Little City Hall
Architectural Team Picked to Design Scaled-Down Building
Austinites are damn good at fighting City Hall, even though we don't have one. We're also quite practiced at fighting over City Hall, which is why we don't have one. But soon we will, Lord willing and the lake don't rise. Will it still be worth fighting over? As you all know, the City Council has busied itself over the last two months disporting with its new friend Gary Bradley. But in its spare time, without much fanfare, the council chose an architect to design its new home in the CSC District, on the lakefront block containing its recently abandoned chambers. And what a choice they made -- Antoine Predock, one of the more distinctive stylists, and thus one of the bigger celebrities, in contemporary architecture, who together with the local firm of Cotera, Kolar, Negrete and Reed led the team that got the council's nod for the $4 million design contract.
In the urban design context of Austin, where style for style's sake is shunned like a bad smell, hiring Antoine Predock to design City Hall is like hiring Gibby Haynes to sing the national anthem. Or perhaps some hippie jam band like Phish, which would be more in keeping with Albuquerque-based Predock's reputation as an organic, holistic Southwest regionalist. But Predock, the only architect of such renown to seek the City Hall commission (he was also on the short list for UT's misbegotten Blanton Museum of Art), views designing Austin's new civic home as a high honor and a labor of love, and he, his local teammates, and the city's architecture staff all promise that we will not end up with an oddly shaped mass of adobe.
However, a big steaming pile of high art might be just what we need to save our new City Hall from its imprisoning context. When it was first conceived decades ago, City Hall was to be the largest building in the Warehouse District and a focal point for downtown and the entire city. Now, City Hall won't even be the largest building on its block, surrounded as it will be by the Computer Sciences Corp. headquarters complex, which -- being built and paid for by a company that doesn't give a damn about style of any kind -- will not be a high point of fin-de-siècle American architecture.
And CSC -- which demanded and got height, size, and location restrictions for City Hall, even though the city owns the land upon which CSC's own buildings will be erected -- will itself be overshadowed by yet bigger buildings in tomorrow's Warehouse District. Heretofore, that district has been defined by the City Hall that wasn't there. Now that it's poised to arrive, it'll be up to Predock and his teammates to make sure we'll be able to notice it, let alone love it.
Like a Gothic cathedral, Austin City Hall has become an endeavor that spans generations. With each turn of the wheel, the project became further refined. Since the 1970s, our City Hall plans have been fixed in place in the Warehouse District even though other plausible sites exist. And since the 1980s those plans have yoked City Hall into a public/private mixed-use complex, originally to save money, now to lay the groundwork for "24-hour downtown" synergies.
Refining the Project
But today's City Hall project has forgotten two of the reasons the city has so long fantasized about bailing out of the Depression-era Municipal Building. One was that we needed a single site to house the broad range of civic functions, currently located hither and yon around downtown, often in rented space. The last time City Hall got as close to reality as it is now, back with the Municipal Office Complex (MOC) plan of the 1980s, the city planned a building of 282,000 square feet, which by the time the MOC officially died had grown to 390,000 square feet.
When the city tried to revive the City Hall concept in 1995, its estimates had grown to a whopping 530,000 square feet, larger than today's Austin Convention Center. That was more than enough to accommodate the tenants of the roughly 250,000 square feet of office space then leased by the city -- to create a one-stop government shop, for good or ill.
But the building the Cotera/Predock team will design (assuming contract niceties with the city are worked out, which seems likely) will be a fraction of that size, a City Hall Lite that won't block CSC executives' views of Town Lake and that certainly won't accommodate a truly centralized city government, if that is indeed something we should value. Instead, the new hall will contain the current contents of the Muni Building -- mayor and council, city managers and assistants, et cetera -- along with the city legal department, currently in rented digs, and selected other strays.
"When we first bought the [Municipal] Annex, the idea was to be in that building for a few years and then build one big government center," says city architect Nathan Schneider. "We now realize that wasn't realistic [and] that a consolidation of all city offices wasn't going to happen on that site. For one thing, government has changed, and having a single 500,000-square-foot building may not be the best way to conduct city business. And for another, it's just too vital a location to not accommodate mixed use."
