Discovery Green is that rarest of Houston phenomena: a lively, successful downtown park that people actually seem to enjoy. Its planners, Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit inspired by noted sociologist William H. Whyte, eschewed a grand, formal scheme for a jigsaw puzzle of good parts that they call “the backyard of Houston.”
The planners facilitated extensive community workshops to find out what people wanted in the park, which is built over a 630-space underground parking garage. Participants called for a large, diverse program that ultimately includes playgrounds, ponds, a bandstand, jogging trails, fountains, a lake, gardens, and two restaurants—all crammed into 12 acres of what was formerly a no-man’s land between the George R. Brown Convention Center and the central business district. As if to signal the significance of the endeavor, Jean Dubuffet’s “Monument au Fantôme,” a favorite Houston public art piece, was moved from a corner of a downtown high-rise block to the park’s eastern entrance, across from the convention center.
The Grove is the more upscale of the park’s two eateries, both of which are operated by the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group. Architect Larry Speck, a principal in the Austin office of Page Southerland Page, designed the 10,000-square-foot building to meet a goal of LEED Gold certification, as set by the Discovery Green Conservancy, the nonprofit responsible for the park’s development and maintenance. The restaurateurs initially were unenthusiastic about a modern building, according to Speck, because they thought it wouldn’t do for the kind of gracious dining experience they had in mind. But the architect convinced them that modern construction would better connect with the park and with the goals of sustainable design.
The building is modern in all the right ways—less a polemical statement than a mature example of place-making. Organized with diagrammatic clarity, as a series of slipped, parallel bars of one and two stories, it uses the real phenomena of site and program to compose a building without architectural excesses. The architecture is reposed and deferential, most prominently in the ground-floor main dining room, a thin space between two active long edges: a window wall with views out to a tree-lined promenade on the north, and an open kitchen on the south.
While the structure is predominantly crisp, lightweight steel and glass, local brick clads the long box of serving spaces—the kitchen, bathrooms, the elevator core, and two broad exterior stairs. The brick mass buffers the dining room from a busy adjacent street and the torrid Houston sun. Customers entering from valet parking on the south and from a deck on the west arrive at a bar centered in the entry space.
The exposed steel frame conveys the building’s structural rationale and gives a background syncopation to the spaces. Detailing is crisp and precise. Wood ceilings formed by installing cedar planks in the bottom flanges of the spanning members bring warmth to the dining space. Wooden floors extend into surrounding outdoor decks, and beams terminate in supporting brackets for the roof overhang, drawing inside and outside into continuity. Low-level interior lighting allows for outside views to be prominent, day or night.
Above the restaurant proper, on the second floor, is a sizable terrace, dubbed the Tree House, and an indoor dining room. There is also an herb and vegetable garden. Solar panels that Speck intended for the roof, sadly, were not installed, and on the terrace itself, large umbrellas don’t compensate for the lack of a shade roof.
The Houston you get depends on which way you look, and the view from the terrace is no exception. To the north, the building sidles into the upper reaches of a good-looking grove of high-rises; to the south rises the palisades of the Hilton convention hotel. The view toward downtown is a bit more disheveled, a work in progress as holding properties earn their keep as surface parking and await higher uses. Construction is a big part of the Houston genius loci, and the terrace provides an excellent front-row seat for watching new buildings go up, while sipping a frozen margarita.