Culture / Entertainment

Houston’s Mysterious Cistern Brings Holiday Lights Underground For a Show Like No Other — How to Get Immersed

Buffalo Bayou Park's Most Hidden and Unique Attraction Beckons

BY // 11.29.23

If you’ve never visited the Cistern in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, it’s the perfect time and season to make your way to this cavernous, somewhat mysterious underground site. Now through January 7, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership is hosting Cistern Illuminated, a winter light installation held inside the massive 87,500-square-foot space. It is created by Houston artist and engineer Kelly O’Brien with this talented artist reprising his role for the now second annual event that incorporates visual and audio elements to create a fully immersive sensory art experience.

But what is the Cistern you ask? Built during the 1920s to serve as a drinking water repository (in later years, it got replaced by modern-day reservoirs), this industrial relic is reminiscent of those ancient Roman cisterns found in Istanbul. Inside the dark, expansive space are 221 25-foot-high imposing concrete columns where O’Brien has strategically placed lighting instruments, each controlled by a custom software system that casts an array of colored lights up through the vast columns.

In addition, if the light catches it just right, you’ll spy a reflection of the Cistern’s ceiling on the glass-like surface of the water below.

Cistern Illuminated (Photo by Courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership.)
Houston artist and engineer Kelly O’Brien is the creative vision behind Cistern illuminated.

Yet, beyond the stunning visual elements on display, this year’s installation also makes use of the space’s extraordinary acoustics, exciting for new and repeat visitors alike. In addition to tours that allow peiople to view the installation, choral performances from the Schola Cantorum of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart will take place on select dates, highlighting the Cistern’s unique acoustic qualities and bringing music to this already ethereal experience. Tickets for Cistern Illuminated are available here.

Curiously, the powers that be at the Buffalo Park Partnership only rediscovered the Cistern in 2010 when they were developing Buffalo Bayou Park, the 160-acre green space West of downtown Houston. Recognizing the significance of the highly unusual site, Buffalo Park Partnership took on the task of repurposing the Cistern into an awe-inspiring public space. In addition to tours highlighting the history and architecture of the Cistern, Buffalo Park Partnership presents an ambitious program of changing art installations in the space throughout the year, including past projects from Magdalena Fernández, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Anri Sala.

Buffalo Park Partnership offers tours of the Cistern year-round, but Cistern Illuminated is only available for a limited time, with the show running until  Sunday, January 7. Cistern Illuminated is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm.

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