Brands in Junkspace perform the same role as blackholes in the universe: They are essences through which meaning disappears. — Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace”
The tech industry has been pumping terabytes of ones and zeros into Austin. This input — a literal stream of people, information, and money — is applying a consistent pressure to the city, pushing the downtown skyline to greater heights and density, while inflating to an alarming turgidity select corridors of development that radiate out from the core like the tentacles of a giant octopus. Old residents carp and moan about the rapid pace of growth, the snarled traffic, the increasing cost of living, and the general change of vibe — from a never-ending float down a cool summer river, to the heat and cacophony of milk being steamed for your latte — but even newcomers can see trouble brewing in this town’s peculiar mix of business acceleration and rearguard action against further urbanization: “Why are all the buildings so cheap and ugly here?” “Why does the public transportation suck so much?” “Where are all the good museums?” Austin seems to have been trying hard to confirm one of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s observations about American cities, that they “live feverishly in the grip of a chronic disease; they are perpetually young, yet never healthy.”
Zooming in on one of the city’s rapidly developing tentacles brings into high resolution the exact nature of the ailment. East 6th Street, from I-35 near downtown to where it peters out 13 blocks later at a poultry plant and an H-E-B grocery store, is typical of the sad state of development — more so in that it has promise and contains a few diamonds in the rough. Previously a thinly populated mix of storefronts, loading docks, empty lots, frame houses, shacks, and industrial installations organized within Austin’s 19th-century grid, the corridor has been utterly transformed in the span of five years into a canyon of mid-rise office, hospitality, and residential mixed-use buildings, not to mention the structured parking that serves them. While 901 East 6th Street (formerly the Car2Go headquarters), designed by Thoughtbarn/Delineate Studio, and Baldridge Architects’ ARRIVE hotel at the corner of Chicon Street are notable recent exceptions — buildings that show good intentions and exemplify the traditional architectural values of firmness, commodity, and delight — the vast majority of the new construction is at best banal and at worst flimsy, chintzy, and unpleasant to behold.
In urban terms, this part of East 6th Street is a tease — a move in the right direction that doesn’t go all the way. It is walkable, and young trees have been planted along the streets (their shade will be quite an asset in the summer, when they mature, sometime after most of the new buildings they currently front have ended their life cycles and been demolished), but the sidewalks along most of the new developments aren’t wide enough even for the current level of pedestrian usage, never mind for the electric scooters that now share them (scooter urbanism, in fact, might be a good way to think about Austin’s current state of evolution). Strange grade changes, security barrier-like planters, and other incongruencies (one corporate HQ even has a BBQ grill and patch of AstroTurf out front, enclosed behind a high steel fence) further disrupt both passage and enjoyment.
The choice of a tech buzzword was intentional. The industry, through incessant marketing, has made us all think of “disruption” as something to welcome into society and our individual lives. Sadly, the disruptions of tech don’t always overturn stodgy ways of doing things and replace them with efficient, synergistic solutions. Sometimes, they make a bad situation worse. This appears to be the case, by and large, with tech’s influence on the built environment. For all that cities tout their use of Big Data, tech is primarily a suburban phenomenon (ever been to Silicon Valley?); what it enables are decentralization, atomization, isolation. The demotion of public space that started with television has reached a new zenith with the Internet and the profusion of devices that deliver it. TV made it possible to worship and be entertained from your living room, as opposed to going to the church or theater. Now, the Internet has made even work and socializing things that can be done from the seclusion of home, which, if you live in a new apartment on East 6th Street, is a gypsum box whose walls are so thin you can hear your neighbor button-mashing their way through Fortnite. This redistribution of time and consciousness away from the topological, three-dimensional world in which our bodies live and breathe, to cyberspace with its protean audio/visual phantasms emanating from points unknown to screens we hold close to our faces, is changing how we relate to, and what we ask from, our architecture and cities.
Tech, being a solutions-oriented enterprise, tends to come up with antidotes for its own negative side effects. The Gig Economy, which bloomed with the advent of the iPhone (2007) and Great Recession (2008), also gave rise to an escape from the solitary work it made possible: the coworking space. As Brad Neuberg (the programmer who, in 2005, founded the first official coworking space in San Francisco) wrote on his blog, Coding in Paradise, “I couldn’t seem to combine all the things I wanted at the same time: the freedom and independence of working for myself along with the structure and community of working with others.” Tech companies have also led the way in turning the workplace into an environment the workforce won’t be so apt to leave (or able to escape), by making them a mix of office, home, gym, coffee bar, drinks lounge, and play palace.
But the tech-born solution to this downgrading of physical space very much resembles the source of the downgrading: It’s a fighting-fire-with-fire scenario. The typical tech office’s promiscuous blend of modalities can be viewed as a physical corollary of the Internet’s virtual world, where seemingly anything, from sex to the latest exchange rates on the NASDAQ, can be accessed instantaneously with minimal effort. But far from being liberating, tech offices and the internet are highly choreographed and surveilled environments, which is why they make such an effort to explain that their real purpose is catering to individuals’ choices. Another point of insecurity is authenticity, or realness. This can be seen in the digital realm’s ongoing attempts to make itself look and act more like the real world, à la virtual reality, as opposed to reveling in and accentuating its synthetic, binary nature. It can also be seen in the designs of many tech offices, which work overtime to signal their connections to place and tradition, as opposed to signifying their reliance on electrons.
