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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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1. The Alden

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1117 Prairie
Houston, TX 77002

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.

2. Asia Society Texas Center

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1370 Southmore Blvd
Houston, TX 77004

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.

3. Billy Reid

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2702 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77098

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.

4. Cy Twombly Gallery

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1515 Sul Ross St
Houston, TX 77006

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.

5. Hotel Zaza

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5701 Main St
Houston, TX 77005

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.

6. Houston Ballet Center for Dance

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601 Preston St
Houston, TX 77002

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.

7. Oxheart Restaurant

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1302 Nance St
Houston, TX 77002

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).

8. Pennzoil Place

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711 Louisiana St
Houston, TX 77002

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.

9. Philippe Restaurant

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1800 Post Oak Blvd
Houston, TX 77056

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.

10. Rothko Chapel

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3900 Yupon St
Houston, TX 77006

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.

11. Twilight Epiphany, Rice University

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6100 Main St
Houston, TX 77005

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.

12. Underbelly Restaurant

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1100 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77006

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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1. The Alden

1117 Prairie, Houston, TX 77002

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.

1117 Prairie
Houston, TX 77002

2. Asia Society Texas Center

1370 Southmore Blvd, Houston, TX 77004

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.

1370 Southmore Blvd
Houston, TX 77004

3. Billy Reid

2702 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77098

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.

2702 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77098

4. Cy Twombly Gallery

1515 Sul Ross St, Houston, TX 77006

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.

1515 Sul Ross St
Houston, TX 77006

5. Hotel Zaza

5701 Main St, Houston, TX 77005

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.

5701 Main St
Houston, TX 77005

6. Houston Ballet Center for Dance

601 Preston St, Houston, TX 77002

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.

601 Preston St
Houston, TX 77002

7. Oxheart Restaurant

1302 Nance St, Houston, TX 77002

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).

1302 Nance St
Houston, TX 77002

8. Pennzoil Place

711 Louisiana St, Houston, TX 77002

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.

711 Louisiana St
Houston, TX 77002

9. Philippe Restaurant

1800 Post Oak Blvd, Houston, TX 77056

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.

1800 Post Oak Blvd
Houston, TX 77056

10. Rothko Chapel

3900 Yupon St, Houston, TX 77006

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.

3900 Yupon St
Houston, TX 77006

11. Twilight Epiphany, Rice University

6100 Main St, Houston, TX 77005

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.

6100 Main St
Houston, TX 77005

12. Underbelly Restaurant

1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006

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.

1100 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77006