Posts tagged with "Austin":

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SXSW announces inaugural art program installations

Austin, Texas–based South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals has announced five art installations to be exhibited in its inaugural SXSW Art Program in 2017. This year’s festivities will take place March 10 through March 19 in Austin. The installations will include work by both established and emerging artists, including Raum Industries, Refik Anadol, and Circus Family. In a press release announcing the featured artists, Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer at SXSW said, "Art and Design [have] always been central to the SXSW ethos, and we have quickly become a recognized platform for visual artists to showcase art installations and connect with filmmakers, musicians, and technologists. The Art Program is the first time we have formalized the program and sought leading artists to design specific installations that we know will resonate with SXSW audiences." The 2017 slate of featured artists was selected as part of a collaboration between the SXSW Art Team and an external advisory board made up at least partially by art curators. See below for the 2017 SXSW art program’s selected artists.
  • Hyphen-Labs (Ashley Baccus-Clark, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ece Tankal, and Nitzan Bartov) will showcase their NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism NSAF Not Safe as Fuck art piece. The work is described in a press release as “a transmedia exploration told through a multi-layered possible future that transcends the constraints of the present using a roster of products thematically rooted in security, protection, and visibility.” The group is helmed by four women of color who, through their artwork, seek to use virtual reality to insert viewers into a “‘neurocosmetology lab’ where black women are the pioneers of brain optimization.”
  • Los Angeles-based installation artist Refik Anadol will showcase an artwork called Infinity that consists of an immersive environment that translates the viewer’s perception of reality into a “three-dimensional space of visualization.” Anadol’s work also includes large-scale LED installations, including the artist’s Convergence installation for the Gensler-designed Metropolis project currently under construction in Downtown Los Angeles. 
  • Artists Raum Industries will exhibit their interactive light exhibition Optic Obscura at SXSW this year. That artwork translates inputs from a user interface into a gridded surface made up of hundreds of optical fibers. The resulting pixelated image is used to illuminate the installation and its surroundings. 
  • Artists Circus Family’s work TRIPH creates an immersive “light experience” that is generated by the physical proximity of viewers. Sensors on the artwork translate nearby movement into sound and colors of varying intensities. 
  • Akinori Goto strikes a similar chord through their toki - series #02 work, an installation that depicts time in relation to the movement of a dancer. The dancer’s rhythms are projected onto a 3-D printed mesh sculpture.
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No two projects from Austin-based Miró Rivera Architects look alike

As Austin has become the hippest city in Texas (to the excitement of millennials everywhere), its architectural scene has also become the liveliest, with Miró Rivera Architects, the Texas Society of Architects architecture firm of the year for 2016, as one of its shining stars. The practice began when Juan Miró—born in Barcelona and educated in Madrid—was working for New York City firm Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects, and was dispatched to Austin to oversee construction of an opulent villa commissioned by personal computer magnate Michael Dell. When the Dell House was completed in 1997, Miró realized he preferred the sunny Hill Country—with its passably Mediterranean climate—to Manhattan. Much like another émigré, the Viennese architect, Rudolf Schindler, who was sent to Los Angeles in 1920 by his boss, Frank Lloyd Wright, to keep tabs on a then-under-construction mansion for oil-heiress Aline Barnsdall, Miró decided to go out on his own afterward using the connections from the Dell House to get commissions (and crucially at first, also to get a steady teaching gig at the UT School of Architecture). Three years later, he was able to coax his Puertorriqueño brother-in-law, and fellow Gwathmey Siegel alum, architect Miguel Rivera, to join him and the firm was officially established in 2000.

As would be expected from a firm begun by transplants with such sophisticated pedigrees, the approach is decidedly cosmopolitan. This contrasts in an interesting way with the typical emphasis on formal regionalism espoused by the best-known modern architects in Texas, like O’Neil Ford and his spiritual descendants, Lake|Flato. These regionalists take inspiration from pre-industrial, rural buildings and tend to use specific local materials like limestone and brick. Miró Rivera’s projects, with their markedly varied, but always starkly modern appearances, appear almost to be the work of multiple firms, much like the multi-faceted Eero Saarinen. According to Rivera, the firm seeks to create an architectural vocabulary or iconography drawing from a variety of sources specific to the requirements of each commission. In this way, each project gets its own identity, but through the same analytic process, and through this dialectical exercise, the local becomes cosmopolitan.

