A group of young visionary architects and designers are shaping what Austin will look like in the years to come — over beers and laughter in their backyards
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Kady Dunlap
People love the myth of the lone genius, but a peek behind the curtain suggests that most geniuses lean heavily on their support networks. Sherlock had Watson. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka the Notorious RBG) had her late husband, Marty. James Beard had Julia Child, and Julia Child had James Beard. Successful creative relationships demand that you sometimes play the sidekick and sometimes the superhero. For a group of eight rising architects and designers in Austin, switching roles — from superhero to sidekick, from welder to project manager, from professor to architect to parent — is just part of the job. And if that juggling ever starts to feel overwhelming, there’s chilled white wine and laughter and friendships that began in UT architecture classes 10 years ago, connections that remain as inspiring and foundational as any designs sketched since.
Architects Brittany and Nick Hunt hosted the latest group hang and invited Tribeza to sit in on the action. On a lovely weathered back porch in Bryker Woods, where a hammock swung lazily between two cedar elm trees, two toddlers chased each other, and two dogs eyed the charcuterie plate, a group of old friends reconnected as we listened and asked a few questions of our own. What follows are snippets from an evening’s musings on architecture, design, and the nature of creative collaboration.
Hunt Architecture (Architect and Co-founder)
There’s something about the studio atmosphere in college architecture classes that fosters amazing friendships. I’m a relative latecomer to the group, which began at UT with my wife, Brittany, and her friends. Brittany and I met at an architecture firm in New York, and when we had Cooper [now 18 months old], we decided to move back to Austin. This group has been incredible for me. When I moved here, I lost my entire New York network, and knowing these guys has meant that I have access to vital local connections, from millworkers to contractors. In Austin, it’s not about competing with each other: Everyone does their own thing, and we all help each other out. I just started working on a project with Claire, and it’s a privilege to collaborate with friends whose work you deeply respect. We visit each other’s building sites and give feedback; we’re all doing wildly different things.
Hunt Architecture (Architect and Co-founder)
UT School of Architecture faculty
This fall will be my first semester teaching at UT. It feels like coming full circle to me. I’m the first of our group to go back to the classroom. The architecture profession doesn’t support mothers very well, and that kicks a lot of people out. I’m in a unique position because I can do my architecture work from home. At school, there were more women than men in our department, but in the workforce it flips back to an overwhelmingly male ratio. You have to be really committed to your career. I’ve been in love with the profession from an early age. It’s tough and time-consuming and requires a really thick skin. I was lucky to marry an architect who gets it, who’s my number one fan and a big part of my support system and an equal parent. As a woman, you have to ask for what you want in this field. I was upfront with my boss about needing more maternity leave. You learn to advocate for yourself in a profession where nobody else will. We don’t really discuss gender roles in this group; we’ve all been equally successful at different things. Will taught Meegan and me how to weld; nobody ever told us we couldn’t do something because of our gender. We offer each other feedback all the time and talk about our struggles. Dan has been so helpful in guiding Nick, and we all ask advice from each other all the time. This group is a big reason Nick and I moved back to Austin. After nine years in New York, with a kid and hungry to set up a practice in a supportive community, it was a no-brainer.
Pollen Architecture & Design (Project Manager)
I met Brittany and Meegan on a welding project in 2008, when they showed up to help us do steelwork. The site was right next to the river, and after work we would kick back and drink beers by the water. I studied architecture and design, but I spent summers doing carpentry, and I think that tectonic background makes the rest of my work better. When you graduate in the middle of the recession, it serves you well to have options. It’s afforded me a lot of opportunities, from design to construction. I work better collaboratively: showing other people what I’m working on. I like to pull in friends to help on projects outside of my own expertise, and I’m helping Dan do carpentry work. We’re all trying to buy our own places and renovate them with each other’s help.
FKF Studio (Co-founder)
I’ve called Austin home for 18 years now. When most of my friends were moving to New York or Europe or grad school, I stayed in Austin because the city was growing in a way that I knew would work for a particular type of residential architecture. I wanted a chance to be a part of the creation and not just the maintenance of a great city.
If I had to trace my friendship with [the] group to one person or event, I would give credit to our mutual friend Nick Rivard. Nick’s family own a gorgeous Lake Flato house on the Llano River in Mason. Nick would have these multi-day parties that were like salons. Through these get-togethers at the ranch I’ve made some of the best friends of my life. We would talk, swim, potluck, fish, hike, drink, and just all around get a little weird.
