The Branch Park Pavilion serves up a vibrant community space for Austin’s Mueller neighborhood and beyond.
Project Mary Elizabeth Branch Park Pavilion
Clients Catellus Development and the City of Austin
Architect Lawrence Group
Design Team I. Earl Swisher, AIA, Luma Jaffar, AIA, Michael Rollins, AIA, Doug Becker, AIA, Edgar Zarate, AIA, Nick Faust, AIA, Karen Renick
Contractor Engen Contracting
Structural Engineer Architectural Engineers Collaborative
MEP Engineer Bay & Associates
Civil Engineer Stantec
Landscape Architect Design Workshop
Lighting Consultant Four Point Lighting Design
Acoustical Consultant DataCom Design Group
Photographer Leonid Furmansky
Now populated by a vibrant mixed-used community, the 700-acre Mueller neighborhood in Austin was formerly home to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. While many families have walked the approximately one-mile loop around Mueller Lake Park for years, there really wasn’t a compelling reason for pedestrians to journey north along the community’s principal retail thoroughfare, Aldrich Street. That is, not until the recent completion of Mary Elizabeth Branch Park along with a mixed-use apartment building added wide sidewalks that now provide a pleasant, mostly shaded path between the two parks.
Mary Elizabeth Branch Park provides a variety of amenities to the Mueller neighborhood and the surrounding community, including recreational opportunities, a children’s playground and splash pad, and the Branch Park Pavilion — home to the Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller, among other community uses. As a flexible, air-conditioned event venue, the pavilion is a unique feature for Mueller and, more broadly, northeast Austin. While the Mueller development hosts other event venues, including the Browning Hangar, the Amphitheater at Lake Park, and the event lawn at John Gaines Park, none support the year-round programming that a conditioned space can offer.
According to Nick Faust, AIA, an associate at Lawrence Group who worked on the project from its conception through construction administration, conditioning the pavilion was not always part of the project brief. “For a long time — several years — there was a lot of debate over whether or not that was the right decision for the project,” says Faust. From the outset, the project’s primary tenant was anticipated to be the Texas Farmers’ Market, and their prior home — the Browning Hangar — wasn’t conditioned, so it wasn’t necessarily a requirement for their new space.
Lawrence Group advocated for the owner to consider a facility that would be enclosed and conditioned as a way to support future programming. Earl Swisher, AIA, retired founder of Lawrence Group’s Austin office, said the team used 3D goggles as part of the project’s schematic design presentation to the city of Austin as a way to explore design options. Both a conditioned and unconditioned version of the pavilion went all the way through the construction documents phase and permitting before a final decision was made. And the decision has paid off: In its first several years of occupancy, Branch Park Pavilion has played host to AIA Austin’s 2022 Design Awards Celebration, ULI Austin’s 2023 Marketplace, the Mueller Neighborhood Association’s 2023 Fall Fest, weddings, and many other events. Andrew Clements, a resident of the Mueller neighborhood who actively volunteers with the Mueller Neighborhood Association, says, “In the first few months and years, the pavilion has been the hot new place to have an event in Austin.”
While the approximately 12,000-sf pavilion was always anticipated to sit on the southwest corner of Mary Elizabeth Branch Park, what wasn’t clear was how to organize the program. The building is largely a flexible shell designed to accommodate temporary events, but the permanent features — restrooms and service spaces — required solidity and enclosure. In a building that was intended to be light, glassy, airy, and open, it was a challenge to decide where the solid elements would land.
The design team opted to align the opaque restroom modules along the building’s western elevation, creating greater solidity along the street edge, with a service access cluster to the north. This move reinforces the urban experience along Aldrich Street, while greater transparency along the building’s east side extends the park visually and prioritizes the pavilion’s relationship to the green space. Glassy openings between the restroom modules provide framed views to Mary Elizabeth Branch Park beyond, and views to the street from the park are minimized. “I love being able to stand in the pavilion and see the activity that’s happening in the park simultaneously,” says Faust. “I think that’s really powerful.”
The restrooms were unique at the time of their design in that they consist of separately enclosed unisex stalls that open to a shared sink wall. While this is now a more common design practice as a way to support greater equity and inclusion, the intention was primarily to support long-term flexibility in the building’s uses.
Glass, bifolding doors measuring approximately 20 feet by 10 feet allow for nearly continuous access to the pavilion from the east and west. This access supports the throngs of vendors and visitors (my family and me included) who have made visiting the Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller a regular part of their weekend routines. As if the weekly activation of the site weren’t already enough to prove the value of this pavilion to its community, the project was also recognized with AIA Austin’s 2022 Community Impact Design Award.
The adaptable interior space achieves its lightness and airiness through great coordination between the building’s architectural and engineering systems. The roof, supported by white spider columns, almost appears to float. While the opaque roof over the conditioned space has as much as 24 inches of insulation, the profile reads as a deceptively thin white edge thanks to the building’s tapered beams. The ceiling features two large, round HVAC ducts painted white, as well as 18 skylights that filter daylight from above, but otherwise the ceiling plane remains unobstructed. Rainwater drains from the roof to the west, where downspouts that align with the mullions virtually disappear. “We took great pains to make sure that you couldn’t see a lot of the systems,” notes Faust.
While the building succeeds at multiple scales — urban, building, and detail — the program’s obvious flaw is a lack of storage space. While a catering kitchen and a bridal suite were included in the service cluster, the venue has no place to store tables, chairs, or other furnishings. As a result, these must be rented, set up, and removed for every event. These coordination demands can make it difficult for the venue to be rented by nonprofit organizations, which primarily operate through the efforts of volunteers.
Though constructed through a public-private partnership between the city of Austin and Catellus, the master developer for the Mueller neighborhood, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project experienced few setbacks. “The project went surprisingly smoothly during that time,” says Lawrence Group Managing Principal Luma Jaffar, AIA. “There might not have been as many meetings on site, but I think, in general, construction during that time kept going without major delays to the schedule.” The Texas Farmers’ Market moved into the venue in June 2021, and it’s been an integral part of the community ever since.
The project is a light, airy jewel box in the garden. While the lack of storage space on site presents limitations to its users, the project succeeds from its urban scale down to the details, and it’s a third place that is well-utilized by Austinites of all ages. Says Jaffar: “It’s a joy to see this project being really appreciated and enjoyed by the community.”
Allison Wilson, AIA, is an architect and the sustainability director at Ayers Saint Gross, a nationally recognized leader in high-performance design for colleges, universities, and cultural institutions. She lives in Austin.