Houston Architect Puts Forward Unique Vision for Astrodome Overhaul

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | June 14, 2016

Image via A-Dome Park

Image via A-Dome Park

A Houston architect is touting a new idea for the Astrodome’s overhaul, urging the county to avoid an indoor park concept and instead strip the structure down to its bones.

The concept, dubbed “A-Dome Park,” is being advanced by James Richards and Ben Olschner, architects who previously worked at Herzog & de Meuron, the firm behind London’s Tate Modern and the Olympics stadium in Beijing.

As Richards sees it, Harris County’s current plans for the stadium — essentially, an indoor park and events space — aren’t particularly unique, especially given the proliferation of world-class parks in Houston and abundant event space that already exists at the NRG Center complex.

Earlier this year, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the county’s preliminary plan for the Astrodome is to raise its floor, put a 9-acre park atop it and leave room for storage or parking underneath. Eventually, Emmett said at the time, a conservatory could be developed that might be able to fund a system of trails within that park.

The Urban Land Institute touted an indoor park and activity center in 2014.

The Urban Land Institute touted an indoor park and activity center in 2014.

That vision is similar to the plan an Urban Land Institute panel recommended in December 2014, after voters rejected a 2013 bond measure that would have funded the county’s previous idea for the Astrodome, an exhibition space dubbed the “New Dome Experience.”

The "New Dome Experience" failed to excite voters. Image via TheNewDomePAC.

The “New Dome Experience” failed to generate voters’ support. Image via TheNewDomePAC.

“We’re making a lot of progress,” Emmett said in February, adding that more details would be forthcoming this summer. “Everybody realizes we can’t tear it down.”

Richards, who moved to Houston in 2014, isn’t a fan of the current concept, with its emphasis on indoor activity, and he thinks the 2013 vote is a testament to the fact that Harris County residents aren’t either.

He believes that despite the region’s brutal summer heat, few Houstonians will want to spend their free time within an indoor park — especially given the relatively mild weather Houston enjoys the rest of the year — and he’s skeptical that the plans for vast amounts of plant life inside the facility are realistic. He also doesn’t think restaurants and others vendors on the first floor of the Dome (part of the ULI proposal) will actually be financially viable, based on the number of people who will visit the indoor park on a regular basis.

Image via A-Dome Park

Image via A-Dome Park

So instead, Richards and his partners on the “A-Dome park” proposal are envisioning something totally different. The idea isn’t to just preserve the Astrodome but to highlight — and even expose — the architectural elements that made it world famous.

Richards wants to strip the structure down to its steel bones. The idea is to remove the non-structural surfaces of both the Astrodome exterior and interior, leaving only the dramatic steel frame, which would be painted to prevent decay. The plan, Richards argues, highlights the innovative engineering that went into the dome structure itself while also creating a space that offers a completely unique experience. He writes on the project’s website:

At the heart of this plan, we imagine the gentle removal of the Astrodome’s exterior and interior nonstructural surfaces, to reveal and celebrate the groundbreaking work of structural engineering that lies hidden within. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Astrodome will stand proudly as an iconic, unenclosed, open air, painted steel structure, surrounded by a picturesque tree filled park.

Image via A-Dome Park

Image via A-Dome Park

The highlight of the plan is the series of ascending boardwalk ramps around the perimeter of the Dome that Houstonians could bike and walk on. That would turn the Dome into something that encourages physical activity while offering a reward — a stunning view atop the structure — for those willing to walk all the way to the top.

Ima via A-Dome Park

Ima via A-Dome Park

In addition to the dramatic transformation of the structure itself, Richards wants to remove 1,800 parking spots around the stadium and replace them with a forest of trees. Those spots would be replaced with an underground parking structure.

Importantly, Richards said, the facility would have a floor that had electric access so it could host events (in renderings, he shows Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo carnival as well as concerts under the Dome’s skeletal ceiling.

But a a spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Richards’ plan faces a major obstacle. Stripping the Dome to its skeleton “clearly would be rejected by the Texas Historical Commission, which by state law can — and does — bar the county from any significant structural change in the building,” Emmett spokesman Joe Stinebaker said in an email. (Richards, for his part, thinks the commission would be open to the concept.)

AD_Rodeo_160610

Stinebaker also questioned the finances of the plan. Richards says the project would cost $180 million and could be funded through donations, including money from private foundations and endowments, with maintenance supported by private-sector rental fees and parking.

Right now, Richards’ idea isn’t much more than that — an idea — albeit one that he’s developed extensively. And the architect himself is not under any illusions that the county will completely abandon its own plans and adopt his own.

But, he said, given the stakes involved in redesigning the Astrodome — it’s the only world-famous structure Houston has — he hopes his idea will inspire residents and county leaders alike to imagine other visions for the building’s future.

