Tropical Storm Allison

Allison Rising: An Architectural Fiction, Part 1: Houston

Undiscovered within a cave in southern France is a prehistoric petrograph of a foliated head. Her grimacing expression and surrounding markings may be interpreted as a Pleistocene proverb: A spirit despondent upon losing love will sojourn forever. This could lead a casual observer to speculate about reincarnation and the meaning of events throughout time.

For instance, Pachamama recounts the tale of a lonely heart that awoke as a warm ocean breeze and lingered off the coast of Africa. In quest of her lover, she pushed into clouds with a passion that heated the air for a thousand miles. When she couldn’t find him, she slid low over the Caribbean Sea, looked further in vain, and then floated to South America, gaining strength. When she again failed to find him, she twisted over Mexico and spun into the Gulf. To her surprise, near the Texas coast, the spirit sensed her mate’s presence—as a mortal. Allison threw golden lightning and unleashed a torrent of tears unlike any had witnessed. When the tropical storm withered, the soul descended and took human form. Allison resumed her search on the ground.

 

Pulling in, Allison thought her house looked little worse for the wear. The brick was a shade darker from rain. A gutter had broken loose of its eave and dangled from one end. Debris was in the front yard, but nothing like the flotsams she’d seen on TV. No broken glass, either, and her treehouse was intact.

In a frisson of hope, Allison reframed her New Haven anxiety attack as an overreaction, a psychological reflex to the mortal coil that bound her life. For five days she imagined the worst, that her Houston home was flooded under tropical squalls bearing her name. But it appeared the weather wasn’t the dramatic fury Northeast media had reported. She concluded that asking her mother to hole up in Dallas was a waste of time. Her sixth sense was wrong, and for that, she was grateful.

Loose gravel popped under tires as the taxi slowed. Getting out of the cab, Allison reminded herself to stop listening to voices. She paid the man, retrieved her backpack from the trunk, and sweltered through a dank mist to the front door. Just another Houston frog choker, she thought, fumbling with her key in the lock.

“Howdy, Allie. Perfect time for a summer break, eh?”

Allison turned to a man pulling trash bags along the sidewalk. He waved. She yelled across the lawn, “Earl. You guys okay?”

“Yeah. Mostly. Spent two goldang days on the goldang roof, but we’re alive.”

“Say what?”

“A big-ass Coast Guard chopper picked us up Sunday evening. Or maybe it was Monday. Shoot, I don’t know what day it is anymore.” Allison started to walk over when Earl flung her a weary wrist as if to say, Too tired and disgusted to talk about it.

She visualized an older couple clinging to a chimney in drenching rain. “Jeez. Anything I can do to help?” Allison pointed to her door. “We got plenty of extra room if you need.”

Earl looked back in silence, head tilted. A moment later, he continued down the street.

Allison thumbed the latch expecting familiar surroundings and the aroma of Mom’s cooking baked into foyer wallpaper. What she got was mildew and a jolt from reverie. She high-stepped over carpet rolled within itself and floorboards shaped like Galveston surf. Living room furniture was redecorated in angles unfit for even a modernist architect. The ceiling had collapsed in the hallway. Muck and slime sickened everything.

Oh, God.

She skimmed a finger along a waist-high waterline running from the dining room into the kitchen. There, Allison found the refrigerator on its side and halfway out the patio door. It appeared trying to escape. A good size fish lay dead on the breakfast table—Rio Grande perch, she figured—and had company. Three turtles milled about the floor.

Buffalo Bayou had been her houseguest after all. Allison’s panic was justified. The only home she’d ever known was history. A voice in the back of her head said, Trust your intuition.

That was June 6, 2001; two days after Allison’s namesake gave up the ghost and a day before her twenty-fifth birthday. Tropical Storm Allison had pushed Buffalo Bayou, a drainage channel near her house, twelve feet over flood stage. People drowned on the jogging trail she ran whenever she was home from Yale. Eleven inches of rain fell in what the Houston Chronicle called “a five-hundred-year flood,” the reassuring sound of which Allison now realized meant nothing. During the last five days, twenty-three Texans had died driving or walking in high water. Thousands of homes were lost, including the one in which Allison was born.

Allison checked into a hotel and made a phone call. “You have to stay with Lou and Jenny for a while,” she told her mother, voice cracking. “No, I don’t know how long…. Mom, stop. Just listen. Our house is standing, but it’s gone. It’s a teardown.”

An hour later Allison hung up and fell backward on the bed, shoes off, clothes on, backpack unpacked. It was two in the afternoon.

A little after ten, she awoke. Allison cranked up the A/C to dehumidify the room while she showered. She dried her hair waiting for room service to deliver a burger and fries. Two knocks later, she donned a fluffy robe hanging in the closet, picked up the tray, and reached for a bottle of wine in the minibar. Next, Allison tore open her backpack and found something to keep her feet warm. Then she started sketching.

