Houston architect Jim Furr joined Gensler in 1994 and has served as Managing Principal of the firm's Houston office and South Central Region for more than 20 years. He retired at the end of 2016. Tonight, Blueprint Houston will honor Furr at its “Building This City 2017” event in Houston. In this interview with the Urban Edge, Furr reflects on his career and explores the nature of architecture and urban design in Houston. This interviews has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
When you first arrived in Houston, what was the architecture scene like?
I was in the Army, and when I got out ... I moved here in June of 1970. It was pretty amazing. The Galleria was just going up. The firm I worked at was working on it with HOK. It was all new and fresh around Westheimer. There was a lot of focus on that part of town.
Before we got here, my wife and I visited in 1967 for our honeymoon. Back then, the focus was on the southern part of the city. The Astrodome was brand new, and people were focused on NASA, which was expanding. It looked like everything was going south. But then everything started moving west, along Westheimer and on I-10 in the Energy Corridor.
Now, there's a focus on moving north, to The Woodlands, with places like Exxon Mobil and Southwestern Energy. Houston has always responded to the idea that where there's available land, let's put a highway.
How are attitudes about living in Houston changing?
Listening to Steve Klineberg's questions, I remember one from many years ago that asked, if you could have a choice, would you live in an urban area or a subdivision with a big yard. It recently switched over. Many people want urban. The thing I like about the city is its diversity, its innovation and its spirit. The architecture, in many ways, has reflected that.
What are some of your favorite buildings in Houston you were involved with designing while at Gensler?
Recently, there's the Houston Ballet Center for Dance. My wife and I are very active with the ballet. One day their managing director was looking for some input on a piece of property closer to the Wortham Center, where they perform. They bought it, and we designed a building close enough so that there could be a pedestrian bridge that the dancers could use to get to the Wortham Center.
It's not just a building for dancers. It's for the ballet's students, professionals, administrative workers, trainers. We sited the building so people could take a break and enjoy a sort of campus. To the west is Sesquicentennial Park, and to the east is Market Square. It's very nice. There's a place that's open, and you can go down a series of stairs to the walking path on the bayou.
Another is 1000 Main Street. We have pedestrian tunnels in Houston under the street because it gets hot and it rains a lot. Richard Everett, the developer, gave away space that could have been rentable underneath this building so you could see where you are. You can look up, and you see the light-rail passing by. We moved the face of the building back so you walk under a colonnade.
What are some of your favorite spaces in Houston that you weren't involved with?
There are some beautiful buildings downtown. We have a beautiful skyline. But when those buildings meet the ground, they're not friendly.
I've been on the board of Central Houston for a long time. We've tried several initiatives to encourage the use of a friendly ground plan. One old building, the Rice Hotel, has that.
I think some of the skyline buildings are terrific — Philip Johnson's building, Pennzoil Place, home to our office; the one across the street, the Bank of America building; Wells Fargo Plaza. My wife was driving the other day, and she looked at the skyline and said 'Boy, I'm proud of this.' I agree with her too. It's one of the best things about Houston.
What sort of reputation does Houston have among architects and designers beyond Houston, and is it changing?
Gensler is in 47 different cities, and Houston is probably the least dense of all of those. The walkability has always been laughable.
In the neighborhood where I live, Southampton, we have alleyways, and they make the streets more walkable. But the downtown buildings don't have canopies at the base, which hurts. That can change and grow.
People outside of Houston know it's not dense. Los Angeles is spread out -- maybe even more so than Houston -- but it has things like LA Live there. Certainly, New York is the benchmark. But it's not so much about the architecture itself as it is the planning. That's why the folks at Blueprint Houston should be applauded because they're taking a first step towards looking at that.
There are some new, innovating things happening in smaller areas. One of the things we've tried to do in CityCentre is create spaces that merge together. We didn't do all of the buildings there -- you don't want one architect doing all the buildings -- but we did the master plan, the hotel and an office. It's a sort of lifestyle center, like a new little baby city.
Will downtown ever have street life, or will Houstonians always be doomed to the tunnels?
Houston is very independent, and it's one of the strongest assets we have. I think downtown, people like Richard Everett will stand back and say 'look, it's important to the city, and it's a small space, and I'm not going to rent it for much anyway.' Gradually, landlords and property managers will find ways to enliven the streets with restaurants and covers over the street.
You look at the theater district -- I think that part of town has a good potential to be enhanced. If you go to the mid-part of Main Street, north of the bayou, there are still lots of old buildings with slipcover facades. You peel them back, and you can have live music and places to eat. Some of that stuff is already happening.
It will ultimately involve having a larger population downtown. Time will enhance Houston.
You've taught architecture at Rice for a long time. What do you see in the next generation of architects?
For boomers, life was very structured. You had things like Levittown. The next wave -- it's not as structured.
The students in my class are always interested in learning and adding more to their global knowledge about things. They like office environments that are innovative and open; they like spaces where they can work with theirs heads down or where they can have collaborative space.
They enjoy each other's company. They’re more social. I think their work will be less about the decorative side of things and more about the content of the spatial experience. The facade is only one aspect of a building. It's the inside that really matters, and it matters to millennials a great deal.