Feature Article: Austin Architects
By Brittani Sonnenberg, MP Mueller and Anne Bruno
Photographs by Bill Sallans
Once you’ve lived in a city for several years — or even several months — its streets and structures can grow so familiar that you barely see them. It’s only from a wildly different angle: looking out the window as your plane lands at the airport, or showing a visiting best friend around town, that your vision is revived, and revised.
Spend ten minutes talking to an architect, and a similar jolt occurs. Their subtle understanding of structures transforms your own: sharpening and nuancing your notion of A House. A Skyscraper. A Public Bathroom on Town Lake.
For this issue, we wanted to put on architect glasses. Not because they’re so damn stylish, but because we wanted to see architecture, and Austin, in a new way. We picked the brains of some of our most groundbreaking and refreshing architects in town. Their beautifully honest, articulate and astonishingly modest answers (they loved talking about their favorite works by other architects as much as they enjoyed discussing their own new projects) blew us away. We think you’ll enjoy them, too.
What new architectural trends do you find exciting and inspiring? Which are you pointedly ignoring?
Michael Hsu: I’m excited about the abundance of new tiles and the ability to custom-create patterns and colors. We also enjoy working with thin stone and tile veneers in very large sheets — there’s lots of potential for new ways to use these traditional finishes. I’m less thrilled about fake vintage wood. It can give a warm feel and color to a space but we warn against overusing it.
Arthur Furman: Pinterest and social media have actually accelerated the rise and fall cycle of popular trends. As an architect, I am more interested in the pursuit of something timeless, as opposed to timely. In general, though, I think we are seeing a return to very simple, straightforward design. In the midst of a cheap, so-called “modern” construction boom in the speculative residential market, there is an underlying desire for buildings and places that feel real, that have a soul, and are built to last.
Ryan and Stephanie Lemmo: We like how interest and excitement about “local” is bringing more awareness to Austin craftsmen and fabricators. There is a growing awareness of who actually creates the beautiful furniture, light fixtures, casework and special pieces in our homes, restaurants and offices. Better collaboration between fabricators, owners and architects is creating some really exciting new spaces. On the flip side of this, we try to avoid any project or situation where the architect becomes more important than the work.
Hugh Randolph: My least favorite trends are floating shed roofs and the “soft-contemporary” style. It wasn’t good for music and it’s not good for residential design! The modern farmhouse can be a good thing – but it seems like it is close to being overdone.
David Webber: There is a trend for very dark or even black exteriors. In our climate, that is like putting a heater on the outside of your building … we don’t need to add more heat in Texas. Another one is no overhangs. While we agree that no overhangs is really striking aesthetically, it is one of the first ways to introduce problems in performance of a building. Not only do overhangs provide much needed shade in our climate, but with the torrential rain we get, we always feel like a design with an overhang will perform better.
Murray Legge: We have several shared residential projects where the clients are going in on a project as a group and building homes together on the same property. For one of the projects, we’re designing four separate homes for four different clients. They bought the property as a group and have hired us to design each of the four houses. It’s a fun, collaborative and economical way to work where everyone is contributing to the process and project as a whole.
Wilson Hanks: I have a special distaste for multi-material facades. (Just look at @uglyaustinhouses on Instagram.) Life is complicated. Keep design simple!
Matt Fajkus: The evolution of digital design and fabrication process is a fun new trend to follow. We’ve aimed to experiment with this sort of technology in our installation designs and then to carefully incorporate it into our design process and construction techniques in small doses.
What architectural principles do you live by? Are there any that you’ve shed over the course of your career?
Jay Dupont: When given the opportunity, we embrace the Central Texas material and space planning palette with a modern approach and aesthetic. Maintaining this indigenous undertone gives our building a sense of place congruent to the central Texas landscape.
David Kilpatrick: Although it is terribly cliché, I live and die by less is more. We edit, edit, edit and strip away until the composition can be reduced no further. Early in my career, I considered only “modern” houses to be beautiful. As I’ve matured architecturally, so to speak, I recognize a well-edited “traditional” house is just as beautiful as the best “modern” house.
James Shieh: Of prominence are energy efficiencies from “passive design” where the site and climate help to dictate the design to allow greater energy efficiency for our comfort. As designers who do understand how this can inexpensively benefit the users and community as a whole, it is important to consider this in every project.
Michael Hsu: The more we’ve done and the more we’ve learned has me wanting to couple that with the fresh, naive designer I was years ago. It’s a desire to forget about the rules you know but do it with all the knowledge we now have about making spaces and experiences.
Arthur Furman: I believe in small living. An efficient floor plan is about identifying what is truly important for the day-to-day life in that home, for that family. Creating spaces for highly-focused engagement with family and friends, and eliminating unneeded spaces that distract from these moments, I believe, yields a far greater quality of life than a large, sprawling home.