By midnight, canary trace covered the bedspread. Climbing into the middle of the pile, Allison noticed her socks were the same color as her drawings, golden yellow. She laughed and muttered, “You face your fear, girl.” She wiggled her toes and sang Happy birthday to me.

 

By the end of summer break, Allison had designed her mother a new home. A month later, back in New Haven, it became her thesis project. Against a jury of outside critics that included three out of five famed New York architects, Allison defended her “massing of interstitial elements functionally interwoven into a bi-platform schema.” The jury loved the house, calling it “An elegant reinterpretation of a classic idiom.” After graduation, Allison turned her presentation boards into contract documents. With flood insurance money and what Dad had left them, she oversaw construction of a quintessential Miesian pavilion.

La Maison de Mom was a set piece of modern architecture. A single story floated on a plinth four feet above the ground (twelve inches beyond the high water mark) accessible via a Corbusian-style ramp winding under a breezeway porte cochère. Like Philip Johnson’s famous home before it, and Mies van der Rhoe’s historic Farnsworth house before that, living spaces were sandwiched between two horizontal slabs. The same meticulously detailed wide-flange columns that engaged the floor secured the roof. Large plate glass spanned column to column. Nestled within four verticals were downspouts. To protect against hurricane winds, Allison concealed rolling shutters inside overhanging soffits.

And there was a boathouse. Recalling Yale afternoons sculling the Housatonic River, she designed a backyard “folly” for a V-hull kayak suspended upside down from teak decking.

Allison’s home for her mother immediately won two design awards, one from the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the other from AIA national. At twenty-eight years old, the experience and exposure launched Allison’s career and her love life. Three years after moving Mom into her new house, she hung a shingle in Rice Village. A|or|A Architects were born. A man she’d met while working at a large design firm became her business partner, and her husband.

 

They made a curious team. Alejandro left Harvard’s Graduate School of Design a year before Allison. She met him at a Rice Design Alliance lecture, where he poked fun at her yellow socks. “It’s the only color footwear a real architect wears,” she told him in mock offense, hands on hips. “Yellow socks for yellow sketch paper, right?” He looked confused. “Golden feet for golden proportions?” He didn’t understand. “What, exactly, did they teach you up there at Harvard, Alejandro? Anything?” They joked past each other for an hour before realizing they worked for the same company.

The rest of the year, Allison and Alejandro playfully bantered about why architects wore funny glasses, odd color socks, and whose rowing crews were better, Harvard or Yale’s. That progressed to arguing over heady design issues—the materiality of place, articulation and entourage, computer versus hand drawing. They’d try to outdo each other’s obscure prose with arcane vocabulary in discourse neither of them understood. Sometimes their discussions at dinner became heated, which would lead to angry sex after they moved in together, and eventually to an acrimonious business partnership. They married despite disagreeing on everything.

For example, blankets. Allison’s feet were always cold, his never. He’d rather sleep naked without sheets; she wrapped herself in yellow socks and a comforter. She talked about children. He wouldn’t. Even what to name their practice was contentious. Allison suggested her last name be listed first since she’d achieved national reputation straight out of college. Alejandro insisted he be first because he’d gone to Harvard. The ensuing “discourse” was ugly. In the end, they compromised through ambiguity.

A|or|A Architects designed homes for wealthy patrons across Houston, many fronting or located near canals. From Buffalo Bayou in River Oaks to Brays Bayou inside Meyerland, each was built upon Allison’s signature plinth, “a bespoke environmental reaction to world-changing weather patterns,” she called it. In newspaper and architecture journal op-eds, Allison wrote, “This is how architecture changes the world. Plinths are how architects save lives.”

She was invited to lecture at design conferences around the country. Dressed in black and wearing yellow shoes, Allison spoke of The Promise of Piloti. “Four feet is what it takes to rise above Mother Nature,” she said and offered proof. Fourteen years after Tropical Storm Allison, another cyclone of biblical proportions hit Houston. On Memorial Day, 2015, fourteen inches of rain fell within twenty-four hours. All of A|or|A’s homes remained high and dry. A year later, on April 15, 2016, seventeen inches poured from the heavens in a single day. None of their projects suffered rising water during the Tax Day Flood, either.

Turning forty years old, Allison had reached a high point in her career, but a low in her marriage. Alejandro had grown quicker to anger. While it took a lot to push Allison over the edge, she learned how to hit below the belt. Their differences finally exploded in two blowout arguments. The first was about shipping containers. Allison wanted to explore low-cost housing recycled from metal boxes stacked in the Port of Houston. Alejandro called it “a stupid idea” and “as passé as your Mies house.”

Next, they fought over energy clients. He argued commissions for oil and gas executives would be prestigious. She said the companies were evil, that big oil was to blame for climate change. He said it was serious dollars. She called it blood money. He bellowed that she was naïve. She politely called him a whore.

