With more than 44 offices and thousands of employees, you might call Gensler the Coca-Cola of architecture. But that’s not really doing its work justice — the mega-firm’s Austin office is pumping out some of the most interesting projects in the city at the moment, including Third and Shoal, 600 Guadalupe, and the fascinating Block 87.
I recently sat down with one of Gensler Austin’s project designers, George Blume, for a fascinating and humbling interview that revealed how little I actually know about what it takes to design a downtown tower. Blume is gifted at telling you exactly what you want to know about an upcoming building right up until you ask him something he can’t reveal, and I think he enjoys getting right up to the line:
JR: 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.
Blume’s Instagram page, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of the best follows in the city for skyscraper enthusiasts. He likes to tease projects that either never materialized or haven’t been announced yet, posting small portions of illustrations and models of Gensler buildings we may or may not recognize.
I don’t know if he’s intentionally trying to keep us in suspense with the stuff he posts, or if it’s just a natural side effect of the work he’s constantly surrounded by, but I think his firm’s marketing staff have started to recognize the value of his Instagram — some of Blume’s posts have shown up for me recently as sponsored advertisements on the app, meaning Gensler’s throwing some money around to make sure we all get hyped about Third and Shoal’s curtain walls and such. I actually enjoy it quite a bit.
Okay folks, tinfoil hats on. The fact that Gensler seems to realize how hyped people get when Blume hints at something new makes me examine their marketing material a little more carefully, since you never know when you might see something noteworthy.
That’s why my eyes did something like this when I got to about 4:43 in this video Gensler Austin released yesterday celebrating the office’s 10 year anniversary, which consists of various employees sticking their hands inside a box that’s only open to the camera and attempting to identify various mystery objects by feel.
When Blume shows up in the video, the objects he’s supposed to identify are 3D models of various Gensler buildings, and this is where it gets interesting. The first is obviously 600 Guadalupe, and he recognizes it nearly as fast as we do. But the second model is a tower we haven’t seen before.
But he figures this one out pretty fast too. “Yep, that’s Block 35.” I’m sorry, what? It must rule to be so nonchalant about something none of us have heard of. But from the name and design of the building seen here, I’m pretty sure I can figure this out. You might want to put on another tinfoil hat.
The original plan for the City of Austin from 1853 is where these block numbers come from — that’s where we get project names like Block 71, Block 87, and Block 185. Looking at the map, here’s Block 35:
If that block sounds familiar, it’s because it popped up a couple of years back as the site for a potential project by Manchester Texas Financial Group, the developers behind the Fairmont Austin — a building designed by Gensler. Back in 2016, a tower at Block 35 was planned as a sister project to the Fairmont, possibly another hotel due to its proximity to the convention center.
Renderings for the building were only shown off once, at a meeting of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission discussing the relocation of several homes on the property to clear the site for development. Since they don’t appear to have ever been officially released outside of this meeting, and nothing about the project has come up since then, these are the only images we have:
Let’s line up the shot of the building model from Gensler’s new video and the straight-on rendering from back in 2016 seen above:
Yeah, that’s definitely the same building. And you know what? I think those diagonal beams you can see on the bottom-right corner of the model are the same ones from this Instagram photo Blume posted back in December of last year:
If you read the comments — which you usually shouldn’t do, but this is an exception — Blume says the building in the image above is neither Block 185 or Block 87. I think it’s Block 35, and I don’t think his firm would include the 3D model of the building in its video if it was just an old vaporware design — that wouldn’t be a smart promotional move for either Gensler or Manchester. In fact, I think we can expect more news about this site in the near future.
Of course, like I said before, Gensler’s self-aware about its ability to build buzz. What if they included the Block 35 model in the video for the express purpose of throwing people off the trail? What if they did it literally just to troll me? We’ll find out soon enough — until then, I want to believe.
EXTREMELY DEPRESSING EDITOR’S NOTE: There must be a hole in my tinfoil hat. I just heard back from Blume, who claims that the Block 35 project is “Dead dead dead.” In addition, he explained that the diagonal struts I pointed out on the model and Instagram photo are the same design, but on different towers — the building seen in his Instagram post, which we already know isn’t Block 185 or Block 87, apparently also isn’t Block 35. At the end of the day, Gensler is teasing Austin, we just know even less than we thought.
So that leaves us with another question — if the building seen in the above picture isn’t the Block 35 project, which is it? We’re running out of blocks, but one possibility is the Velocity Credit Union sites over on East 11th and 12th Streets, right next to the upcoming Alexan residential tower project.
I’ve covered early plans for them before, but a more recent article in the Austin Business Journal describes Aquila Commercial seeking bids for a mixed-use tower at the site — and the development concept used to market the site was created by Gensler:
Since this was just a concept, it’s plausible that Gensler is still designing a building for the site that looks completely different — or at least modifies what we see here to include the diagonal struts that have thrown us off the scent over and over.
One last thought, since I’m already taking an enormous L for my incorrect prediction as it is: maybe this mystery building is the development we’ve been waiting for at the old post office downtown for more than a decade at this point. We should be so lucky.