Standing Up to the Strip Mall

Located on the southeast side of Austin and nestled near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the Met Center is a growing mixed-use business park. Full of hotels and offices, the center also has green space that includes a disc golf course and trails for hiking and biking. The Met Retail building, designed by Studio 8 Architects, is situated at the entry to the Met Center site at the intersection of Highway 71 and Riverside Drive.

According to Milton Hime at Studio 8, “Howard Yancy of Zydeco Development wanted something unique because it was the last parcel of land and the most visible. He wanted something simple and clean as the entry feature for Met Center.”

The 5,757-sf structure was completed in August 2008. The primary, north elevation of the building is composed of uniform aluminum and glass storefronts marked horizontally with a continuous steel awning. The facility can accommodate up to four tenants and currently houses three restaurants: a Subway, a Jalapeño’s Mexican Food, and a Starbucks with a drive-through. The building is a creative yet utilitarian response to the programmatic needs of the Met Center.

The most readily apparent feature of Met Retail that distinguishes it from other developer-oriented retail projects is the large reinforced concrete wall that constitutes the building’s east facade. This wall is both functional and aesthetic. The height and width of the wall respond to building code requirements for protection from a nearby gas pipeline — it is essentially a blast wall in case of any accidents. It also serves as a sound barrier from traffic, and a tall vertical beam extends from the base of the storefront and rises above the top of the wall.

Constructed as a tilt wall, the board-formed concrete captures the rough surface texture of the wood forms. Glass blocks set randomly within the wall and spectrum lighting, which illuminates the facade at night, enhance the textured effect. Although Subway and Starbucks have established brand-oriented design aesthetics, both tenants worked with Studio 8 designers to maintain some of the building’s features in their interior spaces, creating a more unique atmosphere. The use of the textured concrete wall as a finish — rather than the restaurant’s emblematic wallpaper — brings a distinct atmosphere to the Subway that is enhanced by the tiny shafts of daylight filtering through the glass blocks. Exposed structural trusses run along the ceiling of all three tenants’ spaces. Visible through the windows from the outside of the building, these trusses aid in creating design uniformity among the various tenants.

The textured concrete wall extends beyond the north facade of the building creating a sight line to downtown Austin. The downtown skyline, the Texas State Capitol, and the University of Texas tower all mark the horizon. This same view can be seen sitting within any one of the Met Retail restaurants looking out the storefront windows. 

Due to the proximity to the airport and the fact that much of Met Center’s current infrastructure consists of hotels, many people who patronize Met Retail businesses are visiting Austin rather than living nearby. With this demographic in mind, the design details that distinguish the Met Retail building are important because they help foster an experience that is unique to Austin. The restaurants located in the Met Retail building have many locations in the United States and around the world and offer a cuisine that is accessible in myriad places. However, the orientation of the Met Retail storefronts provides someone who has just arrived in Austin for the first time the opportunity to take in a view of the city. The features of the concrete wall inside the Subway work to form a more idiosyncratic environment than the restaurant’s standard decor.

The details of Met Retail’s design that give it its individuality are illustrative of current trends in retail design. Because many consumers can go online to order products for home delivery, retailers are coming up with ways to make the in-person shopping experience desirable. Design is one way to accomplish this goal. Retail spaces with an individualized atmosphere serve not only as venues to provide goods to customers but also as venues to provide customers with an experience. By paying attention to the aesthetic details of the concrete tilt wall and the views of Austin visible from the Met Retail storefronts, Studio 8 has created a building that falls within retail design’s trending toward the individualistic and away from the warehouse-like store shells that populate much of the suburban American landscape.

Because of the individuality of the structure, Studio 8 won an AIA Austin Design Award in 2009 shortly after Met Retail opened. What clinched the award was that Met Retail was a developer-oriented project that, unlike many other projects of this nature, paid significant attention to the details that would make the structure unique. “The AIA jurors wanted to see retail developers sticking their necks out more and taking a chance on more distinctive design,” says Hime. Hovering at the cusp of retail design’s move toward experiential-based design, Met Retail is an example of how developers are rethinking the importance of establishing a distinctive sense of place.

Rebecca Roberts is currently pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at The University of Texas at Austin.

This article was published in Texas Architect March/April 2013.