• Varying tower heights create inhabitable rooftop spaces that will be designed in collaboration with SWA. - image courtesy Skanska

On January 13, development and construction giant Skanska USA unveiled renderings of 1550 on the Green, an office tower in downtown Houston designed by Bjarke Ingles Group (BIG). The 28-story, 375,000-sf development marks BIG’s inaugural project in the biggest city of the biggest state within the contiguous United States. The anchor tenant, international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, will acquire naming rights in 2024, when the structure is scheduled for completion. 

The development is the first part of a master plan called Discovery West, designed by BIG for Skanska after the developer acquired nearly 3.5 acres of property in East Downtown for $55 million. Skanska, which also created the open-source Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, is collaborating with the Discovery Green board and other urban organizations in Houston in hopes of developing a walkable, carbon-neutral campus adjacent to Discovery Green. 

1550 sits on a lot directly south of the westernmost point of Discovery Green park, wrapping around an existing Embassy Suites hotel. The partial parcel the project occupies is bound by La Branch Street, Dallas Street, Crawford Street, and lines the curve of Lamar Street where the project directly confronts the park. The site is a vital location for the urban complexion of East Downtown as it caps off any views west of the park.

The project is a series of six attached towers, varying in height, curling out to mirror the bend of the road. The towers, measuring 60 feet wide and 60 feet deep, all share floorplates and a common circulation facilitated by a side core scheme. Grooves demarcate each tower, breaking up the glassy facade into six parts of similar widths tangential to the curve of Lamar Street. These wedges separating the office towers are the columns that hold up the volumes, simultaneously creating more corner conditions in the offices. “The challenge here was how to create a striking silhouette with a simple stepped massing responding to the context of Downtown Houston and the future development of Discovery West and, at the same time, create a human-scale pedestrian experience on the ground,” says BIG partner in charge Martin Voelkle. 

Each tower is raised off the ground at a different height, and together they create a pedestrian zone accessible from the park. Promises of walkability and 7,000 sf of retail space on the ground floor should soften the boundary between the project and the park. The towers cantilever over this pedestrian zone, and an extension of the tree canopy from the park further shades the area. This ground floor plaza space includes places to eat as well as a “microforest” corresponding to the tower closest to the park and framing both sides of the lobby in hopes of drawing in park visitors. While, on the one hand, this move establishes a human-scaled streetscape at the base of the high-rises, there is the risk that it will be operated like a corporate campus for tenants and not visitors, where spaces of leisure are paired with consumption, conflicting with the public, accessible nature of Discovery Green.

A parking garage sits directly above the pedestrian zone, and the inhabitable office space sits atop the plinth. A continuous facade of louvers that begin to twist at the level of the garage blends the parking and office volumes, acting as a shading system for the offices and a screening system for the garage. Two of the shorter towers have rooftop terraces accessible to tenants, and the tallest tower has a rooftop event space reserved exclusively for tenant use. BIG has designed the rooftop spaces in collaboration with landscape architects SWA of Houston. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture is slated to design the interior amenity spaces.

“Rather than just adding another building to downtown Houston that tries to get a lot of attention,” says Voelkle, “we tried to be quite subtle and simply complete the framing of the park on a site with a quite complex outline.”

While the project does not greatly challenge the emerging skyline, it does show a level of restraint and maturity from BIG, rejecting the gestural formalism typical of the firm in favor of a quiet building on a complex site that nonetheless adds to the complexity of East Downtown.

Jad Moghnieh is a student at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design. 

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