Naked City

Dancing About Architects

By Jenny Staff Johnson, Fri., March 10, 2000

In 1984, architect Sinclair Black won a national design contest with his design for Austin's new City Hall. As those of you who have had occasion to visit our civic Shangri-La have noticed, the new City Hall did not get built. Instead, Austin muddled through with a building that decidedly fails to live up to the city's grand visions of itself and its future.

Sixteen years later, Black remains the architect most closely associated with Austin's civic life, and the city is once again flush with money. This time, it's also flush with creative ferment, as the high-tech revolution continues to make its mark on the former capitol/college town.

Will it be Sinclair Black (and his partners, a joint venture known as Black & Vernooy + Barnes Architects) who designs the building that defines the spirit of Austin on the shores of Town Lake? Or will it be one of three other strong competitors currently being considered by the City Council? At today's council meeting, Thursday, March 9, the council will select the architect who will design the long-awaited building and accompanying public plaza, the supposed "crown jewel" in the new downtown district, for a sum not to exceed $3,950,000.

In addition to Black's firm, the council is looking at Cotera, Kolar, Negrete and Reed Architects; Carter-Burgess, Inc.; and Moore/Andersson Architects, each of which has a team of professionals selected for maximum design clout and local-color street credibility. The four made their cases to the council last Thursday, with most hitting the local angle hard (a wise choice, since the city proved with its Bergstrom airport contracting choices that a little Austin flavor goes a long way).

Two of the candidates, Black & Vernooy and Carter-Burgess, have made important contributions to architecture in Austin. Black and Vernooy worked on the Texas School for the Deaf, Central Market and the Central Park Master Plan, and Schlotzsky's headquarters, while Carter-Burgess and its partners worked on the Wildflower Research Center and the Texas Capitol renovation. For his part, Juan Cotera said his firm has 27 years of experience in Austin and was also a top finisher in the 1984 City Hall design competition. Moore/Andersson has brought architectural renown to Austin; the home of the firm's founder, Charles Moore, is well-regarded and receives visitors from around the world.

Speaking for Black's group, spokesman Jay Barnes said that "no one could possibly approach this project with more passion than our team." Then Black went on to reveal one of his team's secret weapons: It would include noted public spaces guru Dan Biederman -- who visited Austin last summer and reportedly gave a glowing report to the Downtown Austin Alliance on the city's urban prospects -- to assist the firm in designing the public plaza portion of the project.

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