Multiplicity #4: Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

  • Designer: Page Southerland Page
  • Work: Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern
  • Infrastructural System: Water
  • Type + Intervention: Conversion of Underground Reservoir into Art Space
  • Location: Houston, Texas (USA)
  • Year: 1927 (Built), 2012-2016 (Conversion)
  • Reference 1: pagethink.com
  • Reference 2: archdaily.com
  • Reference 3: buffalobayou.org

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The Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park is a former drinking water reservoir built in 1926 for the City of Houston. As one of the city’s early underground reservoirs, it supported the municipal water system’s goals of fire suppression (water pressure) and drinking water storage. After operating for decades, an irreparable leak was discovered and after a few years, the reservoir was decommissioned in 2007.

In 2010, the City of Houston was sourcing vendors to demolish the Cistern. At the same time, Buffalo Bayou Partnership was developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project and “discovered” the site. Recognizing the historical and architectural significance of the highly unusual space, Buffalo Bayou Partnership with the City of Houston worked to take over development and maintenance of the space.

Architecture firm Page Southerland Page was charged with re-designing one of the most powerful and memorable industrial structures ever built in the U.S. The vastness of the space, its complete darkness except for the modest dose of light introduced by open hatches, the relentless rhythm of repetitive structural elements and the 17-second reverberation time that magnifies sound to an almost physical presence all conspire to create an extraordinary architectural experience. The team proposed to repurpose the space as a visitor destination that could accommodate installation art – particularly light and sound.

A “less is more” approach was taken to preserve The Cistern. Berms now surround the half-submerged perimeter walls on the outside so from the exterior, The Cistern disappears into the landscape like a low, flat hill. The visitor entrance is a curving tunnel clad with new splayed board-formed concrete walls. This allows eyes to slowly adjust to the dark interior and to reduce abrupt light spoilage of The Cistern.

A soft, low line of LED lighting from the tunnel is built into a transparent handrail edging a delicate, unobtrusive walkway that was constructed around the entire perimeter. The fixtures are aimed down to provide direct safety lighting on the pathway and minimize compromise of the darkness of the 87,500 square feet of interior space. Four fire egress doors and two moveable hatches in the roof permit adjustable penetration of natural light.

Its 8 inch thickened flat slab roof system is supported by 221 slender, round concrete columns with belled capitals and square bases. Concrete walls above the natural grade vary in thickness from 8 to 18 inch and the walls of the subterranean portion are sloped inward.

A constant depth of a few inches of water is maintained on the floor, creating dramatic reflections that emphasize the vastness of the space by making it seem double its actual height.

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