Fueling the passionate
flames of desire to build
Asia Society Texas Center
Nancy Allen has given new meaning to the word “cheerleader.” When it came down to moving ahead with the vision to build Houston’s brand new and gleaming Asia Society Texas Center headquarters, the mother and grandmother didn’t simply cheer from the sidelines since getting involved 10 years ago.
Instead, she boldly stepped out onto an international playing field of construction contracts, requests for proposals (RFP), committee meetings and grand-scale fundraising efforts for Houston’s latest 21st century world-class community center. To top off that effort, her drive and passion would attract renowned Japanese Architect Yoshiro Taniguchi to design the $48.4 million Center. And, over the course of its planning and construction, Allen herself would donate more than $15 million for the new facility.
“I have never given up. I have been like the pied piper, I am the cheerleader and here we are today in this 40,000 square foot building designed by the world famous Yoshiro Taniguchi,” says Allen as she looks out from the Center’s Water Garden Terrace, a lounge overlooking the placid “Infinity Pool” built on a second floor terrace. “Miracles do happen and this is a miracle.”
“All this was volunteering,” she added. “We had to talk about the leadership, how to get more people on board, categorize potential donors and committee members and talk about parties and receptions. So many people helped – it was quite a collaboration.”
Built primarily of subtle-patterned Jura Limestone from southern Germany, the Asia Society Texas Center, located in the Museum District, opens with a four-day celebration from April 12-15, including a gala affair. The public can tour the building on Saturday and Sunday, April 14 and 15, when the Center offers a free Open House and First Look Festival.
The Center will host Asian-themed public programs in education, policy and business, and arts and culture. Programs will focus on the richness of Asian art, music, dance and film, in addition to the latest trends in politics, business and diplomacy. Internationally recognized experts and artists will share their ideas in conference, forum and performance settings with civic and academia leaders, local businesses and interested citizens.
What motivated Allen to become so passionate about building a local headquarters for the Asia Society?
“I got involved because of my precious granddaughters,” she explained. “My son is married to a girl from Korea, and I have two beautiful Asian-American granddaughters.”
“They were probably in the fourth or fifth grade, and one of them said, ‘if we’d been born before Martin Luther King, we’d have to sit at the back of the bus,’” she recalled. “I had to do a double take with that. Both little girls were very bright and sensitive, and how in the fourth grade you’d be that aware was pretty amazing to me.”
“I just wanted to honor their Asian background and I wanted to be involved with building a beautiful building that would be reflective of their beautiful Asian background too,” she continued. “It was very important to me.”
Allen says she couldn’t have done it all without the help of her son – and the father of her granddaughters – Edward Allen III, now the Asia Society Texas Center’s board vice chairman and a partner in the investment advisory firm Eagle Global Advisors.
“I didn’t even know what an RFP was, and here we are going about building a building,” Allen recalled with a laugh. “Without Ed, this couldn’t have happened. He gave substance and importance and everything to put into motion proposals and things that were not just from his cheerleader mom.”
“Ed had been involved with the Asia Society for a long time and said they’re looking for new headquarters, a permanent facility. I said I’d like to get involved, and the next thing I knew I was driving around town looking at property,” she continued. “Nothing suited me. I wanted something that was truly beautiful. Maybe we’ll just have to build a building.”
Allen recalls being invited to a luncheon to discuss the project around Christmas time, 2002.
“I really got tired of everybody dragging his or her feet,” she said. “I know my son nearly fainted when I said I will give $250,000 and match up to five people if they each give at least the same. So, we had four people who gave that and had enough money to buy this land we’re on right now.”
The next step was forming a committee to find an architect, setting in motion the process leading to hiring Yoshio Taniguchi, known for his recent redesign and expansion of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Allen first became interested in the architect after reading a New York Times Magazine four years earlier.
"On the cover was Taniguchi, showcasing the story of his MoMA masterpiece from 1998; I never threw it out. This man had a compelling effect on me,” she said. “So when I was made chair of the Architecture Selection Committee, I went to my little stash and, oh my gosh, it was still there four years later!”
As former president and chair of the board of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum and a member of the Menil Collection Development Committee, Allen used her connections to get in touch with the Japanese architect. Through a chain of contacts, Allen spoke with staff at MoMA, who contacted Taniguchi.
“I always dreamed big, and it never bothered me in the least,” she said. “We got a call back a couple of weeks later that he would love to talk to us.”
The goal of the Asia Society is to bring Asians and Americans together for a shared future through strengthening relationships and increasing understanding with the peoples and institutions of Asia. The mission, first articulated by John D. Rockefeller, III in 1956 when he founded the Society in New York City, is “to increase knowledge and enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression and generate new ideas across the fields of arts and culture, policy and business and education.” Rockefeller’s interest in U.S.-Asian relations stem from growing up surrounded by his parent’s Asian art collection and his experience serving on the post-World War II peace mission to Japan led by John Foster Dulles.
The Asia Society Texas Center was established in 1979 by a group of Houstonians led by former First Lady Barbara Bush and Ambassador Roy M. Huffington. The idea of having the new headquarters in Houston came up at a 1995 meeting at Kykuit, the 40-room John D. Rockefeller Estate house in Westchester County, New York.
“It took a lot of effort building the right team and attracting major funders,” said Charles Foster, chairman of the board of the Asia Society Texas Center, who was at the meeting. “I thought it was critical for the Center to be located in the Museum District.
“Houston has a huge Asian-American community and is already linked to Asia big time through the oil and gas industry, educational institutions and our excellent Medical Center,” said Foster, a trustee of Asia Society New York, honorary consul-general of the Kingdom of Thailand, and co-founder and co-chairman of FosterQuan LLP, the second largest immigration law firm in the United States. “However, until now, we didn’t have a single focal point that says Houston will be part of the incredible economic developments and other changes in the Asian countries.”
“It’s not only an architectural jewel of Houston,” he continued, “but it will be a focal point with everything Houston has to do with Asia – arts and policy, for example, and it will bring Asian leaders to Houston to be involved with arts and policy.”
The Center’s key function rooms include the 273-seat Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, 4,000-square-foot Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery, 3,000-square-foot Edward Rudge Allen III Education Center, and the Fayez Sarofim Grand Hall. Most of the exterior and interior walls are made of Jura Limestone, patterned with fossil imprints, quarried from Bavaria, Germany. Taniguchi used only 50 of the 470 blocks brought in for the job – the ones he thought were acceptable color and quality. Wall paneling in the Center’s Fayez Sarofim Grand Hall and the Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater are lined with American cherry wood. Other materials include Basaltina Italian Stone on the ground level and Appalachian White Oak.
Further highlighting the opening will be an exhibition of more than 60 works of Asian art in the Center’s Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery. Treasures of Asian Art: A Rockefeller Legacy opened April 14, with artworks selected from Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of traditional Asian art of the Asia Society Museum in New York. The exhibition in part will feature Indian bronze sculpture from the Chola period (9th – 13th Centuries); Buddhist sculpture from India, Nepal and Tibet; exquisite ceramics from China, Korea and Japan; and 16th and 17th century Japanese screens.
Construction on the Center began in January 2010 and took about 18 months to finish. “I think this building exists today because of our passion,” reflects Allen. “Being very passionate really seemed to bring people in, and then they were so willing to figure out all the problems that we needed to solve, from RFP up.“If you believe there are things in life that can give a sense of grace to life, that’s what this building is for me.”
Richard Varr is a free-lance journalist and reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
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