San Antonio-based Lake/Flato Architects is expanding with a new office in Austin early next year.

Founding principal David Lake said Austin is “enjoying an incredible renaissance, particularly in its urban core” and he sees a “real opportunity” there for Lake/Flato.

“Austin is about to double its population in 20 more years,” he said. “That provides this incredible opportunity to either capture the spirit and its authenticity or let it just become a generic city.”

As Austin expands, districts emerge and disappear. Rainey Street, which was once filled with old homes that were converted into bars, has now become a street of high-rise apartment buildings. Sixth Street drew so much traffic that it expanded east of Interstate 35 and a new bar district, known to many as the “East Side,” formed. High-rise apartment buildings are now infiltrating East Sixth Street, and the dive bars and grungy college students will inevitably move elsewhere.

David Lake (left) and Ted Flato. Courtesy photo.
David Lake (left) and Ted Flato. Courtesy photo.

“Having grown up (in Austin) it is amazing to see these districts emerge,” Lake said. “Each district has its own quirky character and you are seeing a major urban renaissance of the built fabric within the near downtown area and we want to be a part of that. We want to be engaged in that effort, and observe it, add to it, enhance it.”

He said these are opportunities that the award-winning architectural firm can’t undertake without being completely immersed in the environment.

Back in San Antonio, Lake walked through his industrial, yet chic, office building on Third Avenue and Broadway Street with his dog trailing at his heels. Lake and Ted Flato met at the San Antonio architecture firm Ford, Powell & Carson in 1980 and founded their own firm in 1984. Lake spoke about the imprint O’Neil Ford made onto his own approach to architecture – modernism and most importantly, regionalism.

Lake/Flato was instrumental in the Pearl Brewery redevelopment on the outskirts of downtown that has transformed the ebbs and flows of San Antonio’s districts. After the Pearl was completed, new buildings and redevelopments have materialized along the Broadway corridor, creating a center-city hub in which Lake/Flato played no small role. The firm designed 1221 Broadway, The DoSeum, and the Witte Museum redevelopment which is currently underway.

A view of the Full Goods Warehouse at the Pearl Brewery. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato.
A view of the Full Goods Warehouse at the Pearl Brewery. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato.

“I was hounded by O’Neil Ford to look at modernism and regionalism. It is critical that you view all buildings with the spirit of the place,” Lake said. “Just being a modernist, and doing something new, in his mind, anybody could do.”

Lake said he is taking this approach to Austin to capture its spirit before the influx of people turn it into another big city without preserving the city’s landscape, quirks, and artistic charm.

“Whenever we go somewhere, we look at the culture and the context and the craft of each place and respond to it,” he said.

Lake/Flato creates environmentally-conscious structures using regional materials that have a low-impact on the environment. The local firm with an international presence uses this environmentally-friendly approach to create designs for projects that range from small ranch homes to multifaceted urban structures.

When the Pearl Brewery was coming to fruition, Lake said a team of people gathered to determine its purpose. The group, led by Silver Ventures, quickly decided the Pearl would be a culinary destination. And now, 14 years after the first design steps were taken, the Pearl has become a symbol of the City’s revitalization.

“When we started there were no new housing units north of downtown from the Tobin to Hildebrand,” Lake said. “Since then, there are now 2,000 units.”

Lake/Flato, by contextualizing the environment surrounding the Pearl, such as its location along the Riverwalk’s Museum Reach, and determining the culture in the area, the firm created a catalyst for a new district in San Antonio.

The Pearl Brewery over looks the Museum Reach in 2011. Photo courtesy of Pearl Brewery.
The Pearl Brewery complex is strongly connected to the Museum Reach. Photo courtesy of Pearl Brewery.

Lake said the firm approached the Austin Central Library (see top photo) with the same intention. The library, to be located at the intersection of Shoal Creek and Lady Bird Lake, next to the Seaholm Power plant, is in an area of town that garners much foot traffic. Lake said he envisions the Austin Central Library to become the city’s “civic living room” and the most day-lit library in the nation. Lake/Flato is not only designing the library to be sustainable – including a rainwater harvesting system, sustainable roof, day-lit atrium – but the building will have entrances onto Shoal Creek, the Lady Bird Lake trail system, and 2nd Street.

“We are trying to make the building be a linkage itself to the city,” Lake said. “So you move through the building to get somewhere.”

The library, which will open in the fall of 2017, was designed to respond to its surrounding environment, including the industrial power plant next door, and inevitably create “this whole new urban district,” according to Lake.

The firm currently has a half-dozen Austin projects already completed: the Hotel San Jose on South Congress, along with numerous other structures throughout the city such as the Harry Ransom Center, the AT&T Executive Center, and the Livestrong Foundation.

Hotel San Jose on South Congress Avenue in Austin. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
Hotel San Jose on South Congress Avenue in Austin. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

Lake/Flato Partner Greg Papay said he views Austin as one of the primary technology hubs in the United States, and he sees the city as an opportunity for Lake/Flato to further their own business model.

“I think it helps us get a different window on looking at what architects might do in the future by being around (technology) companies, that for them, it is almost a matter of survival,” Papay said. “If a technology company is not being innovative in what they are offering it is pretty easy that in five or 10 years somebody will find a new thing to offer or a better way to offer it.”

Papay said the move is an opportunity for Lake/Flato to push their boundaries, adding that the expansion to Austin will have a spillover effect on the San Antonio office.

“We are an office of very creative people so I think we are going to find a way to absorb that energy and transform it into a way that makes Lake/Flato better,” he said.

He said he hopes the firm’s branch office in Austin will attract a creative sect of people which the San Antonio firm may have been missing out on.

“San Antonio is not generally on people’s radar for young people. Austin gives us a way to enter into the conversation for some folks who might not have considered San Antonio,” he said. “We hire two-thirds of our people from outside of Texas. Most of them are coming for Lake/Flato and not San Antonio. We’re excited about who might we get if they are coming for Lake/Flato and for Austin.”

Architects Chris Krajcer and Ashley Heeren fit into the mold of those who came to San Antonio for Lake/Flato, not San Antonio. Both Krajcer and Heeren are moving to Austin to work in the new office.

The Austin office will focus on urban design, and Krajcer said he’s looking forward to honing his skills toward a specific area of design while working in a smaller studio space of six to eight people. The San Antonio office has 90 people.

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Photo courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

Heeren, who was living in Austin before she took the job here in San Antonio, said she’s excited to move back and participate in the city’s growth.

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“I always knew that Austin was a really interesting place because of the freedom of growth that can happen there,” she said. Unlike cities like New York and Los Angeles, she said Austin has the ability to grow their innovative markets without hindrance from big city establishments.

Lake Flato, which started as a two-man show 31 years ago, has evolved over the years to become an iconic sustainable architecture firm that has stayed humble and true to its mission.

“We are probably the best environmental firm in Texas but we’re down here in San Antonio doing our thing quietly while Austin beats their chest a little bit more about their ecological consciousness, but now we will be able to plug into that in a better way,” Papay said.

*Featured/top image: A rendering of the Austin Central Library. Image courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects. 

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Joan Vinson

Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....