Arthouse at the Jones Center occupies the site of the first three-story brick building in Austin, Texas. In the century and a half since, a theater and department store also called the corner of 7th Street and Congress Avenue home. Arthouse, a contemporary arts venue, recently reopened its facilities after New York-based LTL Architects renovated and expanded upon the layers of history. The architects answered some questions about their design.
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
As part of their mission to support young artists and designers, the client established a long list of over 30 young architects from around the United States, based on research and recommendations from architectural advisors. That list was edited to a shorter list of 9 based on portfolio submissions, who were interviewed on the phone. Then 5 firms were brought to Austin for a more formal interview with the building committee of the board. LTL was unanimously selected following the interview process.
Entrance from Street
Can you describe your design process for the building?
The existing building is an idiosyncratic hybrid of a 1920s theater and a 1950s department store. The architecture is pulled in two directions—as a theater its focus was on the stage, at the west, while as a store it was oriented to the street, at the east. The building’s structure is both a concrete frame with steel trusses and, contained within the concrete frame, a single-story steel frame with a concrete deck. The theater’s single large proscenium space was cut in half by the department store’s second-floor addition.
LTL sought to intensify this peculiar accumulation of history by conceiving of the design as a series of integrated tactical additions and adjustments. These supplements revive and augment existing features—such as the 1920s trusses, existing wood rafter ceilings, concrete frame, ornamental frescoes and the 1950s awning, storefront, and upper-level display window. The once mundane roof has been transformed into large sculptural ipe roof deck for large events. The design also opens the second floor and roof through a new monumental ipe stair and, most importantly, efficiently adds program spaces and objects that allow the building to function and to have a presence in the city as a contemporary art institution. As a contemporary statement, the elevation is perforated by 177 laminated glass blocks. Aggregated where light is needed on the interior, these apertures unify the building and form a logical yet unconventional facade appropriate for an experimental art venue.
How does the completed building compare to the project as designed? Were there any dramatic changes between the two and/or lessons learned during construction?
A lot of work was done during the design phases of the project to make sure that we would get the results that we wanted during construction. During design development we worked with several glass manufacturers to find one who would be able to fabricate the blocks to our specifications and we tested several block samples (polished, unpolished, sand-blasted, acid-etched, etc.) with a mock-up that we built in our office. We also worked very closely with our lighting designer to test a lot of different configurations for the glass block illumination. During construction, similar mock-ups were done for the stucco, metal panels, and ipe roof deck – we identified these as important aspects of the project and our contractor made sure that there was time in the schedule to assure that there would be time to review and make minor changes if need be. Pre-construction pricing with a local contractor also helped to make sure that we would be able to have the project realized within our client’s budget.
Are there any new/upcoming projects in your office that this building’s design and construction has influenced?
One of the things we like most about the project is how we reoriented the entry to the building and opened up the façade to the street. This really draws in visitors and the large ipe stair helps pull them up into the second floor gallery space. It’s very important to us that our work intensifies the social nature of its program and this is something that we feel was realized at Arthouse and continues to be important to the design of our other projects.
E-Mail Interview conducted by John Hill