Chinmaya Mission Austin, Texas

An educational center and worship space for a Hindu spiritual organization is an unusual program for central Texas—not known for accommodating a large South Asian immigrant population. Although strict budget constraints precluded the traditional stone temple the clients initially hoped for, the architects were able to devise a vocabulary of forms that could be built of inexpensive materials, but still recall typical Indian architectural typologies specific to the school and temple. Simple strategies, like alternating the colors of the metal roof panels and building a stone precinct wall of limestone slabs that could be individually sponsored as part of the fundraising effort, combined pragmatism and poetry.

Pedestrian Bridge Lake Austin, Texas

This bridge connects the main house on a property facing Lake Austin to a separate guesthouse. Its structure is made of several 80-foot-long, 5-inch diameter welded steel tubes that arc gracefully over a watery inlet separating the two buildings. The deck and sides of the bridge are made of half-inch steel rebar wrapped around the tubes. These common elements combined in an unexpected way evoke wetland plants growing on the site and transform what could be an intrusive element into a symbiotic, almost invisible link.

LifeWorks Austin, Texas

This headquarters was built for a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk children and families reorient their lives through educational programs and counseling. The architects physically suggested the organization’s mission by orienting it outward and opening it up to the neighborhood. The building is aligned to the edge of its site along a curving street with parking set to the rear. A continuous, three-story colonnade runs along this front-facing elevation. Its columns are slightly askew, an oblique reference to the organization’s clients, who come seeking support and assistance.Another design element doing double duty is the mix of three different exterior cladding materials, which alludes to the organization’s three cornerstones: counseling, education, and youth development.

Circuit of the Americas Del Valle, Texas

The 1,500-acre Circuit of the Americas, just outside Austin, is the first purpose-built Formula 1 racing facility in the United States. For this project, the architects were commissioned to design a 9,000-seat main grandstand, a 27-acre Grand Plaza, a central greenspace with a 14,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, and a 251-foot-tall observation tower. (A specialist German firm designed the super curvy track itself.) Naturally, the team looked to cars and auto culture for formal design cues. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the band of sinuous red pipes shrouding the observation tower, the most prominent element on the site. According to Rivera, the idea for them came from watching the endless taillights of cars in the evening commute on the notoriously crowded Austin freeways winding their way through the city.

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New Austin restaurant turns kitchen into “culinary stage” for guests to see food prep

2400 East Cesar Chavez Street in Austin was once a mid-century industrial warehouse occupied by a local bottling company. Now, the address is known as Juniper—a new northern Italian–inspired restaurant in Austin’s Holly District that joins a host of eateries that line the street. 

The renovation into an upscale contemporary restaurant was born from a collaboration between chef Nicholas Yanes and Austin-based studios, Sanders Architecture and Cravotta Interiors. As per Yanes’s request, the two studios were tasked with designing a space to bring the energy from the kitchen directly into the dining area.

To accomplish that, concrete beams and timber joists from the original structure have been left exposed within the 18-foot high dining space. Meanwhile, a floor-to-ceiling glass and steel wall that looks onto a courtyard facilitates a sense of openness.

This transparent theme prevails into the kitchen and bar. At Juniper, the kitchen is viewed as a “culinary stage” and guests are able to see Yanes’s team prepare dishes and drinks. Those eager to get closer to the action can sit at one of the 12 “chef’s counter” seats for a full-on view.

Juniper 2400 East Cesar Chavez Street, Austin, TX Tel: 512-220-9421 Designers: Sanders Architecture and Cravotta Interiors

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This year’s SXSW Eco conference featured a unique set of stage backdrops

On October 10, the two-day South by Southwest (SXSW) Eco Conference kicked off in Austin, Texas. Igor Siddiqui and Nerea Feliz, professors at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, were asked to design the stage backdrops for this year’s event. The design brief specified eight different, but interrelated, stage backdrops for the conference, ranging in width from 12 to 30 feet and offering a “striking visual presence that highlights innovation.”

Together, Siddiqui and Feliz explored issues of serial variation, digitally derived patterning, and robotic painting. The result was Serriform. Drawing on Ettore Sottsass’s 1992 Adesso Peró bookcase, Serriform gets its name from the serrated edges of its columns.

“Digital technologies have transformed the logic of mass production by allowing repetitive processes to produce variation, meaning that components, objects, and patterns produced in a series no longer all have to be the same,” said Siddiqui. “Our project was designed with such capabilities in mind.”

