A Downtown Houston site adjoining Spotts Park that once held an award-winning YWCA by Taft Architects will soon hold another architectural gem: a new headquarters for the Houston Endowment designed by Kevin Daly Architects (KDA) with PRODUCTORA, Tom Leader Studio (TLS) Landscape Architecture, Transsolar, and Kirksey Architecture. The Houston Endowment is a philanthropic organization established in 1937 that has contributed significantly to the growth and development of Houston through generous grantmaking activities in the areas of education, the arts, and health and human services. The foundation held an international design competition for its new headquarters and announced the winning team on November 7, 2019.
Following a model more familiar in Europe than in the U.S., the Houston Endowment partnered with UK-based design competition organizers Malcolm Reading Consultants to launch a broad call for interest in June 2019. Following a fairly standard RFQ model, the criteria required no design proposal, but rather a description of the proposed team’s composition, experience, and planned “initial approach.” The competition explicitly encouraged cross-disciplinary teams and partnerships between established and emerging firms; this led to a flurry of phone calls locally in Houston, leaving some small firms discouraged when potential partners were already “taken,” and prompting others to join multiple teams to increase their chances.
One hundred twenty-one teams responded to the call, and applications were evaluated by a shortlisting panel composed of accomplished architects and professionals in related fields. All teams received feedback on their scoring. The four highest-rated teams were invited to the second phase, in which they were given 10 weeks and an honorarium to provide a design concept for evaluation. In addition to the KDA-led winning team, the shortlist included Deborah Berke Partners with DAVID RUBIN Land Collective and Atelier Ten; Olson Kundig with Surfacedesign; and SCHAUM/SHIEH with HKS and Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. The shortlisted teams were invited to Houston to participate in a day of immersion with the stakeholders, with presentation of initial concepts over video conferencing due two weeks later.
The KDA and PRODUCTORA partnership resulted from the relationship of principals Kevin Daly and Wonne Ickx, who taught studios together at UCLA. The two had long searched for an opportunity to work together; ironically, the perfect moment did not present itself until after Ickx, a native of Belgium, moved back to Mexico City, where PRODUCTORA is based. Both offices work heavily in model, and after the visit to Houston, they began generating a variety of schemes. During the video conference presentation, says Ickx, all options were literally on the table, giving Houston Endowment a chance to “look into the kitchen” to both observe the mess and join in the design process. That call resulted in consensus on the general direction of the design, nothing formal or rigid, but rather just what Ickx called the “scaffolding” for the design proposal.
Daly is no stranger to Houston. He studied at Rice University in the ’90s while Lars Lerup was dean and vividly remembers visiting the ingloriously removed Taft YMCA as one of his first architectural experiences in the city. Lerup’s lectures focused on isolated jewels within Houston’s unique green canopy, but visiting the area again in 2019, Daly found the connecting fabric of these sites strengthened, the public realm reclaimed, and the outpost city reasserted as metropolis.
His was not a singular experience: TLS, Transsolar, and PRODUCTORA also found strength in the language and image of a canopy, both as a boundary device and mediator between interior and exterior, creating an intermediate space of comfort and gathering. An early image of Spotts Park with a natural canopy provided recurring inspiration, and the primary design gesture focuses on the re-creation of this canopy, albeit a technological version. Even still, the authors emphasize that the canopy is not conceived as an immutable element: They stress it is notational for the space underneath and that they are happy to let it evolve as the project crystalizes. Across the grain of the building, the formal entry moves through to the “back porch,” which spills into a series of terraces, the critical gestures, according to Ickx.
Despite formal divergences in their built work, Ickx and Daly in their studios both emphasize simplicity as a means of addressing complicated issues within architecture. However, their offices are driven by differing concerns, and traces of both are evident in the winning proposal: KDA provides the programmatic clarity and structure, and PRODUCTORA’s voice is evident in the geometric legibility. The architects have stated that working together from these perspectives allowed them to reconcile the proposal and that, as Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, once said to Daly, if it’s identifiable as work from either office, they would have failed as collaborators.
The Houston Endowment’s stated building goals parallel their organizational ones: being accessible to the community; providing connectivity to the context; and proposing “innovation with modesty.” In keeping with those aims, the new headquarters provides one edge to the public park, with amenities around the perimeter. Also, TLS’s landscape design utilized the topography in a nuanced way; stepped paths complement slow ramps, and various nodes provide subtle differences within the park, inviting a range of occupants. This proposal is designed as a community landmark, not a monument.
Construction will kick off this January, with completion scheduled for May 2022. While a multitude of unanswered questions remain, this is intentional and by design: Room has been left open for dialogue. The design team did not pretend to solve every maintenance or resiliency issue in the initial proposal, and the Houston Endowment is trusting that the team will address any concerns as the design progresses. If the communal hypothesis proves true, this experiment may very well open the eyes of local officials and other organizations as a model to be followed.
Jesse Hager, AIA, is principal of CONTENT Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston.