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Contributed by:
Douglas Dover

A Profound Inspiration: Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses

“ I see them as I walk the Third Ward of Houston, the rhythm of their shadows, the square of the porch three over four like the beat of a visual gospel.” - Dr. John Biggers

One Sunday morning in the early ’90s, while sipping a coffee and reading The New York Times, I came across a story about Rick Lowe, Hon. TxA and his Project Row Houses in Houston. I was a young architect in New Haven, Connecticut, working in a commercial architecture office and finding my voice in my profession.

I was instantly moved and inspired by Lowe.

Project Row Houses is a development in Houston’s Third Ward, an impoverished part of town. Lowe and his team restored 22 shotgun houses and used art as an incubator for the neighborhood. Noble as that simple description is, it does not do justice to the powerful weaving of architecture, history, art, memory, education and rejuvenation that is at the core of Project Row Houses.

Having been attracted to vernacular architecture from childhood, I was drawn by the idea of the shotgun house. This classic urban typology is common in inner-city neighborhoods of the South, particularly African American communities. The simple plan, long and narrow, places rooms along one side of the house, and, on the other side, a single hall connects the front and back porches. These porches were a place for sharing and socializing with family and neighbors. Porches speak “welcome” and provide a place to say hello.

Lowe has said he begins each presentation on Project Row Houses with a slide of Dr. John Biggers, whose influence on the program is unmistakable. Biggers understood the sense of heritage that the shotgun house represents. To many, the shotgun house, with its straight-line hallway, personifies the movement from slavery to freedom. Biggers, himself a Third Ward resident and African American painter, also understood the architectural significance of the row house.

These light-framed structures stand solid, their repetitive gabled roof forms and gabled porches, standing stoic and proud. Author and architectural historian Stephen Fox eloquently expresses what I find so compelling about this house.

“These small houses,” writes Fox, “combined in rows, endow the block with the presence and dignity that are essential attributes of urban architecture.”

When Lowe and his team began the project, the 22 shotgun houses sat derelict. Around the same time, Lowe was working on some of his large-scale paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues when a group of Third Ward high school students dropped by his studio.

“I appreciate that your paintings and sculptures show what is happening in our community, but we don’t need that. We know what happens here,” one said. “If you’re an artist, why can’t you create a solution to these issues?”

It was a turning point for Lowe’s creative energy. John Biggers’ Shotguns painting, which depicts a sky full of abstract shotgun house gables with a line of enduring, proud African American women standing their ground along the base, made Lowe realize he had the vehicle for his vision: the derelict row houses in his own backyard. With seed money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, Lowe and five colleagues purchased the houses, and Project Row Houses was born.

The other powerful influence on Project Row Houses was the work of Joseph Beuys, a German artist who coined the term “social sculpture” to represent the way that people shape the world around them. Quickly, the founding team saw the understanding of art shift from a traditional studio practice to a conceptual base of transforming the social environment.

Row houses before renovations / Photo: Sheryl Tucker Vasquez courtesy of Project Row Houses

Jasmine Zelaya Art House Round 51 - Local Impact II - Fall 2020 / Photo: Project Row Houses

Not only did Lowe and his team restore the physical houses, he brought new activity into the spaces. The Artist Residency Program was the first step in rejuvenation. The shotgun houses became studios with visiting artists of various backgrounds, staying anywhere from a week to six months to transform the interior spaces with site-specific installations whose subjects addressed the very issues the high school student pointed out.

The power of the Artist Residency Program extends beyond the art installations themselves:

It is the everyday presence of an artist living, working, and sharing in the presence of the residents.

It is the children who are encouraged to engage with the artists and join the after-school programs and help care for the grounds.

The artist Sam Durant has told Lowe that the work he did at Project Row Houses nearly a decade ago is still “the show I am most proud of because my work could have meaning beyond the walls of the contemporary art world.”

The Artist Residency Program has engaged the community as creative agents. In 1998, painter Julie Mehretu spent afternoons teaching art to children. “I loved it. The kids were full of energy and pride. The program evolved organically, out of the neighborhood. It had a family vibe. The kids got used to feeling that this was their place, that the doors were always open.”

As the Artist Residency Program grew, it was clear that Project Row Houses was becoming the community inspiration Lowe had sought. But more could be done.

DeBorah Grotfeldt, who had worked with Lowe from the inception of Project Row Houses, suggested filling a need for the ward’s young mothers, many struggling to find their way. Thus, the Young Mothers Residential Program was established. Since 1996, it has provided a year of housing and day care for young mothers in need.

Assara Richards offered a glimpse into the typical struggles: “My son was 6. I was financially struggling and having a hard time with housing. I was low on self-esteem. I had been a high achiever, but motherhood, working, and going to school were taking a toll on me.”

Richards is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lowe proudly recalls when he asked Richards what she saw as art at Project Row Houses.

“Well, I heard Rick was an artist when I got there,” she said. “But I thought what kind of art does he do? Then I realized we were his art. We came into these houses, and they did something to us. This became a place of transformation. That’s what art does. It transforms you. And Rick also treated us like artists. He would ask, ‘What’s your vision for yourself?’ You understood that you were supposed to be making something new, and that something was yourself.”

Beuys would have been very proud.

Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum, said, “To me it doesn’t matter if you call it art or not because, either way, it puts to shame a lot of so-called political art, which preaches to the converted. Doing something that’s actually valuable in a low-income African American community, staying there for 22 years and continuing to be imaginative, that’s Rick Lowe’s legacy as an artist.”

I have spent a career gravitating to art and architecture practiced in the social realm. Yes, it started with influence of Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses, but Nick Cave, Samuel Mockbee, Walter Hood, and Kids KOS are all examples of creatives who have inspired me and, more to the point, the many others outside the traditional bastions of art and architecture.

The notion that art and architecture can move beyond presenting a pretty face and tackle real issues of community, history and giving back still drives me today, 30 years after first reading about Lowe’s work.

Douglas Dover is a senior architectural designer at Strand Architecture.

Project Row Houses, 2015. / Photo: Peter Molick