stay on view through 2017. The time frame coincides with the Final Four Basketball Tournament (April 2016) and Super Bowl LI (January 2017).

Additional programming in the form of pop-up performances, events and activations will take place through the initial stage, with the intention to continue the program past 2017. A grand opening, “Art Blocks: The Big Bash,” has been scheduled for April 16, 2016, from noon to 6 pm.

As for the Downtown District Public Art Committee, the leadership group expects to continue the Art Blocks model in other Downtown public spaces.

Color Jam: No canvas? No problem.

Color Jam Houston begins where the majority of art ends — within the confines of a clearly defined frame. Jessica Stockholder first experimented with canvas art that expanded into the walls as her way to include architecture into her creative space. That experimentation built onto itself to engulf larger structures, leading up to the first iteration of Color Jam in Chicago. Curated by the Chicago Loop Alliance, the site-specific installation of 76,000 square feet of adhesive vinyl and vinyl scrim engulfed parts of buildings, onto the sidewalks, streets and details such as light posts, benches, architectural details, flower pots and signage.

In Houston, Color Jam will be installed at the intersection of Main Street and McKinney.

“One thing I love about Jessica’s work is her sense of controlled chaos,” Weingarten says. “And that’s what a city is. We try to impose regulation because we have physical limitations. Jessica certainly has a sense of freedom and spontaneity in terms of the color and placement, but there’s also control.”

Stockholder, who studied at the Camden School of Art in London and at Yale University in New Haven, begins by analyzing a space carefully before adapting her aesthetic in relevant ways. She’s currently the chair of the department of visual arts in the University of Chicago.

“I am interested in how form is meaningful,” Stockholder says. “The city is controlled cacophony, a juxtaposition that’s full of social meaning. The control is necessary for all of us to survive and to get along with one another. But if you eliminated all the happenstance and chaos, the city would be totalitarian and unlivable.”

Stockholder describes the stripes of color woven together as a kind of basket. The braiding of forms and colors coming together as one cohesive form is representative of the many jurisdictions and codes that control crosswalks, roadways, sidewalks, store fronts and traffic stations. The vibrant hues and shapes are also emblematic of Houston’s diversity of ethnicities and philosophies, a symbol of the “delicate social and political balance that exists between individual rights, freedoms, responsibilities and our collective well-being and coexistence,” Stockholder writes in her proposal narrative.

“Making art isn’t a process of putting something out into the world that’s completely understood by all in its finished form,” Stockholder explains. “The process of making and presenting art involves questions, propositions and experiments. So I’m interested in what the audience gives back in a different way. In Color Jam, there’s a playfulness that has been nice. People play with their clothes, colors and gate in harmony or contrast with the colors of my work. When that happens, there’s an element of gleeful surprise.”

For the Downtown District and the public art committee, it was important that people felt connected to the work. In respect to Color Jam, the geometric installation offers an opportunity for passersby to feel as through they are literally and figuratively inside the art. Depending from which direction Color Jam is approached, the experience is completely different.

más que la cara (more than the face): Technology at play

Brooklyn-based collective YesYesNo plays with technology and facial recognition software in an interactive installation in the Sakowitz Garage at 1111 Main St. Paying tribute to the window displays of the former department store, YesYesNo explores different ways to capture the attention of unsuspecting passersby through augmented reality that sparks an unexpected magical moment in an otherwise banal environment. Through a proprietary algorithm and software, cameras installed behind windows will detect human features as the public approaches and project new imagery onto a display.

Zach Lieberman, who has been called the sensei of media art, uses masks as a starting point to examine geometric patterns in facial expressions while instilling a sense of play in those who interact with the installation. Lieberman dissects masks as a cultural hallmark as well as an allegorical symbol. By allowing people to “wear” masks through augmented reality, they are freeing themselves of the association of being themselves. It’s about inviting transformation, even if only for a short period of time. Through play, Lieberman hopes to make communication more intuitive and meaningful.

“I think play taps into a deeper sense of what it means to express yourself,” Lieberman says. “You’re not using words. You’re using your body, gestures, movement, the sound of your voice, but maybe not the words of your voice. To me, that makes it more universal. It’s a study of language and communication.”

The name of his collective, YesYesNo, describes the type of working relationship with his two other colleagues: In discussing ideas and concepts, it’s typical that two of them say yes, the other says no — a dynamic that keeps challenging them to not accept what immediately comes to mind.

Originally from Evanston, Illinois, Lieberman studied fine arts, painting and printmaking at Hunter College of The City University of New York. He spent most of his time in his studio learning about wood cuts, etching, typography and screen printing. His foray into technology and web development happened out of necessity. Web development was a brand new field in 1999. He fluffed an interview, talking himself into a job and learned on the spot, reading books and manuals to decipher this new world of coding.

When the dot.com bubble burst in the early 2000s, Lieberman had newfound free time in which to experiment with code to animate objects. He studied motion, movements and progression and how different combinations could generate different emotional characteristics in his animations.

“That moment was magic for me,” he says. “And it continues to be magic. It’s constant, never-ending experimentation. Because technology changes all the time, we never feel like we completely understand the complete tool kit available to us.”

Trumpet Flower: Funnel Tunnel on its head

In the 1000 block of Main Street at One City Centre, Houston artist Patrick Renner and collective Flying Carpet (Nick Moser and Kelly O’Brien) will install Trumpet Flower. A winner of the Houston Press MasterMind Awards, Renner is fondly known as the quirky personality responsible for the 2013 sculpture Funnel Tunnel, which was installed outside of Art League Houston on Montrose Boulevard. The slithering serpent-like critter was crafted with the support of the community.