For example, Siddiqui continued, the columns forming the principal structure for the stage backdrops feature a range of different geometric profiles, while still belonging to the same “family.” “This was achieved using a parametric script in the design process,” he said. “Because the columns were fabricated digitally [using CNC machinery], it was as efficient to produce the series with such variation as it would have been had they all been identical.”

A Kuka Robotics KR60 robotic arm spray-painted the pattern on the panels while a script in algorithmic modeling editor Grasshopper was used to facilitate variation in the paint application. During this process, the script remained the same, but the variables within it changed in order to take into account materiality, fabrication, assembly, and use. “We were amazed by the idiosyncratic nature of each mark—none is the same even if the script is repeated over and over again,” said Siddiqui. “This allowed us to make the kinds of painted marks that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve through any available mechanical or manual means.”

Siddiqui and Feliz intend for Serriform to be used beyond the SXSW conference. “The challenge of temporary installations like this is that they are only useful for a short period in time,” Siddiqui said. “A plan for its after-use was very important to us, so the whole installation is actually designed to serve as a shelving and partition system afterwards.” (According to Siddiqui, a Serriform 2.0 is on the way.) “We looked at iconic bookshelf designs, seeking examples where their sculptural qualities transcended function,” he continued. “Adesso Peró gave us some good clues, while allowing us to come up with a more variable version tailored to the digital era. Sottsass’s design is still all based on the repetition of the same dimension and form, and today we can do so much more! While his bookcase is a piece of furniture, we think of work as architecture. In this way, the H-profile columns (like that of steel members) are decidedly tectonic in nature and open to other spatial applications. We are continuing to work on this project by designing new scenarios for how the columns and panels can be used as shelving and partitions, and, unlike their role as backdrops, arranged in space in a more three-dimensional way.”

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Alterstudio Architecture transforms a bland condominium with a few materials expertly writ large

How do you make a 2,000-square-foot condominium feel Texan but not trite? That was the problem Alterstudio Architecture’s Kevin Alter had to solve for his client, who purchased a home in a Four Seasons residential development on Lady Bird Lake, one of the most scenic spots in Austin. Alter and his partners, Ernesto Cragnolino and Tim Whitehill, met the challenge by using classic materials—wood and steel—in artful, unexpected ways.

After much research and brainstorming, the architects hit on the idea of centering the design around seven giant Claro walnut slabs that they had found through a supplier in Sacramento, California, that harvests and mills only locally found dead trees (Claro walnut is a seriously endangered plant species). In the home, the slabs are deftly employed as seating and tabletops, and as a headboard in the master bedroom—where the client had wanted the largest possible slab used. But the one the architects located was too big for the freight elevator. So before placing the order, the team created a full-scale mock-up, which was lifted on top of the cab, through the hoist-way, to make sure that the actual wood could be hauled up to the condo.

In addition to the slabs, walnut is used throughout the space, with the occasional contrast of milled steel, which is used for the base of the bar because, said Alter, “everyone sitting at a bar is always kicking it.” The architects employed local woodworker Mark Macek to create the hand-milled walnut strips that form the screens used throughout the space and the wide-plank walnut floors. The wood furniture was custom designed and made by Atlanta-area craftsman Marco Bogazzi. “I’m interested in having things made exceptionally well,” said Alter.

Because correcting awkward levels in the ceiling would have been too costly, the architects turned to wallpaper to draw attention away from them—jute grasscloth from Twenty2 in the bedroom, Samui Sunrise from Eskayel in the living room.

The client, who also has a home in Dallas and one in Colorado, had hired the firm because he was impressed with its long list of architectural awards. This particular job did not require major architectural moves—no spaces were reconfigured—but the team did change all the surfaces, even the plasterboard walls. It was the first time they had worked on interiors only—an experience Alter had long desired. “I’m tired of other people messing up our architecture,” he said. Besides, he added, he liked the selection process; “it was like playing with all the things I’ve liked over the years.”

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UT Austin gets medical center that aims to reform the healthcare industry

The University of Texas at Austin is the first tier-one public university in the United States to build a new medical school from the ground up in almost 50 years. Dell Medical School, funded largely by a raise in local property taxes, consists of 11 departments and institutes scattered among new buildings on the southern edge of campus and oriented around the school’s idyllic Waller Creek.

The new campus’s master plan, designed to connect the medical district physically and architecturally to the rest of the university and Downtown Austin, was designed by Sasaki Associates and Page Southerland Page. Of its new structures, unquestionably the centerpiece is Page’s and S/L/A/M Collaborative’s Health Learning Building.

