• The wave form directs views southeast toward the Capitol and southwest to the hills. - photo by Paul Warchol

The SXSW Center shows that Austin’s biggest little festival organizer is all grown up, for the most part. 

Architect Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Architect of Record Gensler
General Contractor Harvey Cleary
Structural Engineer Walter P. Moore Structural Engineers
MEP Engineer Wylie Consulting Engineers
Civil Engineer Jones|Carter
Landscape Architect dwg.

Like many businesses in pre-tech-boom Austin, South by Southwest (SXSW) started in a house. That was in 1987, when the fledgling conference launched as a music festival that attracted about 700 attendees. From the beginning, the goal was public relations oriented — to bring the world to the Capitol City and show it that the local creatives were, as their website puts it, “as good as anywhere else on the planet.” By 1994, SXSW had added other media to its roster, including a film festival and digital interactive conference. It grew along with the city, both fueling and mirroring this growth, from “Live Music Capital of the World” to “Silicon Hills.” In 2019, the last year the conference was able to bring people together in person, SXSW attracted approximately 280,000 attendees and scored $355.9 million in economic impact to the city.

As the conference expanded, it outgrew its little house. At first, other spaces were cobbled together to accommodate the ballooning employee base: another house, a converted garage, a shed, an old doctor’s office, a brick company. Eventually, a three-story building on West 5th Street across from Tiniest Bar in Texas was also acquired. But for a conference that now pulls keynote speakers on the level of Barack Obama (2016), more commodious accommodations, where all staff could work together, were desired. SXSW acquired a piece of property just west of the Capitol and invited four architecture firms to submit proposals: Gensler’s Austin office; local firm STG Design; San Antonio’s Lake|Flato Architects; and, peculiarly, New York City-based Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (PCF). 

SXSW may have been founded on the premise that Austin creatives are as good as those from anyplace, but when it came to commissioning their own building, they hired the New Yorkers, with Gensler retained as architect of record. It’s an odd pairing, at first glance. While the digital interactive arm of the conference has become its most significant element, SXSW is still associated with its scruffy indie music festival roots, whereas PCF is known for its sleek, high-end corporate headquarters, like the JPMorgan Chase Tower in Houston, or Fountain Place in Dallas. But perhaps because of their contrasting personalities, these two organizations were attracted to each other. After all, PCF had been experimenting with another class of client. The partner who led the SXSW proposal, Yvonne Szeto, FAIA, had just finished the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. SXSW, which now bills itself as the “premier destination for discovery,” has become a giant in its field and has vaulted Austin to international fame. Perhaps there was opportunity for hybridization here, a mixing of streams in which SXSW could be elevated by the sort of geometrical sophistication found in projects like the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, and PCF could loosen its tie and let its hair down a little. 

Rules of attraction aside, PCF’s proposal, which was hardly changed from pitch to construction, was also deemed the strongest: a 280,000-sf, 13-story tower with five levels of above-ground structured parking; a wave-shaped plan that orients views southeast to the nearby Capitol building or southwest to the hills; a side-loaded core located on the north end of the building; and post-tension concrete beams whose 60-ft clear spans provide column-free, open-plan interiors. The bulk of the tower is clad with a curtain wall system whose aluminum spandrel panels feature a shadow reveal that adds some texture to the sleek wrapper, except where the parking garage pokes through the wave form and perforated metal panels are used. The wave form pulls the structure back from the southeast corner of the site, making way for several existing heritage trees, none of which were moved. These trees pair nicely with the sidewalk landscape by local practice dwg., which also designed a green roof for the project.   

SXSW co-founder and CEO Roland Swenson liked pretty much everything about the proposal. The open plan interiors would make it easy to accommodate their cyclical business, in which staffing is ramped up as the event approaches in March then ebbs again. The above-ground parking would be cheaper than burying it. The wave form was dynamic and energizing without being frivolous or referential. One thing he did push PCF on was on the lobby. The architects are accustomed to designing lobbies as impressive spaces through which people circulate, but Swenson wanted his building’s lobby to be a place where people would hang out, work a little on their laptop, have a beer or a coffee, maybe meet someone new and cross-pollinate. He asked PCF to check out Ace Hotel lobbies. “Like, okay, Pei Cobb Freed goes to check out an Ace Hotel,” Szeto says, with irony. But they did, and the result is a true example of hybridity. Yes, there’s Portuguese limestone and a parametrically designed steel feature wall that multiplies the SXSW logo, but there’s also a bar, a wood-slat ceiling featuring cutouts shaped like guitar picks and outfitted with color-changing lights, comfortable furniture, and a deck. It’s an emblematic space for this moment in Austin — the halfway point between a music venue and a tech office.

Aaron Seward is editor of TA. 

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