Can't Fight City Hall
Architect Antoine Predock, hired by the city to design Austin's long-awaited new City Hall, is famous for his angular planes of adobe and limestone that thrust skyward like the Western mountain ranges that inspired them. But will the spatial restrictions imposed on the City Hall project by its future neighbor, Computer Sciences Corporation, allow for a real Predock building, or one that more closely resembles a cinder block dropped in the mud? Will it be a terra cotta facsimile of the Municipal Annex we just tore down?
It's still too early for Predock and his local architectural partners to comment on the building's potential design, but the tight dimensions they'll have to work within could curb the expressive geometry that the City Council hoped to bring downtown by hiring Predock.
As per the city's agreement with CSC, which is building office buildings on adjacent blocks to the east, west, and north of the City Hall site, the municipal building is limited to a height of 65 feet (CSC's will be closer to 100 feet), and is restricted to the northern half of the block it occupies, a rectangle of about 38,000 square feet.
Those who question how a private company can make such demands on the city, which owns the very land CSC is building on, will recall that the city had to agree to a host of accommodations before the company agreed to settle downtown instead of on top of the aquifer. Mollifying CSC's ego was one of those: Shortening the City Hall and moving it back from the waterfront will afford a clearer view of the northernmost CSC tower, which stands behind the City Hall, from the First Street bridge.
Because of the height restriction, designers will have to burrow into the slope that runs from Second Street down to Cesar Chavez to create enough interior space. Currently, plans call for a five-story City Hall, with four aboveground floors and one tucked into the hill, totaling about 135,000 square feet. That means the building's footprint would cover about 27,000 square feet, leaving a 11,000-square-foot "envelope" of space around the building -- an average distance of about 14 feet from the building's foundation to the street curbs. Fourteen feet is plenty of room for wide sidewalks, trees, and benches. But it's not much space if you want to rotate the building off the parallel to catch the sun's angles or otherwise indulge the creative impulse of an architect known for his sweeping gestures.
Then there's the height limitation: Predock's buildings typically rise and fall like rugged landscapes, but our City Hall will have just enough headroom to accommodate its four above-ground floors, which will average 14 to 15 feet in height and probably be vaulted a few feet off the ground by the lofty council chambers on the bottom floor. Will that mean no inlaid parapets, no rooflines tilted at the North Star, no solar panels?
We won't know any of that for weeks yet, not until the city officially releases its City Hall "program" -- the list of specifications and requirements the architects have to meet. But the official directing the project, Nathan Schneider, says he hopes the size restraints will heighten Predock's genius, not suffocate it. One of the reasons Predock was chosen as the architect, notes Schneider, was his ability to work within preset guidelines. "It's definitely a design challenge, but having design parameters tend to make for better architects. It brings out the creativity of designers, in my experience," says Schneider. But if Predock can't work within the available space, can the view corridor contract with CSC be renegotiated? Schneider says that's an extreme position the city isn't likely to take, but adds that it isn't out of the question. "I'm comfortable that [Predock's] team is going to be able to come up with an innovative design. If they go beyond the parameters we currently have, our options are to go to CSC and say, 'This is what we have in mind, what do you think?' Once we have a picture, something that we can talk about, then we can have a dialogue."
Other questions are bound to crop up as this project continues. For one, how much sunlight will be able to penetrate council chambers built into a hillside? And how much room will actually be available to build that bottom floor, given the requirements of the underground parking garage and the tunnel that connects it to the neighboring CSC buildings? The 12-foot depth that the city is hoping for could be considerably less if additional bracing is required between the roof of the parking garage and floor of the City Hall.
Then there's the issue of cost: Under the City Hall budget proposed in May, when the building was smaller and not partially underground, planners forecast a cost of about $140 per square foot. Architects say that's a reasonable estimate for an average office building, but perhaps not for a Predock building, sunk partially underground and built to last a century.