The five-story structure is a long, slender volume with massing, height, and materiality all informed by the campus’s materials, colors, and overall feel. It’s essentially divided into two main components: The north-facing “social edge”—a section of open spaces, workshops, and breakout zones expressed by a largely glass wall (including both clear- and clay-colored glass)—and a large, multilevel cantilevered stair. An opaquely-clad section, facing south, east, and west, is marked by intricately CNC-milled limestone walls with punched windows (shaded by terra-cotta colored fins). All areas feature team-based learning spaces and labs, as opposed to traditional classrooms, a strategy meant to promote innovation and collaboration.

“They’re really interested in being revolutionary. Rethinking the healthcare industry,” said Page partner Lawrence Speck. The school’s tagline, he noted, is Rethink Everything.

The surrounding structures, which Speck refers to as “fabric buildings,” are tied together, and to the rest of campus, by materials like stone and metal as well as by their height and massing. The 260,000-square-foot, eight-story Health Discovery Building is primarily for research and houses 97,000 square feet of laboratory space, a 20,000-square-foot vivarium and 15,000 square feet of core labs. The 233,000-square-foot, 10-story Health Transformation Building, an advanced medical office building, will be connected to the Health Discovery Building via a five-level “dry lab,” allowing collaboration among medical professionals and clinical researchers.

The campus is also shooting high in terms of sustainability. The Health Learning Building will be LEED Gold, while the overall district is aiming to be one of the first examples of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, evaluating buildings, landscape architecture, and engineering as a holistic whole.

Things seem to be going so well, said Speck, that the dean has already started talking to the design team about a second phase of building, far ahead of schedule. “They definitely see the architecture as a means to go after their goals,” said Speck, who has been studying, teaching, and building at UT for about 40 years. “I feel like I’m living a dream,” he added.

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As housing costs and economic segregation increase, Austin’s granny flats proliferate

Consider the accessory dwelling unit (ADU). It is a structure of many names, including secondary dwelling unit, garage apartment, granny flat, backyard cottage, casita, carriage house—the list goes on. The unit has equally as many uses: rentable occupancy, (secret) Airbnb gem, guesthouse, or extended family annex. Over the past decade, as housing costs have soared in cities like Austin, the casita has become a much-studied and proliferated phenomenon.

The ADU frenzy is not unique to Austin. The format is popular in other cities like Houston, Texas, or Sydney, Australia, which was, as of the end of 2015, churning out a hundred “Fonzie” flats a week. Portland (1,300 as of 2013) and Seattle (1,396 as of 2015) both established city pathways for creating secondary units. Across the border in Vancouver, 35 percent of all single-family residences have one. The back house represents an important option for low-impact densification, as it increases lot inhabitation and generates rental income but, due to its street invisibility, leaves the character of a neighborhood intact.

Austin’s ADU construction is widespread: 750 permits for “secondary apartments” have been issued since 2006, with the annual number of permits for these auxiliary units surpassing those for duplexes since 2014. Still, the structures are limited to multifamily and some single-family zonings, including SF-3, which carries a minimum lot size of 5,750 square feet, a maximum building coverage of 40 percent, and usually requires expensive infrastructural items like a separate water meter.

Austin’s ADU regulations were updated in November 2015, making it easier to build closer to primary structures, on smaller lots, and without parking in central, transit-adjacent areas. The ordinance also prohibited the use of the dwelling as a non-owner occupied short-term rental (STR), and restricted STR usage generally to 30 days per calendar year. Ahead of the new ordinance, local organization Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA) “dedicated to a vision of an Austin where everybody is welcome and everybody’s interests matter,” advocated for allowing ADUs everywhere in the city, and circulated an online petition that gathered over 1,000 signatures in support. Its “ADU City” report, released in June 2015, offers policy provisions and case studies in support of ADU growth. Via email, AURA board member Eric Goff stressed the importance of growing the housing supply and simplifying the permitting process. “Rules like unit caps, lot size, Sub Chapter F, FAR, building height, set backs, and others,” he wrote, “consistently make it difficult to add more housing.”