Igor Siddiqui: The belief that architects shape more than just buildings and that our work influences the environment at all scales — from extra-small to extra-large — has led me to numerous exciting design opportunities over the years. The idea that we must be doing it all at once is something I have thankfully let go of.
Hugh Randolph: I follow five principles:
• Architecture is an art and, like all art, should elicit emotions by deploying memory, cultural associations, sound, color, etc. But this should be a key goal and not an afterthought.
• Architecture should reflect the personality of the owner and the site.
• Architecture is experienced through movement, and the choreography of experiences as one moves through a space should influence the design.
• Architecture should employ natural light as an important factor in shaping a design.
• This is a combination of the four items above: Architecture should tell a story!
David Webber: Our projects are steeped in four driving principles: Functionalism, Expressionism, Regionalism, Minimalism.
Thomas Bercy: We like creating regionalist architecture that draws from a diversity of local inspirations, ranging from the unique geology of Central Texas, to various primitive archetypes.
Scott Specht: One of my teachers at the University of Florida, Harry Merritt, studied under Mies van der Rohe. “When two different materials come together,” Merritt stressed, “you must always reveal that this is one material, and this is another.” When you learn that system, it never leaves you. It doesn’t feel right to me if you slam materials into each other. Working in New York also deeply influenced my approach. You learn that tiny inches matter in the proportions and scales of rooms. Even when you have a house with a site that is wide open, if the rooms aren’t proportioned well, it will utterly change the feel of the house.
Which public spaces speak to you most deeply in Austin – are there specific buildings or natural spaces that inspire your work? Do you return to these buildings again and again, like favorite books or movies?
Tim Cuppett: The French Legation [Museum] inspires me, and I have the pleasure of stopping by the South Congress Hotel, by Michael Hsu, for coffee between construction meetings, again and again.
James Shieh: It’s interesting that the “space” that speaks to me the most and has shaped my perspectives is a part of the public realm. The Butler Trail at Lady Bird Lake, and its connected networks has been my cornerstone for many years. Everything is available from it, from the places to eat, read, work and play.
Ryan and Stephanie Lemmo: We love James Turrell’s Skyspace at UT. We go back all the time to just meditate and reflect in an environment that is different every time we go.
Chris Krager: I think we have a bit of a deficit of public space in Austin. Aside from our park system, which is top-notch, we don’t have a town square. As a result of not having as much of this civic infrastructure as older, established cities, what we end up with in Austin are more provisional gatherings, such as what happens with SXSW, or the plethora of other festival/events we have here.
Thomas Bercy: Erosion patterns in the limestone and granite in and around Austin have been a great source of inspiration for us. It has helped us generate some of our more extreme geometry while remaining contextual. Places like Enchanted Rock, Hamilton Pool, and the greenbelt all have qualities that are very architectural.
Scott Specht: I like Austin’s Cathedral of Junk. Bizarrely visionary folk artists build these things. It’s always been a goal of mine to come up with a roadside attraction when I retire: setting up something on the side of I-35 and running it for the rest of my life.
A recent Slate podcast discussion revolved around writers who were deeply invested in questions of architecture/design, such as Edith Wharton and Martin Heidegger. Or Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” comes to mind. One of the Slate editors brought up the idea of architecture as autobiography. Does that idea resonate with you? Does your approach to architecture echo something essential about your own personality?
David Kilpatrick: I absolutely believe in architecture as autobiography! My portfolio is a record of my thoughts on and contributions to the built environment. The early chapters are horrifying at this point; I hope I am making for a better read now and in the future.
James Shieh: In a sense [you could consider architecture as autobiography], however every project is [also a reflection of its] own collaborative crew and desires of the client. I remember a home we designed on multiple lots with amazing views, but the client wanted a castle! For those experiencing it, it missed the point of what the site had to offer. Was the design about me or the other artisans? No … but the design was a good reflection of the client on so many levels. In this case, as the designers, we were the client’s biographer.
Arthur Furman: I love this question because I read Calvino and Heidegger in architecture school at RISD. However, I tend to reject the concept of architecture as an autobiography of the architect. I would say that the best architecture happens when the architect’s ego is removed entirely, allowing the design to be guided by the constraints and opportunities at hand.
Chris Krager: I am definitely a product of my environment. As a fourth generation Detroit-er, a product of working class/Midwestern sensibility and mores, my work has fairly pragmatic underpinnings. What makes a place “Architecture” and not just building is finding the poetic within the pragmatic.
Hugh Randolph: Architecture is very much autobiography — even if that’s not the goal. I was born in an old city — New Orleans, and then lived on a block as a young boy in Houston with friends whose father was among the first in the Apollo program and on the moon. They had houses right out of “Mad Men”/ “Brady Bunch.” I like to soak in all aspects of the world around me … Thomas Jefferson is my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and I’m the recent president of the Monticello Association, the group of descendants. We visit Monticello most every year since I was a child, and I am now designing an extension to our family graveyard there where Jefferson is buried. Monticello looks traditional on the surface, but upon closer inspection it is very inventive, quirky, and eclectic. In that sense I hope some of it has rubbed off and influenced me.
