Houston’s Structural Skyline: From Steel and Glass to Beer Cans

AC-1Houston’s Structural Extremes

This weekend, Saturday April 11, Houston’s Annual Art Car Parade will be held.  It is one of the highlights of the local entertainment season, a perfect meld of engineering/mechanical aptitude and artsy wackiness: something purely Houstonian.

The idea of the Art Car Parade is that anyone with an old junk car (or anything else on wheels) spends a year or more decorating it in a unique artistic style that speaks to them alone: the car may end up covered with dancing lobsters, or disguised as a dragon, peacock, or even as Siamese twin VW bugs.  Then one Saturday a year, 250 or so art cars parade down one of Houston’s main drags, like some psychedelic Easter parade strutting for the appreciative crowds.  If you can’t make the Art Car Parade in person, here is the next best thing:  http://www.thehoustonartcarparade.com.    

AC-2Art car on the Prowl

So why am I writing about the Art Car Parade in a structural engineering blog?  The reason is because it makes me think about the wide diversity – a meld of the engineering aptitude and the artsy wackiness – that structures can take, especially here in Houston.  It is often said that Houston doesn’t appreciate and maintain its historic buildings, but it can’t be said that we don’t have an eclectic collection of those buildings  For every Astrodome that we try to tear down and replace with one more parking lot, there are a couple of Magic Islands (a building in the shape of King Tut) or Formica Houses (a “House of the Future” built in the past) that somehow manage to still hang on.

Anyway the Art Car Parade always reminds me of the exotic range of structures that we have in Houston.  Besides the parade’s specific combination of technology and wackiness, there are more direct connections.  On the one hand, the Art Car Parade route has a direct view of the gorgeous downtown skyline.  On the other hand, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, the organization behind the parade, also administers two of the wackier structures to be found in Houston.

We Houstonians are proud of our buildings, all of them (or at least most of them, look here for one reporter’s take on the city’s ugliest buildings: http://blogs.houstonpress.com/news/2009/11/10_ugliest_buildings_houston.php).  The array of our downtown skyscrapers is not only powerfully modern, but can be primeval — evoking, in the eyes of photographer Sam McColloch, the primitive power of the megaliths at Callanish, Scotland.

AC-3 Sam McColloch:  Which one is Houston,
and which one is just a pile of rocks?

Our skyline, the third largest in the country, is noteworthy not just for quantity, but for quality, boasting several contributions by the likes of such renowned architects as I M Pei and Philip Johnson.  The latter was responsible for my favorite Houston skyscraper, the Williams (nee Transco) Tower, which is generally credited as being the “tallest building in the world outside of a central business district”, or as I once heard, the “tallest building in the world that is surrounded by grass”.  You can get to know the Houston skyline better here: http://downtownhouston.org/district/skyline/

AC-4 The Williams Tower, named “Skyscraper of the Century”
by Texas Monthly magazine, still surrounded by grass

But these are not the only structures that I am thinking about today – as I mentioned, there are two other buildings administered by the Orange Show Center: the Beer Can House, and the Orange Show itself.  As the Williams Tower and the JPMorgan Chase Tower are testaments to Philip Johnson and I M Pei, these structures are testaments to two other illustrious and determined men, even though the buildings occupy the far opposite extreme of the structural spectrum.  The Beer Can House and the Orange Show have been preserved to remind us of the days when anyone could build anything, without the need for an architect or an engineer.

The Beer Can House, located at 222 Malone Street in Houston, is the legacy of retired upholster John Milkovisch’s Herculean effort – that is the effort of drinking approximately 30,000-cans of beer over 20 years.  Of course that left a whole lot of empties, which Milkovisch and his wife Mary felt needed to be put to some good use.  John’s answer was to cover his 3-bedroom bungalow with home-made aluminum siding – the flattened beer cans.  He completed this project in a mere 18 years, working in his  spare time between 1968 and 1986.  What was originally just a way to recycle trash, is today recognized as a high form of folk art and one of Houston’s most beloved structures.  In 2010 Time Magazine named it one of the 50 Top Roadside Attractions in America.

AC-5 More beer brands than the Ginger Man
another Houston attraction)

But Houston has a place that is even more bizarre than the Beer Can House, one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited, .  What other complex, replete with mazes, an amphitheater, a museum, stairs, balconies, and lots of inspirational posters extolling the benefits of nature’s perfect food, has been built single-handedly by one man, using cinder blocks, tile, bricks, concrete, mannequins, tractor wheels, and other items that had been rescued from the trash?  What other place, tucked away on a lot in a residential neighborhood, could have been expected (at least by its creator) to outdraw Disneyland and become the nation’s #1 tourist attraction?  What other location could I have seen described as one of Houston’s three top attractions on a full wall-sized advertisement in the Emirates Airlines office at Dubai Airport*, yet still be unknown to most people living in Houston?

(*Houston’s top three attractions – NASA, Reliant Stadium, and the Orange Show – were put up against New York’s – the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park.  That’s like a #16 going up against a #1 in March Madness.)

Sure John Milkovisch had covered an existing structure with beer cans, but retired mail carrier Jeff McKissack outdid him 10-fold by allowing his obsession with the orange to drive him to 23 years of labor building an entire complex – virtually all by hand and mostly out of recycled trash.  When nobody showed up for the grand opening of the facility in 1979, it broke McKissack’s heart and he died just a few months later.

Today the Orange Show and the Beer Can House endure.  Even though the Orange Show never drew more tourists than Disneyland, and probably never convinced one single person to eat one more orange, it stands as a tribute to the diversity of structures in this world.

Here Jeff McKissack gives a personal tour of his creation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDZRlI1dyfk. Or you can check it out for yourself at 2401 Munger Street.

Want to do something creative with your pile of empty empty beer cans or the neighbors’ trash?  Try using CloudCalc, the scalable, collaborative, cloud-based engineering software.  www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis on the Cloud.  Use it at no charge, a perfect fit for the budget of a retired upholsterer, or anyone else.

By Tom Van Laan

Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2015

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