In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted published “Journey Through Texas; or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier,” in which he records the people, nature, and urban patterns along his road trip south from New York through Nashville, across the eastern pines and Austin, and into West Texas. At Austin, he describes the imposition of the Capitol’s soft cream limestone under construction, “towards which nearly all the town rises,” and Congress Avenue, between the river and the Capitol, where the city’s density appears as stacks of wood logs and stone. Olmsted remarks on the sparse distribution of one- and two-story bungalows in the surrounding area; the Texas capital had been located on a “thinly-settled frontier,” rather than an existing population center (Olmsted 1857: 110).
In 1857, according to the Texas Almanac, the population of Austin within city bounds approached 3,000 residents. In the 2016 census, nearly 160 years later, Austin’s population was 926,426, and for the last several years the city has experienced one of the highest population growth rates in the nation. In the past 15 years, what once caused Olmsted dismay (the sprawling, sleepy town that doubled as a state capital for a territory covering more than 250,000 square miles) has become surprisingly dense — for Austin. It’s been a process. Town centers and urban cores arose in late-19th- and prewar 20th-century Texas cities like Dallas, Houston, and El Paso. Then, in the postwar economy, the suburban dreams of middle-class America dispersed these populations. Since the turn of the 21st century, a surge in the number of job opportunities has induced a growing number of young professionals to choose Austin. They come for employment, but they stay for Austin’s image. As a result of her history, Austin straddles the divide between centralized city and diffuse urban oasis, littered with houses. As George Blume, design director at Gensler’s Austin office, puts it, “Architecture in Austin often tries to fit into the image of Austin, but in fact that image is intangible and still difficult to discern, aside from the limestone.” Austin is confronted with pressure to meet, or at least aspire to meet, the aesthetic demands of the utopian vision that brands it.
The Domain’s NORTHSIDE, developed by Endeavor Group, opened this past year. In another part of town, construction began on Austin’s largest Class A office building, 500 West 2nd Street, developed by the Trammell Crow Company. The projects embody two conditions of urban growth: One is an oasis in a sprawl of highways; the other is a monumental glass tower in a downtown urban center. Both are in the hands of Gensler Austin.
Despite their geographic disparity, the timing of construction on the two projects make them an excellent comparative study for determining the state of urbanization in Austin. The Domain came largely from the imagination of its developers. Second Street emerged from the Great Streets Master Plan, which was championed by architects in order to encourage pedestrian activity, transit, access, and place making in the center of town. As artifacts, the projects also make manifest the impact of national franchises and multinational corporations on architecture and the urban realm.
The sidewalks are clean, wide, and manicured. Agave plants and desert vegetation obediently spring from the Corten steel planters that form buffers between building and sidewalk, between sidewalk and street. Gleaming windows, refreshing restaurant signage, and clever storefronts relieve the eye of Austin’s ubiquitous snarls of graffiti murals, while replicating its playfulness — this time, within a frame. Along these sidewalks at The Domain, the cheerful babble at bar entrances, restaurants, and along sidewalks belongs to young professionals of Gen X and Gen Y. The patrons are a mix, a hipster-techie-country-finance homebrew employed by the offices in and around The Domain. The Domain is an example of density — elegant, chic in a modern, Texan way — and yet, it lacks diversity. This is not a lack of diversity of program and building form — the mixed-use arrangement, particularly around the new Domain NORTHSIDE, is enormously successful and pleasant to stroll through. Rather, it lacks the natural diversity of contradictions — between natural and man-made, rich and poor, straight-laced and disheveled — that make an urban landscape.
Inside a coffee shop at The Domain, the gossip, casual meetings, and clicking of keyboards are reminiscent of any place downtown or in any of Austin’s “tentacles,” as Ben Bufkin, a developer from Endeavor Group, refers to East Austin, South Congress, and the areas of West Sixth and North Lamar.
A comparison and contrast with grittier South Congress and East Austin makes us conscious of what we crave, what is essential to “urban comfort.”
Bufkin commends the work of Gensler, with whom Endeavor Group collaborated on Domain NORTHSIDE: “Considering it’s all built as one thing there are a lot of different design elements,” he says. “It looks more organic than what we would normally see for a project like this.”
He is right. Lined up, often without side property setbacks, the retail, dining, and entertainment venues on Rock Rose are like classmates from diverse households: The new buildings have different facades, thresholds, openings, typography, and colors, but they all got there at the same time. And this shows in their perfectly coordinated relationship to the sidewalk. While the architecture of the public space offers nothing revolutionary, in the Hill Country of North Austin perhaps there is something radical in architecture redirecting some of its boldness to satisfy the simple desire of young professionals and their families in the American suburbs to meander around several blocks insulated from the highways, the homeless, and the other harsh realities of the city. The Domain’s modern Texan village culture and Gensler’s rapidly rising West 500 2nd Street and 2 Shoal Creek — a neighboring building in the Green Water Development — transform the lifestyle of high-density areas into a pleasing, accessible, quick commodity for an abundance of young Austinites.
When asked about the importance of context to architecture in Austin, Blume comments on The Domain: “Austin should be design-aspirational. Given The Domain’s lack of a well-defined periphery, a context, it is difficult for it to aspire to fit into anything, and thus its aspiration is internal.”
