The George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) in downtown Houston is set to receive a facelift in preparation for Super Bowl LI, which is coming to the Bayou City in 2017. Houston First Corporation, the quasi-governmental organization that operates the facility for the city, recently hired architecture firm WHR to bring the nearly 2 million-square-foot venue up to world class standards. As part of that effort, the architects have proposed creating a public plaza in front of the building’s western face that will provide space for outdoor events and better connect it to Discovery Green Park just across the Avenida De Las Americas.
GRB, which was originally designed by a consortium of Houston architects and engineers, including Golemon & Bolullo, and opened in 1987, has always been something of an unfinished work. It was originally intended to be one part of a network of buildings in downtown that would be linked by a monorail at the second level. As such, the street-level front of the building wasn’t given much emphasis and, in fact, there is no concourse linking all of the center’s five halls on the ground level.
To improve GRB’s street presence, WHR is moving all bus drop off locations to the north and south flanks of the building, where new canopies will usher visitors inside without exposure to Houston’s frequent rain showers—an idea that came from studying Anaheim, California’s convention center. With this function removed from the Avenida, the architects plan to reduce the eight lanes of traffic to two (going one way, southbound) and occupy the space with a public plaza. “Once we were able to capture the roadway space, we got room for a plaza, a space to linger,” said Marie Hoke, WHR’s principal architect on the project. “So people can come downtown and hang out. There will be a number of interactive scenarios, cafes on the sidewalk, and outside reception spaces for GRB that can accommodate events.”
For larger events, such as the Super Bowl and the Final Four, WHR, which is working on the plaza design with landscape architecture firm SWA Group, has proposed shutting down the remaining two lanes of traffic and allowing the plaza to flow directly into Discovery Green Park. But, according to Hoke, the architects want the outdoor space to function well even on off days. “The plaza needs to work as well for 10 people as it does for 2,000 people, so it doesn’t look empty. We want it to look interesting day to day.”
In addition to the changes at street level, WHR is also making some alterations to GRB’s facade. “We’re taking the facade off the three center bays and replacing it with glass,” said Hoke. “We’re trying to respect the architecture that’s there while giving it more of a front door presence to go with the ‘front yard’ of the park. The idea is to create a hierarchy in the center and make what’s happening inside more transparent to everybody coming by.