Here, house prices and rental rates continue to climb while income remains stagnant. The ADU, even in limited deployment, becomes useful in gentrifying neighborhoods, as its rental income balances out rising property taxes for families on low or fixed incomes. In a June editorial, city council member for East Austin’s District 3, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, said that he and his wife were only able to remain in their home because they built a secondary unit to supplement their income. These units, when rented at market rates, are largely occupied by younger individuals or couples who can afford to trade space and dollars for location. This doesn’t explicitly offer housing for lower-income renters, but it reduces market competition for cheaper units, allowing those units to be occupied by those who need them most. And it creates a revenue stream for those who are struggling to keep their homes, critical in areas like East Austin, where neighborhoods have lost 34 percent of their homeowners since 2002.

Substantial evidence demonstrates the myriad positive impacts of the ADUs. Their adoption is the goal of the Alley Flat Initiative, a collective effort started in 2005 by the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development, the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, and the Austin Community Design and Development Center (ACDDC). The outfit provides resources, including design services, to citizens, neighborhood groups, and nonprofits interested in building ADUs. To date, it has realized five units, with two under construction and about nine in development. In mid-June, it hosted the first-ever Alley Flat Tour, showcasing the five completed units with over one hundred attendees. Nicole Joslin, who recently took over as executive director of ACDDC, said, “the biggest hurdles are access to financing and making the property taxes calibrated to the rent that’s being collected.” For example, an ADU built and rented through the City of Austin’s S.M.A.R.T. (safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced, transit oriented) Housing Policy that caps incomes for its renters is not recognized as affordable housing by Travis County and is appraised for market value, instead of the income generated, which is the typical indicator for multi-family property taxes. “Banks don’t know what to do with ADUs,” Joslin continued, noting conflict if the structure increases or decreases property value. Further, local house appraisers struggle with ADUs, sometimes grouping the square footage together with the main house or ignoring the unit altogether. “We’ve overcome a lot of the LDC barriers,” she said. According to Joslin, what is needed now are additional subsidies to lower the cost of construction and, as ADU requirements are relaxed, incentives to retain the primary house. Moving forward, she hopes to continue to build ACDDC’s “capacity to be a resource for their community partners and single-family homeowners who are trying to prevent displacement.”

High-design versions of the granny flat showcase its possibilities for architectural achievement. This year, AIA Austin presented a Design Award to For A Better Architecture (FAB) for its Hillmont Studio, an 850-square-foot back house in the Zilker neighborhood. The unit was also featured on the 2015 AIA Austin Homes Tour, along with another alley flat. FAB cofounder Patrick Ousey, AIA, said the challenge was to create a sense of privacy while still maintaining a connection to the street. The massing is pushed into the lot’s back right corner, and because the spaces “don’t stack exactly one over the other,” the overhanging bedroom hovers over the glassed-in living area and patio. Clad in thin black Hardie siding, the project also includes walnut cabinets, clean detailing, and an interior-exterior concrete wall that was “brought into the budget without increasing overall cost.” This materiality connected the interior to the site walls, tying together the entry movement from the curb all the way back to the ADU. The project cost about $200 per square foot, including landscaping. Ousey reported a normal permitting experience, though the water meter became a problem. Adding an additional meter can cost up to $20,000, a fee that “makes a small project like that not doable.” FAB is at work on another residence with a back house that is similarly sited for privacy. Big or small, the design work “boils down to quality,” Ousey said, and “quality comes at every budget.”

Granny flats occupy the lighter end of the “missing middle” housing density spectrum that is painfully absent in Austin. The ADU joins a larger set of housing solutions in development to keep Austin affordable. In early June, the city unveiled a draft of its first-ever housing plan. The Austin Strategic Housing Plan, available online, offers progressive solutions to make up the current deficit of affordable units by producing 35,000 units for those at 80 percent median family income—$62,250 for a family of four in Travis County this year—and 40,000 market-rate units for a total of 75,000 units in the next decade. The plan provides an arsenal of tactics: Tax Increment Financing (TIF), the expansion of homestead preservation districts, expanded density bonus programs, a strike fund that would be used to purchase and maintain existing multifamily complexes, expanded use of community land trusts (CLTs), renovation of the S.M.A.R.T. Housing program, and many other bold ideas. Even without policies available to other cities—Texas is the now only state where inclusionary zoning is illegal—these tools forecast admirable gains.

City of Austin senior planner Jonathan Tomko said that there is “two-pronged” reform at work, on both the policy and code fronts, and that maximum progress happens when the two work together in tight coordination. The policy battle is well underway, as is CodeNEXT, the effort to fully rewrite Austin’s Land Development Code. CodeNEXT is led by its main consultant, Opticos Design, a Berkeley-based outfit focused on walkable urban living and the “missing middle” housing movement. The city now estimates draft code to be delivered for public review in January 2017, and has released two of four prescription papers that preview strategies. The Household Affordability document, delivered in April, lays out the changes that are coming soon.

