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Design Heat Maps: 12 Essential Stops in Surprising Houston

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Welcome to Design Heat Maps, wherein travel journalist Stirling Kelso—a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, and the New York Times, among other outlets—breaks down that which an architecture and design junkie can't miss in can't-miss cities. Recommend Curbed's next destination by dropping us an email.

Houston might be famous as a business center—and rightly so, with more Fortune 500 companies than any city outside of NYC—but it also has an increasing number of quality cultural attractions. Yes, the Rothko Chapel (above) and the Menil Collection have been stellar art destinations for decades now, but now those stalwarts are now complemented by excellent dining (as Eater Houston can attest) and a few boutique hotels to compete with the chains that have long dominated corporate travel here.

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The Alden

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The lobby lounge at this historic redbrick hotel has modern leather furnishings and a funky wall with rotating light displays. Upstairs, 97 stately guest rooms are simple and finished out with granite-walled bathrooms and 42-inch flat screen TVs. Book on floors six and above for skyline and Minute Maid Park views.

Asia Society Texas Center

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Japanese-born Yoshio Taniguchi is the starchitect behind this new arts and culture center, a contemporary build that marries eastern and western design. On the one hand, the low-slung structure is understated, though it still has a commanding presence thanks to graceful lines and elegant building materials such as white oak wood, 15-foot glass windows, and Basaltina Italian stone.

Billy Reid

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This haute menswear line, dubbed the Ralph Lauren of the South, feels right at home in this downtown historic house with plantation shutters and wood paneling. Inside, Persian rugs, leather furnishings, oil paintings, and animal busts accent the well-edited collection of clothes and accessories.

Cy Twombly Gallery

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Renzo Piano’s second commission in the U.S. (after its parent museum, the Menil Collection next door) is purposefully understated—built with plaster, white oak, steel and filtered glass—allowing American artist Cy Twombly’s stunning canvases, sculptures, and drawings to take center stage.

Hotel Zaza

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This theatrical hotel in central Houston has 315 guestrooms including seven concept suites: An astronaut’s suit and lava lamps outfit the “Houston, We Have a Problem” room; find red lacquered furnishings and a teakwood shower in the Geisha House. The bold lobby has zebra-print chairs and a coy pond; pick up a Mexican coke at the canopied Snack Bar on your way out.

Houston Ballet Center for Dance

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This $53 million Gensler-designed facility is the largest ballet center in the U.S. Its six stories have a number of innovative features including an open-air pedestrian sky bridge and a stunning black granite facade.

Oxheart Restaurant

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Chef Justin Yu worked with Gin Designs on this industrial dining space in a 120-year-old building. The intimate room has exposed brick walls and low hanging light bulbs; dining essentials are all custom made, from the reclaimed long leaf pine table to the knives (forged by Serenity Knives) and ceramic plates (designed by Three Dot Pot).

Pennzoil Place

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This 1976 skyscraper earned Philip Johnson the Pritzker Prize in architecture. The 36-story postmodernist building was designed to be an optical illusion, delivering a completely different appearance based on where you stand and admire it.

Philippe Restaurant

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There’s a lot of detail to take in at this Texas-sized dining space by designer Lauren Rottet and architect Shafik Rifaat. Guests can lounge on long red leather booths; wooden wine boxes support an elegant zinc bar; and world-class artwork, on loan from the Deborah Colton Gallery, adorns restaurant walls. Try classic French dishes with a Texas twist, such as spicy duck confit tamales.

Rothko Chapel

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This intimate, non-denominational sanctuary is one of the most important modern works of religious art in the United States, if not the world. Fourteen canvases by Mark Rothko hang on the octagonal brick building’s otherwise bare walls. Outside, Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Twilight Epiphany, Rice University

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For its centennial anniversary this past June, Rice University commissioned this site-specific installation by Los Angeles-based artist James Turrell. The pyramid-shaped structure puts on an LED light show of sorts at dawn and at dusk, timed with the solar calendar. Get complimentary tickets to the sunset show, or catch a concert—Rice’s Shepherd School of music is next door—on the lawn surrounding the space.

