Houston Chronicle

BIG architect, benign design for Downtown Houston

- By Jack Murphy Murphy is the editor of Cite, where a longer version of this article originally appeared. It is a publicatio­n of the Rice Design Alliance, the public programs and outreach arm of Rice Architectu­re.

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.

 ?? Skanska ?? Skanska is planning a 28-story office tower called 1550 on the Green, part of a three-block master plan.
Skanska Skanska is planning a 28-story office tower called 1550 on the Green, part of a three-block master plan.

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