The Seaholm Intake facility is sited on the banks of the Colorado River, which snakes its way through the center of Austin. With large flood control dams to the east and west of the city, the water’s surface strikes a controlled datum: a lake shimmering at Austin’s heart. On a nice day, hundreds of people can be seen paddling, rafting, and rowing on its placid surface.
What is now known as Lady Bird Lake (named for the former First Lady) came into existence in the 1960s, upon construction of the Longhorn Dam downstream; it was designed to be a cooling reservoir for the centrally located Seaholm Power Plant. A decade or so later, the lake was polluted and its banks overgrown, but Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification efforts at the national level had become well known, and in the 1970s, she joined forces with then-Austin mayor Roy Butler to clean up the mess.
In 1989, the power plant was decommissioned, and today, the lake and its
surrounding properties have grown into vibrant and active public parks.
Water in Austin has taken on a somewhat mystical role as generator of activity and focus of public space: Throughout the city, public pools, lakes, creeks, and springs have become major facilitators of social interaction. Most of the river water feeding the lake flows down from the western Highland Lake chain. On its way to the Gulf of Mexico, the river is supplemented by many smaller tributaries. As it crosses the Balcones Fault at Austin, it encounters the Edwards Aquifer. Barton Springs supplies the lower portion of Barton Creek that flows into the lake near the Intake building. While the springs are the unofficial spiritual heart of the city, the lake is a more profane, hedonistic center, often abuzz with recreational activities.
Austin’s Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail stitches together bits of parkland surrounding the lake, turning public space into a looping circuit of physical activity — a nonstop testament to self-improvement. The water’s edge parkland has become a space where traditional building is taboo, owing to the potential for flooding and to something else as well: Its undeveloped quality offsets the rocketing pace of growth and rapid infill elsewhere in the city. The once-industrial cooling reservoir has become a natural, albeit heavily used, public respite from the escalating intensity of Austin’s urban life.
In this charged context stands the Seaholm Intake — a remnant of a once-industrial landscape that has shifted, over the decades, to a more serene, though no less intense, recreational one. Perhaps no other important building in Austin is as dependent on its siting for its identity. The building once housed pumps that sent cooling water several hundred feet away to the power plant, to cool down its electricity-generating turbines. As is true of many industrial structures, the Intake building’s toughness and austerity reflect its function as a piece of city infrastructure. It is an imposing object,
a muscular proto-modern concrete shell rising out of the lake, an example
of the urban-scaled industrial design that inspired brutalism.
The building foundations are set 13 feet below the water line, and its rooms that plunge below the surface were built that way to conduct a constant supply of water to the pumps. From the opposite side of the lake, the building appears to rise out of the water, its glistening reflection complementing its monolithic, immutable presence.
The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department owns the Intake Building and is in the process of trying to figure out how best to reuse it. Its parent building, the Seaholm Power Plant, has been successfully preserved and redeveloped; however, its current use as a private corporate office building — completely off-limits to the public — is disappointing, to say the least. Instead of enticing fascinated Austinites into its cathedral-like interior, the Seaholm Power Plant is doing mundane duty as headquarters for a medical record keeping company. One can only wish for it a civic-minded future.
What makes the Intake Building all the more interesting — and important — is its lakeside location surrounded by one of Austin’s most bustling public parks. The empty building is terrain vague1, an obsolete and unused industrial object that can incubate collective dreams of new use and occupation. Its site, its concrete construction, and its idiosyncratic internal logic have made it difficult to repurpose in a conventional way, and yet, so far — thankfully — it has not gone the way of the Seaholm Power Plant.
While it is technically and politically impossible to build new on the water’s edge, the Intake building offers a starting point for a discussion about inhabiting this exclusive zone. A generator of wonder, its abandonment and disuse are strangely central to sparking speculation; its emptiness is essential to its identity and value in its current state.
First off, renovating this building requires restraint in the preservation of its facade and an understated approach to any proposed exterior alterations or additions. Two other suggestions are important: (1) Question what the building could be used for and find a periodic, programmatic fit that preserves it as a shell, retains its obsolescence, and celebrates its location as an object in a public park; and (2) Don’t underestimate the primacy of the relationship between the building and the water at its side.
Regarding the first suggestion, one can look to the park itself for clues: One day, the parkland might host 30,000 people at a festival; the next, it’s a dog park. It’s not static and is often unoccupied. Like the park, the building could host a variety of events. In an event-obsessed city that thrives on change, fluctuating use is clearly a fit. It would be fascinating to walk by the building and see it aglow and teeming with life one day, and then find it dark and solemn soon after.
As for the second suggestion, the Intake building alone straddles the edge of Lady Bird Lake: Outside this context, it loses its importance and value. Docks and walkways can crop up elsewhere along the hike-and-bike trail; in fact, they do. But experiencing the lake’s surface from inside the Intake building? Sublime. Unique in this city. To build over the water in front of the building would be to ground it and take away its special place on the water.
We humans have miles of opportunity to occupy the water’s edge. Let’s leave a small portion to this remarkable building, and hope that a sensitive approach to its reuse is taken.
1 “Terrain Vague” is the title of a 1995 essay by Spanish architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales Rubió. The essay begins with a discussion of photography’s role in shaping our understanding of urban space, focusing on urban photography since 1970, which turned its eye toward the uninhabited, abandoned margins of the city, which Solà-Morales calls terrain vague: “The relationship between the absence of use, of activity, and the sense of freedom, of expectancy, is fundamental to understanding the evocative potential of the city’s terrain vagues. Void, absence, yet also promise, the space of the possible, of expectation.”
Murray Legge, FAIA, is principal of Murray Legge Architecture in Austin and a co-founder of Legge Lewis Legge.