City Dwellers: UH Students Explore Houston With Guidance From Center For Land Use Interpretation

This semester, University of Houston students are observing three distinct aspects of Houston's anatomy. Under the microscope are the Buffalo Bayou, one of the city's main arteries; oil, the city's economic lifeblood; and bulk materials such as sand, gravel, stone and cement used to construct its urban body.

With guidance and assistance from the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), UH students from the School of Art, the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Creative Writing Program are journeying out of the classroom and into the heart of Houston to research and document information about these crucial aspects of the city's identity.

"CLUI is showing students how to frame a landscape, then really study it to understand why it's there and its continued impact on the existing social and physical environment," said John Reed, director of the UH School of Art. "In a sense, the center helps curate the world, and it is helping students learn to do that, too."

Founded in 1994, CLUI's mission is to understand the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface. In addition to conducting research, CLUI curates land-themed exhibitions and conducts guided bus tours of specific sites around the United States. CLUI's presence in Houston is made possible by a year long residency with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at UH. Although its members do not describe it as an art collective, CLUI has been embraced by the art world and has been featured prominently in Artforum magazine and the 2006 Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition.

The center's researchers, including its founder and director Matthew Coolidge and program coordinators Steve Rowell and Erik Knutzen, are taking students on field trips to a host of local sites. Thus far, students have visited Houston's Glendale Cemetery and Hartman Park, as well as BP's Texas City refinery. Students also make regular visits to CLUI's base of operations, a field office positioned on land owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. "By focusing on the bayou, oil and bulk industries, we're showing students their own city through three different lenses," Coolidge said. "These are three elements that are at the city's core and have distinct implications on both its physical and economical makeup."

Students led by Mat Johnson, assistant professor in the Creative Writing Program, are using data collected during these field trips to compose non-fiction essays that reflect the essence and identity of 21st century Houston. "So many cities like New York, New Orleans or Philadelphia have distinct identities. Houston, however, is so diverse and so large that it is hard to narrow down what this city is all about," Johnson said. "What these students are trying to do is create an identity for Houston in their writings, particularly based on how they are viewing the city through the field trips and this class."

Reed's art students are extending the scope of Houston beyond the three lenses prescribed by CLUI. For the purpose of this class, Reed has instructed his students to creatively map their surroundings as a way of producing artworks, incorporating circumstances and conditions specific to Houston. Among the topics being mapped are the city's smells, climbable objects, graffiti and religious abstractions.

"Students in my class are looking at their environment, selecting points of interest, recording data and then presenting it. That's essentially how a map is developed," Reed said.

Architecture students are engaged in a different type of CLUI project. Guided by Patrick Peters, associate professor in the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, these students are contributing designs and concepts for an environmentally friendly, carbon-neutral facility for possible use by CLUI researchers.

"The current CLUI field office in Houston is located on a devastated site, but it's in an amazing area near both residences and industry," Peters said. "Our focus is to resuscitate this site, so that it serves CLUI and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. It also would be a place that would showcase sustainable building practices."

In addition to working with students to understand base components of Houston, CLUI researchers are also gathering data on Texas industry and the regional landscape for a major exhibition that will premiere in 2009 at Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, and will be offered in collaboration with the Mitchell Center. Also in 2009, the Mitchell Center and CLUI will offer tours, films and other programming open to the public.

To learn more about the Center for Land Use Interpretation, visit their Web site at

About the Mitchell Center
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston cultivates interdisciplinary collaboration in the performing, visual, and literary arts. From its base at the University of Houston, the center offers public events, residencies, and curriculum that fuse artistic disciplines, ignite dialogue, and open doors to new ways of seeing and understanding the arts and the world around us. The Mitchell Center forms an alliance among five units at the University of Houston: The School of Art, Creative Writing Program, Moores School of Music, School of Theatre and Dance, and Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. For more information about the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston, visit

About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.