Some believe that the promised results of the CodeNEXT rewrite may not be enough to reverse Austin’s economic segregation, now rated at the worst in the nation. John Henneberger, winner of a 2014 MacArthur Genius grant and co-director of the Texas Housers nonprofit, wrote in a May 2016 blog post that “Austin must promote, as a public policy, economic and racial diversity across all neighborhoods and should reject the ghettoization of affordable housing into city-designated districts,” referencing the strategy to concentrate investment at transit-rich nodes. Speaking to the AIA Austin audience in June, Henneberger emphasized the rights of low-income citizens and argued for reform at the neighborhood level, including leveraging solutions like community development corporations (CDCs) to create affordable housing. Such activism remains important work as inequitable policies persist—evidenced by a 2015 Texas bill that allows landlords to discriminate against renters who use housing vouchers. Contemporary studies show that “laws aimed at things like ‘maintaining neighborhood character’ or limiting how many unrelated people can live together in the same house contribute to racial segregation and deeper class disparities,” according to The New York Times. Affordability is increasingly the central topic at city council: An additional fair housing initiative was approved in June, providing yet another referendum in support of consequential action.

This action is needed if Austin is to realize the big changes envisioned in the Housing Plan and CodeNEXT rewrite. Thankfully, many individuals and groups are up to the challenge. At the Alley Flat Initiative, Joslin is focusing future work on the financing of ADUs, and on neighborhood-scale sustainability efforts “more and more—this isn’t about architecture only.”

For Tomko, the goal is to have the housing plan approved by the end of 2016 as an appendix to Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan: “all types of housing for all types of people in all parts of town.”

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UT Austin’s School of Architecture gets its own site-specific art installation

In Hyperstyle, architects Mason Leland Moore and Joel Nolan of spaceCAMP create an environment in which physical tension takes center stage. The exhibition looks at the pull between the concrete floor and the ceiling of the Materials Lab at the school of architecture. Both set out to test different materials while exploring spatial concepts at specific site installations. Two grids of thin columns overlap with one rising from the floor, and the other descending from the roof. The tension is accentuated by the consistent overlays, along with a change in color from yellow to a light gray. Conventional construction techniques are reflected in the room’s organization through the intimate relationship formed between the ceiling and the floor’s multiple columns.

Hyperstyle is on view at the Materials Lab Gallery of the West Mall Building at the The University of Texas at Austin's School of Architectures, April 15–August 10.

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SXSW Eco announces 2016 Place by Design finalists

South by Southwest Eco (SXSW Eco), an environmentally- and socially-conscious event occurring alongside the more well-known South By Southwest music and technology gathering in Austin, Texas has released its list of this year’s 36 finalists for its public space design competition, Place by Design. The selected projects represent a diverse collection of emerging design practices, many with humanitarian-based approaches. Several finalists also have ties to the West Coast’s emerging public interest design scene. Applicants compete for funding to realize projects in six categories that aim to “rethink the potential of the places around us.” One of those teams, applying in the “Art + Interaction” category, is San Francisco-based Future Cities Lab, who aims to create a sculptural, interactive facade that translates the sound a light display. In the “Equity + Inclusion” category, MASS Design Group seeks to construct a new tuberculosis hospital to in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to replace a facility destroyed during that 2010 earthquake that devastated that country. Mass Design Group also has an entry in the “Resilience + Health” category: a proposed cholera treatment plant in Port-au-Prince that also serves as a water treatment site. River LA, a Los Angeles-based L.A. River advocacy group, is also vying for funding in the “Resilience + Health” category. Their L.A. River Index project is a Gehry Partners-aligned study of the river’s potential for an equitable and ecological future. In the “Revitalization” category, Olayami Dabl and his African Bead Museum are vying for funding against, among others, two Los Angeles-based design firms. The first is from LA-Más; their project provides urban design and business support services aimed at placemaking, pedestrianism, and economic revitalization along underserved business corridors in Los Angeles. The second is Alexis Rochas who has designed an interactive and tech-savvy public space in an underused scrap of land in Long Beach, California. In the “Speculative + Prototyping” category, San Francisco-based Jennifer Pattee’s Pop Up Fitness Hub proposes installing an brightly colored, outdoor workout space for public use in Hayes Valley atop an unused parking lot. Lastly, Seattle Design Nerds’ proposal in the “Urban Strategy + Civic Engagement” category seeks funding to engage the public in architecture and urban design through interactive inflatable spaces and augmented reality games.  Winners will be announced October 12, 2016, at the end of the SXSW Eco conference, during which finalists will present their proposals to a large panel consisting of design professionals, organizers, creatives, and philanthropists.
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Chioco Design crafts an ingenious lighting solution for indoor-outdoor Austin bar

