On Sunday, February 18th, Austin by Ellsworth Kelly was finally shared with the world. It has been described by the New York Times as, “the culmination of Kelly’s oeuvre, not just a summation of his work’s themes but his masterpiece, the grandest exploration of pure color and form in a seven-decade career spent testing the boundaries of both.”
As the project manager for Austin, my focus was never on assisting Ellsworth in the creation of what would be his final and greatest masterpiece. It was about carefully listening and understanding Ellsworth on an intimate level so that our team could faithfully execute his vision with integrity down to the very last detail. In many ways, this is not unlike any other project Overland undertakes. The one distinction between Austin and our other work is that it required us to be completely aesthetically agnostic. Our success would be measured by our ability to execute the work with highest degree of excellence and precision while leaving no trace of ourselves as architects behind; to, in essence, create a building that is in many ways mysterious and abstract.
When we first began working on Austin in 2012, we started with a set of blueprints from 1989 for what was to be titled the “Douglas Cramer Chapel.” The work was to be built in Santa Maria, California, for a private collector for which the piece was named. It was originally intended to be constructed of a combination of tilt-wall and precast concrete panels with a plaster finish a similar exterior finish as the James Turrell Skyspace, The Color Inside, which can be found just a stone’s throw away from Austin on the roof of UT’s Student Activity Center. The lighting system was comprised of multiple rows of track lighting located in the nave, apse, and both transepts—similar systems to those found in most museums around the world. The space was to be conditioned through floor grilles supplied by a large and highly visible HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) unit to be located just outside the work. The original design, although far along in its development, lacked the level of detail that could be seen across Ellsworth’s work. Specifically, the building systems were highly visible and disrupted the intended visitor experience, one of light and joy—a place of contemplation. The original design and location did not pan out, but Ellsworth’s vision for the work never died.
Pictured above in no particular order: Veronica Roberts (Blanton Museum of Art), Hiram Butler, Rick Archer (Overland Partners), Tom Butler (Linbeck Group), and Ellsworth Kelly
Through our relationship with Hiram Butler grown out of our collaboration on The Color Inside, Overland was brought on board to see Ellsworth’s vision through in Texas. At the onset, one of the crucial questions we asked ourselves was whether or not the original design could be “simplified” in such a way that concealed the necessary systems while adapting the work to the hot Texas climate. To answer this question, our design team first began by meeting with Ellsworth and studying the 1989 drawings and blueprints.
In our initial meetings with Ellsworth, we aimed to identify the right location for Austin within the UT campus, determine the overall building size and massing, select exterior material options, and choose the approximate placement for interior artwork. To hear him describe his vision gave us immense insight into his mind as an artist, like the importance of minimizing the thickness of the window walls, which would allow the maximum amount of natural light to illuminate the interior space through the colored glass windows. We also learned of his desire for the window and walls to be as coplanar as possible, so we explored a way for both the interior and exterior glass to be flush with the walls.
As we worked to understand the mind of Ellsworth, we began analyzing the original drawings. We quickly realized the original concrete structure posed a signification construction challenge as it allowed very little room for error in its construction. It also did not account for the required insulation necessary for the Texas climate. The previous mechanical solution indicated supply and return air to be located in the floor—a solution that was both highly visible and was not acceptable to the artist this time around. Additionally, providing air supply in the floor would not be sufficient to heat or cool the space. The building needed to provide supply air from above and return the air below, requiring us to route ductwork up the walls and into the vaults. A concrete structure could accommodate this, but would significantly increase the thickness of the walls. A steel structure, however, would allow us much more construction tolerance than concrete, and would permit the air ducts to occupy the space between steel columns. The result would be a much narrower wall profile than that of the concrete counterpart.
With the solution to snake ductwork up through the walls and into the vault, where would the registers be located so they would not be seen? And how would we incorporate the other necessary and required devices such as security cameras, fire sprinklers, and wireless access antennas—all while evenly illuminating the space? The solution, in theory, was quite simple: find a way to allow all these devices and infrastructure to occupy the same space. If we designed and fabricated custom light fixtures, we could theoretically use it to screen the air supply while at the same time incorporating all the required devices and illuminate the space as Ellsworth intended. The solution, although simple in concept, was quite complicated once we began analyzing the design solution to this one-of-a-kind feature.
Intricate and complex fluid dynamic studies were performed to determined how much space was needed between the light fixture and ceiling to allow enough air to flow down the space below, while screening air vents from sight. Dozens of lighting studies and renderings were generated to determine how best to evenly illuminate the space to create an even wash of light throughout the building, and how to allow museum staff to have complete controllability of lighting as needed. A prototype was ultimately created to coordinate the integration of all the devices while ensuring we could achieve an even soft glow of light from the 16 ½” wide fixture—all while carefully considering and providing access for maintenance. The result is a visually simple light fixture that hoovers just below the apex of the vault, allowing the museum patrons to enjoy art while watching colored light from the stained-glass windows dance through the space.
As I reflect on this journey, I have a deeper appreciation for Ellsworth and the thoughtful attention he gave to every aspect of his work. The process of distilling an idea down to its essence is a long and complex challenge—one that a person viewing his art may never truly understand. Austin and its complexity of systems and details is very much a reflection of what Ellsworth achieved in his work. It is as if he sculpted the building with his own hands.
A special thank you to the Blanton Museum of Art and the amazing design-build team that worked tirelessly to help realize this work: Linbeck (General Contractor), Datum Engineers (Structural Engineer), Arup (MEP Engineers and Lighting Design), Jensen Hughes (Life Safety Engineers), 4b Technologies (IT/AV/Security Designer), and Co’Design (Landscape Architects).