The day I arrived in Houston, scientists had spotted a planet nearly the same size as Earth orbiting a star that closely resembled our sun, making it the most likely known place outside our solar system to potentially harbour life. The newfound planet, Kepler-452b, “is the closest thing we have to another place that somebody else might call home,” says Jon Jenkins from NASA’s Ames Research Center. The new planet is 60 per cent bigger in diameter than Earth with its very own sun, making it a good platform for life to gain a foothold. But it’s going to take a long time before we’ll know whether this far-flung new discovery is habitable for humans.
On the other hand, Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, located along Texas’ Gulf Coast, is closer than ever to Antipodean travellers, with Air New Zealand now flying direct from Auckland.
For visitors, Space Center Houston is the gateway to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC), home to NASA mission control, International Space Station Mission Control and astronaut training. Behind-the-scenes tours of JSC are available, as well as permanent exhibitions, theatres and more than 400 space artefacts related to the past and future of the American space-flight programme.
Set to open in January 2016 is a first of-its-kind exhibit featuring the historic Boeing 747 plane which NASA called NASA 905 – a shuttle carrier aircraft with a replica of the shuttle Independence on top. NASA 905, when it was used as a shuttle carrier aircraft, transported space shuttles 223 times over 42 years. Visitors will be able to enter both aircraft and can also meet an astronaut every Friday and ask them questions about their flights into space.
My NASA highlight was meeting former astronaut and retired commander Brian Duffy, who logged four space flights during his tenure. It was mind-blowing to hear about his experience leaving Earth.
The art of the matter
But it’s not just space nuts who will get a kick out of Houston. Art buffs, too, have plenty to get excited about.
“There’s this Wild West, come-here-and-make-it-happen kind of attitude,” says Ashley Clemmer Hoffman, the community engagement director at Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Texan generosity has created an arts scene where the opportunities seem endless. The interfaith meditation space, which showcases the work of the late American painter Mark Rothko, is but one example of this. “Texas is a place that embraces new ideas and possibilities and young people,” Hoffman continues. “And I think because of the oil and gas industry, there’s a lot of money to back that.”
There is no better representation of the union between industry and art than the Texas metropolis of Houston. The headquarters of America’s oil and gas production, it’s a city where money and optimism flow from the streets up to the tops of the high rises. But beyond the skyscrapers, the state’s most respected art institutions – the Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Menil Collection – command quiet authority. The curators and fans of such establishments often have oil and gas to thank.
“Oil and gas companies bring in people from all over the world to work here,” Hoffman says. “So they need Houston to be an exciting city where people want to live. It makes a lot of sense they’d want to invest in culture.”
The influence of Dominique de Menil – the French-American art collector who founded Houston’s Rothko Chapel in addition to the Menil Collection, the Cy Twombly Gallery, Richmond Hall and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel with her husband, John – can be traced directly to oil money. De Menil was the daughter of Conrad Schlumberger, co-founder of the oil services company Schlumberger Limited.
In the 1940s, after Dominique and John were married in France, they moved to Houston, where John was put in charge of the company’s worldwide operations. But the de Menils’ passion for contemporary art and architecture quickly seeped into exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
The couple established an arts programme at the University of St Thomas (which later moved to Rice University) and then bought a 12-hectare parcel of land studded with oak trees and bungalows from the 1920s and ’30s to carry out their vision of creating the Menil “campus”.
In 1971, the octagonal Rothko Chapel – set behind the mesmerising Broken Obelisk statue by Barnett Newman, a dedication to Dr Martin Luther King – crowned the campus. The Menil Collection building, the American debut from Italian architect Renzo Piano, was added in 1987 to house the de Menils’ assortment of more than 16,000 art pieces.
In 2017, the Menil Foundation plans to debut a permanent home for the Menil Drawing Institute, the first museum dedicated to the medium in the US. While the Menil campus is located in the “Museum District”, the boundaries are blurred by native vegetation and traditional homes. “You’re just driving through the neighbourhood and all of a sudden, there’s the Rothko Chapel and there’s the Obelisk and this building designed by Renzo Piano,” Hoffman says. .
Variety is the spice of life
“The city is this really interesting mix of big buildings and freeways and fancy cars, and then there’s this insertion of art that’s becoming more noticeable, but which for a long time was just under the surface.”
Relaxed zoning laws are responsible for the under-the-radar art venues popping up all over Houston, according to Hoffman. Unlike most American cities, Houston doesn’t care whether a home sits next to a museum that shares a fence with a bar. This lack of zoning has opened up unique opportunities for creative people to buy land and buildings and offer art experiences in unconventional spaces.
The free-to-enter Rothko Chapel also strives to be an agent of social change. Over its 40-plus-year history, the light-filled space, designed to facilitate an intimate connection between the viewer and the 14 dramatic wall paintings (hallmark fields of dark colour by Mark Rothko), has welcomed some of the world’s most notable intellectuals and leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. It’s also a profound work of art itself in memory of Rothko.
