Behind The High-Design Hub To Houston’s Tunnel System


RENDERING: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

Grand opening week of Understory in Houston is underway. Designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (and developed by Skanska), the atrium at the base of the Bank of America Tower is the new gateway to the city’s downtown tunnel system. But Understory is more than just a thoroughfare; it features 10,000 square feet of retail, including a chef-driven food market and 20,000 square feet of engaging public space.

Maija Kreishman, partner at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, explains how her firm designed this below-grade project to be a light-filled community destination.

What was your main objective for Understory?
Our goal was to create a hub of activity where the Houston tunnel system culminates. The plan was very organic and bridges five individual tunnels together, which required a careful crafting of the pedestrian circulation in and out of the space.

What was the inspiration behind the architecture?
The activity from the tunnels was the direct inspiration for the space, which is layered with warm, inviting materials. It’s designed closely to a residential kitchen, with more luxe furnishings and finishes — such as copper, wooden butcher blocks, white crafted tiles and black and white marble — than generally found in a typical food hall. Brass bead curtains at entries to the tunnels are a nod to Understory’s theater district location.

In what ways does Understory’s architecture promote community?
The project encourages people using the tunnel to stop, slow down, connect and gather, rather than moving through on their way to another destination. Each vendor’s space is lined with counters and stools, which help encourage patrons to be a part of the food-making process, connecting with the kitchen staff.

Was natural light an important factor?
The lack of natural lighting in the food hall was a big factor in the selection of finishes and lighting tones. Warm, natural tones of brass, copper and wood help to reinforce a hearth metaphor. The layering of warm lighting also aligns with the residential-scale feel of the project. Large windows at the street level provide ample natural light for the bar and stair stepped seating area connecting to the lobby.