It must be a hard job, but Donna Kacmar is taking it on. Her goal is to visit at least a dozen taco stands, burger joints and icehouses this summer to document how people use them and how they relate to the community. Of course, while she's there she'll have to sample the services.
"And I'm not necessarily looking for the best burger. I'm not a food critic, although you know I kind of am a food critic. I am looking for the kind of best architectural support of the accomodation of a burger. Where's the place that hands the burger over to you in the best environment, that has the best pick-up window?"
Kacmar is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Houston and is principal of her own firm, Architect Works, Inc. She says she started looking at non-traditional ritual sites, and found that places like icehouses are knit into the fabric of the community.
"There is history at icehouses. I've been doing some research and there's a guy who used to go to the West Alambama Icehouse in the '40s. You think about that kind of connection and it's not history with a big "H". It's history as in local and community and very people-oriented, rather than event-oriented."
Researching these sites is as much a sociology project as an architecture study. Kacmar and her students will hit the streets looking for long-term joints where people gather. The goal is to figure out what kind of structures and building elements create the best environment for connecting people and translate those ideas to other structures.
"How do we mediate between the environment? It isn't just an air-conditioned envelope that protects us from the exterior and it's not necessarily the best way to reach out to the world. I think we can also learn how to accomodate vehicles, how we can accomodate pedestrians and attract pedestrians. I think that we can also learn how many different types of people there are in a place. If you look at an icehouse, there are young people, old people, dogs, friendly people, not friendly people, people in groups, people in singles and it accomodates a wide range of people."
The icehouses, taco stands and burger joints project caught the attention of the Rice Design Alliance. Kacmar received a $3,000 grant from the group to fund the study. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.