Austin’s newest bar, Backbeat, sits on busy South Lamar Boulevard, a main drag that was strictly car-oriented until recently. “Our main concern and objective was to create a comfortable neighborhood cocktail bar,” explained Jamie Chioco, principal of Austin-based Chioco Design. Drawing from their experience running popular watering hole drink-well, Backbeat’s owners are enticing South Lamar’s pedestrians with the Pink Squirrel (a spiked milkshake), pâté melts, and an indoor-outdoor dining area that offers a pleasant contrast to its hectic surroundings. To beckon patrons and light into the long, narrow interior, Chioco installed a large monitor—essentially a two-story glass shaft—to visually connect the roof deck with the main floor below. One wall of the shaft is clad in mirrors, giving patrons views to the outdoors above. Through the glass-paneled main and rear entryways, bright desert-blue booths and stools complement the walnut wall and ceiling panels, as well as the brass light fixtures and white marble bar, the heart of all the action. Backbeat is located at 1300 S. Lamar Boulevard, Austin, TX.
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How real estate speculation, ugly architecture, and gentrification shape Austin’s urbanity

In a teaser for the new season of IFC's Portlandia, protagonist Fred Armisen comes to Austin, Texas whereKyle MacLachlan plays the mayor who navigates the pitfalls of our neighborhoods. Coffee shops, record stores, a couple of bars: “Alright, cool,” MacLachlan says. But then strollers and baby clothing stores start popping up, “Not cool!” he protests. The show’s hyperbole isn’t far off: It's hard to find a good, affordable place to live in this town. The Austin real estate bubble’s most difficult issues manifest themselves in the realm of single-family housing. Buoyed by soaring property costs, speculative redevelopment has been transformative in central neighborhoods, especially East Austin. Typically, developers buy properties and quickly erect a cheap new house that maximizes the allotted FAR (floor area ratio) of the site, thereby maximizing sales profit. This type of development is disruptive. As houses grow larger and boxier, they change a street’s definitive qualities of scale and grain. Last December, the Austin City Council updated the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) requirements, which set limitations on the size and placement of back houses. ADUs are now able to be 1,100 square feet (up from 850 square feet), closer to the main structures (10 feet, down from 15 feet) and a parking space is not required in some areas. The minimum lot size required for an ADU is now 5,740 square feet, down from 7,000 square feet. The legislation also placed restrictions on the use of ADUs for short-term rentals, a contentious issue that further affects housing prices. This is a step in the right direction. Currently, Austin’s minimum buildable lot size is 5,750 square feet, and a movement for small lot amnesty calls for that number’s reduction. The opposition is explicit in its reasoning: Such a change would allow developers to buy larger lots and subdivide them, encouraging further conversion of neighborhoods into engines of capital creation. Unfortunately, whatever is good for urban density is good for developers, as it increases the number of housing units to be sold. Small secondary houses do improve density, but they don’t adequately address affordability. Those residences are sold or rented at market cost-per-square-foot prices, rendering them only available to individuals or couples who can both afford them and only require so much space—youthful types who move here in large quantities. Hence, gentrification. This doesn’t help families or low-income individuals, populations that are in decline in central Austin. Minority residents of East Austin, for example, are priced out of their homes and are exiting the city in large numbers. African-Americans in particular are adversely affected, singled out as the only demographic that’s shrinking in our booming city. Such trends have created an Austin that is now the most economically segregated metro area in the country.
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For Anthony Alofsin, AIA, a practicing architect and professor in architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, the concerns of diversity outweigh the concerns of density. Alofsin has been in Austin for almost 30 years, long enough to recount previous boom and bust cycles in the real estate market. Some of his academic research studies builder homes, which remain the most common way Americans house themselves, a statistic largely ignored by the architectural profession. In Alofsin’s view, a diverse mix of individuals—different patterns, passions, occupations, incomes, and ethnicities—leads to an “urban experience,” and Austin is short on this type of urbanity. Alofsin also worries about larger repercussions of civic housing trends: Changes in national family trends combined with the exodus of families from the city center spells disaster for the future of Austin’s public schools. Form-making isn’t important at this scale: Whether a house has a flat roof or fake stone or a turret is irrelevant to the economics at work.

