Imagine Houston's Future
Big ideas: Can a lotus flower (building) bloom in Hermann Park?
Editors Note: Houston has always been a city of big ideas. As part of our "Imagine Houston's Future" series, we are highlighting some of them.
Houston architect Shafik Rifaat has a dream.
Rifaat, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston (and the husband of CultureMap editor-at-large Shelby Hodge), is disappointed that Houston doesn't have a signature building that calls out to the world. He's out to change that.
Over the past year, at his own expense, he has drawn up plans for a pavilion that makes a statement. The circular building, constructed from a glass and steel frame, has a glass dome ceiling covered with a dozen translucent canvas panels that open like a flower in a matter of minutes.
"It has a gentility about it. It's almost not a building. It's a big floating lotus," Rifaat said.
By day, the Lotus Pavilion would be open and airy to blend in with the surroundings. At night, it could change colors according to the season, with dramatic LED lighting.
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die."
"You have to dream something of significance," Rifaat noted.
Rifaat, who has lived in Houston since 1974, has often been troubled by the lack of significant signature buildings in the city. He recalls a celebrated New York Times article that came out in the '70s in which noted architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called Houston a "place without a place."
Discovery Green in downtown Houston, a recent addition, is providing a much needed gathering space, but Rifaat believes there is room for so many more significant signature places.
"Houston should have 10 (ideas) like (the Lotus Pavilion), not just one. We have to be a city that everywhere or anywhere you go, you have something of great interest and visual attraction. You could go from one icon to another."
At first, Rifaat thought his ephemeral design would work in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, but decided it needed softer surroundings. "This kind of structure needs room around it. You cannot cram it into a space," he said.
So then he looked to Hermann Park. He placed the glass arboretum in three proposed locations, including one near the reflecting pool along a central axis, connecting the statue of Sam Houston, the obelisk and Mecom Fountain.
Hermann Park Conservancy officials were intrigued, but recently declined the idea because they are in the middle of a fundraising drive to complete the core elements of a master plan for the park in time for its centennial in 2014. Even if money could be found, they noted that the master plan, created in 1997 by the acclaimed landscape architectural firm of Hanna/Olin Partnership of Philadelphia, excludes any new project that takes up land in the park because undeveloped space is precious and must be preserved.
So Rifaat went back to the drawing board and placed the glass arboretum in the middle of a lake, with two walkways on either side stretching to land. In that way, the building would not consume any of the valuable park space. Plus the lotus flower design looks more natural situated in the water.
He plans to resubmit the revamped design to the Hermann Park Conservancy for consideration.
He envisions the Lotus Pavilion as a restaurant during the day and a rental space for weddings or special events at night — Houston's version of the famed Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park.
"This can be a money-making proposition for the park," Rifaat said.
The cost? An open-air structure would cost around $2 million; it would take around $15 million to create a glassed-in, air-conditioned pavilion that could be rented out for events.
Joe Turner, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, has seen the plans and believes the Lotus Pavilion can be a signature piece for the city.
"It's a wonderful, well-designed facility. I'm not convinced where it ought to be, but it definitely tweaks your interest," Turner said. "We ought to find a place for it, whether it's a park or a city facility or a private (location). It's always based on dollars and funding and interest. But if you don't dream, it won't happen."
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