Trumpet Flower reimagines Funnel Tunnel as a vertical piece that serves both as an art piece and as a canopy. To craft the materials to build the 60-foot sculpture that’s slated to reach the roof of the adjacent parking garage, the public at large was invited to a painting party in January. Hundreds of slats of recycled wood making up 1,250 square feet were available for anyone to contribute. Renner’s only rule? There are no rules. Respect one another and paint with abandon — only on one side.

This type of community engagement nurtures a sense of ownership that generates a feeling of togetherness in people that didn’t know one another. Hopefully, in addition to creating a sense of ownership for the sculpture, the painted wood will be woven into, the painting party generates a feeling of community among people that didn't previously know one another.

“For me, the return that comes out of working with other people is always exponentially greater than when I work on my own,” Renner says. “It’s more enjoyable to step out of my own way of looking at things and reshape an idea based on other people’s way of looking at things.”

Like the spirit of Houston’s art scene, Renner’s approach is all inclusive. Anyone who wants to share in the creative process, adding his or her voice to a vibrant, colorful piece, has the opportunity to do so. While Renner doesn’t subscribe to any particular religious canon, there are facets of Buddhist philosophy that have always fascinated him.

“I like the idea of something cyclical, a reincarnation of either a being or some kind of energy,” he says. “In my work, I really like to use repurposed architectural materials because it has experienced some sort of cycle — from its original form, taken by human hands, made into something with a purpose, being turned into trash only for its merits to be rediscovered and reinvented. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is my operating procedure. It’s my way of honoring materials that have fallen into disuse and disrepair. Giving them renewed value is very appealing to me.”

Main Street Marquee: Adding regional flavor

Four designs have been selected to be installed sequentially for three month periods on the façade of 901 Main St. The marquee, measuring 40 by 60 feet, will feature works by Armando Castelan, Jamal Cyrus, Giovanni Valderas and Nataliya Scheib.

Castelan’s City Bird of Houston whimsically employs trompe-l'œil graphic effects that incorporate the building into the work of art. A fictional bird perched on a horizontal rod appears to have made his home inside the structure, suggesting that the bird could take respite out of view at any moment. Castelan’s playful design also comments on nature’s role in an urban environment. Castelan is originally from Puebla, Mexico.

“The bird represents the city life in Houston,” Castelan says. “Very free, very big and very open without limitations. That’s why the bird isn’t inside a cage. Generally, I don’t like to see animals in cages.”

In Lightnin’ Field, Cyrus pays homage to Houston blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins and music venue Liberty Hall, which used to be located on the periphery of Downtown. The layering of a vintage concert poster transforms the marquee into a giant billboard that brings attention to Houston music history in order to preserve it.

Cyrus, a native Houstonian, is a graduate of the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, Texas Southern University and the University of Houston. Music, including a genre’s provenance, informs much of Cyrus’ output.

“Blues is more than a genre of music,” Cyrus says. “It’s a culture, it’s a way of life, it’s a philosophy. Letting those nuances come into my work is what I try to do.”

Hailing from Guatemala, Valderas grew up in Dallas. His Saludos juxtaposes a colloquial greeting in Spanish, ay te miro (see you later), on top of a generous texture sourced from the exterior of piñatas. For Valderas, the amicable expression exemplifies the resilient nature of the Latin community in Houston, a message that its members belong here, they will be here and they will always be here. Valderas explains that ay te miro is never goodbye, but an acknowledgement of the cyclical qualities of human interactions, which are also suitable for a bustling city center where thousands of people come and go everyday.

“At least for me, art can change people’s lives,” Valderas says. “It can change people’s moods. You could be having a horrible day, but when you walk across a piece of art, you could end up smiling. I hope this work has that effect on people, a reminder that if things aren’t going your way, tomorrow is another day altogether.”

Roses and Hearts on the Blue Sky by Nataliya Scheib is a vibrant composition teeming with Ukrainian imagery. Bursts of vivid blues, reds, greens and golds compose a spirit offering that brings attention to Ukrainian folklore.

Scheib moved to Houston seven years ago. She graduated from a structured art program in Ukraine when she was 15 years old. After art school, Scheib studied architecture and earned a master’s in city planning as part of a civil engineering degree, with a minor in urban landscape design. A recent public art project through a summer residency program at the Berlin Art Institute attempted to show that people from Ukrainian and Russian descent can coexist in peace.

“When you create art in the studio, no one but yourself sees the progress,” Scheib explains. “But when you work in the public realm, the interaction with the public adds another layer to the meaning of my work as an artist. They ask questions, we get to know one another and we learn from one another.”

The theme of flowers was inspired from a recent trip to Kiev, where Scheib saw a memorial to the “Heavenly Hundred” Ukrainian people that were killed during Euromaidan events in 2013 and 2014. Fresh cut flowers symbolized beauty and hope amid conflict and instability.

While it’s not important that visitors tune into the implication of the flowers and hearts in her marquee design, what she hopes, first and foremost, is that her imagery brings people pure joy while raising awareness to her culture amid a city that’s bubbling with ethnic diversity.

 

GRAND OPENING EVENT

Art Blocks: The Big Bash

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Noon- 6 pm

Main Street Square, 900–1100 blocks of Main Street

 

Downtown District celebrates its inaugural Art Blocks public art project at Main Street Square with Art Blocks: The Big Bash. Head down to Main Street Square for an afternoon of fun-filled-festivities with something for everyone, including art-making, history and architecture tours, beer garden, food trucks, kids crafts and more. Houston’s own “The Suffers” will headline an afternoon of music, and local favorite DJ Sun will spin soulful tunes. Art Blocks: The Big Bash kicks off a year-long public art project, Art Blocks, where colorful and compelling art will infuse the three-block promenade of Main Street Square in Downtown Houston.

 

We're striving to continue Downtown's transformation. - Bob Eury, Executive Director of the Downtown District
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