Thoms Bercy: Absolutely. Architecture like any art has a lot to do with one’s past. My business partner, Calvin Chen, and I are from Taiwan and Belgium, respectively, which are quite distinctive places. Our work has both Asian and Western European qualities, which we have often juxtaposed to create a unique sense of place. Memories and architecture are connected in many ways. This connection allows one to be transported to distant travels, one’s childhood, or even to a different state of being.
Do you ever incorporate feng shui or other disciplines to your design?
James Shieh: I do incorporate some feng shui into my designs, but I don’t let it dictate my approach. I have seen feng shui used successfully in a particular building, but compromise the larger community approach. Of importance to me is designing to acknowledge that there is a public realm with its own yin and yang, which also experiences and interacts with the design.
Michael Hsu: Yes, I incorporate feng shui, but also vastu shastra, the traditional Hindu system of balancing architecture and nature.
Hugh Randolph: On our recent Scenic Drive project we aligned the staircase to avoid descending towards the front door. This is a [feng shui] principle to keep energy and luck from flowing out of the house.
Miguel Rivera: One of our more immediate examples of utilizing these practices was for the recently completed Chinmaya Mission Austin, a nonprofit Hindu temple and education center. The campus combines the vastu shastra principles of Hindu design — emphasizing geometric patterns, symmetry, and directional alignments — with a contemporary sensibility.
Wilson Hanks: Yes, we incorporate feng shui, although it tends to manifest itself on an extremely intuitive level. I study people. It is our desires that manifest disciplines such as feng shui; these are simple but powerful universal concepts that unite us.
Which recently designed home or building in Austin do you most admire – something you wish you could claim as your own work?
David Kilpatrick: Prospect House in Drippings Springs by Max Levy is maybe the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. There is nothing particularly precious about it. The repetition of simple forms and unpretentious materials is evidence that pretty doesn’t have to be expensive.
Tim Cuppett: This isn’t a recent build, but I [was deeply moved] by architect Herbert Crume’s former home, built for himself in 1955, which he recently renovated for its current owner. I wept upon entry during the 2014 Preservation Austin Homes tour featuring midcentury dwellings.
Michael Hsu: I have a lot of respect for Mell Lawrence’s work, and would happily live in a home of his design. I’m sympathetic with his approach to materials and appreciation of textures and natural pattern making, and doing it quietly.
David Webber: My favorite house in the city, by Bercy Chen, is partially submerged. It is called the Edgeland House. It was designed and built several years ago, but it remains one of my favorite houses because it is conceptual and elegant.
Arthur Furman: The steel and concrete restroom buildings on Lady Bird Lake designed by Mell Lawrence make me want to punch my own face, they’re so good.
Ryan and Stephanie Lemmo: We love the restaurant work Michael Hsu is doing (have you seen the new P. Terry’s on I-35?). Alterstudio maintains such discipline with their residential work, and everything that Drophouse fabricates is just so, so cool.
Igor Siddiqui: That’s easy: Bercy Chen Studio’s Edgeland House on the east side. It comes with a couple of the smartest and kindest Austinites as its inhabitants that I can think of, Chris and Agi.
Feng Shui and the W Hotel
Arthur Andersson: We utilize feng shui in our design. Perhaps the most public example in Austin is the W Hotel. In the initial phases of the design, I was asked by the mayor and city council to define how our new 40-story project would be sensitive to the then newly-completed city hall. Feng shui speaks of the fortuitous nature of siting a building that houses the seat of government with a protective mountain behind and a view of water in front. For the city hall, The W is composed to be the protective mountain, allowing views and connection to the water, [Town Lake], in front.
The Ultimate Bespoke House
Scott Specht: We’re designing a house for a very interesting couple in New Jersey. There’s no living room, and there’s no kitchen. You can’t worry about resale if you’re designing a house like that. Her big thing is doing all of her entertaining in her closet. She wants a giant closet where she can have ten friends over and hang out … a closet that has couches and mirrors, connected to a giant bathroom, totally separated from his side of the house. He has a gym. There’s no living room. They have a party space around the pool, but they have no kitchen. He has a little space for making smoothies, and she barely eats so there’s no co-kitchen. It’s a very unusual living situation.
The talented furniture makers at Petrified Design, Tyson Pendergrass and Gable Bostic, for the loan of their stylin’ wood and steel chairs and benches for this photo shoot.
Viceroy Realty Advisors, and two of its partners, brothers Aaron and Andrew Ashmore. They answered the call when we wanted to use the old Central Machine Works warehouse on East Cesar Chavez for this photo shoot. This building, where giant lathes once turned steel, will soon become a craft brewery and beer garden. The Ashmores are also partners in a riverfront 50-room hotel project to be built on Red Bluff Road in East Austin.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2016