Houston’s Texas Tower reimagines the ground-floor experience.
Architect Pelli Clarke & Partners
Architect of Record, Fire & Life Safety Consultant, Code Consultant Kendall/Heaton Associates
Construction Manager Gilbane Building Company
MEP ME Engineers
Structural Engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates
Civil Engineer Kimley-Horn
Landscape Architect Clark Condon
Acoustic Design Cerami & Associates
Lighting Design One Lux Studio
Parking HWA Parking
Curtain Wall/Facade Design Read Jones Christoffersen
Geotechnical Engineering Langan Engineering
Interior Design, Signage & Wayfinding PDR
Retail Design Streetsense
Security & Surveillance Consultant HMA Consulting
LEED Administration and Environmental Design NORESCO
Vertical Transportation Persohn/Hahn Associates
Boasting the third largest skyline in terms of number of high-rises in the United States, Houston is known for the boldness and diversity of its downtown high-rise architecture. The city takes pride in its world-renowned architecture by I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson, as well as its diverse mix of postmodern, art deco, and Italian Renaissance architecture comprising the skyline downtown. The responsibility of adding to this iconic skyline was not lost on Pelli Clarke & Partners, when the design firm was selected by Hines and Montreal-based Ivanhoé Cambridge to design a 47-story office building at 845 Texas Avenue. “Although form was not the driver, we were very conscious of the building’s effect on the skyline,” explains Edward Dionne, AIA, a partner at Pelli Clarke & Partners. “Our process involves a lot of exploration of form and how each design concept joined the context of the skyline.” The building’s location positions it as a bookend for the skyline when approaching from the west and as an entry piece from the north. Yet, from both directions, the most striking aspect of the building’s silhouette is not its form but its orientation. The tower is skewed 45 degrees to the city grid, a unique move in response to the real driver of the design — the tenant experience.
As people are returning to the office, frequent workplace requests include access to natural light and outdoor space. “Being next to the tallest tower in the city had a great impact on our thinking about the tower’s orientations,” says Dionne. “We kept the tenant’s wellness in mind by making sure they had optimal access to views and daylight.” The result is a rectangular floor plate that is positioned diagonally on the site, which maximizes not only tenant views but also meaningful outdoor space. Rotating the tower above the garage creates three well-scaled outdoor terraces, instead of the commonly used singular oversized space. Terraces are also provided in cantilevered bays on each face of the building, making the outdoors accessible even from the upper levels of the tower.
With the lower garage aligned with the city block, the orientation of the tower is less apparent at street level, but the ground-floor experience is strikingly different than at adjacent buildings. The ground plane hosts a modern mix of pavers in warm earth tones, and low seat walls surround an abundance of large planting beds. Trees are closely spaced along the street front, protecting pedestrians from the traffic and offering much-needed shade in the Houston summer. The pedestrian-focused design is further supported by deep canopies — built into the building facade along three sides of the building — also warmly clad with natural materials and dark brown metal accents.
Outdoor dining spaces are often awkwardly exposed, jutting out into the pedestrian pathway, but here, the canopies anchor and give definition to these spaces. They also soften the edge of the building in a welcoming gesture to the community. Dionne explains: “The ground-floor experience needed to be reinvented. We wanted to surround the lobby with activity, as opposed to stranding it along a wall of glass on one side and cutting off its access to amenity and retail activity with a large swath of loading docks, utility plants, and parking entries.” This move positions the lobby as a central hub of activity that is completely enveloped by numerous retail and social amenities — which are still under construction — including a new outpost for Italian restaurant Etta by esteemed chef Danny Grant. Even the building entrance is highlighted by a fully glazed elliptical pavilion housing dining space that boldly protrudes toward the city corner. The resulting views connect the pedestrian to the interior social and dining space that, in turn, is open to the building lobby beyond. The transparency between the street and the ground floor invites activity inside and out.
The inner lobby beyond is an evolution of the cold, monumental space typically found at the base of the most exclusive buildings downtown. Visitors are still met with luxury materials, but the materials are warm, with dark brown mullions, extensive wood detailing, and richly upholstered seating. Instead of impressing guests with a massive space, the lobby is populated with activity nodes at multiple scales. Wood-accented niches define the hospitality-inspired social space that supports both community interactions and productivity. Coffee tables are accented with books, and chairs with colorful pillows provide the comfort of a well-designed living room but with twice the power outlets. Wide, open stairways and transparent balconies offer glimpses of activities on adjacent floors, the visible circulation and extension of workspace energizing the space while co-workers greet each other.
With the obvious resources invested in the exterior and public spaces, one can forget that their purpose is to support the corporate workspace above — a typology that has been challenged since the pandemic, now that more work is being done outside of the office. Pre-pandemic, developers were busily engaged in maximizing a tower’s population capacity, exploring ways to increase the density of the floor layouts. Now companies and employees are asking, “Do we need office space? And if we do, how can it support our work best?”
With each tenant answering these questions differently, the design team focused on adaptability. “We wanted a highly flexible and future-proof floor plan with great views and access to daylight, and we located the amenitized in logical locations — locations that did not inhibit the patterns of layouts we’ve historically seen,” Dionne explains. Enhanced elevatoring and wider staircases were included to accommodate a wider range of floor populations, increasing tenant options. Large, cantilevered bays also allow tenants to create a variety of modern office spaces — be they collaborative reception areas or social hubs — with dramatic views without interfering with modular layouts on the main floor plate. It is also in these locations that many of the upper floors have access to one of the exterior terraces.
An extensive network connecting 95 city blocks over more than 6 miles, Houston’s downtown underground tunnel system can often steal from the character of the street life. Although Texas Tower has a tunnel connection, this aspect is not celebrated. Instead, the building meets the street in a gracious, inviting fashion. It is encouraging to see an office tower focused not only on the health of occupants and their access to the natural environment, but also on the experience of the pedestrian at street level. With its influential location at the intersection of the central business, Theater, and Market Square historic districts, hopefully a precedent has been set for new development to actively interact with the streetscape and embrace downtown neighborhoods.
Emily Winters, AIA, is an architect and a principal at DLR Group in Houston.