White on White

In the fall of 2011, nine years after returning to Austin from New York and five years after establishing his namesake firm, Burton Baldridge, AIA, was ready for a change. His workspace, divided by a set of stairs into two cramped levels, had become problematic. The architect was unnerved by the split nature of his growing firm. “Everybody was down on the bottom, and I was up at the top, and I hated it,” he says. “I hated yelling downstairs; I hated running downstairs and up; and there was no place to have meetings.” Having completed the design-build of his family residence in 2006, Baldridge turned his attention to the next design-build milestone in his personal oeuvre — the overhaul of his own office. The decision also allowed him to relocate the firm to a neighborhood that better fit the character of Baldridge Architects than its original location on South Lamar had. “We really wanted to be in Central or West Austin,” says Baldridge. “I’ve always loved Clarksville. [It’s] the part of Austin that’s the most natural fit for us as a firm. The fact that it’s one of the two mixed-use neighborhoods in this city is awesome.” Chatting with a friend one day at Café Medici on West Lynn, along the two-block stretch that serves as Clarksville’s main street, Baldridge looked up. “What I really want is that place over there,” he said, pointing to the Bond TV repair shop across the street. 

As it turned out, Baldridge was in luck. His friend, a realtor, had heard that the Bonds, whose family had run the business since 1954, were interested in subleasing some of their space. An inquiry revealed that the two-story concrete block structure behind the repair shop was indeed available. The warehouse had been added to the original 1960s masonry building in 1982 and was not in great shape, but there was potential in the simplicity of its volume and its prime location. 

Baldridge committed to a ten-year lease and began construction in January, 2013. Though the post-recession building boom pushed the firm to hire out more than originally intended, Baldridge and his team completed significant elements of the project in-house. The most ambitious task that the firm took on was the 3-ft lifting of the roof, achieved inch by inch with the use of bottle jacks and blocking. “In name, it worked, but in practice it was kind of scary,” recalls Baldridge. “I lost a lot of sleep.”

Completed in October of the same year, the building, which Baldridge himself refers to as “a simple white cube,” further diversifies the assemblage of structures — an eclectic collection of buildings and businesses with storied histories — on West Lynn. The renovation maintains the footprint and shell of the original building, achieving efficient transformation with a coat of white plaster. Irregular expansion joints that trace openings and alignments on the renovation and adjoining building produce a subtle patterning of the facade, breaking up its otherwise-unrelenting whiteness. 

Upon entering the building, visitors are met by a dramatic single-run stair along the south wall. From this vantage only, the full double-height of the space is revealed. Slicing through the east facade and illuminating the entry is the building’s most striking feature: a 12-ft window that stretches from the floor of the upstairs studio to the roof 

before cutting back to create a continuous skylight. The glazing of the window sits flush with the exterior plaster surface, a feat accomplished with the assistance of local fabricator Steel House MFG. In lieu of signage (soon to come), the eye-catching window provides passersby a voyeuristic glimpse of the office and acts as a sort of living billboard. 

The 900-sf studio reads as one space, thanks to a minimal floor-to-ceiling glass partition that separates the conference room from the workstations. The open office environment and non-hierarchical arrangement encourage an environment for employees to freely collaborate and communicate: no more shouting between levels. Built-in shelving thickens stair and conference room partitions, echoing the 18-in-deep exterior walls’ mass. Cumaru flooring and cantilevered mahogany shelves add a material element to the white-on-white palette, while coordinated reveals, subtle material changes, clean finishes, well-placed windows, and 4-in-flush base detailing — details indicative of the careful level of precision that typifies Baldridge Architects’ work — keep the simple space from feeling spare. On the ground floor, a 400-sf space provides a lounge area and small materials library.

The project marked the end of the firm’s commitment to design-build as a business model. Having spent his first three years in Austin building the Floating Box House under Peter Gluck and Partners Architects (now GLUCK+), Baldridge had developed a reputation on those qualifications. However, as the firm grew, says Baldridge, it became apparent that “we cared too much about the design, and wanted to spend our efforts there.” Still, the office continues to engage in small projects that fall into a category that Baldridge considers “lab work.” A recent example is the Waller Creek Conservancy project, an effort that involved the entire office from design through installation. 

In its singularity, Baldridge Architects’ new office building might be mistaken for a design manifesto. “The thing that has been confusing is the intentionality of what we did, here, which is often confused with what our style is,” says Baldridge. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of the central idea to every project the firm takes on. “We started with a cube. We stuck with that idea and took it to an absurd conclusion: a big white cube with a cut through it. I do think it kind of scares some people … but the project demonstrates that you really need to get the core of the building right, that it’s important to get the drywall and the paint correct.” 

Never one to sit still, Baldridge has already begun to envision his next venture, a remote retreat on a small piece of land in Lampasas. Once built, it will provide further insight into his most personal projects. 

Jen Wong is director and curator of the University Co-op Materials Lab at The University of Texas at Austin.

Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Texas Architect.