That brings us to the other now-forgotten reason we wanted a City Hall -- it was to be the major public investment project we clearly needed to revitalize the derelict Warehouse District. Newbies should realize that, until the 1980s, downtown stopped at the Fourth Street railroad tracks, and the blocks from there south were in unappetizing enough shape to be officially designated an urban renewal area.
By then, City Hall (along with its evil twin, the Convention Center) had become magic bullets in the downtown six-gun, and with the subsequent bust it wasn't just the Warehouse District that needed help. But the Big Boom has banished the phrase "downtown revitalization" from the civic vocabulary; Austin's urban core is now one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, if not the world. Which is how CSC -- invited into downtown to get them off the aquifer, and only ex post facto rationalized as a good thing for the urban core -- could get away with demanding that City Hall be shrunk to fit into its leftover space, even though it was for a City Hall that the city bought the CSC land in the first place.
Today, no part of downtown is less in need of renewal than the Warehouse District -- broadly defined from Sixth to the lake and Congress to Shoal Creek -- which in addition to CSC's three blocks will soon contain a staggering amount of built space of every kind. And in between the towers and campuses and marketplaces and cultural centers will be this little building on the lakefront -- what used to be our big, catalytic, tone-setting focal point of a City Hall.
"I wish [City Hall] had already been there when all this stuff was growing up around it, so that we could all respond to it with our own work, but it's not a perfect world," says architect Dick Clark, the designer behind such Downtown Now landmarks as Mezzaluna, the Bitter End, and the Brazos Lofts. "Now City Hall's going to have to respond to what private industry has done. But what can you do? The typical citizen here doesn't even have a concept of what a City Hall is supposed to be, since we've never had one. But it still needs to be the heart and soul of the city."
Nothing Mundane, Please
Rising to the new City Hall challenge, and responding to the city's request for qualifications (RFQ), were a total of seven architecture teams, made up of much of the local A-list, including Page Southerland Page (which, led by outgoing UT architecture dean Larry Speck, is designing the CSC buildings) and Sinclair Black (whose firm is designing the AMLI residential tower that rounds out the city's holdings). Black, who also designed the unbuilt MOC, made the short list, along with San Antonio-based Overland Partners, which designed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; Austin-based Moore/Andersson, the firm founded by the late Charles Moore, which had never before sought a city contract; and the partnership of Cotera and Predock.
While Nathan Schneider says that "there wasn't a conscious effort to get a high-profile architect" to respond to the city's RFQ, "there was a sense that this was a special project that required a special team." That is, City Hall should not be the typical Austin monument to subtle and well-bred taste, which in tomorrow's Warehouse District would be indistinguishable from its neighbors, and if a big-deal national architect could offer an acceptable alternative, so much the better. The City Council concurred, giving the nod to Cotera and Predock "because [it] didn't want another nice, well-done, boring building," says one council insider. "We have enough of those."
However, if Predock hadn't hooked up with Juan Cotera -- who, on top of his long local track record and connections, chairs the city's Design Commission and helped produce the official Downtown Design Guidelines -- the New Mexico star would have had to content himself with some other burg's City Hall. "The council wanted assurance that the local partner would have influence on the design, and Antoine wants that too," says Cotera. "I'm fairly comfortable that we'll end up with not a Predock building, but an Austin building with a lot of Predock in it."
For his part, Predock describes himself as "a voyeur looking longingly at Austin for a long time," who fell in love with our fair city back in the 1960s, when he hung out with his sister as she took a master's at UT. "The amazing city of Austin was a fundamental attraction to me." In his presentation before the City Council, "I talked about the exuberance Austin projects, and how compelling that is. The landscape, which I've been really connected to in the Southwest for so many years, is really apparent in Austin -- the various bodies of water, the Hill Country, Barton Springs, the creeks, the fabulous topography. All that is very intriguing to me as a landscape aficionado."
That pretty aptly suggests the unique aesthetic -- or, in the view of his detractors, unique hype -- that has made Predock one of those few American architects that clients seeking greatness will fight to land. A stereotypical Predock project, especially those in the desert Southwest where he built his rep and portfolio, looks like it grew straight out of the dirt, mirroring the angles and forms of the surrounding canyons and mesas, and was then sculpted to accommodate people and their machinery -- the art-school, high-style version of Taos Pueblo or a Southern African termite mound. (This is not to say that the buildings are necessarily "green" or unobtrusive, just that it takes its design cues from the natural surroundings rather than from a transplanted architectural tradition.)