“Even the twisted material of the floor was inspired by the pavers in Central Park,” Hoffman says. “And the height of the guardrails in front of the paintings are in response to a wooden bench Rothko kept in his studio. He had a hand in every detail of the space.” The Menil campus has several other single-artist environments, from a body of Dan Flavin’s trademark tube-light installations mounted in Richmond Hall to the Cy Twombly Gallery, a venue solely dedicated to the artist’s paintings, sculptures and works on paper.
In contrast, the Menil Collection building houses a broad spectrum of objects, especially surrealist pieces by the likes of René Magritte and Max Ernst. The permanent collection inspires rotating exhibitions, which have lately focused on another Houston theme: NASA.
The Infinity Machine, a sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, on display in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel until February 2016, is a spinning mobile of mirrors that transmits real sound recordings of deep space from NASA’s Voyager probes, says Tommy Napier, the Menil Collection’s communications coordinator. “The experience is very transporting,” he says.
If all that art has whipped up your appetite, food lovers will delight in Houston’s plethora of culinary options. Last year, Chris Shepard brought the national James Beard Best Chef Award home to Houston, for the first time in 22 years (the James Beard Foundation’s mission is to celebrate, nurture and honour America’s diverse culinary heritage).
As the city’s only whole-local-animals-only restaurant with an onsite butcher, Underbelly is a strong introduction to Houston’s diverse culinary landscape. Try the Korean braised goat and dumplings and the chilli-marinated tri-tip with charred squash.
This multicultural favourite local haunt gives chef-owner Shepard the time and space to celebrate the range of ingredients and cultures within the region and taps into consumers’ thirst for where their food has actually come from. Underbelly (in the Montrose neighbourhood) is well worth a visit.
You won’t be short on spaces to work off some of that excellent food. Houston has spent $58 million and four years renovating the Buffalo Bayou Park, which is brimming with art pieces, bike paths, pedestrian bridges, concert venues, picnic spots and gardens.
This waterway turned green space runs for 65 hectares, and the local district council planted more than 14,000 trees throughout the park to reintroduce native species to the riparian wetlands and woodlands, creating an urban oasis. Nestled between Houston’s downtown and Medical Center you will find the Museum District, a collection of 19 institutions, from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Rothko Chapel, each with its own speciality. The cultural variety of exhibitions, workshops and live performances makes it easy to get around in four walkable zones.
My time was precious so I bought a Houston City Pass, whereby I gained entrance into five attractions and saved 50 per cent – I also got to skip the lengthy ticket lines. The Museum of Natural Science has prehistoric dinosaurs, exhibits on ancient Egypt, a planetarium and displays about the story of oil plus the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a living exhibition showcasing thousands of fluttering butterflies. These all make for an interesting morning at the museum.
The Museum of Fine Arts is impressive and home to masterpieces and the latest contemporary art.
But if it’s shopping you’re after, the best experience in Houston, if not Texas, is Kuhl-Linscomb on West Alabama, in Upper Kirby. This well-curated shopping experience is owned and run by owners Pam Kuhl-Linscomb and husband Dan Linscomb who are very hands-on, with a supportive, creative staff as back-up.
The business has grown over the years with different buildings added over time. It has become a labyrinth of eclectic displays and elusive finds in home accessories, lighting, kitchens, beds, linens, jewellery and fashion as well as an apothecary of natural skincare, fragrances, candles and cosmetics.
“We are constantly restaging our displays and moving things around,” says Pam. “It’s become a lifestyle not just a store.” It certainly feels well loved and as a shopper you constantly want to know what’s around the corner and are often surprised with what you find.
With rusted antique street signs and original wooden countertops sitting alongside the slickest, most modern wares for sale, you will not find the obvious but rather a very well-sourced mix of products, with the entire experience having been pulled together by this clever team who have a fantastic curatorial eye. You can’t help but want to purchase something as the store’s layout is so seductive. It really is a shopping experience for the magpie within.
The Kuhl-Linscomb buyers are committed to finding unique offerings for the store from around the world, so every department carries an original, often never-before-seen, range.
A new cafe and gallery are planned, and there is a room completely dedicated to gift wrapping, exemplifying the famous Texas hospitality and generosity of spirit. Who said brick-and-mortar was dead?
This retail experience proves with the right mix and creative talent, shopping can be a fun, enjoyable experience, without the click of a mouse. Much like Houston, it’s out of this world.
FOUR NEW-WAVE GOURMET PIZZERIAS
Coltivare 3320 White Oak Drive coltivarehouston.com
Bollo 2202 West Alabama Street bollohouston.com
Pizaro’s Pizza 1000 West Gray Street pizarospizza.com
Pizza L’Vino 2524 Rice Blvd pizzalvino.com
FOUR HIPSTER BAKERIES
Common Bond 1706 Westheimer Road wearecommonbond.com
Fluff Bake Bar 314 Gray Street fluffbakebar.com
Pondicheri 2800 Kirby Drive West Avenue pondichericafe.com
Kolache Shoppe 3945 Richmond Avenue kolacheshoppe.com
MiNDFOOD flew to Houston with Air New Zealand. See airnz.com.au. Space Center Houston is located at 1601 NASA Parkway. Ph +1 281 244 2100 or visit spacecenter.org.