Art Nouveau in SoCo: A funky project shakes up Austin architecture

9:01 p.m Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016 Business

Don’t care for what some say are the nondescript apartment and condo buildings cropping up around town?

Then you might want to check out an eye-catching townhouse project under construction off South Congress Avenue.

Don Garner, a longtime Austinite and engineer whose travels around the world have honed his appreciation of international architecture, is behind the project — seven residences that bring the decorative Art Nouveau (“new art”) style to Austin’s trendy SoCo area.

Sitting on a third of an acre at 206 East Live Oak, the project has been grabbing the attention of onlookers. Its distinctive architectural style, which flourished in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, is marked by wavy, asymmetrical lines, ornate ironwork and other features.

No one has told him they don’t like the architecture, Garner said. And half the people say they like the colorful yellow, blue and green exteriors of the three front-facing units, Garner said.

Then again, half don’t.

For that reason, Garner said he plans to repaint those units in more subtle tones, replacing the yellow with light taupe, to attract more buyers.

“Since this is actually a speculative project on my part, I would like for more of the people to like it,” Garner says.

The units, which will go on the market in a few weeks, will be priced from $750,000 for the two-bedroom units to $900,000 for the three-bedroom residences. The three-story units range in size from 2,000 to 2,300 square feet. Garner isn’t disclosing the cost of the project.

Dan Vlach, the architect for Garner’s townhouses, recalls how the project took shape.

“Don had a vision of Art Nouveau architecture in Austin, and I had always wanted to design a project in that style,” says Vlach, with hatch + ulland owen architects in Austin. “Since I first started studying architecture I have been fascinated with the Art Nouveau.”

Vlach says he admired Antonio Gaudí — the 19th century Catalan architect whose structures draw millions of visitors annually to Barcelona — Otto Wagner, and especially Belgian architect Victor Horta (1861-1947).

Although people familiar with Art Nouveau architecture might first think of Gaudí, the main inspiration for Garner’s townhouses was Horta, who was among the first to apply the innovative designs of Art Nouveau to architecture. (The Art Nouveau artistic movement encompassed all forms of art, but arose from the details of decorative arts, such as pottery, tile, textiles and furniture).

Inspired by an 1892 exhibition of decorative arts created in the “new art” style, Horta began a number of townhouse projects in Brussels. His houses, completed in the 1890s, are among the world’s most celebrated private homes and are honored as World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“Horta’s townhouses in Brussels are tours-de-force in decorative stonework, carpentry and especially wrought iron, which he composed into astonishing forms based on the lines of flowering plants and grasses,” Vlach says. Horta’s signature curved, “whiplash” lines — which swell on one end and taper on the other — were an inspiration in Vlach’s design for Garner’s townhouses.

Garner also was fond of the façade of the Ciamberlani house in Brussels (built by architect Paul Hankar in 1897), which features a pair of oversized circular windows. So large, round windows became another defining feature, Vlach says.

Garner has a long history with the East Live Oak property, having bought it in 1988 amid a real estate bust. For awhile he rented out a house on the property, and later used the site as an office.

Rising property taxes have caused the area to gentrify, Garner says. When a six-unit condo project went up next door, he says his property taxes doubled, prompting him to develop his property as well.

But Garner didn’t want to build a cookie-cutter project.

“I’m not a big fan of much of what is being developed, although some of it looks very nice, and there are plenty of buildings with straight lines that are attractive. But I wanted a beautiful building — sexy, with all the curves.”

For the distinctive ironwork on the railings of the vaulted balconies, the connection was Garner’s neighbors and investors in the project, Kahren and Michael Arbitman.

The Arbitmans split their time between Austin and San Miguel de Allende, and were familiar with the ironwork found in that historic Mexican town, Kahren Arbitman says.

Moreover, they were friends with a master craftsman there, Juan Carlos Arellano, whose elaborate Spanish Colonial style is featured in many of San Miguel’s finest homes.

“Fortunately for the Austin project, Arellano was willing to take on this long-distance assignment,” Kahren Arbitman says. In addition to Garner’s visits and oversight by the Arbitmans, the work was accomplished using a stream of emails and FedEx deliveries, she says.

As the ironwork proceeded, the Arbitmans set out to find a reliable shipper with experience in transporting heavy loads and managing the labyrinthian details at the border. Ultimately, an art shipper was chosen.

After a first stop at an Austin car body shop for spray painting, the ironwork arrived at East Live Oak for its much-awaited installation, Kahren Arbitman says.

“With the addition of the iron decoration, the façade came alive,” she says. “Neighbors walking by the site have been heard to say, ‘It’s Gaudí!’”

“While not a surprising response given Gaudí’s worldwide recognition, it is a pleasure to be able to introduce to Austin his less well-known but equally talented contemporary, Victor Horta,” she says.

Vlach calls the South Congress area “the beating heart of Austin’s ‘weird’ character.”

“I think that the Garner townhouses definitely keep Austin weird,” he said. “They are just around the corner from the funky new Torchy’s Tacos flagship designed by Austin architect Jamie Chioco, and half a block from (Bouldin artist) James Talbot’s Gaudí-esque tile mosaic sculpture ‘Your Essential Magnificence.’”

Garner, who lives in the South Congress area, plans to move into one of the units himself. He said he knows of no other examples in Austin of Art Nouveau architecture, although he says the style continues to have worldwide appeal.

“I’m hoping to contribute to the architectural fabric of the neighborhood,” Garner says, “and perhaps open other people’s eyes to other architectural styles.”