We’ve taken leaps of faith with buildings before. There was the dilapidated former dentist office-turned-“beauty shop” on Nueces Street in Austin that, once stripped of its sinks, toilets, and maze-like infrastructure, became a very functional studio and office setting that exuded a satisfying Modernist sensibility and restraint. There, an all-important single gesture – capturing the former lobby space by sealing off the main (west) entry and reorienting the building toward the north – was the breakthrough concept that led to a successful spatial reconfiguration.
Similarly, it was a strong initial impulse of our architect for 500 Chicon that informed the concept for adapting this 1920s oil company warehouse to its new use as headquarters for our design and communication firm. On our first joint reconnaissance visit to the property, we were admiring wonderful exposed steel trusses, full-dimension lumber, and expanses of brick and concrete while bemoaning the dark and oppressive character of the lower level—essentially a partial basement with clerestory windows at ground level. Then our architect and friend Bill Stern of Stern and Bucek in Houston was moved to say, “We should cut a big hole in the main floor.” That impulse proved to be quite feasible to act on, given the rectangular arrangement of brick columns supporting the main floor from below. The thought of losing almost 1,000 square feet of floor space was met with only momentary resistance, and of course the large open volume is now the “main event” of the building—a quite literal affirmation of “less is more.”
We remained in sync with the architects throughout the process of conceiving and refining all the key design elements that make the building so satisfying as a place for daily work:
the stairs that animate the space through bright color and human motion;
the “think pad” that hovers above the studio as an area of retreat;
the comfortable and deliberate contrast between what is original and what was added;
the “family kitchen” that doubles as a meeting area and also replaces the water cooler as the traditional venue for office socializing; and
the glass-and-metal cube that penetrates the main facade, signaling to passersby (along with the grand access ramp) that the building is no longer just an old warehouse.
It is, in fact, a transformation that was and still remains a joy to us all.
Originally published in the Sept/Oct 2002 Design Awards issue of Texas Architect .