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Architecture review: Arthouse design shows style - and sense

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
From left, Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki and David Lewis of LTL Architects came up with an innovative design for Arthouse.

Smart, innovative, thoughtful, the reimagined Arthouse contemporary arts center by Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (LTL) Architects is the antithesis of icon architecture.

After a recent spate of vigorously designed, attention-grabbing cultural institutions, Austin is welcoming an example of what might herald a countermovement of museum design — one that prizes subtlety and intelligence over spectacle, one that exercises environmental common sense and financial efficiency over snazzy technology and design driven by conspicuous consumption.

The Congress Avenue art venue also represents another important idea: a philosophy of architecture that approaches — and appreciates — its own history while embracing the future.

Honoring the architectural history of the building while also pushing the creative envelope is fitting for an organization that is the oldest visual arts institution in Texas (founded in 1911 as the Texas Fine Arts Association) yet specializes in edgy, risk-taking contemporary art. (Not a traditional museum, Arthouse has no permanent collection and instead features ever-changing exhibits.)

The Congress Avenue building that Arthouse declared its home at 700 Congress Ave. in 1995 holds plenty of history. Around 1850, a three-story brick building claimed the spot. Then in 1926, the extravagantly decorated Queen Theater movie palace took its place. By 1956, a Lerner Shops department store added a second floor and gave the building a mid-century modern flair. By the time Arthouse bought the building, its architecture was multilayered — and not fully usable for the public. Only the first floor was repurposed as a gallery by Cunningham Architects of Dallas in a money-saving effort by the nonprofit Arthouse.

But now, with its first Texas project, New York-based LTL Architects, noted for many small yet innovative projects, has succinctly grasped and artfully expressed a tripartite view of past, present and future.

Capitalizing on a tight $4.3 million construction budget — and with a mandate to expand the building's usable space — the architects elected to celebrate the inherent historic features of the building. It's green architecture at its most fundamental. Why demolish what's already working? Instead, the material palette is fairly simple: glass, concrete, wood and steel. And with almost 21,000 square feet of space, Arthouses's remodel cost about $204 per square foot.

The dramatic awning added during its department store days has been enlarged and intensified, connecting the glass-lined lobby with the street with a new visual whoosh yet also re-establishing its urban purpose — providing the entrance shade and shelter. Ditto with the second-floor picture window. Once for department store display, it's now primed to feature rear-screen projections of video art over Congress Avenue at night.

Perhaps the most notable exterior design gesture is the 177 laminated glass blocks, all 4 by 13 inches in size, puncturing the building's exterior. Clustered to judiciously allow natural light into the formerly dark interior, the blocks add an almost digital rhythm to Arthouse's visual first impression. At night, LED lights illuminate the blocks, animating that rhythm even further.

Inside, the building's history reveals itself in many places. Though newly polished, the concrete floors bear traces of the different coverings or configurations of the walls. On the exterior walls, bits of the Queen Theater's trompe l'oeil decorative murals share space with patches of original brickwork. A large column-free gallery has been carved out of the previously inaccessible second floor, while overhead the original wooden ceiling and steel trusses have been left revealed.

Leveraging the program given to them by Arthouse leaders — expand the building's usable space while crafting a facility ready for people to experience ever-changing contemporary art — LTL Architects generated many architectural moments ripe for social interaction. The dynamic central staircase made of ipê wood, with its soaring supports that reach to the ceiling, not only visually connects the first and second floors, but also carves out small casual places for gathering underneath it and at its foot.

Nowhere is the potential for social engagement more ripe than the new roof deck, sheathed in ipê, illuminated from below with glass light boxes and outfitted with café tables and a movie screen.

Keeping the building's architectural evolution clearly legible while wisely adding just enough bold, forward-thinking design gestures, LTL Architects has given Austin a sophisticated new kind of cultural architecture.