The Arrive Hotel disguises its identity behind an aggressive architectural screen and a wrapper of wining and dining, fitting perfectly within the burgeoning tech district and nightlife destination that is East Austin.
Architect Baldridge Architects
General Contractor Austin Commercial
MEP Engineer EEA Consulting Engineers
Structural Engineer Leap!
Landscape Architect dwg.
Waterproofing Consultant Building Exterior Solutions
At the Arrive Hotel on 6th Street in East Austin, you might find yourself wondering where you are. There are no music posters, no mention of Willie Nelson, not a single cowhide to signify Texas. There are no signifiers of it being a hotel either: no signage, no lobby. Yet, the push and pull between the fade-to-black approach of the hotel’s identity and the sculptural flexing of the building itself makes a strong statement. For Burton Baldridge, AIA, founding principal of Baldridge Architects, the building is responding less to Austin’s past than to its current moment. It’s built for, and around, the Austin that is right outside its windows or — until the recent outbreak of COVID-19 — sitting at the bar. “Ours,” says Baldridge, “is more an ethos centered around understanding the ‘why’ of a project, given its physical (and in the current case, cultural and historical) surroundings.”
Located in the rapidly developing Plaza Saltillo neighborhood just east of downtown Austin, the 83-room hotel was shaped by several “whys”: a growing hospitality brand, Arrive, looking to differentiate itself in a competitive market; highly prescriptive architectural guidelines; and a remarkably dynamic neighborhood context characterized by bedraggled and beloved dive bars and new mixed-use and creative office developments.
The Arrive partners, with one hotel in Palm Springs under their belt, were looking to expand into other markets. As a “brandless” brand, their preference is to repurpose existing buildings with some charm. In Austin, the best they could find was a corner lot, home to a former Goodwill training center and an old brick warehouse, on a street of what had been mostly one-story restaurants and businesses. The neighborhood had recently been designated a Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) zone and, overnight, Baldridge says, “the whole street went 60 feet tall.” That height increase was useful for the program, but came with design stipulations, including a two-ft notch to articulate the street-fronting facades.
When asked about the evolution of the building’s form, Baldridge describes the dramatic gesture and basic material palette of the architecture as a response to the paired (and arguably opposing) directives to blend in with the hotel’s locale while also channeling Austin’s mold-breaking spirit. The concrete frame and brick are a nod to 1920s-era warehouse typology, the longest-lasting buildings in the neighborhood. (The Texas Society of Architects is housed in one, next door to the hotel on Chicon). “We took three stabs at the exterior of this building. For the first one, we were definitely deferential to the budget.” The clients were not impressed. “They said, ‘We love the way this is programmed. We hate the way it looks. It looks like an ’80s bank. Come on, this is supposed to be Austin. Really show us what you’ve got.’”
What the Baldridge team had, it turned out, was a design that pushes the formal and structural conventions of Austin’s typical mid-rise commercial construction and raises the bar for the project size and scope that the firm had been accustomed to. “Our ambitions were giant,” Baldridge says. “This is what a small firm in Austin can do. This is what Austin at its best does. We were striving to create something that served its program and context but that was unassumingly world-class. It was an attempt to make good (on a small scale) on this city’s outsized myth.”
From a block away, it’s not easy to decipher the building. There’s no conspicuous hotel signage on the principal structure. The building’s main entrance is indicated by a pink neon sign for Vixen’s Wedding, a Goan-inspired restaurant from Austin-based restauranteurs Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher, whose dining room looks out over 6th Street. Cartel Coffee Lab, in the same structure, is deliberately separate from the hotel, but the refurbished brick facade of the adjacent old warehouse (structurally stabilized at great expense during the construction and now housing a bar, Lefty’s) provides another point of entry. Above street level, the concrete “ribbons” of the building’s structure cant and slide to form deep overhangs and corner balconies, while a sequence of materials in shades of black — a faintly iridescent brick, vertical windows, and smooth plaster — infill between the concrete horizontals. Baldridge described the staggered pattern of brick-window-plaster that wraps around the facade as a “weird kind of Fibonacci series” that disguises the programmatic monotony of a row of rooms. Many of the corners and edges of the building extend provocatively into space without the presence of corner columns. The dramatic projection of the upper three floors to the south is supported by a sculptural truss of concrete columns; the entry to the parking garage and valet pickup are neatly accommodated under this projection.
