BY ZACH MORTICE
Avenida Houston was designed to celebrate the flyway paths of migratory birds and the vibrant energy economy that has made Houston attractive to domestic and international migrants alike. But in early February a new set of visitors will be attracted to this linear plaza: Football fans drawn by the suite of Super Bowl programming unfurled at the nearby (and newly renovated) George R. Brown Convention Center, and Super Bowl LI, to be played a few miles away at NRG Stadium.
Avenida Houston, designed by SWA Group, is a four-acre, 60-foot-wide strip of space that turned a desolate and unforgiving stretch of multilane traffic in front of the city’s convention center into an informal promenade. Two central themes, seemingly opposed, animate this new public event space: Houston’s industry and nature. “The conversation really started as, ‘What is Houston?’” says Peter McStravick, the chief development officer of Houston First, the city-created and sponsored developer of Avenida Houston.
The promenade is lined with groves of native Texas shade trees (Mexican sycamore, sweet gum, live oak) and raised planter beds that feature African iris. Paver patterns demarcate long, parallel strips punctuated by trailing dots. Embedded, programmable lighting also runs in long, gridded lines. Both elements call to mind the flight paths of birds zooming toward a winter respite on their journey south, and highlight Houston’s role as a migration path hot spot.
The fossil fuel industry that’s driven Houston’s growth but also imperiled its air quality is interpreted through tall catenary lighting towers. They line what SWA principal Natalia Beard calls a “beer garden platform,” made of wooden planks that resemble the crane mats used all over Houston to set up oil drilling rigs on soft, boggy soil.
A large art installation (one of 10 in Avenida Houston) pulls together these two themes. Wings Over Water by the artist Joe O’Connell of Creative Machines places an abstract, skeletal, motion and light machine over a series of jet fountains. Two curving axles spin to create ripples of motion across dozens of riblike sculptural arcs, making them undulate like a wave or wing.
Beard says Avenida Houston adds a “civic component to the convention center that’s never existed there before. Houston doesn’t really have a town square—one place where people can come together in a civic sense.” The project’s main gesture to the public realm is for this space (outfitted with new restaurants installed into the facade of the convention center but open to the plaza) to work for both visiting conventioneers and locals. Previously, she says, the convention center was a “black hole” after business hours. As such, the new Avenida is the latest salvo for cities trying to tie their flagship event venues into their surrounding urbanism more effectively. (Sasaki’s Lawn on D in Boston provided a view of what a low-impact, semi-temporary convention center park space might be, but Avenida Houston is here to stay.)
And Avenida’s neighborhood is alive with urban energy sockets to plug into. Avenida borders Discovery Green, designed by Hargreaves Associates and completed in 2008, which is one of the city’s most successful contemporary parks. McStravick wanted to see the vitality from the park bleed into the convention center, and Avenida Houston seems like an ideal conduit.
Beard says new arrivals to Houston are demanding walkable urban spaces in what’s historically been a “constellation of pedestrian bubbles” connected by highways. “There are places to walk and enjoy retail and al fresco dining, but you have to drive from one place like that to another place like that,” she says. And although Houston’s sprawl hasn’t won it many kudos from urbanists or environmentalists, the city’s strong economy and low cost of living have made it a magnet for immigrants from far and near. Regularly topping lists for the best towns for young families and immigrants, it’s grown into one of the most diverse cities in the nation. All the linear motifs at Avenida Houston are “part of the idea of migratory paths for birds, but also for people. We embraced the idea of a runway,” Beard says, “landing somewhere where you feel safe.”
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.