Realizing the Artist’s Vision: Alumnus Rick Archer on Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin”

Austin by Ellsworth Kelly

Originally published by The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin opened at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin in February 2018. It is the final work and only building designed by the celebrated American artist. Envisioned as a site for joy and contemplation, Kelly’s Austin is a prime example of the powerful relationship between architecture and art.

Alumnus Rick Archer [BArch ‘79], FAIA, and a team of designers at Overland Partners worked closely with the artist before his death to bring his vision to fruition. We recently spoke with Archer about his experiences working with Ellsworth Kelly, how immersive art spaces are transforming student life, what surprises him most about Austin, and more.

Overland’s James Lancaster, who served as project manager for Austin, also lends insights behind the project.
UTSOA: How was Overland Partners selected for this unique and monumental project?

Rick Archer (RA): We were originally invited to work with the artist, Ellsworth Kelly, by Hiram Butler, an artist agent from Houston. We had previously worked with Hiram on The Color Inside at UT’s Student Activity Center and on several other Skyspaces with the artist, James Turrell. Hiram, Tom Butler (no relationship) of Linbeck Construction, and I visited Ellsworth’s home and studio in Spencertown, New York, and began meeting with him in the middle of 2012. The intention of these meetings was to convert Ellsworth’s ideas and preliminary drawings into a building that could be realized. In early 2013, Hiram and I, along with Mickey and Jeanne Klein, met with (former) President Bill Powers and several other key people at UT to present the concept. At that time, President Powers decided that he wanted the work to be at UT and committed a million dollars toward the effort. The process was a complex one, first being invited by the artist, then working with the university to present the concept, and finally being selected through an official public process by the university.

UTSOA: Can you tell us a little bit about your working relationship with Ellsworth Kelly? How did you collaborate to merge the artist’s vision with architectural and engineering realities?

RA: To ensure we were executing Ellsworth’s vision effectively required considerable collaboration between Ellsworth and our team throughout the design process.

Beginning in 2012, we went to Spencertown, met Ellsworth in his studio, and talked extensively about his vision for the piece. He shared with us drawings that had been done in 1986 by another architect, which were very rough “blueprints” of a design concept. These drawings were not fully formed, but were descriptive of what Ellsworth envisioned. His studio also had a model, which was frankly more valuable than the drawings in terms of understanding what he hoped this would become.

Ellsworth spoke eloquently about his vision for why he was creating this space and his aspirations for it. We began to address with him some of the concerns about the realities of building—the project’s location in Austin, Texas, and other constructability factors like wall thicknesses, air conditioning, etc. So, we began a dialogue about what it would take to build this in Austin under UT’s institutional standards, with Linbeck Construction providing feedback about constructability throughout.

We worked with Ellsworth very closely in the beginning, presenting drawings and materials inspired by his design ideas. The design—every bit of it—is Ellsworth Kelly’s. We were the architects but Ellsworth was the designer.

While every aesthetic decision was his, we did not simply abdicate to whatever Ellsworth asked for. He trusted us as the architect and respected our perspective. Codes, material selection, constructability, structure, HVAC, etc., resulted in modifications to Ellsworth’s original design in terms of the scale and proportion. Other changes were made during the design process since it was to be a public building at The University of Texas rather than a private building, such as lengthening the nave to create space for visitors to pause before they encountered his interpretations of the Stations of the Cross, increasing the height, and adding the plaza. We worked with him very closely as these changes were made, and built models for him to experiment with to arrive at the final design.

One major hurdle was reconciling his vision of an eight-inch-thick wall. We ended up with closer to sixteen-inch walls, which accommodated for structure, heating and air conditioning systems, and interior and exterior finishes. We went through many iterations, because to keep the interior exactly as he had originally drawn it made the exterior appear squat. So, the entire building was raised as a result of the walls thickening. There was also collaboration regarding its location and orientation on campus. Again, Ellsworth oversaw every single detail.

As an artist unaccustomed to reading architectural drawings, we translated his ideas into architectural drawings and then further translated those into three-dimensional computer-generated renderings so he could actually experience the space as it was being designed, and understand the implications of his decisions, rather than referring to construction documents.

Another big collaborative effort was material selection, with a priority to ensure the selections—specifically the stone—were tested and would perform over time. Originally, Ellsworth envisioned the project to have a dark exterior similar to his studio, but, over time, he kept dreaming of the building being white. We went back through the selection process and then did a worldwide search for a stone that would meet his aesthetic desires and perform, finally choosing a beautiful hard limestone in Alicante, Spain. We also went back and forth about materiality and finish for the stones that compose the Stations of the Cross.

Identifying the patterning of the stone was an interesting exercise. Designing to be aesthetically agnostic (as the architect), we originally devised a grid pattern on the exterior. Ellsworth hoped for a more random pattern, like the random course ashlar on his home patio. So, we used a computer program to select the stone randomly as opposed to deciding what piece of stone would go where as we often do as architects, and he loved the idea. It was an example of designing the way that Ellsworth thought.

