• Lush plantings define a pleasant boundary between street traffic and the adjacent pedestrian experience. - photo by Dror Baldinger, FAIA

Music Lane on Austin’s South Congress strip distinguishes itself amid contemporary retro architectures through tectonic authenticity.

Architect Lake|Flato Architects
General Contractor Austin Commercial
Structural Engineer Architectural Engineers Collaborative
Landscape Architect dwg.
MEP Engineer Integral Group
Lighting Designer Studio Lumina
Civil Engineer WGI
Waterproofing and Envelope Consultant Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates

Strolling South Congress to peruse its quirky boutiques and shady brunch spots has become an Austin experience as typical as counting cranes on the skyline or languishing in traffic on the upper deck of I-35. Tourists and locals alike flock to the district to take advantage of its myriad retail and entertainment offerings, as well as its proximity to Town Lake, greenbelt parks, and downtown.  

Since the first local businesses started popularizing the corridor in the early ’90s, “SoCo” has enjoyed the same incremental growth and sustained boom periods that have defined Austin’s own rapid expansion and emergence on the global stage. Accelerated growth is often at odds with thoughtful growth, and Austin’s built environment is pockmarked by examples of middling mixed-use projects that prioritize short-term investor returns over good design. In this respect, Lake|Flato’s recently completed Music Lane development is an instant standout. 

A collection of discrete buildings is organized around a continuous — and genuinely interesting — pedestrian circuit that pulls window shoppers into a series of well-proportioned, lush urban spaces set back from noisy street traffic. The walkable path is intuitive, aligned axially with two majestic heritage trees whose canopies lend a blanket of dappled light to a pocket courtyard that accommodates intimate outdoor dining. 

Supported by tidy storefronts, sensitive daylighting techniques, and a masterful material palette, the development is perhaps most notable for how authentically “Austin” it actually feels. As one meanders through its rich and varied spaces, the vibe feels like a true extension of SoCo’s already vibrant and thriving identity, not a diluted, focus-grouped “Disneyland” version of this identity.

Creating such a quintessentially Austin experience instead of a Quintessentially Austin Experience™ relies, not surprisingly, upon a visionary client as much as on an excellent design team. Music Lane was developed by Turnbridge Equities, partnering with local developer Austin Pfiester of Lost Herd Enterprises. “It’s simple,” says Christopher Krajcer, AIA, project architect at Lake|Flato. “These developers cared. From the beginning they were on board with us trying to create a timeless architecture. They didn’t want anything too stylized or trendy, and they knew it needed to be adaptable over time. The project became less about architecture and more about placemaking.” 

That commitment is evidenced by the decision to completely submerge the property’s four levels of parking below grade, requiring extensive cut and fill. Additionally, despite a 17-ft grade change across the site, the pedestrian experience is maintained at the South Congress level, allowing for continuous, two-sided retail frontage at a variety of scales and densities. 

Inspiration was taken from successful pedestrian-oriented cities in Europe and North America. Exceptional urban spaces are often defined by a mixture of scale and materiality, so the massing and facade treatments of the site’s buildings take special care to avoid dullness and homogeneity. To accomplish this, the designers took a subtractive approach to the buildable footprint to carve the building envelopes in a way that would provide deep access to the site’s outdoor spaces while also maximizing the site’s floor area ratio. 

Aesthetically, the team sought to imbue a sense of grit, durability, and timeless character, so for inspiration, they looked to examples of successful adaptive reuse projects, like repurposed warehouses and other industrial structures. While the development is entirely new construction, the reference feels right. Site-cast concrete is expressed throughout the project — articulated through board-formed walls, thermally broken concrete columns, and a pan-joist concrete floor framing system. Employing this system allowed for large structural spans in the tenant spaces, yielding maximum flexibility for future leaseholders. Since the post-tensioned tendons only run in one direction within 20-in beams, the 4.5-in concrete slabs between the deeper beams are available for mechanical chases and other penetrations required for the gas, electric, and plumbing needs of future occupants.

The curtain wall system, furnished by EFCO, also reinforces the industrial motif, its custom aluminum fin caps allowing for an exaggerated overall depth and a profile that enhances shadow play throughout the day. Far from appearing flimsy, this highly performative, thermally broken window system is composed of a true divided light, in many instances spanning fully from structure to structure. 

Double-wythe assemblies of locally sourced D’Hanis terracotta block lend a sense of integrity and stout depth to the exterior walls, also in keeping with the industrial archetype. The sheen and pigment of the block play delightfully across the outdoor spaces within the project, providing particular warmth when combined with the careful plantings prescribed by Austin-based landscape architects, dwg. 

The landscape team also introduced a variety of acoustically sensitive water features and irrigation systems that are replenished entirely by means of condensate captured from rooftop mechanical units and stored in subgrade cisterns. This water is deployed across the site through runnels and weep holes, sustaining the project’s plantings. “You’ll notice we introduced an armature for vines that covers a lot of the concrete on the project,” says Krajcer — a self-professed closet landscape architect. “Over time, we hope that the crossvine, fig vine, and Carolina Jessamine will overtake those parts of the facade.” 

As a not-so-subtle, yet wholly appropriate nod to the development’s time and place, local neon artist Evan Voyles was also enlisted to create site-specific artwork for the outdoor public spaces. That Music Lane succeeds where so many others fall short is due in equal parts to the diligence of the design team and the long-term mindset of the developers. But the recipe for projects like Music Lane is no secret — it’s the same formula that has always produced good architecture. 

Music Lane is a thoughtful and excellent addition to the SoCo district, one that will be cherished by Austinites for many years to come. As the city’s drumbeat of development shows no sign of slowing, other aspiring contributors would be wise to take note. 

Christopher Ferguson, AIA, is an architect at Clickspring Design and co-founder of DO.GROUP.

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