For more renderings and details of the proposal, visit www.adomepark.org.

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24 Comments

  1. I don’t really find this recommendation unique at all. It’s essentially the exact same project University of Houston School of Architecture student Ryan Slattery proposed almost three years ago, re-packaged with a new name by a group hoping to get their names in the media. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

    • We wrote about Slattery’s proposal earlier this year. There are similarities and differences. Slattery wanted greenery within the Dome; these architects want a floor for events. Slattery didn’t propose a boardwalk around the structure; these architects did, and that’s a pretty huge element of the design. Just as we wrote about Slattery’s concept on this blog, we’ve written about this one, and we’ll continue to write about subsequent concepts too. Since they’re all based on the same structure I expect there to be many similarities.

  2. So happy to see this suggestion. It keeps the fundamental aspect of the dome as a historically relevant structural work, honors it’s history as a long-time landmark of a great city, and creates a space for the public to enjoy. Love it.

    • I like it too. Appreciative of its past, activity driven, with enhanced greenery.

  3. This concept has merit and deserves further consideration. This concept is the first that I am prepared to pledge $ to support.

  4. It’s a wonderful idea. Awesome. Showcase the craftsmanship and vision the original architect had. I think the ideals would definitely be interesting 2 the Houston skyline.

  5. This is by far the most awesome idea for our beloved Dome I have seen. Can you imagine the fair inside?? Wow.

  6. Superb! A unique vision. Houston would move once again to the forefront of design! Why are the Astros, of all teams, playing in an old-timey throwback stadium whose defining element is a locomotive? Why is the San Antonio Riverwalk often mentioned when talk turns to how Buffalo Bayou could be redeveloped? It’s time for Houston to reclaim the cutting edge – in design and technology – and this project could be an integral part of doing so! It could once again be a iconic structure for our city.

  7. This is a far superior idea than the county’s. This is a design that would merit international acclaim. The county’s current design is simply lame. I really hope the county will adopt this design.

  8. I really like this idea – its the first cutting edge proposal that keeps the basic elements and highlights why the Dome was always special.

  9. I agree — best idea to date in my mind and the drawings are beautiful. If this could be pulled off properly, it would be an excellent addition to Space City. However, for a public park, the fees to use the facility would have to be minimal and access would be need to be easy so people will want to go.

    • Access would indeed be key; can’t have it only accessible by paying NRG parking fees…

      • Yup, my thoughts exactly. At least for now, free parking is still available at the zoo, Miller Outdoor Theater, and the museums. Food stands and cafes will need to be reasonably priced, not like at a professional ball game. There are surely some commercial aspects to this that will need to be worked out to make it a destination that people will want to go to more than once after the novelty has worn off.

  10. The Voters have already spoken. This is nothing but special interests trying to line their pockets and waste money. Tell Ed Emmitt to stop crying and honor the wishes of the people of Harris County. If New York can tear down Yankee Stadium, we can tear down the Astrodome! Bring on the doziers.

    • The voters voted down the funding for the project – they didn’t “vote” to tear the thing down. And it was about 53% of the voters, not the whole. It seems to me that a properly presented project would be acceptable for many in the county.

  11. Worst Idea Yet!

    My favorite part of the article is this quote…

    “He believes that despite the region’s brutal summer heat, few Houstonians will want to spend their free time within an indoor park — especially given the relatively mild weather Houston enjoys the rest of the year”

    Does he not understand that’s why we built the Astrodome in the first place; because we don’t want to spend our time outside in the oppressive heat being eaten by mosquitoes. To us, those that were raised here, the Astrodome was the realization of Utopia. To bring the outdoors inside.

    • Obviously, times change. Minute Maid’s retractable roof proves that.

  12. Great creative idea! This is the kind of thinking we need to come up with an innovative way to celebrate what Houston achieved in the past while creating a unique space for the future. No doubt it would need lots of study on what is feasible and realistic on costs and safety. However, another great park space for Houston would improve the city, just like other recent major parks have done. Keep moving in this direction or something like it.

  13. This is a brilliant revitalization of an almost sacred space in Houston. Astroworld’s been torn down, many of our city’s original structures have as well, and I’d hate to see the Dome follow their fate.
    Also, I love the no a.c. concept! It’s probably controversial because it’s foreign. And, while I’ve spoken to a city official who said the area’s other venues want to see an indoor event space that generates revenue (key two words!), couldn’t this concept be adapted to 1) generate revenue for the county and 2) have parking for Houstonians’ cars built underneath?
    Kudos to the architectural team who devised this! I love it! Don’t tear down our treasures, Houston, save them!!

  14. Never going to happen because the dome deserves better. Leave it as it is and refer bish the inside and tear down that dumpy arena had have basketball and other events there. Heck even the Texas could move the training and preseason games in there. And why not move the county fair rides inside to free up parking spaces.

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