It’s been a while since we’ve seen any significant updates on The Avenue, Austin’s first car-free residential tower planned at 721 Congress Avenue. But since the project’s site is within the Congress Avenue Historic District, its plan had to cross the desks of the city’s historic landmark commission last week — and it turns out they’ve got a few issues, or at least concerns, regarding the building’s design.
There are no specific guidelines for construction of residential towers in this historic district, so the commission’s focus is specific to what they call the “human level” — let’s say the first five stories or so. The design of The Avenue is attuned to accommodate both its corner lot and the presence of the State Theatre next door.
The first three stories of the building facing the corner at Congress Avenue and Eighth Street are recessed from both the street and the four stories above, which then in turn pull back from the street another 40 feet once the building passes seven stories, creating an outdoor deck and pool area. The building then rises, maintaining the same geometry for the rest of the building’s 31 floors.
The Avenue’s three story facade is made of printed glass, a cutting-edge material capable of some pretty impressive stuff, it turns out. It’s not entirely clear from the renderings, but the printed glass facade appears to resemble a sort of dark lattice with lots of vertical lines, seemingly intended to add some texture to the part of the building pedestrians will directly engage with.
The glass surface being pulled back from the street even further than the rest of the building prevents it from overshadowing the prominent sign of the State Theatre next door — although the theatre sign extends past the facade even after the first three stories, the recessed portion at street level creates a more subtle space that contrasts well with the design of the adjacent building.
So what’s the problem? Turns out the commission isn’t sold on that glass facade.
What’s this about bays?
Once you start looking for this you’ll see it everywhere on Congress Avenue, but many of the smaller buildings along the street can be divided into three major units — there’s a perfect example directly next door to the Paramount Theatre, just down the block from The Avenue site.
By the word of the commission, the printed glass facade of the avenue doesn’t properly reflect that trend, remaining a bit too formless — “monolithic” was their term — and lacking the divisions created by windows and other features of a traditional masonry facade.
I really like quite a lot about the the Avenue’s design, particularly its strikingly narrow form factor on the eastern and western elevations, but it’s hard to deny its break with the surrounding buildings. I’m of the opinion that a little contrast makes historic districts like these appear all the more visually interesting, but from the commission’s perspective I can see where they’re coming from.
Regardless of your feelings on the building’s design, it’s certainly a shame to see challenges to new development in the area when many of the ground-level historic buildings along Congress Avenue that actually codify the design language enforced by the commission lie vacant. I’m certainly no advocate for the erasure of architectural history, but there’s got to be a balance between the preservation and revitalization of a district supposedly intended to show off the best Austin’s got to offer. I always wonder what tourists think while walking in the district, realizing how many storefronts are straight-up abandoned in the blocks between Ninth and Sixth Streets.
Something like The Avenue would really give the district some life, so I really hope they figure out a solution to these issues and move forward with the project. That being said, I’m not sure how the building’s designers could respond to the commission’s critique without significant changes. If they really wanted to be passive-aggressive, I’d try using that nifty printed glass technology to make the facade of the building look about 100 years older than it actually is. You think I’m kidding?