March 1, 2008
In order to build himself a glass house, an Austin architect had to navigate the feverish politics of the city’s real estate market.
The once surprising idea of putting a glass house in an open field might now be iconically familiar, but building one in a city center still poses a host of challenges. After Burton Baldridge finished work for Peter L. Gluck & Partners on a multimillion-dollar “floating box” in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, he designed a smaller glass house for his family in the middle of town, but it wasn’t exactly a shoo-in for planning approval. Austin has been experiencing mildly explosive population growth, and the accompanying construction boom was giving planning officials the jitters.
While Baldridge’s drawings were still on the board, Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission designated his street, protecting the 1939 bungalow he had intended to demolish. Meanwhile, city officials were about to introduce an emergency measure to prevent the construction of McMansions. “It became clear that people were as worried about houses that were stylistically different as they were about size and detailing,” Baldridge says. “Anything ‘other’ would disturb the 1940s bungalow character of the neighborhoods.”
Baldridge’s ensuing diplomatic salvo to the commission was based on the argument that his design was in keeping with the period and was relatively unobtrusive. Landmark commissions are ostensibly concerned only with preserving existing structures, but the architect compared all of the International Style houses in the neighborhood with his proposed design, an L-shaped glass box under structural steel beams that extend to form a generous overhang. In contrast to what might be built, Baldridge’s house was relatively small: it would take up just over a quarter of the 10,000-square-foot lot. “There was a pretty good veiled threat there,” he says, “which was that I’m an architect and I’m going to build on my lot. If I can’t build here, I’ll sell it to the highest bidder, and we’ll see what you get next year.”
An exception was granted, and Baldridge’s house was completed last fall. If there can be an unassuming glass house, this is it: the roofline is low, and on the street-facing side, trees and a slatted-wood screen modestly cover the lower half. Apart from one sarcastic “whoop-de-do,” the neighbors have welcomed the newcomer, Baldridge says. In the meantime, however, architects around the city are grappling with the labyrinthine new anti-McMansion legislation, which aims to prevent massive facades, requiring articulations and setbacks in those more than 15 feet high and 32 feet long. One architect, J. C. Schmeil, has redesigned a pending project twice, only to be foiled each time by a city employee’s interpretation of the new ordinance. “It seems reasonable, but it’s really difficult to get straight answers,” he says. “You get three different answers on three different days.” Ulrich Dangel, an architecture professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is currently redesigning his own house, is stoic, finding a parallel in the zoning laws that effectively styled the Manhattan skyline. “On the one hand, the ordinance says no to modern boxy architecture,” he says, “but on the other hand, it challenges you to come up with clever ideas.”
This mixed architectural message is typical of Austin, which acted quickly to stop a glut of developer duplexes but may have neglected the bigger picture. In a city that could use a little more variety and density, planners might be unintentionally encouraging homogeneity and sprawl. “You’re going to see a bunch of developer buildings with big ground floors and something nestled in on the top with decks and things,” Baldridge says. “They’re all going to look exactly the same.”