Professor David Heymann, FAIA, who teaches site design at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, tells students that a building does not always need to aspire to fit into a site. That is, architects have the authority to design without an after-the-fact obligation to tie a project to context. Walking by the construction site of 500 West 2nd Street, the airy lobby, storefront glazing, and polished stone tiles are all in place. One future tenant, Google, marks its territory with its logo at the entrance. 500 West 2nd Street recalls the glossy grand interiors of any corporate office building in Dallas or Manhattan — as well it should, having been described by the architects and promoted by developers as a Class A office tower. The tower steps in and out, with open-air terraces and open-plan office and conference spaces. A high-rise modernist sculpture of glass panels and concrete floor slabs, it may soon fade into the sea of reflected blue sky and clouds that decorate the facades of downtown. The building’s real rigor and richness come from the interior-exterior relationship and a strategic mix of high-tech offices, collaboration spaces, and retail, all well illuminated with natural daylight. Interior finishes like golden wall panels and wood floors at the elevators warm the building’s lobby.
Although The Domain receives accolades from its project team and its users for its internal aspirations, the floor-to-ceiling glazed 500 West 2nd building suggests the same “internal aspiration” for its tenants, whose brand identities refer to a national and/or international imagination. At the building’s edge, 2nd Street becomes a mixed-use aisle of crystalline, sharp-edged lobbies, retail stores, restaurants, street trees, and well-placed benches. In a city known for its weirdness and creative wit, 500 West 2nd Street shares a dissociation from place with the Domain NORTHSIDE: Both produce a manufactured density and urbanity.
Manufactured density does not change the culture, but instead cultivates density within the existing pedestrian-transport orientation of the city. In the case of Austin (and Texan) car culture, even the pedestrian areas concede generous space allocations to the automobile’s omnipresence. All architects and developers I interviewed for this article remarked on the attention to parking. In the case of 500 West 2nd Street, in spite of the pedestrian-first ethos of the streetscape, there are 13 parking levels within the building. In the blind crevices of The Domain, structured parking lots stand at the height of the neighboring buildings. The two-way vehicular streets overwhelm and contradict the intention to create an intimate pedestrian village. Not all areas that are accessible to pedestrians are accessible to cars, but the pedestrian areas are landscaped only if cars (non-service vehicles) are expected to share them. Thus, it is implied in the site design that the pedestrian should only go in parallel to the car, and that car and man are inseparable. Manufactured density operates on and perpetuates a positively accepted and marketed image of the city, and time and budget inhibit the architect from challenging tastes and typological conventions.
Travis Albrecht, AIA, and John Mapes, AIA, from Gensler’s architectural team agreed that high-density, mixed-use projects in Texas not only benefit the residents, but also the sprawling population that uses these amenity nodes. The qualities of The Domain — which Bufkin says resemble the ubiquitous tradition of drive-ins and drive-thrus across the American South and Texas — explain how isolated high-density centers satisfy the car culture’s sprawl as opposed to challenging it. Instead of making the miserable highway trek downtown, a family can drive to The Domain and enjoy a greater number of restaurant and entertainment options within a short walk of their parked car, experiencing shorter waits, and a more walkable shopping experience. While The Domain functions as a 24/7 city spot, 2nd Street has experienced more challenges in maintaining small businesses at street level because of higher rental rates.
The success of The Domain and downtown Austin comes from the courage of Texan real estate developers and architects to try something instead of car-only sprawl. Public transportation routes serve both areas, and while the car may remain king, it has lost some of its prominence.
In February, I spoke with Robert Shaw, a former Dallas Cowboys center who has become a real estate developer. Shaw’s group, Columbus Realty, developed almost all the residential property at The Domain. When questioned about the width of the driveways and scale of the car in relation to the streets at The Domain, Shaw describes the focus on reducing the presence of parking, not eliminating it. “It is a balancing act,” he says. “People aren’t getting out of their cars in the reality we live in.” In both the new Domain NORTHSIDE and the Green Water Development downtown, developers and architects opted for structured parking instead of surface parking, finding more occasions for shared parking, using less space, and developing a master plan that mitigated the physical and visual impact of parking. However, this experimentation with dense, mixed-use projects shies away from a radical challenge to norms, and instead embodies an appreciation for the existing car culture of a sprawling state with a strong identity.
Construction fences of the Green Water Development butt up against 2nd Street, a lively street, an urban node within an incongruous downtown of parking lots, office buildings, and construction zones. Today, the rich energy of the Great Streets Master Plan that culminates around City Hall and the W Hotel screeches to a halt at 500 West 2nd Street, where the sidewalk ends. I have to navigate around a giant gap between construction workers’ trucks, amid dust and noise, in order to pick up another “urban node” route headed west. The walkability of the west end of Second Street will change as the development reaches completion. However, the architectural character of Austin’s glass corporate buildings remains an internally imagined reality. I fear that the new occupants of 500 West 2nd will inhabit a world of their own. The city around them easily becomes an exterior ornament to validate their interior experience. Is the glazed tower the corporation’s answer to the ivory tower of academia?
As the sun sets after my last exam of the semester, I return to The Domain — by bus — to buy Mother’s Day gifts and treat myself to a celebratory Italian dinner. Google Maps helps me navigate curving streets designed to wind and produce a romantic, village-like spirit. Suddenly, a giant Suburban honks behind a pick-up truck, the two hulking vehicles stuck in this commercial utopia between the Louis Vuitton storefront and the perfumery Diptyque Paris. Groups of construction workers push summer plants in wheelbarrows in the direction of the larger landscape planters.
Notwithstanding the irony of hardy Texas truckers stuck in traffic in Austin’s idyllic Stepford paradise, The Domain succeeds in its goal. In the ordered landscape of flowers, it provides a haven of shopping, living, working, and entertainment in the middle of Austin’s sprawl — a placeless escape from our place in the world.
Hannah Ahlblad is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.