Houston is known as a car-centric commuter city. When our freeways become clogged, we simply build more freeways. Two loops around the city are not nearly convenient enough, so we are building a third. In an effort to combat congestion and find favor with the urbanists who demand the mythical ‘walkability’, Metro is building additional light rail lines around the city. What better way to display Houston’s new transit prowess than by inviting a formidable line up of architectural heavy weights to design the focal node of our new system: Houston Central Station? If we can make Metro out to be cool and relevant, maybe more hipsters and ‘other folk’ (even the fabled suburbanites!?) will take a turn on the new rail line – even if it doesn’t go where we need it to. While we may never have a need to wander down the north line extension to the alleged crack houses, progress is progress!
I could spend quite a bit of time discussing the implications of the current rail line locations, including the vast emptiness of no-man’s land and the missed opportunity to rid Washington Avenue of the drunken horde by providing them with an alternative transportation method to the Pedal Party. However, I digress and instead turn attention to the glimmer of hope for Houston’s transit future: the proposals of five award winning firms for the Houston Central Station (hosted by the Downtown District and Metro). The designs for a single transfer station between the red north-south line and the new East End lines were presented to a large crowd of hipsters, urbanites and architects in the BG Group Place building on a dreary and damp Wednesday evening. The competition called for an iconic landmark station on a challenging site: the median strip on Main street between Capitol and Rusk. Let’s build the case by going with a ‘bottom up’ approach and weed out the proposals that just didn’t quite hit the mark.
As the only Houston-based design group, I was really excited to see their proposal and hoped they would rival the talents of the east and west coast teams. My hopes were dashed as soon as the presenter began reading from a script. While I understand that not everyone can be the world’s greatest orator, having an articulate presenter is paramount to the success of a project. In this regard, Interloop was blown out of the water by the competition. What makes a great presentation? Natural conversation that doesn’t make excuses or minimize the work. Too often I heard the words ‘maybe’, ‘just’, and ‘sorta’. A project either is or is not something. There is no ‘maybe’ or ‘sorta’. My graduate school professor taught me that using the word ‘just’ to describe a project minimizes the importance and impact it has. If the project is ‘just another way to transport people’, why should I care? Confidence is everything.
Beyond the self-deflating word choices and poorly executed presentation, the design itself came off as disjointed and incongruent with the site and its own aspirations. The proposal included redirecting disembarking passengers away from the two ends of the platform (where crosswalks are located), and instead funneling them into a single exit point, located at an awkward less-than-midway portion of the platform. The intent was to alleviate two-directional traffic on the platform and funnel it in a single direction, since it will service both north and south bound passengers . However, all existing rail stations consist of separate platforms for each direction. As good as the intentions may be, this would cause a traffic meltdown. What happens when you try to mix regulars riders who are ‘in the know’ about the ‘sorta’ mid-point cross-walk with the directionally-confused newbs who have no idea you can’t cross at the ends? What happens when you throw in the stubborn riders who don’t feel constrained to use the designated mid-platform cross walk and show their independence by jumping off the platform where they feel like it (most likely in front of trains or cars)? Now let’s throw in the enraged drivers who just came in from I-45 North and mistakenly turned onto Main where they’re stuck for the next 7 miles trying to turn left – but can’t – and all of a sudden a stream of train riders come barreling towards them in the middle of the city block. Can we say mass panic and hysteria?
The same confusion and frustration would ensue if the second portion of this proposal was enacted: moving all of the ticketing, fare validators, maps and signage off of the platform and onto the adjacent sidewalks. Again, the intention was great: clear off the narrow platform to make room for passengers. However, the idea is fundamentally flawed in that it is the exception to an established rule: all of these items are on existing platforms. By removing the familiarity of location, riders will be confused and this confusion will lead to missed trains, frustrated passengers, and potentially more accidents as users scramble on and off the platform trying to tap their Q-Cards before the next train arrives. Pair this with the fact that the train will block the ‘less-than-midpoint-crosswalk’, and you’ll have irate Houstonians in abundance.
