• Chris Honea of Flitch built the custom cabinetry, which was designed by Furman + Keil. “We saw a lot of units,” say the current residents, “but this one felt like home.” - photo by Casey Dunn

Located in the W Austin Hotel and Residences, this condo defines zones of use between its concrete slabs with finely detailed and crafted materials. 

Architect Furman + Keil Architects
Interior Design Page
General Contractor Pilgrim Building Company
MEP Engineer Positive Energy

Where does a grown-up live? It’s a question both poetic and practical, as this condo at the W Residences tower in downtown Austin illustrates, and one with implications beyond one set of walls. 

As a starting point for a philosophical inquiry into “grown-up-ness,” a condo on the 29th floor of a downtown tower (designed, in this case, by Andersson/Wise) is an excellent place to start. A condo has an abstract quality that lends itself to big questions: As a legal construct and a physical enclosure, the condo can present both owner and architect with the challenge of taking a product and turning it into a place.  

The client was downsizing from a house in West Austin. One of his children was gone to college, another in high school, and his work often took him out of town. A move to a condo with concierge services made sense, but the open floor plans of many of the units he saw did not. He turned to Furman + Keil Architects, who had designed his previous residence, and Wendy Dunnam Tita, FAIA, director of interior architecture at Page, for help. 

Philip Keil, AIA, describes the experience of designing a condo interior as literally ungrounded: “Taking away the focus of land connection and site refocuses your efforts on a much more subtle scale.” Says Dunnam Tita, “We were thinking about what a common architectural language for a grown-up might be — not just an elegant interior, but one with a level of detail and sophistication and refinement.”

The design team began by looking at precedents and landed on Carlo Scarpa, whose inspiration is strongly in evidence here: rich materiality; rigorous geometry; floating planes. The first order of business, says Dunnam Tita, was to “thwart the pancake” — that is, to take the space determined by the concrete ceiling and floor and reshape it to define discrete areas without breaking up the flow. For example, the entryway is lined with steel and plaster panels that give way to a floating screen dividing the dining and living areas. Suspended plaster ceilings shelter each area; in the kitchen, this ceiling also conceals the range hood and ductwork, allowing the room to fade into the background. A neutral color palette, which Dunnam Tita describes as “salt, pepper, and butter,” focuses attention on materials and intersections, carefully overseen by the team at Pilgrim Construction: troweled plaster, by turns rough and burnished, held in waxed steel; a mirror floating in front of a travertine wall; even a stereo speaker fitted into the wood and steel wall panels. 

Overall, the space feels generous, allowing for solitude, a crowd, or something in between (a sliding wooden partition leads to a bedroom wing for children or guests). That this grown-up space is now making room for a baby — the new owners, who bought the condo from the original owner, furniture and all, are expecting — adds a delightful layer of irony. The area once occupied by a turntable and chair for listening to music is temporarily taken over by a crib, and rubber corners are finding their way onto the travertine. Fortunately, the craftsmanship and materials, though selected with a different phase of aging in mind, should both welcome and withstand detailed exploration. 

Architectural historian Kurt W. Forster describes Scarpa’s work as an effort to “achieve in the flesh and blood of buildings … a culture of building that springs from the way we imagine the meaning of our lives.” This is as good a definition as any for grown-up architecture: a built environment that reflects back to us some sense of self. It’s also a useful framework for considering the culture of condos, a culture that is literally on the rise in Austin, with five new towers — at least — adding over 1,000 units to downtown between 2018 and 2020. 

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reimagine a culture of building in a city designed around low-density, single-family housing. The sales office of one new downtown high-rise shows opportunities both taken and missed: trading residential sprawl for efficient floor plans, shared spaces for congregating, and connection to city life and the outdoors all seem like good strategies for inhabiting an urban center. But a showroom wall designed to introduce future residents to “Austin culture” is shocking in its banality: The collection of a yoga mat, some dumbbells, a dog, a leash, and a bottle of Tito’s vodka manages to convey that Austin, rather than being the garrulous, twangy, contentious, sweaty, crooning, star-gazing, hustling mess of a city we live in, is at its best an outdoor gym with a drinking problem. 

“Elevated” is a word that appears often in condo marketing materials, suggesting that the units are connected less to the street than to the view. But as elevated as they are, condos — both as products and as places — are very much a part of the city they hover above. As more and more of Austin grows up, it’s worth asking, again and again, what grown-up architecture could mean. 

Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.

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