Saturday, April 30, 2016

Underacheiving local sports teams

After making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Rockets were poised to make a run for the NBA Championship in 2016. Instead, the season has been a complete disaster: their head coach was dismissed just a few weeks into the season, which just ended with a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors in game five of the first round of the playoffs. The Rockets never came together as a team this year and really didn't deserve to go to the playoffs at all. The way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if they don't even manage a winning record in the 2016-17 season.

The Houston Astros also took a big step forward in 2015 (their chokejob to the eventual World Series champs aside) and were expected to be a strong contender in 2016. Instead, the team has fallen apart. Their 7-16 record is tied for the worst in the American League, and after only a month into the season they are already five games back of the decidedly-mediocre Texas Rangers in the AL West. While there's still plenty of time for the Astros to turn things around, right now they look completely lost.

That's two Houston sports teams that have failed, or are currently failing, to meet expectations coming off of strong performances the previous seasons. I have two thoughts about this:
  • Being a Houston sports fan continues to suck. There is not another city in this country whose sports teams collectively let their fans down with the frequency and manner that Houston teams do.

  • They say bad news comes in threes, and there's another local sports team that did well last year and has high expectations for this season.
To be sure, the Cougars are losing a lot of talent from last season's top-ten, Peach-Bowl-winning season. William Jackson III, for example, was taken in the first round of  the NFL Draft Thursday night. Houston has a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and so another 13-1 (or even 14-0!) season might not be in the cards. But can they avoid following the lead of the Rockets and the Astros, and at least stay competitive?

126 days 'til kickoff, by the way...

I now return this blog to its previously-scheduled break.

John Zemanek 1921-2016

I'm not sure I ever encountered an instructor - at any level of my education - quite like John Zemanek. I interacted with him frequently while a student at the University of Houston College of Architecture, be it through the courses I took from him, the numerous critiques and juries of mine that he attended, the Friday afternoons I spent chatting with him in his office, or the visits to his fascinating Montrose home my friends and I made. And even after all that, I don't think I ever quite understood him. To say that he was merely "eccentric" or "enigmatic" would be an understatement.

John Zemanek was a brilliant man; he was a scholar of philosophy, art, anthropology and history as much as he was an instructor of architecture. That was, in my opinion, both a gift and curse to his teaching abilities.

The actual lecture courses I took from him were a disappointment. They were always variations on the same theme: the Western World is in decline; consumer culture, the privatization (and militarization) of public space, and the rise of the "entertainment-industrial complex" are making us a bunch of joyless pawns of the rich; knowledge is being superseded by mere information; culture is being superseded by mere civilization. Maybe he had a point - see, for example, Donald Trump - but his lectures oftentimes felt like apocalyptic indoctrination sessions with only tenuous links to the actual practice of architecture. I didn't do well in his classes.

He was much more engaging when he was outside the classroom setting and not following a scripted lesson plan. I think I learned more about architecture and urbanism from him just by chatting with him in his office or walking to and from the Satellite for lunch with him than I did by sitting in his lectures. He was especially interested in youth culture (and counterculture) and on a couple of occasions even accompanied my friends and me to a couple of rave parties to observe Houston's nascent techno scene. Zemanek is also probably one of the major reasons why I decided to go to graduate school for a degree in city planning.

I think a friend of mine said it best: "on the one hand a condescending prick of an architect, on the other a teacher pushing his students to be better."

Although I knew that he served in the Second World War, I had no idea that Zemanek was a bombardier on a B-24 and that his plane was shot down on the last day of the European war. He never talked (to me, at least) about his experiences in WW II, although they clearly had a great influence on his life and teachings.

As is my custom, I'm reposting his Chronicle obituary here. The UH College of Architecture has a more detailed remembrance as well.
Johnny "John" Eugene Zemanek, FAIA, architect, planner and professor, 94, died Monday, April 18. The youngest of twelve children of Bohemian political refugees Jan (John) and Frantiska (Frances) Machacek Zemánek of Moravia, John was born in Guy, Texas near the Brazos River. He attended Big Creek, Guy, and Damon rural schools, before attending Texas A & M University and graduating with a degree in architecture, a member of the Corps of Cadets. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserves and entered active duty in January 1943. A second lieutenant, he served as a bombardier on B-24 Liberators, flying allied missions from Foggia, in southern Italy. On the last day of the European war, his plane was shot down and made an emergency landing at an unmarked airfield behind enemy lines. All crewmembers were recovered.

After the war, he went on to The University of Texas in Austin for Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees, then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn a Master of City Planning degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, led by Walter Gropius. John returned to Houston to practice with Kenneth Franzheim, then relocated to Tokyo to work for Czech American modernist architect Antonin Raymond; there he planned 17 airbases in the Far East. He practiced also for the U. S. Department of State in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) planning village housing and institutes.

Returning to Houston, he worked with many of Houston's eminent firms, including Wilson, Morris, and Crain, where he contributed to the development of the Harris County Domed Stadium, now known as the Astrodome.

Invited to teach at the University of Houston College of Architecture first as a visitor, then full time in 1964, he earned tenure in 1969. He maintained a solo practice, and his independent architecture reflected the profound influence of his Texas rural heritage and landscape as well as his respect for and deep knowledge of the diverse Asian cultures that engaged him so fully throughout his life. His work has been published in local, national and international journals and television media, and has won design awards at the local, state, and national level. In 1978 he earned the national AIA Honor Award, for his Three H Services Center, a social services complex for the Bordersville community, which had been established by former slaves. He is remembered especially for a series of three Montrose houses, each designed as his personal residence, dating from 1969, 2000 and 2011. He would later refer to these as Gaia 1, 2, and 3. While each is an unassuming essay on modest materials carefully combined for great spatial effect, a comparison reveals the evolution of his thinking from ephemeral delicacy toward distinct rootedness.

Over his 48 years of teaching at the University of Houston he never failed to challenge students to think critically and to engage them in an "architecture that begins with our social structure."
His latest creative efforts include his memoir Being••Becoming (2016) published just before his death, and a design consultation for Morningstar Coffee, opening in Houston next month.
John was preceded in death by his parents, 5 brothers and 6 sisters. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Sue Zemanek, as well as numerous nieces and nephews and extended family and by a multitude of friends.

Details of a memorial will be forthcoming. Donations may be made in his honor to the UH Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.