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To see what’s on the market now, Creede Fitch, a real estate agent with Skout who focuses solely on modern and midcentury properties, took me on a tour of neighborhoods near 12th Street. Close to the railroad tracks, one luxury spec house near the railroad tracks set a high water mark, selling for around $600,000 last year (it was also featured on the 2015 AIA Austin Homes Tour). A few blocks away, Fitch points out a slim lot with an older structure on-site, clearly not worth salvaging. “$290,000!” he reports, not without disbelief.

Fitch, who himself is building a new home in East Austin, tries to educate clients on both Austin and modern architecture, though he admits that “modern” is not important to many buyers. Fitch is also aware of better ways to increase density; he described one solution where smaller existing homes are maintained and a larger “primary” new build house is placed behind, providing privacy and preserving the scale of the street. A pilot project in this style is a casita renovated by architect Alan Gonzalez, sited on the front half of its lot. The steep price tag—a listed $375,000 for 785 square feet—would make most wince, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.

The good news is that some architects are working to change market realities, or at least their aesthetic dimensions. Jared Haas, principal of Un.Box Studio, spoke with me about a house he recently completed with Newcastle Homes. Knowing the market and the ground rules of spec projects, he designed a clean shape with a restrained material palette inside and out. Instead of the ubiquitous Hardie board siding, he sourced a vertical wood board at a comparable price. The house was purchased before it was completed, and Haas is at work on two more with the same company.

Other models of practice—architect-as-developer, design-build, design-build-develop—offer exciting alternate avenues of investment and engagement, and there are a number of successful examples at work in East Austin. Speculative building is now seen as pejorative, but it can be incredibly progressive. Haas, for one, looks forward to the time where spec projects, rather than further isolating residents, can bring them together in hybrid social spaces. What if speculative housing led the way toward new formats of living?

Later, I drove around East Austin to check in on its progress. I lived in the Chestnut neighborhood for two-and-a-half years in a full-size back house with two housemates; the house’s builder-developer had created a condominium complex of two houses on a single lot, another way to circumvent typical density limitations. It is both smartly dense, lucrative, and ruinous to the property values of neighbors. Nearby blocks are majority new builds, with accompanying new residents.

Construction has started on The Chicon, a three-building complex of affordable and market-rate apartments, close to an intersection that was once singled out as the city’s most dangerous. In 1925, one could take a streetcar from that corner all the way downtown. Now there’s a skee-ball bar on the block. Neighborhoods roll over, sometimes with unfortunate consequences, but the tide keeps going—part of life in a city. I stopped in front of a particularly ugly spec home with walls that bulge and tilt, as if frozen in nauseous mid-collapse. I slow my car to photograph the offense, but instead smile, wave, and move along—there is a moving truck out front with a couple unloading bicycles, ready to make that house their home.

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New affordable housing measure passed by Austin City Council

The Austin City Council has voted to tackle gentrification: amid rising rents, they've set in motion a series of policies that aim to increase affordable housing stock in poorer neighborhoods where new developments are being planned.

The council voted in favor of a measure that would create a new fee on commercial developments to fund affordable housing, reexamine a developer incentive program, and lay the groundwork for requiring more affordable units in new developments. The measure was passed at eight votes to three with Don Zimmerman of District 6, Ellen Troxclair of District 8, and Sheri Gallo of District 10 voting against the motion. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the motion said, “This is a bold plan; it’s not a small set of incremental steps that are safe.”

“It’s not that I oppose supporting affordable housing,” said Gallo of the measure. “I think it’s important in this community to make sure we have affordable housing.… But I think it’s also important to give the council the ability to take tax dollars and spend them and balance them with all the other needs we have.”

As reported by the Statesman, “the aggressive and sure-to-be controversial moves” come after high-end housing units have replaced units in poorer and middle-income neighborhoods, most noticeably in East Austin. A study at the University of Texas has also found that 56% of African-American homeowners were displaced due to the soaring housing costs.

“This points to a predictable and clearly definable source of revenue” for housing, said District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, who backed the measure. “I think it’s absolutely appropriate to use the budget process to define what our policy and value priorities are.”