Working from home as a social distancing measure to slow the spread of coronavirus is an option many people simply don’t have, but it’s easy to forget that privilege when you’ve been stuck inside for nearly a month. Are you looking out your window a lot?
The view from my window, which looks east across Lavaca Street, happens to be almost entirely occupied by the western face of Cambridge Tower — and handily enough, it’s a building I like to see. This 15-story modernist residential tower opened in 1965 as an apartment community at 1801 Lavaca Street in downtown Austin’s quirky northwest corner, and later converted its units for condo use in the back half of the 1970s. Cambridge Tower is classy but fun — you’re dying to say “it has character!”
That character is largely provided by the balconies of each residence at the tower. Fashioned from 12-inch concrete blocks, which its architect Thomas E. Stanley called “Solar Units,” each contains a lens-shaped, beveled hole through the center. They’re placed side-by-side at alternating angles creating a tessellated pattern that seems to change each time you look at it — you’ll see circles, diamonds, stars, flowers, and so on. The building’s 2018 nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, which was obviously approved without fuss, describes its blocks more verbosely:
These modular blocks have a distinctive open web design of quarter-circle arches that curve three-dimensionally within each block, allowing breezes through. Stacked in alternating orientations, the blocks form a larger tessellated pattern of circle and curving diamond shapes on the building that nicely complements the curvilinear lines of the larger-scaled cornice arches.
— National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Cambridge Tower
Also known as “breeze blocks,” you’ll often see them used for semi-permeable walls in the atriums and entryways of midcentury homes, and they’re enjoying a comeback of late for obvious reasons — they look cool and there are tons of patterns available.
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Another notable detail of the structure is its porte-cochère — basically a drive-thru carport, though it’s more fun and fancy to say in French — which covers the tower’s main entrance and driveway. You see this structure often at hotels and hospitals, but it’s pretty rare in residential buildings, a relic of a time when Cambridge Tower’s resident parking was handled entirely by valets.
This tower is Austin’s first example of the midcentury architectural movement known as New Formalism, a subcategory of modernism that peaked in the 1960s and brought classical design elements, like arches and columns, into the modern conversation — while pushing back against the prevailing modern architecture of the time, which could be austere at best and joyless at worst. Unlike the spare glass and steel structures exemplified by modernist pioneers like Mies van der Rohe, New Formalist buildings aren’t afraid of ornamentation or playfulness.
The arches near the crown of Cambridge Tower are the most obvious clue the building belongs to this movement, along with its aforementioned balcony breeze blocks — a hallmark of New Formalism is the brise soleil, a sunshade for a structure’s exterior often made from patterned concrete blocks like on the balconies of this tower, though here they’re just serving as balustrades.
New Formalism was a reaction against the prevailing design trends of the era, and like a lot of countercultural movements it seemed to enjoy a pretty good sense of humor. It’s a bit odd to think this about a building, but you’d swear some of the better examples of the style are winking at you. Look at that glass box over there, it seems to say as it nudges you in the side — why is it taking this all so seriously?
But unlike the accusations of pastiche, cynicism, and “pomposity” leveled against postmodernism, at its peak New Formalism wielded classical architecture’s elegance in a refreshingly modern context. Cambridge Tower, though not the most famous example of the style, is a building I find endlessly soothing to see from my window, particularly in uneasy times when we’re mostly cooped up at home. Elegant is a good word for it.
The thin columns running up the face of the building and swooping into classical arches at the crown evoke waterfalls, or maybe the scalloped edges of a lace parasol. Your eyes naturally follow the curves, then linger on the interlocking patterns of the balconies. You might notice that each breeze block’s interior lines recall the lines of the tower’s rooftop arches, subtle variations on the building’s common theme. This, my friends, is architectural Xanax, and I wish everyone in Austin had a view so good.