Once upon a time, a rich city became very very rich when the world price of oil (which the
city either owned or controlled a lot of) zoomed up, up, up.
The city, already something of an urban maverick as the only large American city
without zoning (build what you want, where you want, no prob), with its excess wealth
attracted, in addition to lots of the unemployed from the Rust Belt, more than its share
of creative layabouts.
Prominent among this motley esthetic crew were of course architects, their craft being
the most money-intensive of the arts.
Pretty soon, the city, which saw itself as a kind of baby Los Angeles without the
movies, the mountains or the Pacific, was littered with examples of what Winston Churchill
in a kinder moment referred to as "frozen music." Clearly, he was thinking of
things like Chartres, and not the kinds of structures which Houstons new money put
Like human effort generally, most of the new buildings were trivial. Some were so bad
they were good. A handful were stunning, possibly beautiful, possibly (only time would
tell) great architecture.
Several became instantly famousand influentialamong architects.
One quickly achieved the status of icon.
In the 1970s, Best Products Inc. was a kind of precursor of the Wal-Mart tsunami that
still lay ahead of us. Best Products showrooms were everywhere, offering a wide range of
name-brand stuff at good prices.
Success and other, unknown factors (early toilet-training? 1960s experiments with
mind-expanding chemicals? who knows) caused the corporate managers of the company to link
up with James Wines and his radical SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) architecture firm.
Result: seven very unusual Best Products buildings, all different, and all challenges
to perceived ideas about architecture: one in Baltimore, Maryland; another in Richmond,
Virginia; others elsewhere. Delighted laughter, among those who paid attention, was a
common response to these expensive visual puns.
What would become the most famous of the seven went up on the coastal plain between
Houston and Galveston, plunked down in a bleak stretch of freeway-commercialism. Wines
called it the "Indeterminate Façade Showroom," and when it opened in 1975 its
pristine, lovingly wrought rubble looked like this:
One survey found that photographs of James Wines's Houston building appeared in more
books on 20th century architecture than photographs of any other modern structure.
Time passed. The economy moved up and down, up and down. Best Products went out of
The Houston store closed, sat empty for several years, was occupied by a discount
electronics retailer, sat empty again, then became a furniture store of sorts.
The structure, which to this viewers jaundiced eye is aging extremely well, is
now (May, 2002) for sale.
One Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s, when Best Products was going great guns, I
spent a couple of hours on the edge of the parking lot, watching the consumers, of which
there were many.
Observation: nobody, not one single customer, looked UP. Nobody paid attention to the
building. People drove in, parked, got out, went in, bought, came out, left, with never a
glance at the extremely indeterminate facade. Even after all these years, Im still
not sure what to make of that universal indifference to one of the few truly--and
intentionally--funny buildings in the world.
I recently went back with my digital camera, stood again on the edge of the parking
lot, and turned 360 degrees, snapping away as I did. On the next page, you can see the
result: Indeterminate Façade Showroom, well into its third decade, in context.