South Congress Hotel tries ‘to discover what the next Austin will be’

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015 Austin360

Don’t judge a building by its architectural plans or its artist’s renderings. Don’t bother to rate it during construction. Wait until the landscape grows in and, most importantly, watch how people use it.

The South Congress Hotel is only a few weeks old, but it has already changed the tone and texture of Austin’s favorite all-purpose pedestrian district. Architect Michael Hsu — expanding on some basic plans by Dick Clark and partnering on the interiors with Los Angeles-based MAI Studio — gave us a tour of the 83-room boutique hotel just as the first wave of guests came and went.

The only public amenities available at the time were the deep, street-level lobby bar, airy second-floor pool bar, a special events space at the back and Café No Sé, a bistro-diner with outdoor seating. More eateries and shops should be open by the time this story runs, according to general manager David Lang.

Hsu left us with some impressions, best grouped by theme.

Modesty. The long, fairly low building — which takes up half a city block — sits behind a deep, landscaped sidewalk, tactfully set back from the street. It is a mere three stories high, commensurate with the A-frame church that rises across East Monroe Street from the hotel. There’s nothing loud or busy about its exterior.

“South Congress is a big street in many ways — wide, busy, full,” Hsu says. “But it still has a small-scale neighborhood feel when one walks its narrow sidewalks and shops. We knew the building had to feel inviting in those ways.”

Guests enter through a succession of bays and lobby spaces that draw one into the cool, naturally lighted hollows of the interior. Other visitors will opt to enter a retail zone on the north side of the hotel through a courtyard that flows into a water garden inspired by Hamilton Pool.

Given that most structures along South Congress Avenue are much smaller, the hotel still makes a visual and volumetric impact. Yet it rests easily on its site. It doesn’t overwhelm the pedestrian. And its underground parking is almost invisible to the passing eye.

Already, people linger at its entries and escape the sun in its recesses. Others stream right past the building, which is another, rarely recognized function for a new building in an already-developed urban district.

Patterns. Rather than using bold colors, Hsu makes quiet statements with a succession of patterns. Long, narrow white bricks — complemented by glazed black-and-white bricks at the yet-to-open Central Standard restaurant — form slightly raised stretches of wall space.

Terra-cotta blocks counter these surfaces with cross-hatchings. A cedar-lined overhang offers a third exterior pattern to the facade, itself divided into rhythmic sections.

Hsu: “A building and space are very much about carefully chosen natural materials and how they make for curious walls, light-dappled screens, and create texture and layers of spaces.”

These patterns are refined and simplified in the guests rooms. Vertical elements proportionally match intersecting horizontal ones, emphasized by color blocks. The luxury suites give the designers more space to play with these repeated geometrics.

Textures. One must pay careful attention to pick up on these attributes. A certain low-grade roughness contrasts with the fairly refined shapes and patterns. This can be found in the patterned carpets, scattered throw pillows and objects arranged around the modernist furniture.

“The project avoids the slickness of what some consider modern design,” Hsu says. “The materials and details show the raw or roughness of wood, steel, welding, fired clay masonry and concrete.”

Influences. One of the keys to the hotel is hidden in plain sight. Long, light bookshelves form a screen between the lobby proper and the large, quiet lobby bar. Even the mildly curious visitor will discover immediately that the picture books shelved there — and in some of the guest rooms — come in themes: Asian design, midcentury modernism, the South, Palm Springs, etc. These influences are self-evident throughout the hotel.

The exterior and the pool deck recall the arid languor of Palm Springs. The darkly outlined lobby and bar sweep the visitor into spaces informed by Asian aesthetics. Images of the South pop up in places such as Café No Sé, which serves innovative takes on comfort food.

“The courtyards, walkways and landscaping are about bringing the city into the building and the interior spaces to the sidewalk,” Hsu says. “The team talked a lot about connectedness, along with discovering the project in steps, making a small version of South Congress in the building itself.”

Comfort. The first sign of relaxed comfort is found in the L-shaped lobby bar. Low couches and high workbenches offer alternative places to lounge. The bar itself, topped in rusticated bronze, is welcoming and open. Then there’s the second-floor rooftop pool deck, which comes with its own tiny, shaded bar and almost begs one to recline on its deck chairs or float in the refreshing, relatively capacious pool.

“The lobby is designed as a gathering space first, hotel lobby second,” Hsu says. “It was meant to feel warm, a living room for South Congress. The main finishes of the lobby — bronze, marble, blued steel and metal — are classic finishes, timeless, and only improve with time.”

In the guest rooms, the designers included high quality beds and linens, along with specially designed robes and an entertainment and communications system that is so sophisticated, it is almost intimidating. (Every room gets it own Wi-Fi base, ensuring maximum digital capacity, if one needs that.)

One small warning about the Asian-inspired bathrooms: A vertical window exposes whoever is using the inviting shower to anyone hanging out in the bedroom, hopefully someone appropriate.

Authenticity. Perhaps Hsu’s most ambitious goal was to match the authentic character of SoCo. This is complicated by the history of the street, once a highway out of town, later South Austin’s main commercial strip, then a gritty urban zone before its revival in the 1990s as a place where visitors mingle with locals.

Hsu tried to honor this past and present. He and his interior designers almost go too far in making details — such as red, industrial power cords for lighting fixtures — honest.

There will be those who say that with all these high-design features, the South Congress Hotel pushes its street presence well beyond a friendly conversation with SoCo’s pasts and present identities. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it is time for one of Austin’s top tourist attractions to accept that it has reached the full prime of life.

“Austin can’t become a caricature of itself,” Hsu says. “Chasing authenticity is trying to discover what the next Austin will be.”

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