• The paving at the front of the building and under the awning has been removed, replaced by seating and drought-resistant plantings. - photo by Mariella and Luis Ayala

Vibrant, a new healthy eating establishment in Houston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, occupies a 1960s building previously used as a dry cleaner’s.

Architect Lake|Flato Architects
General Contractor Parker Project Management
MEP Engineer Collaborative Engineering Group
Civil Engineer Ward, Getz & Associates
Structural Engineer Henderson Rogers

In 1961, a building was completed on the corner of Fairview and Morse in Houston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The structure was funky, with a curious clerestory window and a two-sided porte cochere. By 2016, it had outlived decades of use as McGowen Cleaners and stood empty. Environmental reports found no dangerous chemicals lurking from decades of dry cleaning, so the place stood ready for its second act.

It was just right for Kelly Barnhart’s first restaurant. Barnhart, a Houston native, lives nearby and was inspired to open the business after searching for (and not finding many) healthy eating options for her daughter. The result is Vibrant, an all-day establishment where “eating is equally about well-being and pleasure,” according to their website. Barnhart tapped Portland-based food blogger Alison Wu to craft the menu. The offerings are gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, corn-free, peanut-free, soy-free, and non-GMO. The resulting food is herbal and bright, with flowers tossed into salads and an electric green curry, all plated on flecked ceramic dishes. Houston is a food destination, but Vibrant still stands out for its artful offerings.

The architecture follows suit. “We fell in love with the building right away,” remembers Lewis McNeel, AIA, one of the architects from Lake|Flato who worked on the project. The team responded to the shell’s defining characteristics in designing the update. They kept the trapezoidal pop-up, but dropped the windowsill to create a large, nearly square opening. On the south side, a long line of windows, hooded on the exterior, brings direct light into the dining room that complements the even illumination from the main aperture to the north. The inset entry glazing creates a comfortable outdoor room within the original building footprint, accentuated by a skylight. The snake tongue canopy remains, now sheltering a pleasant outdoor dining area. 

Lake|Flato worked closely with the owner to finish out the interior. After an entrance through the tan brick and clay tile exterior, the space is mostly off-white, with a warm wood banquette lining two walls and a stylish collection of chairs and pendants. Custom terrazzo elements with pink, orange, and blue chips mix with a bar with rolled edges, at once baroque and cave-like, perfect for Instagram. A large abstract painting adds to the muted palette, and an inflatable fabric duct adds to the softness. Even the neighborhood cat that sauntered up outside during breakfast — white paws, ginger body — was part of the color story. The room is curated with an expert eye and an attention to detail, not Texas Tuscan but Montrose Milano. I would sit here all day if I could afford to.

“Buildings like this are the future,” McNeel told me, as the most sustainable thing we can do as architects is to reuse the structures we have rather than erecting new ones. This proposition, echoing Aldo Rossi’s ideas about the detachment of a building’s form from its use, is a radical one. It offers a pragmatism that Lake|Flato seeks to achieve in the work they do, regularly and with success. Considering that our building stock is aging, we should not tear it down, but instead repurpose this material resource in a creative way.

The future, in its potentiality, remains a condition of the present, which is anchored in the past. McNeel said that the entry courtyard is strategic as well as processional. In order to get the new building occupancy to work with the existing parking lot in terms of code requirements, they needed to cut 25 percent of the conditioned interior, hence the outdoor room. The preciousness of the interior dims when compared to this other, the wide paved expanse for cars, a visual reminder of what has driven the form of the city for the past century. If we could work on urbanism using the same care with which we curate our food experiences, we’d be that much healthier. 

In true New Age fashion, Vibrant’s website offers monthly astrology advice. For September, Juliana McCarthy wrote that, “if we can see beyond our Virgoan anxiety, we might realize that we’re on the precipice of great change — bringing a better paradigm into being. Now is not the time to give up, but to foster whatever we need to ground and take care of ourselves — spiritually, emotionally, and physically.” This summons a line from Rossi’s “A Scientific Autobiography,” one that aligns with Vibrant’s culinary mission of wellness: “Architecture [is] one of the ways that humanity [seeks] to survive; it [is] a way of expressing the fundamental search for happiness.”

Jack Murphy is a Master of Architecture candidate at Rice.

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