Originally published in Texas Architect, January/February 1983
Imagine the modernist Corbusian dream of the 1920s – spaciousness, light, health, and urbanity – a perch high above the city with sweeping views to hills and plains – a place surrounded by the sky yet blessed with a bit of the earth in the form of landscaped terraces occupying almost a third of the usable floor space. Then imagine almost the opposite – a Ruskinian reverence for craft, detail, and ornamentation – an eclectic confection of Gothic finials and tracery full of intimacy, romance, nostalgia, and charm.
Imagine a contemporary business office with concerns for convenience, efficiency, durability, economy, workability – a “Herman Miller” world of desks, files, typewriters, potted plants, color coordinated ash trays, and general corporate good taste. Then imagine the traditions of Texana – the ruggedness of prairie landscape, the tough earthy character of early settlers, their simple hardscrabble lifestyle in warm, but spartan, surroundings. Now imagine all four of these
visions in the same place at the same time and you can begin to conjure images of the Texas Society of Architects’ headquarters in the recently renovated Norwood Tower in downtown Austin.
Something Old, Something New
Designed by Ford, Powell & Carson of San Antonio, the new 14th-floor suite occupies the stepped-back top of a neo-Gothic spire which, on its completion in 1929, marked the peak of the downtown Austin skyline. Only the Capitol and the UT Tower in the distance matched its prominence. Reputed to be one of the first fully air-conditioned office buildings in the country, the tower was also one of the first buildings of its sort to have its own connected parking garage.
An early (and late) example of precast Gothic concrete technology, the building matched its lively exterior with lavish appointments inside including heavily tooled brass elevator doors and ornate plaster-cast ornamental ceiling coffers. Ford, Powell & Carson, who were the architects for the tower renovation as well as for the TSA offices, have gone the distance in restoring (and perhaps even embellishing) the original exuberant character of the building.
But up in the TSA offices, fidelity to the original building character stops and a new amalgam begins. Window shape and placement as well as views across the corner courtyards to fragments of the building’s facades remind us that we are still “in church.” But the flashy splendor of the lobby and elevators is toned down to a quieter businesslike elegance. The openness of plan, and the penetration of natural light from all around, work with the clean lines and crisp detailing of new forms to give a distinct air of modernity. The ubiquitous Pollock chairs, Cesca chairs, and “systems” desks and accessories reinforce a feeling of contemporary office stylishness.
But the conventions of corporate good taste are broken occasionally as well. The requisite ficus, areca and schefflera plants share quarters with a few tough old cacti and succulents. The wood floors are chunky end-cut pine blocks with a soft matte finish evoking a more crafty, down-to-earth feeling than one normally associates with corporate America. A plain, well-worn early Texas table from the 1870s shows the wounds of its long rugged prairie life. A heavy pine armoire from Bellville in the Executive VP’s office argues with its pristine Knollian chrome and rosewood neighbors.
Not Black and White-But Grey
As with the state of architecture in the 1980s, there is no simple, singular direction here – no unitary formal rule system which dominates design decisions in the name of clarity. The environment which results is hybrid rather than pure, compromising rather than “clean,” accommodating rather than excluding, and sometimes equivocal rather than direct and clear. The design opts for a richness of meaning over a clarity of meaning. It strives to be both timely and timeless, both of its place and of its world, both generic and specific. It inevitably accomplishes none of these diverse goals perfectly, but, perhaps to its greater credit, manages to achieve all of them partially.
The approach seems a positive one and eminently appropriate for TSA offices at this point in time. The suite is a delightful place to visit and to work in. It is full of amenity and care – prudent in its arrangement, sensitively lit, gently colored. It demonstrates the potential range inherent in an inclusive approach to design, feeling good in boots and blue jeans or in coat and tie as well. It is, for me, like a spunky, charming older woman, full of experience and memories – a Katherine Hepburn, not a Farrah Fawcett. Eschewing the latest fashion of the day, it gains identity instead from a rich, multifaceted personality – the result of a wealth of diverse experiences. It exploits its own particular circumstances to produce its own personal character and, in so doing, creates a telling reflection of its makers, its place, and its time.