(Re)discovering the Cistern

“Descending into the Cistern the first time was like discovering some ancient ruin,” says Page Senior Principal Larry Speck. “It was so strange and exotic in the setting and clearly "lost" to people's consciousness. That vast field of columns, the reflective layer of water on the floor and the tiny bits of light creeping in from above were really beautiful.”

The “Cistern” is the recently rediscovered underground reservoir which was built in 1927 to supply water to the city of Houston. Abandoned following an irreparable leak, the subterranean holding tank sat under a hill near Buffalo Bayou, unnoticed and undisturbed for decades until 2010, when the design consultants for Buffalo Bayou Park first climbed down a ladder into the cavernous space.

Row upon row of slender, 25-foot concrete columns were reflected in a few inches of water on the floor of the 87,500-square-foot reservoir. Light fell in shafts from the small hatches and eerily illuminated the stunning interior space. At that moment, all plans to convert the area into a parking or storage facility were discarded. This beautiful space deserved a more artful future.

The non-profit client Buffalo Bayou Partnership worked with the City of Houston to take it over and Larry led the design team to rehabilitate the Cistern into a space for special events and art exhibitions. When the project is completed, a curved accessible walkway will take visitors under the Water Works lawn to the interior of the reservoir. While a walkway around the perimeter will enable people to view the columns from above, not much else has changed. The vast expanse of columns, the random shafts of light on the water and the overall feeling of being in an ancient cathedral are still prominent.

“It’s got a rawness and a real elemental quality to it,” says Larry. “It is so great that it is going to be available to everyone who visits Buffalo Bayou Park and is going to have a whole new life as an arts venue.”