Architecture of Buffalo Bayou Park and The Cistern


Houston, Texas, United States

4.75 out of 5 stars on Yelp! Review highlight: "If you're in Houston ...this is a definite must stop." Ann C., Folsom, CA

Not long ago, a stretch of Houston’s main drainage waterway, Buffalo Bayou, had been adversely affected by the forced channelization of the bayou in a failed attempt to mitigate floods and served as an illegal dumping ground. Today, it runs through the middle of a linear urban park that connects downtown Houston with western neighborhoods, and its multiple attractions draw an estimated one million visitors a year.

The award-winning park is a national destination within a dense urban environment that offers recreation and points of interest such as an underground arts space, hike and bike trails, public art, a dog park, canoe and bicycle rentals, event venues and a restaurant. It also has catalyzed more than $2 billion worth of investment in proximity to its banks from new housing and a hotel to related amenities such as restaurants, grocery store and commercial services.


  • Architecture
  • Building Sciences
  • Planning / Urban Design
  • Engineering
© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics
© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics
© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics

Creating a natural respite

Page and landscape architect SWA Group developed a design plan that supports the bayou’s sensitive ecology throughout its 160 acres. Two of the four structures throughout the park are specific destinations while the others are simple open-air pavilions used for a variety of activities. Several smaller structures that draw on the same design vocabulary dot the park paths.

Urban connectivity

The park’s 20 miles of hike and bike trails on both sides of the bayou are part of a citywide system intended to connect 150 miles of trails. Strategically located trail entry points allow visitors to safely access several perpendicular thoroughfares as well as downtown Houston. Bicycle rentals are from a national company, allowing returns at any of its kiosks in the city.

A jogger passes a shade pavilion along a bayou with an urban skyline in the background.
© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics

Function and form

The above-ground structures utilize a common design vocabulary throughout the park on both sides of the bayou. It pairs solid board-formed concrete piers with lightweight steel-spanning members to create modules that vary by building function. The steel frames above the piers are bridged with wood soffits and extend to delicate steel screens to create sunshades.

© Slyworks Photography

The material palette of board form concrete, stainless steel and Massaranduba wood, a South American hardwood, is extremely hardy and designed to weather beautifully. The Lost Lake Building’s concrete piers elevate it above rushing waters and debris during major weather events. These structures have withstood multiple record-setting floods since their construction.

An urban escape

The largest new structure in the Park, the Lost Lake Building, was sited to benefit from spectacular setting and views. It houses popular restaurant and event space The Dunlavy, a visitor center and canoe rental. The building was floated on concrete piers, tucking it within the branches of a massive Heritage Live Oak and creating the sensation of being in a treehouse.

© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics
© Slyworks Photography

Unexpected destination

The Cistern offers visitors an altogether different experience. Originally constructed in 1926 as the city’s first underground drinking water reservoir, the city had already solicited bids for its demolition when the design team flagged its value as an architectural treasure. Today, the repurposed subterranean space is a visitor destination that can accommodate installation art – particularly light and sound.

© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics

Minimizing footprints

Improvements to The Cistern are simple and unobtrusive so that visitors can focus on repetitive rhythm of the massive supporting concrete columns, reflections in the water, and amplification of sound. The 800-square-foot entry tunnel winds through the protective exterior berm, building anticipation of the ultimate view of The Cistern’s vast interior.

Systems thinking

The Cistern was never intended for sustained human exposure, so new egress and systems were added for comfort and safety. A discreet mechanical system provides ventilation and regulates the quality of the indoor air. Water on the floor is recirculated through a system that eliminates the need for chemical detergents, essential since it is still connected to the bayou.

© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics

The 61 million pounds of concrete in The Cistern, including 221 concrete columns, were preserved in place. These represent nearly 8.3 million pounds of embodied carbon dioxide. The design team sourced every contractor and new product within 50 miles of the project site with the exception of one door manufacturer, which was within 250 miles.

© Albert Večerka / ESTO Photographics

Located adjacent to The Cistern, WaterWorks encourages pedestrians and bicyclists to target its amenities as a destination. Its Visitor Center is a frequent hub of activity and point of departure into the rest of the park. WaterWorks is located in a walkable residential neighborhood and has a Walk Score of 67.

View of Houstons skyline from one of the two Waterworks Pavilions.
© Slyworks Photography

Community impact



Inside the mind of the designer

“The park has become one of Houston’s most sought-after urban amenities, serving as a catalyst for nearby real estate development and helping rebrand the city as one that celebrates its diversity and supports a high quality of life.”

Larry Speck, FAIA

Page Senior Principal

Awards Won

  • Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence Medalist
  • ULI Global Award of Excellence
  • Society of American Registered Architects (SARA) Design Awards of Honor
  • Waterfront Center Excellence on the Waterfront Award
  • Texas Society of Architects Design Award
  • CODA Worx Best Public Space Exhibition
  • Interior Design Best Of Year Award, Shining Moment category
  • Contract Magazine Award, Sustainable Category

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