But as he's moved up an echelon or two in the architectural ranks, Predock has built commissions in places beyond the desert pale (including an academic building at Rice University and a residence on Turtle Creek in Dallas) and has aimed to broaden his palette. "About a decade or two ago I said, 'No more Mr. Adobe, Antoine the regionalist,'" he notes. "I try now to be a portable regionalist. I try to assume the garb of the location -- not in terms of literal stylistic evocation, because that's an easy way out, but rather the deeper strains of place and culture that tend to run more toward the timeless than the topical. And I think that Austin will bring that out of me and our design team."
Whether Predock's visions are the stuff of great architecture, and whether he achieves them in his buildings, are among the debates that keep the contemporary design world interesting. What is plain fact, however, is that because Predock's buildings don't look like other buildings, he has become famous as a stylist, which is the kind of architect that becomes a celebrity. And "stylized" in Austin is an epithet, not a compliment. "When Antoine called, I didn't call him back for a week because I wanted to take another look at his work," says Cotera. "I thought of it as being very stylized, which I don't really like. But I found that even though he has a flair that comes across, his buildings adapt very well to their local areas."
The Predock Touch
When interviewing the contenders, Schneider and his staff "spoke at length about buildings appropriate to Austin," he says. "Certainly, Predock was one of the most significant and stylized designers, although he has a portfolio that, in my humble opinion, is not as stylized as [that of] some of the local designers who submitted. But the local team members will provide a check and balance on regionalism and what is appropriate here in Austin."
More in question is whether Predock will design a building that's appropriate for our City Hall. His portfolio tends toward less urban settings and programs -- lots of residences, a growing trade in museums and cultural centers, and (probably most famously) a host of buildings on college campuses from sea to shining sea. In other words, places that actually have a landscape to respond to, not a tightly constrained office block on a downtown street. (The project is also constrained, though to the benefit of City Hall's future occupants, by the fact that its programming -- the nuts-and-bolts part of architecture that determines what goes where inside the building -- is being done on a separate contract and is already under way.)
But Predock notes that the City Hall site "is a two-sided coin in a good way -- an urban side and then a natural side, [with] the expansive views across the lake and to the silhouettes in the hills. In so many of our cities, this kind of facility would have a highly urban context around it -- so the city was extremely wise to have selected this site that still has a relationship to nature. Austinites are so proud of the outdoor aspects of the city, of being a natural and cultural island within Texas, and this site embodies that. It's a crossroads."
The site may embody our insularity more than Predock quite realizes. The renderings being distributed by CSC show buildings that, though not hideous, could be anywhere, downtown or otherwise, as if the company's current offices on Arboretum Boulevard were teleported to the lakefront. Most of the other Warehouse District projects aren't as bluntly unartistic, but it's likely that even a restrained and temperate Predock design will stand out from its functional neighbors. And the temptation must be great to address the best parts of that design to the lake, to inspire oohing and aahing in commuters coming across the Drake Bridge, and let CSC's poobahs look at the Dumpsters.
But good urban design that is not. "The side facing Second Street can't be the back door -- it has to be something important," says Cotera. He notes that the city's attempts to develop retail space within the CSC complex, along the Second Street corridor, "are also important, because they become a way to tie the project back to the Warehouse District, to Congress, to the Convention Center. We made a decision that we wanted downtown to be a dense urban area, and we have to address our buildings to that."
Since Cotera wrote the book, literally, on downtown Austin design, Predock feels himself lucky to have him and other team members to help him fit his ways into the convoluted local context. "A project like this involves a lot of dialogue with other designers around the site, people whom I respect -- people like Larry Speck and Sinclair Black -- and of course the others on our team," Predock says. "That kind of insider knowledge will be hugely important.
"We're just a down-home team of people working together, and I want to try to dispel the Antoine factor," he continues. "The city made that decision to go out of their way to strive for excellence and pull it off, and it's totally attainable. This is an extreme honor, and I don't take it lightly. I'm able to be somewhat selective in the projects I undertake, and this one is very, very special."