The third strike for this design was the material choice: used road signs as cladding. While I loved the irony of the auto-centric culture providing the sheltering elements for the transit oriented culture, the irony isn’t enough to mask the inherent flaws with this choice. Though discarded and decommissioned traffic signs exist in abundance, the proposal called for a plethora of individually shaped signs wrapped around a structural shell. Hundreds of signs would have to be hand cut, placed and bent into the correct angle, piling up the costs of skilled labor. Perhaps if they pursued an orthogonal solution for holding the signs it would have been justified.
I wanted to like this one, I really did. The concept was good – in theory. But all theory must be tested, and this one doesn’t hold up. The concept revolved around water, highlighting the fact that Houston experiences over 100 days of rain annually and is a bayou city. The design sought to incorporate the concept of water by channeling rain down concrete spouts thereby allowing users to interact with and ‘experience’ water. Don’t get me wrong, I love water features, splashing around in fountains, watching the rain and all that. However, the crucial point that Snohetta failed to address in their ‘experience water’ project is the fact that users want control over how and when they interact with water. Forcing someone to walk through puddles or a glorified downspout is not the way to make friends. Some of the human-esque ‘funnel points’ directed water onto the platform deliberately. This was the point at which the project dug its grave. The last thing someone wants when waiting for a train is to get splashed as they stand under what they believed to be shelter from the elements (and in their work clothes or favorite shoes, no less!). By removing the element of personal control from the design, it fails. The areas of the platform where water is directed would be avoided, causing congestion and removing valuable open space on an already narrow platform.
Folks, if you remember one thing, let it be to check your work for striking similarities to inappropriate body parts. If your building reminds you of ‘where the sun don’t shine’, it is time to revise your design. If you can’t seem to find anything wrong with your design, ask a friend. Just make sure your friend has more maturity than a 7th grader and you should be fine with whatever they recommend. One of the competition’s requirements was for each proposal to look good from all angles - even from above. Now I don’t know about you – and I probably don’t want to know – but if I had to stare at a gaping hole that was reminiscent of…bodily orifices…I think I might vomit. Daily. No one wants that. So in this respect, the design utterly fails (unless of course they were aiming to ‘moon’ the residents of the St. Germain Lofts, in which case, they succeed with bravado!).
Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis
This proposal leaves me struggling for words, in that it is neither outright bad or significantly interesting. I think ‘vanilla’ is the term that best fits this proposal, which is not keeping with the competition’s aim to produce an iconic landmark station. The design consists of a simple box, the same size as the median strip provided for the platform. The box was elevated above the median, and each end was twisted upwards. Slap on some vertical siding and call it a day – or in this case, a rail station.
First, I have no qualms with simplicity. The challenge of simplicity is that it has to have authority. By that, I mean a simplistic design must have a sense of purpose beyond itself in order to be meaningful. Simplicity due to limited scope or concept turns out boring. The problem with this proposal is that is has no authority. The project doesn’t speak for itself, and has no underlying sense of integrity, purpose or forethought. The logic behind the design decisions were presented in such a way as to seem post-rationalized rather than pre-planned. The upturned corners of the box seem to personify the shelter, making it seem as if the structure is peering down the tracks in anticipation of the arriving train. The end elevation also happens to look similar to the Metro logo. The uplift of the corners allows for clever signage and way-finding information. The ideas work well, but they seemed to be more of an after thought than anything.
Unfortunately, the material choices don’t do much to help the cause. While I wrote down the word ‘plywood’ in my notes from the presentation, the press release clearly states ‘steel’ as the primary material for the 9″ vertical cladding strips. Perhaps my horror at the material choice came out subconsciously as a disdain for plywood in a public setting. Whether steel or plywood, the general look of this design is ‘grungy’. It looks a bit cheap, and the line up of vertical signage and benches are reminiscent of gas pumps. Unfortunately, irony from car culture is not explicit in this design. Overall, this proposal just doesn’t stick with you in the way a true icon should.
Neil M. Denari Architects
This colorful proposal got me excited. It was sleek, stunning, and yet somehow restrained. The presentation highlighted the process of relating the design to existing Houston icons by pointing out that iconic design is not a particular style, but rather a combination of meaning, use, and the subject. According to Neil M. Denari Architects, icons are “determined by culture.” Material choice was derived from the abundance of steel buildings, specifically Mies van der Rohe’s Museum of Fine Arts. The color was an homage to the surrounding icons of art and architecture, including sculptural works by Calder and even the George R. Brown convention center a few blocks away. The reasoning behind the shape is derived from mixing the rigidity of Mies with the fluidity of Calder. I appreciated the nods to the immediate context, and the logic of creating an icon by using the same steps as other icons makes sense.
The design is visually appealing, and could be implemented on a mass scale (read: other rail stations could be color coordinated). The openness of the platform due to the limited structural supports helped the pedestrian-scaled platform cover to not feel imposing. Structure, signage, ticketing, lighting and seating are effortlessly integrated and appear intentional yet subdued. There is a certain quietness about this proposal – the design speaks for itself in a very sophisticated way.
This design definitely appeals on a number of levels, but I question the theory of deriving meaning and significance from another icon. Can one object gain iconic status by referencing another icon? What happens if those other icons are removed? Overall, this design would be a great addition to the Houston city-scape by serving its intended purpose humbly. As for iconic status – that would be determined over time.
The presentation began with an overview of the firm’s background, sustainable design philosophy and the idea that transit stations influence not only mobility but the way in which a traveler experiences the city. Holding to this idea, the design concept revolved around the form of traditional train stations: columns supporting vaulted ceilings, lofted spaces that conjured images of grandeur, a firmness and solidarity that resonated with its surroundings. The basic vaulted form of traditional designs was uprooted and flipped upside down – creating a tent like structure that reached towards the sky and stretched beyond the confines of the narrow platform. Breaking free from the restrictive site, the structure’s scale relates both to the user and to the contextual built environment, creating a harmony between all participants.
The design succeeds in the competition’s call for a visually appealing form viewed from both above and below. Of all the proposals, this one meets the challenge best. It also succeeds in relating to both the human scale as well as the proportions of the surrounding buildings. The soaring 100 foot solar chimneys reach high above the ground plane, serving as both a mediator between man and architecture while providing a practical relief from the sweltering Houston heat. The chimneys provide natural ventilation, and the addition of large fans at the chimney base helps circulate the air and keep riders cool. The openings of the three chimneys are located at the edges of the platform, so rain water will not disrupt the waiting passengers. This design is the only one that addresses the gap – the space between the platform edge and the train that must be kept clear. By creating a design that soars high above the electrified lines and anchors onto the sidewalks beyond, the covering extends over the trains to eliminate the sheet of rain that would otherwise leave riders wet. The structure touches the ground lightly, and incorporates desiccant or phase change material to reduce area humidity. The way in which the canopy structure extends beyond the platform and embraces the surrounding context gives this design an authority; it has intent, purpose and clarity in concept – without having to explain itself. It just makes sense.
The versatility of this design lies in its simplicity. It can be experienced from near or far and can be lit with various colors to signify special events or holidays. It’s towering stature allows it to be identified from afar, aiding in way-finding and over all experience. The concept of grandeur that was conveyed through the traditional vaulted form is definitely felt in this piece, though it is not a literal interpretation, nor does it borrow its iconicity from another icon. The idea of form as a conceptual driving force is much more universal than a singular icon applied to another design. Because of the far reaching implications, I believe this design would be a great addition to Houston and would serve as an immediate iconic landmark station. The integrity and purposefulness of it removes the need for explanation or justification; the true sign of an iconic design.
Be sure to go see the full presentation boards, on display at the Chase Building and leave your comments for which design you want to see as Houston’s next icon.