The Lone Star State’s forward-thinking, artsy capital has its own distinct personality, one that fuels imaginative residential architecture.

By Roger Grody

Photo courtesy of Patrick Wong/

Austin is unlike any other city in Texas, and its residents proudly embrace an eccentric, defiant attitude. A vibrant music scene, progressive politics, trendsetting cuisine, and a technology-driven economy make this metro area of two million one of America’s most dynamic. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Austin has developed its own exciting architectural traditions.

Kevin Alter, founding partner of Alterstudio Architecture and the Sid W. Richardson Centennial Professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, suggests the city is developing a strong tradition of modernism. He reports that 20 years ago there was little interest in the movement, but modern architecture’s ability to connect to the outdoors — it suits the region’s scenic Hill Country nearly year round — has endeared it to Austinites. He also cites attitudes of new residents from other regions of the country (Alter himself is a transplanted New Yorker), the draw of UT and a growing technology industry presence as fueling modern design.

“There are a lot of very good architects in the city, given its relatively small size,” says Alter, asserting there is more interesting residential architecture in Austin than in the giant metropolises of Houston and Dallas. “There’s also a youthful optimism in Austin, so people aren’t looking back in history for inspiration.” Contrasting Austin to more traditional, less architecturally tolerant cities, Alter suggests, “Because of that optimism, there’s not a ‘looking-over-your-shoulder’ mentality here for property owners interested in building modern residences.”   

Photo courtesy of Paul Finkel

Real estate broker Brian Linder is a licensed architect and founder of The Value of Architecture, a multi-city network of real estate professionals specializing in architecturally significant homes.

After establishing that niche in Los Angeles, Linder expanded his practice to Austin, appreciating both its family-friendly lifestyle and wealth of exceptional architecture. “Buyers here are willing to pay a significant premium for homes designed by signature architects,” says Linder.

The specialty broker reports one the most desirable neighborhoods in Austin is the trendy South Congress (SoCo) district, where the original housing stock is being replaced with exciting modern architecture. “The area is popular with urban expats from cities like New York, San Francisco and L.A., and buyers are taking their accrued appreciation from those places and investing in good design,” says Linder.

Representative of the top architectural firms in town are Bercy Chen Studio, Jay Hargrave Architecture, Chioco Design, and Minguell-McQuary Architecture.

Austin architects, according to Linder, soften the sometimes austere modernism found in L.A., noting their work emphasizes texture through incorporation of native materials. “Elements like site-gathered stone and reclaimed lumber or brick add a more human scale defined by those materials,” he says. While modernism is becoming the city’s preferred style, there is also ample demand for contemporary farmhouses, a theme promoted by local developers.

One of the priciest current listings in Austin is a striking modern home encompassing 5,400 square feet of living space, offered at $8.5 million. The design, from prominent local firm Dick Clark + Associates, features panoramic views of the city skyline through 60 feet of retractable floor-to-ceiling glass in a living area that opens onto an infinity-edge pool.

Offering a distinctly different lifestyle is a 558-square-foot penthouse-level condominium at the Seaholm Residences in downtown Austin, listed at $399,000. Built on the site of a former power plant, this project helped energize demand for high-rise living in Austin and The Independent, designed locally by Rhode: Partners, will be the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi when completed. Professor Alter reports that as recently as 2005, investment in downtown condominiums was anemic, but young professionals now arriving in town relish the city center.

“We want to make sure we create spaces that fit our clients, beyond aesthetic or stylistic preferences, beyond basic function,” says Sean Guess, founding principal of the Austin firm Faye and Walker. While he does not view his work as reflecting a particular signature, Guess is among those talented young architects contributing to Austin’s evolution as a city increasingly identified with modern design.

“I tend to focus on the essence of a form, stripping away extraneous information, and carve out spaces from those fundamental forms,” says Guess. Raised in nearby Temple, Texas, Guess suggests that despite Austin’s reputation as the Lone Star State’s least-Texas place, the city’s spirit of risk-taking and independence — certainly reflected in its architecture — is very much the product of the Texas ethos.

“This is a very eclectic community that attracts a great variety of people and backgrounds, which results in creativity and diversity in its architecture,” says Guess of Austin. Among the architect’s acclaimed projects is the home he designed for his own family, dubbed the “Elephant House” because its wrinkled grey corrugated fiber-cement facade is evocative of elephant hide. Some interior walls are clad in clear-coated plywood, making Guess’ novel use of everyday materials reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s early work.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Wong/

“I appreciate modern architecture that reflects tasteful, principled design,” says Linder, who is less inspired by facsimiles of Tuscan villas. He is kept increasingly busy in the Texas capital, as Austin’s exceptional architects work overtime to meet demand from buyers with a passion for innovative residential environments.