On May 15, 2016, Allison and Alejandro divorced and closed their firm. A week later, Allison’s mother died.

 

For hundreds of years, tropical cyclones—rotating storms, typhoons, and hurricanes—took their name from the place they’d furiously ravaged, or perversely, from a saint. This changed during World War II with the need for clarity in tracking threatening weather. From then on until the late ‘70s, great ocean storms were christened female, a carry-over from naming ships at sea after women. But the god of earth and time suggested more than tradition was behind the feminine mystique. Pachamama called it Shakespearian logic: The most potent force on Earth was the reincarnation of a woman scorned.

 

Allison moved into Maison de Mom and pretended to set up shop in the guest bedroom. Instead, she spent her time in the master suite, hiding. Through depression and Chardonnay, Allison watched the world jog by. Then, one day, she saw Earl’s house dissolve. Allison wanted to believe she was drunk, but the voice in her ear said otherwise.

Earl’s midcentury modern residence was built in 1955. He and his bride bought the house in 1975, ten months before Allison was born, around the time her parents moved in next door. Both newlywed couples began their lives along Buffalo Bayou in identical homes. Earl and Ruth watched Allison grow, becoming honorary uncle and aunt when Allison’s father died, babysitting until she was eleven.

One of Allison’s earliest memories was of Aunt Ruth’s garden of gnomes. Earl had built his wife a backyard gazebo in the middle of okra plants and oak trees. Allison loved to sit under the tile roof and play. Attached to each of the structure’s four wooden columns was a downspout, and at its bottom, a terra cotta human face. Leaves and branches sprouted from four open mouths, through which rainwater poured. Each grinning, leering head was different. One was a woman. The foliated family scared the hell out of Allison when she was four years old, but she started talking to them at age six. That’s when Earl completed what Allison’s father began, a treehouse nestled inside a large oak in her front yard, complete with a Green Man door knocker.

Two ranch-style homes, a backyard gazebo, and a front yard treehouse survived decades of cyclones, until 2001. Tropical Storm Allison also flooded Earl’s house, but he refused a teardown check from FEMA. The renovation cost twice what it took Allison to build Maison de Mom. The Memorial Day flood did a quarter million dollars of new damage, but Earl renovated again. The following year’s Tax Day flood was the turning point.

Allison walked next door as a demolition crew drove away. She found a fragile man standing on the remnants of a concrete slab holding a fragment. “Uncle Earl?”

“It’s time to say goodbye, Allie.” His words dragged in a sad Texas drawl.

“Jesus.” Allison instinctively hugged the man and noticed his weathered eyes ballooned red. Earl had been crying, she guessed, for some time.

“Your mama and pappy would be proud of you.” He swept his hand toward her house. “Look at that, Allie. You’ve become a great architect.”

“You don’t have to move away, Earl. I can design you a place that will never flood. I promise. Please stay next door to me. Please be my neighbor forever. I can’t imagine this street without you. You’re my only family now.”

“Gotten myself old and too poor to live here anymore. Ruthie’s gone.” He handed her the terra cotta face. “No need for the garden now.”

Allison held the Green Woman’s head to her chest and muttered. “You can’t go,” but it was unclear to whom she was speaking.

“Gonna find me a high-rise or something.” Earl squeezed Allison’s shoulder. “And it’s time for you to change scenery, too, Allie. I seen you through them big-ass windows. You mope around your mama’s house like you also died, like you was a ghost.”

He walked her home. “I’m gonna tell you what I said to the feller what bought my property, another Sad Sack if ever I saw one.” Earl’s tone became fatherly, “You need a change of perspective, girl. Don’t drown yourself inside your life.”

Allison sloughed dirt off the terra cotta, letting crumbles fall on the sidewalk. “What made you say that to the man?”

“I thought your new neighbor was mute. He said nothing at the closing. Scribbled paperwork in silence and shook my hand at the end. When I ask him if he was okay, he said he was deep in thought about a drilling platform or something. I told him maybe he needed to come up for air.”

Allison stopped walking.

“He was cooped up, Allie, stuck inside his head looking inward instead of out.” Earl put his finger on Allison’s nose. “Just like you.”

Her body tensed. Allison backed away. “Did you say oil? Good God, Earl. Please don’t leave me with some blood-sucking oilman next door.”

“Well, I don’t really know what the man does. I thought it was something to do with rigs, but my memory’s ‘bout as watertight as my house was…or wasn’t.” Earl’s expression turned lighter. “Listen. Me and the missus island-hopped in Ecuador when we was your age. Best time we ever had. Talked about it all our days. Bluest water you’ll ever see.”

Allison’s body curled inward.

“You’re grown now, Allie. You conquered that day a long time ago. You’re the strongest person there is. Never forget that.” He turned to walk away. “You’ll come back a different person, Allie. On that, you have my promise.”

 

To be continued…

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Part 2 of the series is here

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