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Improbable Metropolis

Improbable Metropolis
Houston's Architectural and Urban History

Beautifully illustrated, Improbable Metropolis is one of the few books to use architecture and urban planning to explain the growth of a major world city, and the only one of its kind on Houston or any other city in Texas.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture

June 2020
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412 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 175 color and 97 b&w photos, 47 color and 30 b&w illus. |

Just over 180 years ago, the city of Houston was nothing more than an alligator-infested swamp along the Buffalo Bayou that spread onto a flat, endless plain. Today, it is a sprawling, architecturally and culturally diverse metropolis. How did one transform into the other in such a short period?

Improbable Metropolis uses the built environment as a guide to explore the remarkable evolution that Houston has undergone from 1836 to the present. Houston’s architecture, an indicator of its culture and prosperity, has been inconsistent, often predictable, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally extraordinary. Industries from cotton, lumber, sugar, and rail and water transportation, to petroleum, healthcare, biomedical research, and aerospace have each in turn brought profit and attention to Houston. Each created an associated building boom, expanding the city’s architectural sophistication, its footprint, and its cultural breadth. Providing a template for architectural investigations of other American cities, Improbable Metropolis is an important addition to the literature on Texas history.


2021 Good Brick Award Winner from Preservation Houston

Ron Tyler Award for Best Illustrated Book on Texas History and Culture from Texas State Historical Association

2021 Summerlee Book Prize (Nonfiction), Center for History and Culture of Southeast Texas and the Upper Gulf Coast at Lamar University

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Bayou City, 1830–1865
  • Chapter 2. Magnolia City, 1866–1899
  • Chapter 3. Progressive Houston, 1900–1919
  • Chapter 4. Energy Capital of the World, 1920–1939
  • Chapter 5. Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt, 1940–1959
  • Chapter 6. Space City, 1960–1979
  • Chapter 7. H-Town, 1980–1999
  • Chapter 8. Petro Metro, 2000–2017
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Barrie Scardino Bradley
Beaumont, Texas


“Bradley conveys [the story of Houston through its buildings and places] in an even and accessible writing style...Improbable Metropolis is a visual treat...the book object would hold its own on any Houstonian’s coffee table.”
Cite Magazine

“[Improbable Metropolis] is big, beautiful and comprehensive...starting with the startling book jacket, which shows the downtown skyline from an unexpected angle at night, it is a feast for the eyes...I cannot imagine how much labor went into this magnificent book.”
Austin American Statesman

“Although Houston has been the fourth-largest city in the United States since 1969, it does not receive the scholarly attention from historians that its size deserves; Bradley’s handsome volume helps rectify this neglect...Bradley’s deep familiarity with her subject will enthrall lay readers and will inspire specialists to enrich Houston’s story by exploring numerous topics further.”
Journal of Southern History

“In this wonderful book, Barrie Scardino Bradley documents unexpected abundance and beauty in the evolution of Houston’s architecture, as the city’s built environment reflects and shapes its economic, social, and political history. In rich photographic detail, informed by an architect’s expert eye, we watch Houston advance from 1836 to 2017, with no zoning to guide development and no mountains or lakes to interrupt the sprawl, its growth shaped almost exclusively by real-estate developers rather than planners or government officials. It’s a story that is at once inspiring and disconcerting as we consider the challenges that lie ahead.”
Stephen L. Klineberg, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Rice University, Founding Director, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and author of Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America

“From frontier commercial buildings to postmodern houses, Improbable Metropolis lays out the unique architectural history of Houston, the “un-zoned” city. Bradley makes a compelling case that one of the most defining elements of Houston’s development—its drive for growth—has been translated by generations of architects into the city’s buildings. Capturing the angles and stories of Houston’s buildings with both narrative and rich images, Bradley also shows with every page the pressing need to preserve the city’s past and even its present as it changes by the day.”
Kyle Shelton, Deputy Director of Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University, and author of Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston

“As a transplant to Houston from Los Angeles ten years ago, I could have used Barrie Scardino Bradley’s Improbable Metropolis. There was a great architecture guidebook, and several books on the history of Houston, but few books that attempted to delve into the culture of this complex city. What I appreciate most about this book is the way the author weaves the evolution of Houston’s urban personality into the chronology of its development. For someone trying to simultaneously grasp Houston’s history and its ethos, this book fills in the gaps.”
Patricia Belton Oliver, Dean of Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston

Improbable Metropolis explores key episodes in Houston’s unfinished journey from an opportunistic real estate venture on the Gulf Coast to a vibrant and fecund city that continues to attract immigrants from all over the world. Barrie Scardino Bradley joins in the ongoing effort to document and understand Houston’s development and its place in the history of architecture and urbanism.”
Rafael Longoria, ACSA Distinguished Professor of Architecture, University of Houston