West 8, the award-winning Dutch landscape architecture and urban design firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York City, has unveiled the highly anticipated first phase of the Houston Botanic Garden, a years-in-the-making, first-of-its-kind horticultural hub for the Bayou City that aims to attract tourists, green thumbs, and the scientific community.
When fully complete, per West 8’s master plan, the so-called “living museum for plants” will encompass 132 acres of a bayou-bound island and adjacent shoreline along Sims Channel, with roughly half of the compound being on the island. Much of the Houston Botanic Garden is located on the former grounds of the old and underused 1920s-era Glenbrook Golf Course.
Following a prolonged period of NIMBY outrage, as some southeast Houston residents rallied against the project largely due to concerns over traffic and the loss of Glenbrook, which had been used by residents as an informal neighborhood green space, plans for the Houston Botanical Garden were formally revealed by West 8 in 2018 with construction kicking off early the next year. To be clear, while this marks the first time that Houston has had a proper botanic garden within city limits, there is a botanic garden at the Mercer Arboretum in unincorporated Harris County.
Described in a press statement as “an oasis of learning, discovery, and horticultural beauty” that differentiates itself from a typical arboretum by featuring an evolving, curated collection of plants, the Houston Botanic Garden opens to the public at a strange and difficult time for marquee cultural institutions, plant-focused or otherwise. However, the expansive and open-air nature of the walking trail-laced campus, which features a multitude of outdoor galleries that showcase a sizable collection of tropical, subtropical, and arid plants, does inherently lend itself well to safe and socially-distant visits.
“Adding a world-class botanic garden to enhance the breadth and depth of Houston’s cultural offerings has been a long time in the making,” said Claudia Gee Vassar, president and general counsel of the Houston Botanic Garden, in a statement. “We believe the benefits of an extensive outdoor museum like the Houston Botanic Garden will be especially desirable at a time when so many are looking to engage with, and be inspired by nature.”
Outside of the ongoing pandemic, Tropical Storm Beta has thrown a slight wrench into the garden’s opening week plans. (It officially opened September 18.)
Key architectural elements revealed in Phase One include a series of 21 innovative, thin-shell concrete alcoves that line the main collection gardens and provide a natural place for visitors to duck out of the hot Houston sun and catch some shade (fabricated by Fine Concrete); a pair of monumental steel gates with intricate, botanic-inspired designs that are found at both the main pedestrian and vehicular entrances (fabricated by Renfrow + Co. Metalsmiths); a Welcome Fountain constructed from coral stone that was sourced by West 8 as a waste byproduct from a Dominican Republic-based quarry (fabricated by Camarata Masonry Systems), and an over 2,000-square-foot welcome pavilion, complete with a generous covered porch, designed by San Antonio-based architecture and urban design practice Overland Partners.
Of course, there’s the botanic main event: the collection gardens. Comprised of both the Global Collection and Culinary Gardens, the two main collection gardens bring together over 350 species of plants from around the world with highlights being succulents and cacti from Mexico and South America; muhly grasses under a canopy of palo verde and mesquite trees, and a rainforest biome featuring palms, orchid, and Musa (the banana family). There’s also a collectors garden on the periphery of the main gardens that pays homage to local horticulturists and their botanical discoveries throughout Southeast Texas. The massive campus is also home to a stormwater-wetlands garden and the Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden, complete with a lagoon and interactive play features.
Working alongside the nonprofit Houston Botanic Garden and West 8, other key Phase One collaborators included Houston-based landscape architecture practice Clark Condon Associates, New York-based civil and structural engineering firm Walter P Moore, and general contractor Harvey Builders of Houston. Sweeney & Associates Inc. provided the all-important irrigation design.
Future phases of the Houston Botanic Garden will include a social lawn space ideal for alfresco gatherings like concerts and film screenings, a conservatory building, educational and event facilities, and more. These additional phases will be executed over the next 30 years.
“The intent of the site design is to seek balance in all aspects, from planting and soils, through topography and materials—the careful juxtaposition of order and chaos that is at the heart of enduring gardens,” said Donna Bridgeman-Rossi, director of implementation at the New York studio of West 8. “With this being Houston’s first garden of this kind, it was exciting to be working with a client group that not only expects best practice but is open to the complexities required to push status quo into new territory or specification.”