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A Conversation with Mell Lawrence

Mell Lawrence Tribeza Magazine

An Architect’s Architect

IN THE EARLY ’80S, when he was moonlighting as a cook in a kitchen where Sixth Street’s Coyote Ugly Saloon now resides, Mell Lawrence was ambivalent about his future in architecture. Fortunately for those who love his context-sensitive buildings — poured concrete studios, airy home remodels, the public restrooms along Lady Bird Lake — Lawrence obviously overcame his early uncertainties. His nuanced structures draw your attention to the natural environment as much as to the built space. His consistent expression of sensibility over one signature visual style might explain why his name comes up so frequently among his Austin architect peers.

We met in his South Austin office where he’s been creating award-winning designs since 1991. His staff mingled about in the mellow, focused atmosphere. Lawrence is soft-spoken but ebullient. He spoke in paragraphs, his hands frequently covering his mouth, either in self-effacement or a desire to keep his volume down to not distract employees. Humility and zest in equal measure – a perfect extension of the kind of work for which Lawrence is so well respected.

A lot of fellow architects are high on your work, and it came up multiple times that you are a respected figure here in town.
Austin got pushed into the limelight originally from the music industry. They came here because there was a good community of support. And I think that cultural ethic of support is something that spread into all these other things. I find that the architecture community in Austin has really grown into something where support each other, they cheer for each other, they want each other to do their best and shine. It’s enjoyable to work here like that.

Are there aspects of other creative disciplines that you find yourself drawing from as a source of inspiration?
This town is full of fabricators and artisans, steel shops and woodshops. I believe you use their knowledge and sit down with them. You work it all out with them rather than drawing it up and saying “execute this.”

I act as the orchestra leader, but everyone is welcome to throw in whatever idea. You have to learn and pay attention to how everyone is to make sure it’s safe for everyone. A thousand layers of information, and it’s all dynamic and moving.

I just try to hold the vision together. How well does the building work, how enjoyable is the building to experience ? What are the opportunities you can imbue in the building with light and composition? They’re all perfecting and pushing each other. It’s like being inside and outside of a giant Rubik’s cube.

It seems like professional creatives fall into two groups: those who discover their passion very young and those who wanted to do something else and backed into what turns out to be their life work. What’s your architect origin story?
I grew up in a house in Houston, in a little midcentury modern house. My father was an architect. My mother went to school in the fine arts. I grew up in a house where discussion of performing arts and visual arts were just part of the dialogue. They collected art. They were very much modernists, but they made it their own. When you’re young and making a map of the world, I just thought that’s what the world was.

When I went off to school, I did not know what I wanted to do. I really went to school as a social thing. I went to UT, I had friends going there. I had a friend who was in the architecture school, and my father was an architect. I thought, I could do this. So I transferred over my sophomore year, got a degree in architecture.

When I went to work in an architecture office, it was soooooo quiet. And it was a hell hole: three partners who hated each other. I was excited to be working, but I was like, “I gotta get out of here.” And all of that negative energy existed in a place that was very quiet. I was the head cook at a place where Coyote Ugly is now. I kept my shifts. That was survival for me. But my third office was a good one. They actually treated their employees like they mattered. And I thought, “OK it can be like this.” I knew when I quit cooking, it was because I said I choose architecture.

You spoke earlier about durability — are there trends right now in architecture that you are particularly drawn to?
It’s super exciting right now in terms of the technology. Even though people don’t seem to want to pay attention, the planet is in crisis. The way we live now is not sustainable. It can’t persist, unless there are so many technological breakthroughs.

Technology can be an incredible gift, or it can be used to make everything cheaper and more convenient, with faster delivery but much lower quality.

Trends are fun to take a ride on, but there’s a shelf life to them. In a building, it’s such a long life cycle. And the downside is the same thing that makes a trend fun makes it not fun once its shelf life is up. The very nature of trends — you’re going to have a lot longer time when it’s not trendy.

Is there a public or natural space in Austin that is a good battery recharger for you?
When I take off from I go down to these little parks. It’s more like a little nature preserve. That’s where I escape to.

In architecture, and the aesthetic sensibilities that I think about, you can learn a lot just by walking through nature. Humans tend to want to organize everything. But no one ever gets out of their car at the edge of a national forest and says, “This is awful, it’s so chaotic, look how messy this is.”

I just like what I do. It’s a great profession where you get to work with super-interesting, smart-as-hell people that can do fabulous things. So I’m lucky. I feel lucky every day.

Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2016