If you ask 8 people the same question, you’ll hear 8 different answers. Right? Ask 8 different architects and designers if there’s an Austin “vernacular”, and the answers might surprise you.
It’s a valid question, asked out of curiosity about the existence of a distinctive style of architecture, in a city where contemporary structures flex their muscles in neighborhoods of houses built to a different scale for a different time, and the answers range beyond structures and materials to address Austin’s core culture, its cultural regionalism, and ambiance. Maybe that’s how architects and designers think? Or, maybe it’s just “Austin”.
Kevin Alter, Professor of Architecture at UT Austin, and partner at Alter Studio, describes vernacular from an architectural perspective that “derives from the need for shade, for trees and to optimize breezes in a building, in a structure that has been built in a modern way.” Kevin feels that the ‘climate’ of Austin is youthful, it pushes off the past, and brings the optimism of new money into the landscape and that in itself is a form of cultural modernism.
Matt Fajkus, also a Professor of Architecture at UT Austin and principal at Matt Fajkus Architecture, does “not see a consistent fabric of any building type in Austin, but some reoccurring themes such as palettes, the neutral tone of the stone with natural woods,” and feels for a true vernacular there would need to be a consistency with apertures and openings in architectural style. For Matt, the existence of a recognizable vernacular would require the city to have visionary plans in place.
Daniel Woodroffe, of dwg connects vernacular to identity and feels that “If Austin can collectively promote local distinctiveness, that’s where you build the true identity of a place. Austin,” he says, “is less about boundaries and more about creativity.”
The question regarding an Austin vernacular is “not about this material or that material,” according to Michael Hsu, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, “it’s about collaboration.” Michael feels that Austin is moving very quickly and is “trying hard to be whatever the city will become next.” This is important, he states, because He goes on to describe Austin as a “spirit, bohemian but also more sophisticated, and worldly, well-traveled and open to influences. Austin comes from a provincial place, a humble place with a great sense of play, and has become a vibrant diverse place, not one culture but a multitude of cultures, with a great attention to detail, driven by the jobs in technology and creative technology.”
“…once you’re self-referential, you become obsolete.” ~ Michael Hsu
For Paul Clayton, Clayton & Little Architects, Austin is not as socially conservative as many cities, and has a “tendency to make things unique and artful.” In terms of building styles, he mentions the cottages and bungalows of Travis Heights and Hyde Park, as part of the architectural vernacular, that “many of these homes were originally suburban housing. The hill country style was an import to Austin and came along much later.”
Architect turned brand creator, Jett Butler of FÖDA, believes the Austin architectural vernacular has various influences:
“The best practices here produce evolved contemporary architecture that is one part Modernism, one part regionalism, always specific to their authors and context.
Conversely, there are a great many shed-roof-corrugate-limestone-aging-corten works that owe their form and material choices to Lake Flato—with roots in O’Neil Ford. However, the derivatives miss the focus on sustainability that created the very aesthetic they ape.
If there is a vernacular here—an authentic colloquial Austin architecture—if such a thing exists, then it’s a function of climate, voice, available building techniques and what I would call an interest in hybridization.”
David Webber, of Webber + Studio, says that he feels the Austin vernacular, at its best, is an attempt at “modernism that is unstudied.” Buildings from 1950s and 1960s Austin have “material representation that identifies their location” and the subsequent trends of limestone, and metal roofs are now in the “hands of architects to move forwards and redefine local regional culture.”
Mell Lawrence, Mell Lawrence Architects, who attended architecture school in Austin, and has practiced in the city since then thinks of the vernacular as “a cultural awareness is all things design, paying attention to the landscape, architecture, jewelry, and art.” He believes the “informality of Austin, the aspects of informal living, get dressed up only if you want to, and not because you need to or are expected to,” is something architects have embraced, and homes are informal in approach both inside and outside. In another way, Mell describes the architectural vernacular of Austin as the expression of integration with the interior space, the building, and the landscape.”
What do you think? Is there a vernacular in Austin, in architectural and/or cultural style?