A few months ago, during my first trip to Houston, I did what anyone whose knowledge of Texas is defined almost entirely by movies and television might do. I bought cowboy boots from a man with a handlebar mustache, went to a honky tonk, got thrown off a mechanical bull and mastered the "Boot Scootin' Boogie."
If I hadn't gone back to Texas last week, this story might have ended right about there, but during my second trip, with my cowboy itch already thoroughly scratched, I paid closer attention. Houston is more than what you think.
A map of the city looks like a bullseye, and it is very much a moving target. With 2.1 million people and a booming energy sector, Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country and growing rapidly — mostly horizontally. The landscape is broad and flat (600 square miles with an average elevation just 43 feet above sea level) and brown. The houses, the streets, the highways: You'll find brown everywhere, but what you won't find are zoning regulations, because there are none. So the city has multiple mini skylines instead of a single, large central business district, and a gallery or antique store can sit in the middle of a residential block. One of my favorite discoveries was on West 19th Street. The sequence of storefronts went something like this: coffee shop, boutique, bookstore, junkyard. Joe White, who, it turns out, grew up in Hagerstown, says he's owned the unnamed scrap heap for 40 years and has customers from all over.
Oddities like this are sometimes charming, but too often, when Houston's scenery isn't monotonous, it's disjointed, expanding with no obvious sense of order. However, as I began to look out at the city from within some of its iconic spaces, the view changed entirely. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is one of the largest art museums in the country, currently displaying works spanning 250 years of American history and a century's worth of masterpieces from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Spain. But for me, MFAH's Beck Building, which houses these featured exhibits, stole the show. Skylights direct your eyes upward, and in some rooms windows act like picture frames, giving sections of the city borders that can help you appreciate details.
Houston is a port city, and manmade water installations remind residents of their proximity to the sea. The most impressive of these may be the Williams Waterwall, a 64-foot-tall semicircular fountain that you can walk in and around. During my visit there, a girl in a yellow quinceañera dress walked carefully down the long, green lawn to the wall as a woman held her train. I watched in awe. As mist blew off the fountain, the whole scene seemed to play out in slow motion in some parallel universe.
Equally mystifying is James Turrell's "Twilight Epiphany," a pyramid on the campus of Rice University. At dusk and dawn, an opening in the roof provides a window to the sky as natural and artificial light change your perspective and mood. And a few miles north, the Rothko Chapel uses light and simple geometric forms to create a sanctuary for the senses. These structures are beautifully concrete answers to an abstract question — what are we to do with the time and space we've been given? — in a setting that imposes few restraints.
I compare everything new to what I already know, so for me, every visit to the West is a study in contrasts. Where Baltimore has row houses, parts of Texas have plains. Where many cities on the East Coast have skyscrapers, vast swaths of the country just have sky. After growing up in a densely populated city, the sprawl of a place like Houston is a shock to my system, but here and there on this weird, unfamiliar terrain, some feature that stands out precisely because it has no competition reminds me of two things: Anything with a wall can be a church, focusing the mind and the spirit; and if you can spend enough time in front of it, every window can help you look both out and within.
Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.