• The Cistern draws comparison to its counterpart in Istanbul and the rhythms of the great mosques. Photo by Albert Vecerka / Esto Photographics.

Location Houston
Client Buffalo Bayou Partnership
Architect Page
Design Team Lawrence Speck, FAIA
Photographer Albert Vecerka / Esto Photographics

The jury seemed to treat the Cistern as a discovery, which in a way it was. Decommissioned in 2007 due to a leak, the city of Houston’s first drinking water reservoir — an 87,500-sf, semi-submerged concrete box, completed in 1926 — was quickly forgotten by most and slated for demolition in 2011. With the rehabilitation of the neighboring bayou, the site was eventually handed over to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), who in turn engaged Page and SWA for the extent of the project. After intrepid architects dropped into the Cistern on a cold February morning from an opening in the roof, one decision was certain: This hidden treasure would not be demolished. Initially, “every option was a possibility,” says Lawrence Speck, FAIA, of Page. Since this is Houston, turning it into a parking garage and a restaurant was explored, but in the end all agreed it was best left as pure, with as “little intrusion as possible.”

The architectural gesture is limited to a berm around the perimeter, further concealing the neglected reservoir. Cutting through this berm, a gentle, curving ramp provides transition from the heat and glare of a typical Houston day to the dark interior of the Cistern, where visitors also get to “discover” this infrastructural gem.

Inside the Cistern, six inches of recirculating water reflect a small forest of 221 columns. Page inserted a six-ft-wide walkway around the periphery of the cavernous space, illuminated by subtle, linear lighting introduced near knee height. “What a simple way to actually create this extraordinary experience,” says juror Julie Snow, FAIA. Visually, it is stunning, and with the lights off, one is tempted to run one’s hand along the perimeter wall. The moisture in the air — and, more profoundly, the 17-second reverberation — define the space as much as do the columns. Recently, these attributes were exploited masterfully with the first temporary exhibition in the space, by Magdalena Fernández, entitled “Rain.” Video from her series “Mobile Paintings” is complemented by recordings of snaps and slaps that are reminiscent of the noise a Texas toad-strangler rainfall makes.

With the enthusiastic support of the MFAH and the instrumental assistance of the Houston Arts Alliance, an installation in this space is able to introduce a broader audience to the immersive possibilities of art. When no installation is in place, the BBP runs an educational program focused on the increasing importance of water in interaction with the city. Thus far, the space has been a tremendous success — “way better than any of us could have conceived,” says Speck. Anne Olson of the BBP concurs: “We are thrilled with the response from the public.”

Jesse Hager, AIA, is a principal of CONTENT Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston.

Leave a Comment