Underbelly Restaurant

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Underbelly has been getting rave reviews for its menu—chef Chris Shepherd calls the restaurant “a story of Houston food”—and its interiors deserve a shout-out as well. Understated spaces by local architecture firm Collaborative Projects include communal American walnut tables, high ribbed ceilings, and shelves lined with canned goods and prints by area artists.

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The Alden

The lobby lounge at this historic redbrick hotel has modern leather furnishings and a funky wall with rotating light displays. Upstairs, 97 stately guest rooms are simple and finished out with granite-walled bathrooms and 42-inch flat screen TVs. Book on floors six and above for skyline and Minute Maid Park views.

Asia Society Texas Center

Japanese-born Yoshio Taniguchi is the starchitect behind this new arts and culture center, a contemporary build that marries eastern and western design. On the one hand, the low-slung structure is understated, though it still has a commanding presence thanks to graceful lines and elegant building materials such as white oak wood, 15-foot glass windows, and Basaltina Italian stone.

Billy Reid

This haute menswear line, dubbed the Ralph Lauren of the South, feels right at home in this downtown historic house with plantation shutters and wood paneling. Inside, Persian rugs, leather furnishings, oil paintings, and animal busts accent the well-edited collection of clothes and accessories.

Cy Twombly Gallery

Renzo Piano’s second commission in the U.S. (after its parent museum, the Menil Collection next door) is purposefully understated—built with plaster, white oak, steel and filtered glass—allowing American artist Cy Twombly’s stunning canvases, sculptures, and drawings to take center stage.

Hotel Zaza

This theatrical hotel in central Houston has 315 guestrooms including seven concept suites: An astronaut’s suit and lava lamps outfit the “Houston, We Have a Problem” room; find red lacquered furnishings and a teakwood shower in the Geisha House. The bold lobby has zebra-print chairs and a coy pond; pick up a Mexican coke at the canopied Snack Bar on your way out.

Houston Ballet Center for Dance

This $53 million Gensler-designed facility is the largest ballet center in the U.S. Its six stories have a number of innovative features including an open-air pedestrian sky bridge and a stunning black granite facade.

Oxheart Restaurant

Chef Justin Yu worked with Gin Designs on this industrial dining space in a 120-year-old building. The intimate room has exposed brick walls and low hanging light bulbs; dining essentials are all custom made, from the reclaimed long leaf pine table to the knives (forged by Serenity Knives) and ceramic plates (designed by Three Dot Pot).

Pennzoil Place

This 1976 skyscraper earned Philip Johnson the Pritzker Prize in architecture. The 36-story postmodernist building was designed to be an optical illusion, delivering a completely different appearance based on where you stand and admire it.

Philippe Restaurant

There’s a lot of detail to take in at this Texas-sized dining space by designer Lauren Rottet and architect Shafik Rifaat. Guests can lounge on long red leather booths; wooden wine boxes support an elegant zinc bar; and world-class artwork, on loan from the Deborah Colton Gallery, adorns restaurant walls. Try classic French dishes with a Texas twist, such as spicy duck confit tamales.

Rothko Chapel

This intimate, non-denominational sanctuary is one of the most important modern works of religious art in the United States, if not the world. Fourteen canvases by Mark Rothko hang on the octagonal brick building’s otherwise bare walls. Outside, Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Twilight Epiphany, Rice University

For its centennial anniversary this past June, Rice University commissioned this site-specific installation by Los Angeles-based artist James Turrell. The pyramid-shaped structure puts on an LED light show of sorts at dawn and at dusk, timed with the solar calendar. Get complimentary tickets to the sunset show, or catch a concert—Rice’s Shepherd School of music is next door—on the lawn surrounding the space.

Underbelly Restaurant

Underbelly has been getting rave reviews for its menu—chef Chris Shepherd calls the restaurant “a story of Houston food”—and its interiors deserve a shout-out as well. Understated spaces by local architecture firm Collaborative Projects include communal American walnut tables, high ribbed ceilings, and shelves lined with canned goods and prints by area artists.