BIG architect, benign design for Downtown Houston
Skanska, a real estate development and construction company, recently unveiled a new project downtown: 1550 on the Green. The tower — or rather, collection of connected towers — is designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), founded by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels in 2005. This is the office’s first project in Houston. Unfortunately, the project’s initial images show a fairly generic design that is less ambitious than what the office imagines for other cities. When it comes to innovative architecture, BIG can do better, and Houston deserves better.
Having a BIG project in Houston is a big deal. The popular office quickly gained fame for its distinctive buildings. They designed a power plant with a ski slope on its roof; they did an apartment building that masqueraded as a mountain; now, they have work worldwide, including multiple towers on Manhattan. Today BIG is led by 17 partners from offices in Copenhagen, New York, London and Barcelona.
Ingels himself is a celebrity. In 2017 he appeared in the first season of “Abstract,” a Netflix show about design. His work offers a vision of what he calls hedonistic sustainability, one in which environmentally doing the right thing results in more pleasure and better public life.
BIG makes architecture from diagrams. Their stepby-step design process and immersive media presentations ensure the ideas are clearly understood. Though they sometimes favor complex geometries, at times their buildings are overwhelming in person. This is one of the major criticisms of BIG’s work: shape matters more than space.
In Houston, 1550 on the Green will be built on a parking lot next to Discovery Green. Six connected towers are set along the curve of La Branch Street. The lower floors are for parking; their screening connects them with the office facades above. The overlapping towers are elevated; their bottoms cantilever over sheltered ground space. Like the variable height of the towers, this offset changes, creating spaces with different ceiling heights. This is a promising move that will extend activity from the park into the building.
It’s disappointing that 1550 on the Green wasn’t delivered with the level of consideration given to other BIG projects. Rather than being bold in their typical way, in Houston BIG’s dynamic shape-making disappears into glassy anonymity. While the office is “known for their ‘pragmatic utopian architecture’ that avoids simple shapes and boxes,” as stated in press release materials, a series of simple boxes is what’s planned here, more pragmatic than utopian. Architecturally, it’s all a bit phoned in, which is a letdown when you see what BIG proposes elsewhere. The tower doesn’t seem to be of consequence for the office, which elected to make public just three average images and isn’t quoted in the press materials.
Further, the most interesting formal aspect of the tower isn’t clear from the images we have: Skanska didn’t acquire the Embassy Suites hotel — about 17 stories tall — on the same block, so the relationship between it and 1550 on the Green will be interesting.
On the other hand, it would have been terrible if BIG proposed something so wild that it overwhelmed Discovery Green. Benign is better than offensive. This project is a quiet offering, and that’s a mature achievement for the young office, only 16 years old.
Impressive smaller-scale design moves are hopefully forthcoming due to the work of a Texas firm: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, with offices in Austin and Houston, will design the project’s interior amenity spaces. They’ve handled Houston destinations like Uchi, Heights Mercantile and the newly completed M-K-T complex.
From prior projects, it’s clear that Skanska is committed to delivering quality Class A office space. This new tower offers a glimpse of what office space might look like after COVID-19, as its design occurred last year. In addition to touchless amenities, Skanska shared that “the building will have a unique mechanical system that will bring in 30 percent more fresh air than a typical building.” This uncommon system will allow the building to “completely flush a floor (100 percent air exchange) with fresh outside air in approximately one hour.” Transmission of COVID-19 via mechanical air conditioning is a real threat, so the ability to reduce this risk is attractive and will be a major differentiator.
More construction will occur nearby: 1550 on the Green is the first part of Skanska’s three-block development called Discovery West, which will deliver 1.5 million square feet of multi-family, office and retail space. Schemes for subsequent phases haven’t been released, but they will also be designed by BIG.
Decades ago, Houston built projects that changed the course of architecture internationally. Our city deserves world-class architecture downtown and beyond. It remains to be seen if BIG’s next designs for Discovery West will lead the way.