• The view of Arabella from the northwest corner along San Felipe is the most celebrated and elaborates on the high-rise’s grandiose verticality via a singular stroke requested by the client. - photo by Dror Baldinger, FAIA

With Arabella, the majority of whose 99 units are unique, the weirdly shifting mirage of Houston’s high-rise luxury residential development landscape just got a lot weirder.

Architect Powers Brown Architecture
General Contractor GT Leach Constructors
Civil Engineer Brooks & Sparks
Electrical Design-Build Engineer Hargrave Electric
MEP Engineer Kilgore Industries
Structural Engineer SCA Consulting Engineers
Interior Design 212box

Sales pitches for a lot of high-rise residential architecture in Houston’s vast, tower-speckled landscape have focused on the need to obtain uninterrupted views while they’re still available. The 33-story, 502,400-sf Arabella, for example, which is currently at almost 90 percent occupancy, offers ample views of the clustered towers of the nearby Galleria — just to the west, across I-610 — as well as arching panoramas of the city’s verdant tree canopy, interrupted by the thick arteries of the freeway system and other tower clusters: the Medical Center and Museum District to the southeast, and downtown to the east. Prior to the construction of the 24-story SkyHouse River Oaks next door, the Arabella offered these views unobstructed around the entire building perimeter. 

Houston developer Randall Davis, in partnership with Roberto Contreras of DC Partners, kicked the project off in 2014. Davis is known for erecting solidly constructed luxury residential projects in broadly interpreted historical styles — most notably, perhaps, the Renoir on Shepherd Drive, which is reminiscent of Second Empire France on LSD and steroids, complete with 16-ft-tall concrete caryatids punctuating the upper arcade. For Arabella, his vision was no less bold. He wanted something “iconic.”

The developers hosted a design competition to find the bold visionary to realize their ambition and attracted an unexpected fish: Powers Brown Architecture, which is more typically known for designing tilt-wall buildings and infrastructural projects. Jeffrey Brown, FAIA, design principal of Powers Brown (who has actually authored a book on tilt-wall construction), saw the timing of this opportunity as crucial to the growth of his 20-year-old company. In his words, “We felt if we didn’t get vertical, we would miss another vertical cycle.”

The Davis/Powers Brown combo turned out to be a match made in heaven, or Houston anyway, and wound up pushing both developer and architect out of their comfort zones, with results that can only be characterized as eye-catching — or eye-popping. “The iconography of the building came from trying to be a careful listener of Randall,” Brown says. “His whole brand was about uniqueness. And we thought, ‘What if we grab a hold of what his modus operandi is, and you run it to the smallest grain you can?’ And the smallest grain we could run it to was the expression of every single individual unit as something different.” 

Powers Brown’s design engages the developer’s brand in a way that elides Davis’ preferred nostalgic, period stylings. “When you’re working with developers, you’re a midwife for their product,” Brown says. “We were able to conform to the brand he created in a different way than he normally does.” They accomplished this by going against the high-rise trend of “amenitized repetition” and creating a tower of unique, customized homes. 

Increasing buyer options by offering more variety in unit types directly translated to the organization of the facade. Residential floors rotate from a fixed end at variable intervals, and, when overlaid with a fenestration strategy that alternates every other floor, the result is nearly 75 percent distinctive dwelling plans. 

Rotating at stepped intervals is a logic shared by the design of automotive camshaft lobes. Technically, it’s an interesting strategy. It’s also uncertain whether or not the vertical village is fully grasped by the viewer, or whether that’s even important. The entire elevation was originally designed as glass. The EIFS panels that are now interspersed along the facade were not the designer’s intent; they were a late addition to save on construction costs. From the adjacent roadway, the lower nine levels of garage podium are clad in monolithic, vertically ribbed stucco panels. The base of the building is not part of the dialogue, reminding the viewer that the architecture is best read quickly by a driver speeding past.

Nestled as it is beside the River Oaks Shopping District and a stone’s throw from the Galleria, Arabella is positioned well to take advantage of Houston’s luxury lifestyle offerings. More immediately, it sits adjacent to surface parking lots and low-rise big-box stores, and along the innermost arterial loop encircling Houston. Emerging above the dross, it also delivers a crash course in the perils of form over function: Structural columns in unfortunate locations act as a reminder of the cost of living in an ‘iconic’ building. The internal organization is discontinuous, and the daily procession for residents is intentionally isolated and private. The building eschews notions of walkability and mixed-use, since residents are far more likely to get in their car and drive a few blocks. You have to look beyond the block, though, as the lifestyle provided is, in Brown’s formulation, “sold as part of a larger urban ensemble.” 

Shane Wilson, AIA, is a founding principal of w[squared] architects in Houston. 

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