Asia Society Texas Center: First Look
In late January, the Asia Society Texas Center (Houston) hosted an open house for architects and interior designers. The evening consisted of self-guided tours of the newly completed multi-purpose center, tasty hors d’oeuvres and plenty of helpful docents ready to answer questions. The facility was designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who has several museums in his portfolio, including an addition and renovation of the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. Taniguchi’s work has been described by the New York Times as appearing to “float weightlessly”, and his choice of high end materials adds a clean sophistication to his minimal designs. Taniguchi’s work experience includes a stint under Walter Gropius as well as the Japanese modernist, Kenzo Tange. The influence of these notable architects is seen in Taniguchi’s choice of planar design elements, attention to detail and expert craftsmanship.
In the case of the new Asia Society Texas Center, the $48.4 million design consists of a series of planes that divide the center into its programmatic elements. The low-lying two-story (plus basement) center is respectful of the surrounding neighborhood and blends well with the 2 and 3 story townhouses. The material palette is comprised of Jura Limestone walls and panels (both interior and exterior), American Cherry wood paneling in the Fayez Sarofim Grand Hall and the Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, Basaltina Italian stone flooring on ground level, and an expanse of glazing and Appalachian White Oak floors. The building is unique in that it is the first commercial building in Houston to utilize a geothermal system. 117 wells installed 250 feet below the ground (under the adjacent parking lot) help keep the building comfortable and lower the center’s energy needs. The result is a 15 to 20 percent energy savings compared to conventional systems.
The first floor includes the 3,100 square foot Fayez Sarofim Grand Hall, which doubles as a grand entry for visitors as well as a large reception space for the adjacent theater or private events. This double height space is clean and open, with a statement staircase leading up to the water garden and smaller stairs leading down to the theater’s entrance. The towering limestone walls are interrupted by a ribbon of light between the Grand Hall and the theater, illuminating the space with warm natural light. At the west end of the hall is the information desk with digital signage welcoming incoming groups.
The Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater sits adjacent to the Grand Hall and is clad in beautiful American Cherry panels and boasts Italian designed seats; manufactured by none other than the makers of Maserati and Ferrari seats. The lavish interior remains understated with clean lines and seamless detailing. The theater is capable of hosting both live performances and cinema events, with a drop down screen that transforms the space from a performance theater to movie venue. This state-of-the-art theater is available for rent, and would no doubt make a memorable event.
Just off of the Grand Hall is the Cafe and North Gallery. These small spaces are intimate in size, but grand in presence. The large windows in both spaces provide protected views of the outdoors: the Cafe looks out onto the office wing and lawn while the North Gallery has views of approaching patrons. With seating for 40, the cafe will serve snacks, beverages and other light fare. It is intended as a space for both visitors and neighborhood residents to enjoy a relaxed environment.
Up the stairs is the Water Garden Terrace, where one is met with an innovative and spectacular view: a thin sheet of water on the roof provides an anchor for the downtown skyline. The water garden itself consists of a shallow steel tank on top of the Cafe and North Gallery roof that provides waterspouts and fog on a timer. The view of downtown is mirrored on the water and is intermittently obstructed by fog, providing an ethereal experience for those in the Water Garden Terrace.
Off the Water Garden Terrace space to the East is the Edward Rudge Allen III Education Center. The education center consists of a large banquet-style room that can seat 200 or can be divided into three individual classrooms via operable walls. The entire space overlooks the Green Garden through floor-to-ceiling glazing with custom fit sun shades. The Green Garden provides a sheltered outdoor experience with a gently sloping terrain filled with Asian Jasmine and a Bamboo screen to shield the view to neighboring residences.
Off the lounge space to the West is the Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery and sculpture garden. The indoor gallery can host up to three small exhibitions and is expected to include three touring and temporary exhibitions each year. The Center’s Open House and First Look Festival April 14-15 will mark the opening of Treasures of Asian Art: A Rockefeller Legacy which consists of over 50 pieces of art. Included with the art will be a specially commissioned piece by Korean artist Lee Ufan, to be displayed in the sculpture garden.
While the new building is empty of artifacts and exhibitions at this time, the vision for the Center is robust and brimming with potential. Thanks to the efforts of a group led by former First Lady Barbara Bush and former Ambassador Roy M. Huffington, the Asia Society Texas Center is steps away from being a reality that has been decades in the making. The Asia Society is “the leading educational organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context. Across the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, the Society provides insight, generates ideas, and promotes collaboration to address present challenges and create a shared future”.
It will be exciting to see how the community responds to this elegant addition. As the center bustles with people, art, programs, performances and more, the words of Mr. Taniguchi that the truly transforming thing is not the building itself, “but what goes on inside it”, will ring true.
Images provided by the Asia Society Texas Center and Brinn Miracle. For more information, visit their website: http://asiasociety.org/texas
Written by: Brinn Miracle