To a degree, the building’s striking form was code-driven: That southern projection, for example, accommodates a pad-mounted transformer. The apparently canted floor plates, meanwhile, are in response to the TOD requirement to break up the facade. Baldridge acknowledges the pedestrian-friendly intent of the requirement, but is dismissive of the “notch” that usually results. “We broke out the plates like a scissor to the tune of about 30 inches, and that gave us all these weird room shapes,” he says. “If you go corner to corner, you can pull out the relief in the facade. We then connected all of those to form balconies.” At this point, Baldridge says, he and project architect Michael Hargens, AIA, started thinking, “This looks expensive. But what we figured was, this was the building they were asking for, and at that point, if we crapped out, we were going to get fired anyway, so at least we’d walk out with some nice renderings, right? And then we decided to lift the ribbons in the Z-axis, and then facet them and tie them together. That was probably not the most cost-sensitive gesture we could have come up with. But it’s kind of what makes the building cool.” The Arrive partners were thrilled, Baldridge says, and they upped the budget. (The contractors, Austin Commercial, were equally excited by the technical challenge.)
The unusual efforts to architecturally camouflage the hotel program were driven by the Arrive partners, says Baldridge. “Arrive specifically wanted a building that suppressed its identity as a hotel. The ground-level establishments are less hotel amenities than they are public amenities that happen to have hotel rooms above.” Chris Pardo and Peter Karpinski, the original founders of the Arrive group and veterans of the hotel industry, were eager to discard the public interior spaces and face-to-face processes that are part of the typical hotel. Grand lobbies, for example, take up a lot of room and, in their view, don’t do much for the neighborhood. Here, there’s no lobby, no check-in desk, no concierge: You communicate with the hotel (and even tip the housekeeper) via text, and your room key is waiting for you at the bar, along with a drink. “Everywhere you turn, there’s a place to get a drink,” Baldridge quips. Actually, he’s not joking; it was a programmatic requirement, and the complex floor plan shows how the building effectively outsources both lobby and first-glance branding to its restaurant and bar. (The interiors for Vixen’s Wedding were designed by local firm McCray & Co.; Arrive partner Chris Pardo also designed portions of the hotel interiors.
Even with the efforts made to mute the perception of Arrive as a hotel from street level, the pedestrian point of view is the most striking. From here, the architecture is felt as much as seen, as the pushes and pulls of the concrete floor plates and the infill walls create several surprising spaces. On the inside, however, the visual presence of the concrete and brick superstructure retreats into the background while the identity and design of each restaurant or bar takes the lead. The architecture provides a quiet throughline from the buoyant and buzzed foot traffic on E. 6th Street, through the lively choreography of the bars, up to the privacy of the hotel rooms. The dark hallways, lined in the same glazed brick as the exterior, have the effect of a sensory deprivation chamber, providing a visual and auditory cleanse prior to retiring. The hotel rooms are airy and eclectically appointed, with art by local artist Sarah Presson. The final stop of the hotel’s promenade, however, is the balconies that extend from some of the hotel’s corner rooms, providing a strikingly unmediated view of both the canted floor plates and of the changing neighborhood: the Planned Parenthood; the craft brewery; the payday loan shop; the construction cranes.
The “why” of this particular hotel in a growing city with a strong job market and lively restaurant scene is obvious. Now, the view from the street-level windows has changed totally. But buildings of this robustness often outlast the cultural conditions that birthed them. Take the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, a landmark from another golden era of Texas history. Built in 1880 by cattle baron Jesse Driskill, the hotel switched hands after a drought decimated the family fortune, got traded to a California actor, and then sold at auction — all before 1898. The building went on to weather two world wars, the Spanish flu and the parties that followed, booms and busts, bear markets and bull. Throughout it all (with a pause for Prohibition), the Driskill has offered up leather seats and whiskey to patrons in need of a respite. We’ll need similar comforts soon, too. The Arrive building and its celebration of Austin’s right-now best got here just in time for whatever era of Austin is next.
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin. Greg Esparza is a partner at Moontower Design Build, also in Austin.