Today, we’re picking up the conversation series originally featured on our sister site, Modern Austin, and sitting down with George Blume, Project Designer at the Austin offices of mega-architecture firm Gensler.
Blume is heavily involved in the design of Gensler’s downtown towers, including Third and Shoal, 500 West Second Street, and the upcoming Block 87 mixed-use project, to name a few. He’s also got possibly the most interesting architecture Instagram account in the game — I wrote an entire story about one of his posts.
George and I met at the Second Street District’s shiny new French bistro, Le Politique, which lies in the shadow of the 500 West Second Street tower him and the rest of the Gensler team designed — with Third and Shoal just around the corner. It’s a good thing we’re calling this a conversation, and not an interview, because George and I covered a lot of ground. Let’s jump in mid-conversation, when I finally remembered to start recording…
George: It’s weird, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, so I kept taking English classes. It’s so dorky, but I was obsessed with The Velvet Underground in college.
James: Right on. What year was this?
GB: 1995. So I was always obsessed with Lou Reed and I thought, “Oh, he was an English major, so I’ll just take English classes until I decide what to do.” I had already been in school for four years, and I considered changing my major — then I realized if I did that, I’d be be a 10-year undergraduate.
JR: Happens to the best of us.
GB: I decided to just take a bachelor’s in English – I figured I’d go back to grad school.
JR: It’s funny, I don’t know if we live in a world where that’s still as possible as it was in 1995. I feel like the tuition for grad school, for architecture, has got to be pretty significant at the moment.
GB: That’s a really good point. I probably paid $4,000 a semester for tuition when I got my graduate degree in architecture at Virginia Tech. In-state tuition for UT in the 1990s was $2,000 for a semester.
Anyway, it took me a long time to realize I wanted to be an architect. And even when I was an architect, I was only obsessed with houses. I always thought I’d be a single-family residential architect, I never had any interesting commercial designs. I didn’t have an interest in skyscrapers — I definitely didn’t have any interest in building the tallest building in Austin.
JR: Did something flip that switch?
GB: It was random. I was doing freelance in ’08 and ’09, all residential stuff, but I took a job with Gensler during the downturn in 2010 — I just needed a job. But even at Gensler we were doing smaller stuff than skyscrapers, like buildings at the Domain and some interior work. It wasn’t until we wrapped up the master plan for the Greenwater site that we started doing more high-rises.
JR: I think people imagine the guys designing skyscrapers have some kind of singular obsession, like they’re born with that passion. There’s a mystique around architects, and skyscrapers are what people think about when they mythologize that profession. It’s funny that you just sort of fell into it.
GB: For me, the goal really is — I can’t talk to every person on the street and tell them what the big idea for a building was. I need them to see it when they see it. And if I have to explain it to them, some of them will think I failed.
JR: You think design can do enough to communicate those ideas to the guy on the street?
GB: The big picture, the big idea of the building. But yeah, you’re right, some of those nuances get lost. And I’ll be honest, me and a couple guys in the office like to read the forums on a couple of skyscraper sites – all those guys get so angry.
JR: There was recently a situation where some people online dug up renderings of a tower at Block 185, and it was crazy tall — everyone was so pumped, but once we got ahold of it and started contacting the firms involved we realized it was just speculative. I hated having to tell everyone that.
GB: That’s a really difficult site. I can’t talk about what they want to put there, but what they want to put there is complex.
JR: The banners on the fence right now say “luxury mixed-use.” I don’t think that means anything.
GB: No, it really doesn’t. An office tower with a restaurant at the bottom is a mixed-use building. Technically, 500 West Second Street is a mixed-use building. Anyway, the 185 site is tricky because you can’t access it through Cesar Chavez Street; and since it’s on Shoal Creek you can’t access it on the west side. No curb cuts are allowed on Second Street, so you can’t do anything there. The only way to access it in terms of the parking entrance is from Nueces Street.
JR: That’s where Austin Proper puts their garage entrance as well, I believe.
GB: Yeah, they have a parking garage entry off Nueces Street, along with their loading dock. They also got a variance to do a drop off with a curb cut on Second Street.
Austin Proper shares an alley with Third and Shoal. So they get an alley to use as their loading dock; but Block 185 doesn’t have an alley. Let’s just say there’s one parking garage entry for Block 185 — it would have to be Nueces Street along with a loading dock entry. So it’s a really complicated site. And loading docks have to have very close proximity to elevators in terms of service elevators. That means your ground level back-of-house structures are all concentrated close to the corner of Second and Nueces Streets. But that corner is one of the best corners in Austin!
JR: So you can’t put your loading dock there, your dumpsters – yeah, it’d be a mess. So is there an elegant solution to this problem?
JR: What is it?
GB: I can’t tell you that. I know, but I can’t tell you.
