Houston Ship Channel
#Projects / AORTA: Projects for the Houston Ship Channel / Rob Holmes / Louisiana State University / Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture / Spring 2013

A studio taught by Rob Holmes at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University, Spring 2013, focused on the Houston Ship Channel and associated industrial operations, from dredging to the activity of the petrochemical industry.

Course website: http://m.ammoth.us/teaching/aorta/

Galveston Island: once home to tribes of Native Americans, a privateering base for the nascent Republic of Mexico while it fought for its independence from Spain, later the pirate kingdom of Campeche, and, during the 19th century Texas Revolution, the main port of operations for the Texas Navy. Over the remainder of that century, Galveston grew in importance and size. “By 1899 Galveston was the world’s foremost cotton port and the fifth most important port in the United States”, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

On September 8, 1900, that prosperity came to a crashing halt. First, in great gusts of wind and rain: “The greatest wind velocity registered before the anemometer blew away at 5:15 P.M. was an average of eighty-four miles an hour for a five-minute period, but gusts of 100 miles an hour had been recorded, and weathermen’s estimates later reached more than 120 miles an hour.” Then, at 6:30 PM, the storm surge arrived; as much as fifteen feet of water swept across and drowned the island, killing by some estimates as many as twelve thousand people—the deadliest hurricane in American history—and wiping away a third of the physical structure of the city.

Galveston, like most prosperous ports destroyed by a natural disaster, attempted to rebuild in place, rather than retreating to a safer location. A seawall was put in place along the length of the Gulf shore. A massive and expensive project, the Galveston Grade Raising, was initiated. A canal was cut down the center of the city. Gridded square by gridded square, the city itself—both infrastructure and buildings—was put on stilts and corkscrews, and raised in place, as much as seventeen feet. Hopper dredges, the largest of which was named “Leviathan”, floated down the canal (which itself required frequent dredging), and pumped sand from the Bay floor onto the island, filling the negative space between existing grade and raised buildings. The project lasted seven years, during which time Galvestonians became accustomed to scurrying between buildings on catwalks, in what was surely one of the most surreal urban conditions ever realized. By 1910—seven years after the Grade Raising was initiated—he city sat at its new elevation, and was ready to regain its prosperous position in Gulf trade.

Unfortunately for the city of Galveston, which never has regained that position, 1910 was also the year in which Harris County, home to Houston, voted to approve the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel. The Ship Channel was the subject of this studio, Aorta.

Dredging the Houston Ship Channel
[Text describing the Houston Ship Channel as a basic object with a particular history.]

Understanding the Houston Ship Channel
Three additional ways of understanding the Ship Channel were central to the work of this studio: as a collection of connected waterbodies, as a massive industrial corridor, and as an artery at the center of a metropolitan region.

As a collection of waterbodies, the Ship Channel begins with Buffalo Bayou, which winds through downtown Houston to the Turning Basin, where the Ship Channel proper begins, 52 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. From there, the Ship Channel heads east and south, through a series of bays like Crystal Bay, Scott Bay, and Burnett Bay, meeting various rivers and bayous, including the San Jacinto River, and spilling into the much wider water body of Galveston Bay at Barbour’s Cut. Galveston Bay broadens as it heads southeast, eventually splitting behind two barrier islands, the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island, into the East Bay and the West Bay (respectively). The Ship Channel itself slips between the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, and out into anchorages in the Gulf of Mexico. This estuarine complex is tremendously complex, hydrologically and ecologically, having, effectively, two shorelines: an exterior shoreline on the Gulf Coast, and an interior shoreline on the Bays. At the same time, through its confluence with the Trinity River, Galveston Bay is connected to the distant metropolis of Dallas-Fort Worth, so that its enormous watershed includes approximately half the population of Texas.

The Ship Channel is also a massive industrial corridor, dealing in both petrochemicals and other goods. According to the Shell Center for Sustainability’s Keeshan and Bost Case Study, the Ship Channel “is the largest petrochemical complex in the Americas; it represents half of the nation’s basic petrochemical manufacturing capacity and is the largest port in the nation for foreign trade of petrochemical products.” Facilities along the Ship Channel produced, refine and ship oil; they produce and ship natural gas; and they host a collection of ancillary activities aimed at supporting these industries, such as specialized construction and manufacturing. The Port of Houston is also, according to the AAPA’s 2011 North America Container Traffic rankings, the 9th busiest container port in America. In the cases of petrochemicals, bulk cargo, and containerized cargo, the Ship Channel can always be read as a component of larger meta-urban networks that span the entire Gulf Coast; as a petrochemical refinery, for instance, the Ship Channel is not an isolated entity, but literally linked via pipeline to facilities from Corpus Christi to New Orleans, so that the entire Gulf Coast refinery complex can be read as a single landscape machine, with the Ship Channel its central artery—aorta.

The third way of understanding the Ship Channel is as a component of an urban system, a metropolitan region. The Houston region—which, along the Ship Channel, includes a number of smaller municipalities such as Galveston, Texas City, Pasadena, and Baytown—is one of the largest cities in the nation, in both population and land area. A history that favored growth just as the automobile was becoming the primary transport technology for American cities, a lack of natural boundaries that would limit horizontal expansion, and its unusual lack of zoning have intensified the characteristic development patterns of Sunbelt urbanization, so that Houston reflects with peculiar intensity both the positive and negative aspects of this mode of urbanization. Houston makes petrochemicals, but petrochemicals have also made it. Houston is also a hub linking two emerging megaregions—the Texas Triangle (linking Houston to Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin) and the Gulf Coast megaregion (including links to Baton Rouge and New Orleans)—which might be understood as the characteristic large-scale spatial format of contemporary American urbanization, just as Sunbelt-focused, automobile-dominated horizontality is the dominant spatial pattern of contemporary American urbanization.

The Ship Channel consequently presents an opportunity to engage several issues of key importance for a landscape architecture that hopes to operate effectively within contemporary urban systems: locating opportunities for design within landscapes formatted by active industrial, infrastructural, and logistical operations; testing design procedures that offer alternatives to master planning as a mode of engagement for regional territories; querying the potential of landscape infrastructures and biotic industries as alternatives to hard infrastructures and non-renewable extractive industries; developing techniques for rigorous engagement with rapidly bifurcating future possibilities; and learning to operate within the ossified “networked ecologies” typical of contemporary American urbanization.


Houston Ship Channel
AORTA: Projects for the Houston Ship Channel
Rob Holmes
Louisiana State University
Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture
Spring 2013