One thing you’ll notice reading this site is that we like the tower plans that never get built almost as much as the ones that do. Each unrealized concept for downtown Austin represents a sort of self-contained alternate universe for the direction of the city’s skyline, especially some of the more ambitious and far-fetched designs we’ve seen over the last decade or so — there’s got to be a parallel dimension out there where we actually built wacky stuff like Tower 5C, or the defunct project at Fifth Street and Congress Avenue designed by the firm of the late César Pelli long before Block 185 made it to reality, or even the truly wild-looking Nahua Tower plan that even its architects likely never expected to really build.
Even the towers that are almost certain to never jump off the drawing board are interesting learning exercises, many crafted as studies informing the possibilities of a more constrained future development that actually happens. This is definitely the case for what global design firm Perkins & Will calls Block 41, a fantastical tower design study for the half-block at the corner of Fourth and Brazos Streets outlined in an article earlier this week for Green Building & Design Magazine:
Please note that Perkins & Will went on to design the actual building now expected to rise here by local developers Cielo Property Group, a stunning 50-floor office tower we think is one of the best new plans we’ve seen recently downtown — but it appears before the firm settled on the final design they threw around a lot of studies for what kind of building was possible here.
Our team is currently designing a 46-story commercial office tower called Block 41 in the central business district of Austin.
From the outset of the design process, we approached outdoor space as an integral part of the workplace rather than an amenity, by providing more than 3,000 square feet of outdoor space on every occupied office floor. There is already a growing trend in office design to program for outdoor workspaces and balconies, developed mainly in response to COVID-19 and tenant demand for safe spaces to engage with others.
With this project we have tried to take this strategy a step further. In addition to the private tenant spaces, we recognized in this project a huge opportunity to give space back to the public realm, integrating an 8,000-square-foot public plaza on the ground floor. The commercial building becomes a space where any community member can come in and spend some time out in the shade, read a book, or catch up with a friend.
As you can see from the quote above, this week’s GB&D article doesn’t really ever spell out that the tower being discussed is not actually being built — yes, we confirmed with Cielo this week that it’s an early concept they aren’t moving forward with, which was pretty obvious since the other tower design is already working its way through the early phases of development with the city. You’d think the article would mention this, but that’s what we’re here for!
Generous outdoor spaces as these can be utilized year-round and therefore are financially feasible only if designed properly. For the Block 41 project, because the ground level public plaza sits within the property boundaries it is covered by the building above, which provides solar protection from the Texas sun. The landscaping is designed to be abundant and lush to help mitigate the heat island effects and as an added benefit enriches the street-level restaurant, retail, and pedestrian experiences.
On the typical office levels, each outdoor terrace is covered by the next level above and is deep enough to provide solar protection. Similar to the ground level plaza, we designed these outdoor terraces with ample amounts of plush landscaping in an attempt to create an ecosystem that can help mitigate the heat during the hottest days of the Texas summer and provide a pleasant workplace setting anytime of the day.
Even so, the two renderings provided here for the hypothetical project show a pretty ambitious design. Curved facades and smooth corners are very much “in” at the moment, a reaction to boxy towers as much as a sort of shorthand for environmental sensitivity — would a LEED-certified building have sharp edges? I think not!
The massive dedication to outdoor spaces on this tower — at least the parts we see, since there are only two renderings and neither show the full design — are nice enough, but we actually prefer the curved surfaces of the more recent design that’s actually moving forward. The base of the Block 41 design (an odd name since that’s not actually this site’s city block number in the Waller Plan) looks very similar to the UTS Central building at the University of Technology Sydney by Australian design firm Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp, which actually got built:
Anyway, when we see a project like this imagined in downtown Austin — and we say imagined since it’s absolutely not real, don’t get it twisted — it’s fun to remember just how far we’ve come. There was once a time not too long ago when the actual tower planned for the site by Cielo would have been considered just as fantastically unrealistic as what we’re seeing here. It’s pretty safe to say that even though the Block 41 plan isn’t ever getting off the ground, the rest of the city sure did.