For an example, one need only step off East 6th Street’s middling sidewalk into the recently completed H-E-B Digital and Favor Eastside Tech Hub. This corporate headquarters of the digital arm of venerable Texas grocery chain H-E-B and the food-delivery start-up it recently acquired, Favor, occupies two connected metal shed buildings that originally housed the Balcones recycling center. After the recycling center vacated, the empty structure was used as a venue for pop-up cultural events and became a regular canvas for graffiti artists. In 2017, it was acquired by Denver-based EverWest Real Estate Investors, which hired Gensler to renovate the core and shell as multi-tenant space with an eye toward attracting creatives, start-ups, and tech businesses. Gensler refurbished and stabilized the structure, added insulation and air conditioning, inserted a 16,000-sf mezzanine to increase leasable floor area, opened up the perimeter with windows, and installed a long clerestory across the center of the roof to admit daylight into the center of the 65,000-sf floor plate. The architects also hired graffiti artists to paint murals on the steel columns, put in a coffee bar, and even bought an old railroad boxcar from North Carolina and parked it out back.
Dubbed “Upcycle,” the paint was barely dry on the rehabbed facility when, kit and kaboodle, it was bought by H-E-B and Favor, then still in the honeymoon phase of their merger and looking for a place big enough to accommodate their combined families. They hired the Austin office of national firm IA Interior Architects to re-upcycle Upcycle into a cohesive workplace where the agglomerated companies could work together while maintaining their distinct brand identities. While H-E-B was keen on representing its deep Texas roots, Favor wanted to maintain the scrappy start-up culture it had fostered in its former location, an old industrial space a few blocks away on East Cesar Chavez Street.
IA’s design uses the bifurcated nature of the building to separate the two companies — H-E-B to the east, Favor to the west — and ties them together by basing the plan on the geography of Texas. The large floor area is divided into quadrants. The southwest evokes the mountains and canyons of the Trans-Pecos with a social stair. The northwest emulates the Panhandle’s silos and Quonset huts with a D’Hanis brick arch leading to a fitness center with a 20-ft climbing wall. The northeast is meant to represent the East Texas pines and evinces the lack of inspiration this aroused in the designers by mostly containing open plan banks of desks. The southeast attempts the Gulf Coast with vaguely 19th-century-looking street lighting and a white-painted lattice work that may be meant as an abstraction of a Victorian house in Galveston?
Throughout this basic geographical organizing principal, an Ur-Texasness is pantomimed with local art, materials, and other signifiers of specific places or cultural artifacts — though it must be said that the countrypolitan, boho-cowperson aesthetic that has fermented between Austin and Marfa over the last decade or so is the dominant theme. The entrance/security checkpoint has a hickory and pecan ceiling, while the reception desk resembles a gabion wall — a bull wire cage filled with limestone chunks and glass cullet. There is a lot of Garza Marfa furniture, and picnic tables designed by Marfa-based sculptor Cody Barber. A large mural by Austin artist Will Bryant wraps three walls, its nursery school shapes lampooning features of the Trans-Pecos landscape. Two handwoven screens — one east, one west — by fiber artist Ellen Bruxvoort recall nothing so much as the tassels or racoon tail on a festival girl’s purse. There is a cow skull on the floor. Cacti and succulents sprout from ceramic pots. The bathrooms reference Wes Anderson films. The snack bars are named after H-E-B stores. Meeting rooms have Texas place names, from Corpus Christi to Cadillac Ranch. Wayfinding signage made from bent rebar points the way to places like the kitchen, town hall, living room & bar, and Kerrville — the board room on the mezzanine level, laid out with the same square footage as the first H-E-B store, which, as it happens, was located in Kerrville. Push on a certain bank of shelves behind the bar and it gives way to reveal a secret chamber done up to look like this original location, complete with an olde-tyme cash register and antiqued cans of green beans.
All of these Texas clichés swim beneath the beefy ductwork of the air conditioning system, within the indifferent enclosure of the former recycling center, whose pre-engineered metal structure possesses all the charm, subtlety, and specificity of place of a server housing. To build upon the Internet-as-built-space analogy, inside the Eastside Tech Hub one moves from one zone of Texana to another with no more effort than it takes to click a link to the next website. Each zone could be ripped out and replaced overnight, much in the way the Internet is a constantly morphing environment where sites appear, change, and vanish without disturbing the overall structure. It’s Meow Wolf as workplace. Disney World as corporate interior. Koolhaas’ Junkspace specially tuned for the tech worker — a “thicket of cuteness” designed to detain employees in the lounge, plugging away, long after the whistle has blown.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.