My firm, FKF Studio, is a partnership with Alex Finnell and Devin Keyes. I’ve known my partners both for about 16 years. We’re a design-build firm, meaning we are also contractors for our projects. We’re a “horse-first” firm. When we first started our practice four years ago, we would joke about people with fancy websites and no build work as cart-before-the-horse. We design everything from scratch, using a first-principals methodology.
Chioco Design (Project Architect)
I think going to school together cemented a certain sensibility for us. Our generation has different priorities, different ideas about design and sustainability that came from a focus on affordable housing and social responsibility at UT. You find those ideals in a university setting — architecture’s role in the public sphere— before they take hold in the industry itself. I’m excited now about a project I’m working on for HOPE Outdoor Gallery’s new space, at Carson Creek Ranch. It’s a moment to address civic engagement and what design can do to build community in a city.
Claire Zinnecker Design (Designer and Founder)
My uncle is an architect and I always wanted to grow up to do the same. After seeing my passion for making, drawing, etc., he suggested I opt for interior design instead. I’m currently working on The Commune (a creative co-working space) with Nick. My favorite aspect of the project is the team! I’ve collaborated with Petrified Design, Lauren Cunningham (the client) and the construction company before and love them all. I love Nick as a person and so admire his work. So many good friends and great talent. Also it’s in my neighborhood – North Loop! The building has been empty since I moved in back in 2007. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.
Outdoor Voices (Director of Retail Design)
I learned a ton studying architecture in undergrad; especially the pragmatic, functional influences of the field. After graduating, I spent some time just making things: doing welding and constructing, which was great for the rest of my work. Grad school at Yale was very eye opening, and offered me an even wider pool of influences, plus the chance to work with architects like Frank Gehry and Greg Lynn.
I worked with Frank Gehry for three years, and slowly began to find ways to have more fun with architecture, to be less strict with myself. Of course it’s crucial that everything functions the right way, but it doesn’t have to fit a single aesthetic, and you can allow for wider influences. I began to let myself be led by fine art, sculpture, installations. Lots of things that weren’t architecture, per se—at least not what you’d see in a magazine. I increasingly found myself moved by the vernacular. Things that were designed, but not by architects. Little Cape Cod shacks on the water, dinky homes. Now it’s about finding a balance between sculpture, art, emotion and architecture. I’m drawn towards artists like Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Sol Dewitt, and Ellsworth Kelly. They each embrace a simple minimalism but aren’t afraid to take risks with color and emotion, and have a little fun.
Andersson-Wise Architects (Project Architect)
My range of work with Andersson-Wise is expansive, which has afforded me the opportunity to work on all scales of projects and typologies, from religious buildings that address issues of campus and community to residential projects where I can explore conditions of comfort and respite.
Place defines a lot of our initial design process; taking advantage of prevailing breezes, framing views, and creating spaces with deep overhangs and shade to protect from the hot Texas sun are all driving forces behind our designs.
For me, seeing a building go from drawings on a page to fully realized in the built environment is one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of architecture. Guiding clients and contractors through the construction phase is not always easy, but the collaborative nature of making a space that shapes people’s lives is incredibly rewarding.
As the sun sinks, Coop and Margot move inside to the playroom and launch what may grow into a lifelong interior-design collaboration, carefully moving chairs and toy blocks around without hitting each other or screaming. Like their parents, they play nice.
Over by the picnic table out back, Johnny tells Dan about Hendrix Wall, a dry stack wall in Florence, Alabama, that one man built with all the limestone he could find in a five-mile radius (in addition to stones from more than 120 countries) as a memorial to the Trail of Tears that his grandmother had walked. “Can you imagine being that guy’s neighbor?” Dan jokes. “God damn it, I was about to build a patio, and you took all the limestone.”
“Sorry, man, didn’t know you needed it,” Johnny, in character, quips back.
Alice (Will’s wife and a designer herself), Claire, Meegan, and Brittany confer briefly about next season’s jeans, then join the rest of the group in a debate on (architectural) design. From the road, the laughter ringing out from the back porch sounded like any other summer gathering. But who knows what ideas for tile in the master bath are slowly cohering, what creative collaborations are gelling, and what aesthetic innovations are emerging, soft and suggestive as the early evening’s late-August breeze.