Arthouse Redesign

Arthouse at the Jones Center, Austin

Josh Conrad

Arthouse at the Jones Center, Austin, TX; © Michael Moran

This October, Arthouse reopened with a newly renovated facility in downtown Austin. The redesign, by New York-based architects Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL), combines new decorative and structural features with freshly exposed building details dating to the early twentieth century. The additions include a constellation of glass blocks perforating the building’s existing exterior walls, a second-floor back-lit projection screen that faces Congress Avenue, a stairway that brings visitors from the lobby up to a second-floor gallery space and a new roof deck for social events. In a talk on their design for Arthouse, LTL illuminated the task informing their processes and solutions: create an urban venue with a “contemporary image” to highlight Arthouse’s commitment to showcasing new work by vanguard artists. The new facility allows Arthouse to broadcast its new image to the city, literally through the projection screen and the installation of floor-to-ceiling storefront glass, both of which allow views of art from as far away as the restaurant across the street.

Arthouse awarded LTL the redesign commission based on the firm’s previous work in New York. Well known for projects characterized by intricate patterns and textures created from common materials, LTL contributes to a larger stylistic trend of complex pattern-making using material components and structural forms that has come to dominate much of architectural design in the past several decades—including the work of OMA, Herzog & de Meuron and Morphosis, among others. However, distinct from their peers, LTL’s best-known work is predominantly small-scale, low-budget renovations of restaurant interiors, as well as propositional artistic installations where the firm focuses on individual architectural elements, such as a single wall, ceiling or light fixture. At this scale the architects’ small office can design and fabricate in-house, as well as intensively explore ideas of pattern and texture generation through inventive processes and conceptual mapping exercises.

As part of the 2004 renovation of Ini Ani coffee shop in Lower Manhattan, LTL created a gridded wall pattern by pressing disposable plastic coffee cup lids into plaster wall finish. For the redesign of Tides Restaurant on the Lower East Side in 2005, LTL stuck bamboo chopsticks of various lengths into foam to achieve a ceiling of dense, undulating masses. In one of their most conceptually rigorous projects, the 2009 lobby installation at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (also in New York), LTL constructed a thick but hollow metal wall perforated by a complex array of holes that provides views through the wall to the rest of the lobby. While one side of the wall appears relatively ordered with similarly sized oval holes arranged in a loose grid, the holes expand on the wall’s other side to create a satisfyingly irregular pattern of overlapping ellipses. LTL’s concept of process—their use of pressing, sticking, stacking and perforating, as well as the elaborate patterns generated by such systems—is perhaps the most crucial characteristic of the firm’s design work.

Arthouse at the Jones Center, Austin, TX; © Michael Moran

Arthouse at the Jones Center, Austin, TX; © Michael Moran

For the main stylistic components of the Arthouse renovation, however, LTL applied a seemingly complicated aesthetic without developing a strong processual concept to support it. The dominant design feature is a spattering of variously sized green glass blocks that project out, at various lengths, from the large blank wall facing Seventh Street. On the interior, the glass studs punch through a raw concrete wall painted with historic murals dating from the building’s former use as a theater in the early twentieth century. Though revealing these historic details would appear to be an important aspect of the project, to then cut holes and insert glass blocks into this historic fabric seems aggressive and unfortunate, largely because the justification for the placement and aesthetic of these elements is unclear beyond the vague desire for a “contemporary image.”

LTL succeeds in their earlier projects by allowing viewers to clearly understand, within the design itself, the thinking that generates particular architectural expressions, whether the generating concept is a certain process or the accommodation of a certain function. In compelling earlier cases, LTL’s architecture directly and thoroughly maps the concept, making it legible, like an excellent infographic. By contrast, the firm’s approach towards the glass-block wall at Arthouse lacks sufficient motivation for the size and prominence of the gesture; the concept is weak or otherwise illegible in the design. Certainly, LTL grouped the small windows more densely in areas that need more light, but beyond this the firm’s signature process-oriented conceptualism is missing. As a result the look of the glass wall seems shallowly “random” for randomness’ sake, and thus somehow pretentious and already dated.

The best aspects of the new Arthouse renovation avoid overt aestheticizing and instead offer creative visual and spatial engagements with the surrounding city: a glass front and awning integrates the sidewalk into the lobby; a beautiful laminated wood staircase flows seamlessly from the front reception desk upward to the new social roof deck; and the second-floor screen projects media for streetside consumption. The visual boundaries between the sidewalk, lobby, gallery and roof are blurred, and the experience of moving sequentially through these spaces is continuous. As a result the space of the gallery becomes much more a part of Congress Avenue than the nearby blank-faced office towers, while still remaining part of the building. Combined with a sensitivity towards the original structure’s preservation, the Arthouse redesign suggests that the property, and perhaps by extension the organization, exists within the public realm. This is a welcome addition to downtown Austin, for healthy urban life depends on a sense of public ownership and the willingness of private property owners to open their doors to the street.

Josh Conrad is a freelance designer and a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin studying Architecture and Historic Preservation.

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