• Layers of geological sediment and arrays of circuitry inspired the pattern on the precast cladding. Photo by Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Project BP Center for High Performance Computing, Houston
Client  BP America
Architect  HOK
Design Team  Peter Ruggiero, AIA; Kathrin Brunner; Bob Carnegie, AIA; Francisco Silva, AIA; Gregory Lake, AIA; Joanna Lam; Emily Willner, NCIDQ
Photographers  Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Speeding down I-10 west of Houston, it is easy to lose interest in the amalgamation of architecture on either side of the roadway, yet within this monotonous lull of freeway and commodity lies a facility dedicated to the speed of data. The BP High Performance Computing Center on the BP campus contradicts both the adjacent freeway and the existing archetypes of data computing centers. The project, sensitive to its location and function, prompted jury member Clive Wilkinson, FAIA, to say: “We thought it was important to acknowledge it as an example of what these types of buildings could do, which is something that is so often disappointing. This was something well worth applauding.”

Duality of purpose, duality of inhabitants, and duality of responses characterize the facility. It plays two roles adjacent to the freeway that conveys mass numbers of people on a daily basis: It must address this entity too large to disregard (that section of I-10, comprising an astounding 26 lanes, is the widest freeway in the world), while also acknowledging the BP campus that houses it. What the Computing Center shelters is 65% “silicon-based” (the machines) and 35% carbon-based (the humans). While silicon reigns supreme in this structure, the design is mindful of its role as a place where carbon-based life performs day-to-day work activities. The box-within-a-box archetype had to be expanded to put researchers in close proximity to their computations. This duality of response is handled by the separation of focus for each of the three floors within the design.

The building is split on each level between the humans and the machines, a duality not lost on its inhabitants or the design team at HOK. The lower floor is still the area with the most public access, and it addresses the bulk of the main campus to the south: An outstretched, glazed appendage invites users to approach this elevated first level, where the conference room has become a campus favorite. Perhaps paradoxically, there is no pressing sense of congestion or noise, as the 26 lanes of traffic nearby are hidden behind the curved clad north wall of the conference room; this floor purposely turns its back on the freeway just yards away. (The freeway is so close that an auto or two has already entered the stormwater detention area now dubbed the “protection moat” by the center’s on-site director of technical computing, Keith Gray.)

The upper two floors contain both inhabitable space and space dedicated to the business of data computing. These floors expose themselves along the north facade via a rippling wave of ribbon glazing to the bustling of the interstate. The carbon-based occupants get to work in this portion of the building, with its copious north light and sometimes frantic views. The spaces are elevated and insulated from the noise of the freeway, yet just across the corridor the purr of big data computing is all that one can hear. The uppermost floor houses one of the largest supercomputers for commercial computations in the world. In the center of this supercomputing brain is the “Fishbowl,” a glass-enclosed conference room amid the data servers, computing racks, and buzz at the heart of the building’s third floor — a computer geek’s dream space. Sitting in this space — insulated from the heat and whirring, yet fully aware of the computing racks, their continuous blinking, and obvious workloads — the duality of the facility becomes apparent, and the sophistication of the solution even more so.

Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is principal of Hawkins Architecture in College Station.

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