Left: Mary Ellen Carroll moderating “NOZONE: Houston’s Mayoral Forum on Land Use” at prototype180—the table, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, July 9, 2009. Right: Mary Ellen Carroll and KHOU-TV reporter David Fehling at prototype180, Sharpstown, Houston. (Photos: Kenny Trice)


Mary Ellen Carroll is a Houston- and New York–based conceptual artist who teaches in the architecture program at Rice University. Here, she discusses prototype 180, a work she is creating in collaboration with the Rice University Building Institute, and a recent mayoral forum on land use in Houston at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston that she organized and moderated. Her forthcoming monograph is being published by SteidlMACK and will be available this fall.

HOUSTON IS THE ONLY METROPOLITAN AREA in the United States without a formal land-use zoning code. The no-zoning policy creates conditions, both physical and atmospheric, for extending free enterprise over the city, the energy capital of the world. Density and urbanism are replacing the ideal of the West as an open, expansive territory, both economically and as a seemingly endless repository of natural resources.

Ten years ago, this urban-policy condition brought me to the Gulf Coast, and the city essentially self-selected itself as the site for prototype 180, a work of art that will make architecture performative. It is literally a ground-shifting exercise, in that it structurally involves the rotation, back to front, of a house and its surrounding land in the development of Sharpstown. Following the rotation, it will be retrofitted and rehabilitated to become an occupied structure that will be become an institute for the study of considered urbanism.

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Mary Ellen Carroll at NOZONE: Houston’s Mayoral Forum on Land Use

An early condition for this work was that the surrounding context and its process not be considered as urban renewal. This necessitated a location in a relatively stable yet aging subdivision––one that is invisible in effect, not calling attention to itself either socioeconomically or typologically. The area would also ideally be a model of shifting demographics, reflecting the growth patterns and diversity of the city. Sandwiched in the path of Houston’s redevelopment to the northwest and new developments to the southwest, these conditions exist and manifest themselves in the development of Sharpstown, a diverse, middle-class neighborhood.

I designed a sixteen-foot table/stage that replicates the dimensions and hardwood floor of the living room of prototype 180, which is now in the exhibition “No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston” at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston. Referencing furniture created for peace talks, treaties, and negotiations, the table functions as a site for meetings and symposia that will eventually take place in prototype 180.

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Excerpt from NOZONE: Houston’s Mayoral Forum on Land Use

On Thursday, July 9, I programmed the table/stage for its intended use by organizing and moderating “NOZONE, Houston’s Mayoral Forum on Land Use.” The forum was based on the research and a seminar I teach at Rice University’s School of Architecture. I posed five questions to the mayoral candidates pertaining to land use.

All of Houston’s mayoral candidates participated, and the forum lasted two and a half hours. Since then, everyone I have spoken with who attended the forum seems to now know whom he or she will vote for. To me, this indicates that the political image became the artistic image.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler