Design Excellence Awards

< Back to Design Excellence Awards

Government Design Excellence Award
Presented to Page
Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Houston, Texas

Project Description

Bids had already been solicited by the City of Houston to demolish the Cistern when the design team was given an opportunity to drop through a roof hatch and view the space. The defunct underground drinking water reservoir, built in 1927, had been out of service for years and the city was considering proposals for commercial uses for the property. Once inside, the designers saw one of the most powerful and memorable industrial structures ever built in the U.S. The vastness of the space, its complete darkness except for the modest dose of light introduced by open hatches, the relentless rhythm of repetitive structural elements and the 17-second reverberation time that magnifies sound to an almost physical presence all conspire to create an extraordinary interior architectural experience.

Realizing the historical and architectural significance of the highly unusual space,a plan was developed to repurpose the Cistern into a magnificent civic space that would serve as a visitor destination and could accommodate installation art – particularly light and sound. The clients wanted the design improvements to be as visually unobtrusive as possible to direct visitors’ focus on the simple beauty of the columns, reflections in the water, and sound amplification. The design team’s challenge was to bring the space up to code and make it accessible to the public, while also accommodating a vision of temporary art installations, without distracting from the original architecture. In addition, the team had to ensure visitors’ comfort in Houston’s humid climate.

To accomplish this, a “less is more” approach was taken to preserve the interior space. The team designed an 800sf ground-level entry passageway to help transition visitors from the outside world down into the Cistern. Care was taken to ensure human senses would process the change gradually by using a curving path to minimize the downward slope. Soft LED lighting illuminates only the accessible path,leaving the ceiling black to prepare visitors to step into a vast, dark space. The concrete walkway and board forms on the wall mimic the original, elemental material used on the construction of the structure in 1926 to create senses of continuity and connection.

Inside the Cistern, the design team made improvements to the ledge on the perimeter of the space to create an accessible walkway. The soft, low line of LED lighting continues from the tunnel into the transparent handrail edging the walkway. A constant depth of a few inches of water is maintained on the floor, creating dramatic reflections that emphasize the vastness of the space by making it seem double its actual height. Fire egress doors and moveable hatches in the roof permit adjustable penetration of natural light. Due to its subterranean location, the space is moderately temperate year-round even in the hot and humid Houston climate. As a result, energy efficient, unobtrusive mechanical equipment was all that was needed to temper and circulate fresh air throughout the space.

The Cistern has attracted national media attention – Los Angeles Times, The Smithsonian and The Weather Channel to name a few outlets – for its distinctiveness and for the enthusiasm people have reported upon experiencing it in person. In the few short weeks it has been open to the public, the Cistern has become a high-ranking visitor attraction, no small feat in the fourth-largest city in the U.S. Reservations for tours are required to ensure that the safety capacity limit is heeded and in the first 11 weeks it has been open since May 13, 2016 every single tour has sold out resulting in 7,994 visitors to date (statistics provided August 1, 2016).

For a city that has spent significant resources actively working to improve its stereotype of a hot, humid paved-over cowtown, The Cistern is a unique attraction that educates and entertains visitors and residents. It is also an inspirational piece of history in a city that has traditionally demolished its past to make way for shiny and new.