JR: [Laughs] Fair enough.
GB: Do you guys ever write about the Domain?
JR: I have before. We try to cover everything in the urban core, and that’s a little far out, but projects like the Domain are such an indicator of the way development in Austin’s headed. We’re seeing more mixed-use adaptations and infill projects at existing shopping centers. Like Lincoln Center is rebranding as The Linc. I even think there’s a shopping center up in Great Hills getting some kind of mixed-use development.
GB: You know what the problem is? People like the kinds of experiences you get from a dense, urban environment, but as more and more people move here and every day that the city doesn’t figure out public transportation, people will get tired of moving downtown. They will find alternatives — they’ll develop things like the Domain. They will fabricate a new urban node.
So one of my towers is under construction in the Domain right now — Domain 11, the new HomeAway office building.
JR: I’d love to get some photos of the site while it’s in progress. It’s one thing to see it when it’s complete, but getting a look at a building like that under construction can be so eye-opening. At first, I thought maybe like 20 people would appreciate something like that, but it turns out Austin’s got a huge crowd of skyscraper enthusiasts. There’s a subculture of people that have an interest in development that goes beyond the superficial.
GB: I gotta say, I do get a little miffed at people online making comments like, “Well, the building should look like this.”
JR: I’m sure you could tell them plenty of reasons why you think it shouldn’t.
GB: Sometimes there are practical reasons why it shouldn’t, but sometimes it’s like, “You guys just have bad taste.” But it’s never really simple — believe me, we agonize over the color of glass.
JR: Oh yeah, I bitch about that all the time. People say it’s silly to complain about the color of buildings in Austin all being blue, since they’re reflecting the sky — but you can adjust that with different coatings on the glass, right? There are glass panels with coatings tinting them green, or kind of brownish, or tan, right? It’s not just blue.
GB: There aren’t actually that many coatings, but there’s about 20 base colors you can choose from. And every piece of glass you see on the side of a building, that’s really two pieces of glass, because it’s an insulated unit. You can choose the color of the piece of glass in the front and the piece of glass in the back, but any time you use anything other than basic clear glass you’re going to pay a premium. To make things even more confusing — basic clear glass, the cheapest glass, is not actually the clearest glass.
JR: And that’s dependent upon mineral content?
GB: They minimize the iron in glass to improve its clarity. Another term you’ll hear sometimes is Starfire. That’s a proprietary name, but the Starfire company only makes low-iron glass. It’s one of the most expensive glasses you can buy.
JR: So when you say you agonize over building colors, what are you thinking about?
GB: In my business, we think a lot about what we’re doing to the city. I think you can quote me on this – I think bad design in Austin is akin to vandalism.
JR: I’ve used the term “aesthetic violence” before. But what would you say about the skyline?
GB: I think there are a lot of offenders. I think there are more offenders all the time.
JR: I’ve seen the skyline transform since I was born. That’s usually a good thing, but I don’t love every single building. Are you thinking of any specific offenders?
GB: I don’t want to name names, but it’s something we think about.
JR: I don’t blame you.
GB: Speaking of glass, I like what the W does with their glass. That’s a Viracon reflective coating – Viracon is a company that fabricates architectural glass — and essentially that glass is the same as the Fairmont. But the W looks different, it isn’t all glass because it’s a hotel and condo tower. A lot of people think the Fairmont looks like an office building, because it’s wall-to-wall glass. Between the portions of glass on the W, they use metal panels.
JR: They’re kind of dark panels too, right?
GB: That’s right, almost a pewter color. Even though the glass isn’t reflecting that color, those metal panels are altering your perception. So every time I tell someone the glass on the W is the exact same as the glass on the Fairmont or the Frost Bank Tower they’re like, “Hell no, you’re wrong.”
JR: Oh, the Frost tower is the same too?
GB: All three are the same glass. I’m parsing words, but — there are levels of reflectivity to the Viracon glass coating, it’s called VRE coating. Fairmont has one of the lighter reflective coatings, whereas the W has the heavier.
JR: Which is why it kind of blends into the sky from the right angles.
GB: Right. The same thing applies to the Frost Bank Tower. Frost has a heavy sort of art deco thing going on — there’s varying pieces of metal with different colors, all these white bands where the columns are, there’s the reflective glass and the crown at the top and all the other little doodads. So if you tell someone Frost has the same glass as the W, it’s easy to think I’m wrong, because it looks totally different. But if I went and pulled a piece of glass off each building and put them side by side, you’d be able to tell.
JR: Just say the word and we can go do that.
GB: One more thing on glass, just to set the record straight. A lot of people seem to be concerned about the color of glass in this area — like why does Third and Shoal look the way it does? Why is the 500 West Second Street building so dark blue?
JR: Could be darker.
