HOUSTON IS NOT KNOWN FOR its grand public architecture. We have a smattering of noteworthy and inspired civic space spaces. The Menil obviously, unhealthy the Miesian and Monean MFAH buildings, the Rothko Chapel of course, City Hall perhaps (but no one goes there) and maybe a space or two on one of the university campuses in town, but that’s about it. Houston, a landscape of private interests and corporate politics, has a tradition of grandiose private architecture, where the benefits of a bespoke space are enjoyed alone or in pairs, quietly and leisurely behind closed doors — or gates if you’re lucky. Not so for the new Asia Society Texas Center. This new building, designed by Japanese Architect Yoshio Taniguchi and scheduled to open in April 2012, rivals any of the top spaces in Houston.
The Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) is a small cultural facility located in Houston’s Museum District. The building encompasses 39,000 square feet of space at a cost of over $48 million, making it a very, very nice place to visit. The immediately notable quality of the new Asia Society is just how much of its lush, landscaped lot has been left open and undeveloped — a surely un-Houstonian gift to the neighborhood. Similarly outlandish are the lengths to which the building attempts to actually disappear. Standing from any outside street corner, the building, for all of its pregnant grandeur, has very little punch. From nearly every exterior perspective, the building blends, bows and blurs into the surrounding neighborhood. But when we step inside — it’s a whole different experience.
After crossing the generous courtyard, we are led to a modest front entrance. A small canopy over the front door architecturally performs the obligatory bow as we enter the delicately glazed front atrium.
Here, for the first time, we get a taste of Taniguchi’s rich material pallet. Warm Jura limestone covers the left wall and a dark, rough Basaltina Italian Stone paves the floor. Both of these hearty materials contrast with the delicately-lined glass wall through which we just passed, and on the peripheral view we can catch a glimpse of Taniguchi’s vibrant American cherry wood tones. Five materials, glass, basalt, limestone, wood and steel, serve as the constant theme throughout Taniguchi’s building, and each material performs a particular part in this chamber-orchestra sized master-piece. But the double-height atrium is a mere appetizer. Around the corner awaits a progressive sequence of even more impressive spaces.
On the immediate other side of the atrium wall we come suddenly into the soaring and stately Great Hall. Standing at the front of the Great Hall, we can see pieces of other spaces surrounding us — the performance theater to the left, a hint of the water garden, a peek of the upstairs lounge, a sliver of the cafe. These partially obscured views into other spaces create a sense of spectacle that enliven the Great Hall. We see people walking in distant rooms and get a sense of spaces to come. As an introduction, the Great Hall is a rich spatial experience, but the most special spaces are yet to come. On the second floor, Taniguchi has placed three gardens that orbit around the central atrium and we get the impression that these are really what the ASTC is all about. The three gardens — water, stone and vegetal — are purely contemplative, almost objects, we can’t really access them, and that’s not the point. They are discrete spaces, each with their own meditative methods and beautifully detailed. And yet…
As an organization the Asia Society is complex and multi-faceted with a broad mission to “strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders and institutions of the United states and Asia.” They perform their mission by fostering dialog between these two peoples, generating “new ideas across the fields of arts and culture, policy and business and education” to further their goals. It’s a big mission. Not to mention the fact that “Asia” here encompasses over 30 countries including the people of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Australia, the Figi Islands and Bhutan to name a few — a very broad constituency.
The challenge to Taniguchi then, it would seem, would be to artfully mediate this razor edge between the word “Asia” and the plurality of that population. To essentially answer the question, “How can any one institution embody the cultures, values and principles of so many very different people?” And judging from the building the answer is: you can’t and don’t try. For the Asia Society, Taniguchi has designed a collection of individual spaces, preferencing the experience of each space over that of the whole. In the end, we get a sense of standing in framed vignettes, moments of respite, not the journey between them — and it’s exactly right.
Considering the daunting task of Asia Society’s Mission, the series of spaces in their discreteness gives us the only possible way to engage the architectural challenge — through quiet meditation. Rather than attempting to render a delicate cultural multiplicity in rough materials, or provide an over-simplified answer of cultural reductivism, we are left with as series of spaces — a fractured mosaic — to reconcile. Taniguchi, in a series of unique contemplative zones, deftly reflects the question of plurality back into our hands. For the question asked of him, on the surface relating only to Asia Society, is profoundly related to the very basics of democracy, freedom and liberty. And it is only ever answered by each of us individually — out of personal reflection and sincere thought. For more info: www.asiasociety.org/texas
— NED DODINGTON
Ned Dodington is the director of Caroline Collective, a founding board member of C2 Creative, chief editor of AnimalArchitecture. org and a designer at PDR. He currently lives in Houston TX.