Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Any city would by lucky to have designers like MA2’s Michael Arellanes, willing to throw big ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
Here’s a library that Houston didn’t know it needed.
Michael Arellanes II, the architect and principal at the firm MA2, is exploring a series of grand design concepts for downtown Houston. No one in Houston has asked him to do this work, mind you. This is architectural spitballing.
In a post on the firm’s site, Arellanes II imagines a high-concept library and exhibition center for a parcel just north of downtown. The building is a star cluster of interlocking leaves, each of which provides programming space for what appears to be a truly massive library.
“By having a series of harmonic manifolds of book collection space and the mixing of programmatic function for exhibition”—[deep breath]—“it generates a dynamical system of flowing conditions which manifests with moments of extrapolation within the tectonic massing and circulation,” Arellanes II writes.
After all, it’s hard not to look at the site, which falls between Houston’s Downtown and its Northside neighborhood, and not picture something better. Here’s what the parcel looks like today.
Bound by train tracks to the south and a series of University of Houston parking lots to the west, and framed by highways I-10 and I-45, it’s not exactly the most desirable land in the city. But it’s prime for some kind of development: The lot is adjacent to the Burnett Transit Center/Casa de Amigos light rail station, and the White Oak Bayou Greenway Trail runs nearby. The nearby industrial sector is home to the Saint Arnold Brewing Company, a celebrated Texas brewery. To the north is residential Northside.
Houston has one of the best cultural districts in the U.S. in Montrose, but that neighborhood is a fair distance away from the spot on MA2’s radar. There’s no reason that a major cultural center couldn’t be located somewhere else, of course. Something that responded to its neighbors’ needs (programmatically, if not architecturally) would be an asset to the Northside.
Now, the planning set might argue that this design creates a few problems. The walks from just about anywhere to the library appears to be long. Discounting the nearby University of Houston parking lots, there’s no evident parking area for library patrons. A good thing, potentially, though this neighborhood isn’t one of Houston’s most walkable. That plaza, which looks to be about the size of the National Mall, could wind up empty and foreboding.
Of course, it’s only a sketch—and again, an unsolicited one—so there’s only so much sense in judging its viability as a civic scheme. And it’s part of a larger series, the point of which is to reimagine Houston spaces that aren’t being given a lot of thought. Arellanes II even offers up a post rethinking downtown Houston altogether.
The chances of any of these concepts being realized may be slim, but that misses the point. Any city should be so lucky as to have a designer willing to throw big ideas at the wall to see what sticks.