‘As welcoming as the shadow under a tree’: the new home for the man who built Houston | Architecture

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‘As welcoming as the shadow under a tree’: the new home for the man who built Houston | Architecture

Fnew figures shaped the shape and fortunes of a city as much as Jesse H Jones shaped Houston’s. Beginning in the early 1900s, the lumberyard owner turned real estate developer, banker, and Democratic politician built more than 35 skyscrapers across the Texas “bayou city.” Known as “Mr Houston”, Jones was instrumental in obtaining funds to build the ship canal that connected the city to the sea, creating an inland port connected to 17 railroad lines, which changed its outlook.

As Fortune magazine put it in 1940: “He built Houston from a one-night stand on Buffalo Bayou into the second largest and fastest growing metropolis in the South.” It is now the fourth largest city in the US, its port the second busiest in the country. Jones’ legacy still towers above the streets: if all his buildings were stacked on top of each other – from the elegant Rice Hotel to the art deco Gulf Tower – they would stretch two miles into the sky.

Unzoned cityscape … aerial view of the new Houston Endowment headquarters. Photo: Iwan Baan/Iwan Baan, Courtesy Kevin Daly Architects

Now, 66 years since his death, Jones’ vast fortune has spawned a more subtle architectural addition to Houston’s cluttered, unzoned cityscape. Perched atop a hill overlooking the rolling green of Spotts Park, where the bay sweeps to the west of the city, the new Houston Endowment headquarters stands as an elegant, low temple to philanthropy . A colonnade of toothpick-slender steel columns rises 12 meters to support a smooth-thin aluminum canopy that sails over a cluster of white cubic forms, shielding a staggered series of outdoor terraces from the harsh Texan sunshine. The volumes slide in and out, cantilevered above planted beds, their jagged surfaces adding depth to the play of shadows cast by the perforated louvres overhead.

“It’s essentially a giant back porch,” says Kevin Daly, referring to that classic Southern domestic social space. The 65-year-old Los Angeles architect, who designed the building in collaboration with Mexican office Productora, studied at Houston’s Rice University and knows the city well. “We wanted to create the feeling of a relaxed, open relationship with the public, and a place where discussions can spill out into the open air.”

Jesse Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, founded the Houston Endowment in 1937, with a focus on education, health care and the arts. They funded the first building for women to live on campus at Rice, as well as hospitals for the Texas Medical Center, and a performing arts center for the city, completed after Jones’ death. Since then, the fund has grown to $2.57 billion and now awards about $100 million annually to local nonprofits, focusing on public education, civic engagement, arts, parks and social services.

Houston Endowment headquarters.
The scale of local council … Houston Endowment headquarters. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

The Endowment operates almost at the scale of a local council, with dedicated departments for each of its core programs, from improving parks and playgrounds, to increasing voter participation among immigrant communities, to supporting independent, nonpartisan local journalism. But based in dark wood-paneled offices on the 64th floor of the corporate JPMorgan Chase Tower downtown, the organization has always lacked a visible public face.

“It had a spectral presence in the city,” Daly says. “Everyone knew what it was, but no one knew what it looked like.” And those who did visit often felt overwhelmed by the stuffy, rarefied atmosphere, more cozy of an old-school Texan oil company HQ than a progressive funder of charitable community groups.

“It felt like you were in a museum,” says Ann Stern, president and CEO of the Houston Endowment since 2012. “It was a somber, serious space that made you feel like you had to lower your voice. We already have such a power imbalance with the groups we work with, and the offices have made people feel that if they’re not old and established, it’s not their place.”

In contrast, their new $20 million home feels like entering the light-flooded, airy environment of a modern art gallery, channeling the strains of the city’s 1980s Menil collection by Renzo Piano. In an unusual move for an American office building, the project was procured through an open international competition, organized by London-based Malcolm Reading Consultants, and the rigor of the process is evident in the result. The tight budget was used carefully to create an environment that works hard with minimal resources – a testament to Daly’s track record with affordable housing and public schools, and Productora’s experience with fabricators in Mexico, where much of the metalwork is made.

Large glass doors lead to an 11 meter high atrium, where a wide staircase rises to open-plan offices and a staff canteen, with an event space on one side. Bold contemporary works from a diverse range of Houston artists line the walls, while the exposed underside of cross-laminated wood floor slabs hang overhead, supported by a framework of slim, bolt-on steel sections. The whole thing appears to be assembled from a slim set of parts – and can just as easily be taken apart and reused. At every possible moment, doors spill out onto terraces overlooking the park, making the building feel like a pavilion in a garden.

In summer, the city swelters in 37C heat, with over 90% humidity, making low-energy cooling a challenge. Rather than aiming for an ultra-high-tech environmental system, which the organizations felt the Endowment Funds could never match, the architects opted for simple, legible measures that could be copied.

“The idea was to make it as welcoming as the shade under a tree,” says Wonne Ickx of Productora. “The best part of Houston is not its architecture, but the incredible canopy of live oaks that cover the city. We’re trying to expand that feeling of a sheltered canopy.”

“Somebody needs to be able to walk in and see how it works,” Daly says. There’s the canopy for shade, which is covered with solar panels for energy, while simple ceiling fans – which can be operated manually by the occupants – also reduce the amount of air conditioning needed in the summer. In a more technological touch, a series of geothermal wells have been drilled 90 meters underground, reducing the demand for cooling in the summer and heating in the winter. This is basic stuff, but it means that the building operates at net zero carbon for at least three quarters of the year.

The right size… the Houston Endowment headquarters.
The right size… the Houston Endowment headquarters. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

“It’s not talked about much, but one of the most important environmental aspects concerns the right size of the building,” adds Ickx, explaining how the original size of the project was cut down during the design process, from three floors to two. “We made it as efficient as possible by cutting out redundant facilities, such as extra meeting rooms and a gym, which they just didn’t need, right on the edge of the park.”

Given the environmental credentials of the building, and the climate-conscious campaigns the Houston Endowment funds, it seems a contradiction in terms where some of the charity’s billions are invested. Will the organization divest its dollars from the climate-destroying fossil fuel industry – following the Rockefeller, MacArthur and Ford foundations?

“No,” said Stern. “We’re in Texas, and a number of people on our board are from the oil and gas industry. We want to do as well with our investments as we can, so that we can put more money back into the community. It might come at some point, but it’s going to be an investment decision that causes us to get rid of it.”

In a conservative state where renewable energy is still a dirty word among the dominant oil-loyal Republicans, the Endowment is at least trying to send a message in its own architecture. Some may question the use of aluminum for the cladding and canopy, which comes with a high embodied energy cost, although Daly’s team assures it has a high recycled content, and a similar carbon footprint to other cladding choices. Perhaps the bigger question, in this post-pandemic world of working from home, is whether they really need such a building?

“With hybrid work, I thought I would only be in the office for the minimum amount of time,” says Carlos Villagrana, a program officer on the education team. “To get to the old office, you had to drive downtown, park in the garage, and take three escalators and two elevators to get there. But now I find myself looking forward to coming to work every day. I really enjoy the feeling of light and space, and it feels like the teams and our organizations know each other much better now.”

The history of Jesse Jones may be confined to a small room behind the front desk, but his pioneering spirit lives on in this lightweight, low-energy building. Linked to the pedestrian and bike paths of Bayou Park, it stands as a progressive beacon from which the rest of this sprawling, oil-rich, car-dominated city would do well to learn from.

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