I know there was a long community effort to get Buffalo Bayou to happen—how did the project come to be?
Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA, Page: The Buffalo Bayou Partnership has existed for decades. They’ve done work on other parts of the bayou, a section right through downtown, in particular. But this long stretch was derelict and on the radar screen as an important challenge. Landscape architects SWA Group did work for them on another part of the bayou, and we did the park structures at Discovery Green. They hired us separately and married us together on this project. It was a fantastic relationship.
How did you site the pavilions in the park?
The two big architectural concentrations are at Lost Lake in the western part of the park, and the Water Works to the east—those are the only two places where there’s any substantial land outside the flood plain, so that’s where we have more activities. Page and SWA collaborated on where the other, smaller, pavilions should go in the rest of the park—where trails converge, there’s a sculpture nearby, or it otherwise seems appropriate to have one. I love these gorgeous sites where you walk in and say, “Oh my God, we’ve just got to make the architecture live up to the site here.” I’m not saying the buildings should go away, in the park you need to be able to see those buildings from a long distance. The point wasn’t to make them go away, but to make them engage the landscape.
The pavilions balance masses of concrete and the lightness of steel roofs. How did that design develop?
This park really has two roles: It’s a drainage way for the city, but it’s also a great green space for the city. That’s a remarkable double function, but it means that what we put there had to be extremely resilient. Even with the bigger buildings, where we could just kiss a little bit of above-flood-plain ground, the substantial part of the building was still in the flood plain. And this park floods very regularly—we’ve already had at least one major flood event where there was water way up those columns, and there could be tree limbs rushing down the flooded bayou that hit the buildings. We needed pavilions that could take that kind of impact, but could also be refreshed easily. Once the water goes down, just hose them off and they’re good to go. The board-formed concrete has enough texture to it that it can take a little ding and it’s no big deal. The roofs are those wonderful grilles that cast nice light patterns and shade below it. And the soffits are Massandaruba, which is a kind of bulletproof wood, very tough, and a great way to have warmth without the vulnerability. And I am happy to say, they performed like a champ during the flooding.
There’s a somewhat archaic quality to the massiveness of those concrete piers, almost as if they’re a ruin.
I’m an old Louis Kahn fan. I love the eternal quality of a lot of his work where you just can’t date it. It’s good forever. The Kimbell looks as fresh today as it did 40 years ago. I love the quality of the pavilions’ concrete columns that makes them seem like they could be industrial. They just are what they are—not fussed up.
Tell me about the history of the cistern, which is the art space under the green at the Water Works. How did it become part of the project?
It was never in the scope of budget, to begin with. The cistern was adjacent to the park land, and owned by the water utility for the City of Houston. They were ready to demolish it, but they thought, “Maybe we just give this land to the park.” So we went over to see what would we do with it. As soon as we saw it, we knew we had to preserve it, had to find another alternative use for it and make it real public space. We had this idea about an exhibition space, and the cistern’s 17-second reverberation time meant sound installations would be possible, as well as visual art. Our client found additional funds, partnered with the Houston Arts Alliance and other institutions to create a program for installing art in the space, and it’s been a huge success.
It’s such a powerful space—it almost has a religious quality to it, which is enhanced by the way you’ve lit that perimeter walkway, so the space seems to glow.
The space had no light, so something had to be done to make you able to experience it. And we went through 50 versions that were way more over the top, but finally just pared it back to the least we could do to make it simple and elegant. The intention has been to always keep it flooded with at least a few inches of water, because the effect is just spectacular. That’s the way we found it, and it just makes it way more dramatic.
This entire project seems like a kind of essay on water, and on how we relate to water.
That is totally intentional. In Texas, water is a super-precious resource that we’re having to figure out how to manage properly. So theming the park that way is really about raising awareness that we need to be thinking about drainage ways, we need to be thinking about the preciousness of water, and we need to be talking about the management of water in the 21st century.
Overall, the images of the park look so appealing. How much is it used?
It’s very heavily used. It goes right into downtown, and then along a parkway that has high-rise buildings all along it. On one side, it’s a very affluent, kind of hip, neighborhood with lots of good mixed-use buildings and on the other it’s a funky, not particularly affluent, but really cool, neighborhood. It’s a really good demographic cross-section of that part of Houston. It’s horrible how siloed we are in American cities. Houston is just about the most diverse city you can imagine—it’s a freakin’ United Nations—but the demographics don’t often converge. Buffalo Bayou Park and Discovery Green are places where you see everybody—very affluent people, those who are struggling, every ethnicity you can imagine—all interacting. It’s really great.
It’s remarkable to watch how our cities have come back to life in this country. It’s a wonderful shift in the history of American urbanism.
Who would have thought, when we were in school, that we would still be making major public spaces in the U.S. that are flooded with people of all backgrounds who are really enjoying the outdoors? By now, public spaces were supposed to be dead. Everybody was supposed to be inside watching TV. I just love the idea that we’re thinking of architecture as a device for health. There are solutions in lifestyle, and lifestyle depends on architecture.
Project: Buffalo Bayou Park & the Cistern, Houston, Texas
Client/Owner: Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Architect: Page, Washington, D.C. . Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA (principal-in-charge, park structures, cistern); Melanie Starman Bash, AIA (project manager, park structures, cistern); Randolph L. Hurst (senior project architect, park structures, cistern); Tami Merrick, AIA (senior project architect, park structures); John Garrett Neubauer, Luis Reyes (cistern project team); Andy Phan (cistern visualization director)
Landscape Architect: SWA Group
M/E/P Engineer: Page
Structural Engineer: Ingenium (park structures); RDP Engineers (cistern)
Civil Engineer: United Engineers
Environmental Consultant: Hunt and Hunt Engineering
Construction Manager: Millis
Size: 16,414 square feet (park structures); 88,300 square feet (cistern)