GB: So there’s a waterfront overlay zone in that area related to Shoal Creek, with angles you’ve got to work with — setbacks from the property line. There are other restrictions in that overlay zoning as well.
JR: Related to color?
GB: Related to the reflectivity of glass. They don’t want someone on the street enjoying their day on Second Street or at the creek and for the glass to blind them. The glass at the W, Fairmont, Frost Bank Tower, Colorado Tower, all those buildings are not permissible in this waterfront overlay. It’s too reflective.
So IGUs, with a certain substrate – that’s glass you put a coating on, it’s called a substrate. Viracon looks at the substrate, in tandem with the coating, and assigns it a scientifically measured exterior reflectance percentage — there’s an actual number. You’re not allowed to go above 19 percent in the overlay zone near Shoal Creek, near Second Street. Those Viracon VRE coatings on a clear glass substrate – that’s what Frost Bank, the W and the Fairmont have, it’s a reflective coating applied to basic clear glass. It’s not low-iron glass, it’s just double clear glass. That glass is in the 25 percent reflective range, even at the lowest reflectivity.
JR: And visually that’s very appealing, but it doesn’t work for the rules of the overlay area?
GB: It’s extremely appealing. Not allowed to do it. And the city requires you, in your site development process and Design Commission reviews, to provide documentation as to what you’re doing with the reflectivity of your glass.
JR: So you’re kneecapped slightly in terms of what you can use in this area.
GB: Correct. Here’s the other problem: even though there’s a perceived adverse effect to reflective glass, the more reflective glass is, the stronger its solar heat gain coefficient is. In other words, high reflectivity impacts how sustainable a building is — and it’s got an effect on its LEED rating as well.
So the Greenwater master plan requires each building to have LEED Gold status, which includes the 500 West Second Street tower — but it couldn’t have glass that was too reflective.
JR: So what do you do?
GB: The main glass of that building is not on clear glass, the substrate is called a graphite blue substrate and it’s so blue. So that is actually a reflective coating, but glass, regardless of a reflective coating, is inherently reflective. So when you change the color of glass you actually automatically affect its reflectivity. Graphite blue glass is actually less reflective than basic clear glass. So even though you take the reflective coating and when you put it on the graphite blue it actually is under the 19 percent limit.
JR: This might be off topic, but I think I just realized Gensler designed towers for Google and Facebook in the same Greenwater area. That’s wild.
GB: That’s right. Well, technically Third and Shoal is not in the Greenwater area. They’re in the same waterfront overlay. If you walk over there you can stand in one building and you’re within 60 feet of the other building. Google’s been in tow with Greenwater for a long time. The Facebook thing on Third and Shoal has only really been public in the last couple of months, but Facebook has also been in tow with us since the very beginning — I’d say three years ago.
JR: Are there particular considerations you’ve got to keep in mind when designing buildings for two competing companies? Hell, when you’re building them across the street from each other?
GB: Definitely. When we were designing Third and Shoal it was critical that it didn’t look anything like 500 West Second Street. We knew from the beginning that we were going for LEED Platinum certification, to compete with the LEED Gold buildings in the area. So to be platinum and to be compliant with the waterfront overlay, we had a narrow list of options — if we weren’t going for a LEED rating we could have chosen a glass that didn’t have any coating, and just accepted that the energy bill would be ridiculous. But we decided to go platinum, so we can’t have any reflective glass.
On the design for Third and Shoal, we wanted to shake it up — almost treating it like a Mondrian pastiche of classic midcentury buildings. We actually put together collages with cutouts of SOM buildings from the mid-50s, like the Crown Zellerbach Headquarters, PepsiCo Headquarters, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the Inland Steel Building. We would make these —
GB: That’s what it is. I’m trying to figure out a way to share this — maybe even on Instagram. It’s like, the DNA of this building is here, but the DNA of this building is here, but they’re coplanar and they’re mashed up against each other.
JR: We’d be happy to publish those, you know.
GB: So all these midcentury buildings have very notable green glass. And it’s not intentionally green, it’s just that they were using basic clear glass, which is naturally greenish in color due to its mineral content. We chose to stick with basic clear glass as well, but we obviously couldn’t do the reflective coating, so instead we used an ultraviolet coating which keeps the reflectivity low but massively bumps up the solar heat gain coefficient.
By doing that, it got us an enormous amount of points in the LEED section called EA credit one, which is one of the major obstacles towards taking a building to LEED Platinum status. And naturally, using that glass and that coating lends the building a green appearance.
JR: Which is exactly what I want. I’ve wanted more green buildings downtown for so long.
GB: So it’s great when you stand at the corner and you look at the two buildings, Third and Shoal and 500 West Second Street — one is a dark blue building, and the other is a green building. One didn’t steal from the other.