UTSOA: Can you describe your approach to the project? What did you prioritize? What challenges did you overcome? How long was the process from start to finish?

RA: We approached the project with one thing in mind—execute Ellsworth’s intention. Now, the challenge in that is the architect cannot abdicate our role because we know things that an artist does not, including how to actually execute the vision for a building. We needed to get inside his head, and did so through an iterative process of what ultimately became the artist agreement book—a several hundred page-long document of drawings of every single little detail. We did not bring aesthetic judgment to these other than how to precisely and perfectly execute what we heard Ellsworth describing or what his drawings indicated, which was challenging because architects are trained to have aesthetic opinions. What Ellsworth wanted was the priority, but it was not only about executing his idea. It was about understanding how he thought as an artist and how he created.

In the 1950s, he created a series of paintings where the color was selected by chance. He always wanted to take himself out of the picture. He did not want people to see the artist. He did not want people to see a brush stroke. So, we took the same attitude toward our role in this work—we wanted it to seem like it was not created by hand. That is the way he worked. Trying to understand who he was as an artist went into both the product and the process.

Fortunately, the university was great about that, too. While we were concerned about budget, the university believed that this is a work of art, not just another building, and OFPC made it their prerogative to realize Ellsworth’s intentions. So, the priority was what Ellsworth wanted, which sometimes meant spending more money than expected.

We faced many technical challenges and had to tackle questions like, how do we hold this structure up? How do we design a stone roof and walls? How do we deal with air and light and sprinklers and wireless access points and security cameras but also make them invisible? And then there were subsurface challenges of utilities and positioning the building just like any building project has, but with a heightened awareness because this was art.

Finally, the challenge that we all faced—UT, Overland, and the Blanton Museum of Art—was that Ellsworth was already 87 years old when we began working on the project. Everyone felt the acute need to get every decision made while Ellsworth was alive so that it would be a work with clear provenance. This had to be an Ellsworth Kelly work. There was a lot of pressure on everybody to move quickly but also to move carefully. Ellsworth passed away in 2015, at the age of 92, right before the project broke ground.

James Lancaster (JL): Our approach was to be aesthetic agnostic. Priority was given to space and form, meaning aesthetic drove design decisions. This posed a great challenge as architecture is often about give-and-take—about striking balance between aesthetic and building systems. Austin required the building systems to conform to form and space. This required us not only to be innovative, but to invent.

UTSOA: How is working with a visual artist and museum different from working with more traditional clients?

RA: As architects, we are trained to develop a strong aesthetic sense and share it in a respectful way that does not abdicate our responsibilities. Most clients come to us expecting us to bring aesthetic judgement and to tell them what they should and should not do, even if they come in with ideas of what they are hoping for. They trust us with their building design just like they would a good writer to understand the right syntax and sentence structure. In the case of working with an artist, we have to leave all of that behind. When Ellsworth made a decision we might have made differently, we had to let go of that, and at first that was hard. James Turrell said that architects he worked with in the past tended to fall in one of two camps—either they completely abdicated to him and doing so led to design problems he wished they would have prevented, or they were not willing to work with him because their egos got in the way. Working with artists is challenging for architects because many of us consider ourselves artists. The challenge of working with Ellsworth was that he had never designed a building before and had never worked in stone or glass. There was a steep learning curve for him, for us, and for the museum, but I think it held together because everyone was committed to his vision.

JL: Visual artists are focused on what is seen. They are often not as sympathetic to the many necessary elements required in a building (ie, fire sprinklers, speaker strobes, security cameras, motion sensors, wireless antennas, etc.). Traditional clients are more understanding and we rarely go to great length to make them invisible.

UTSOA: You worked with artist James Turrell and Landmarks to create another immersive art space, The Color Inside, on the UT Austin campus. Together with Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, how do you think these spaces are transforming campus and student life? What makes UT Austin the ideal location for these community-oriented works?

RA: When we designed the Student Activity Center (where The Color Inside is located), one of the things the students expressed was a need for a place to escape. In our ever-connected world, it is really hard to find peace. While the generation of students today love that sense of connectedness—of seeing and being seen—there is also a deep need for a place to decompress. Prior to The Color Inside and Austin, the campus did not have a place like that. Ellsworth wanted Austin to be a place of peace, joy, and rest for anyone who visited and especially for students. He loved the idea that young people would come here and find peace in an often-chaotic world. I saw a recent post of a bride having her portrait taken out in front of Austin. I think it is going to be the kind of place where memories are made and where life is lived. It is sacred in that sense. Not religious, but sacred. Both artworks provide a place where students can go to contemplate and see the world differently. Both pieces are having a powerful transformational impact on the campus and its identity. They have also brought a tremendous amount of focus to the university from the art world and beyond. I think that the university’s courage and commitment to accomplishing this work are going to be hugely important for the future of the campus. When we met with Bill Powers for the first time and brought this idea to him, he said, “Fifty years from now this will probably be seen as the most important thing that I did as President.” He understood that this work of art by Ellsworth Kelly was going to be transformational for the university in many ways.

UT has a very pluralistic culture. If you look at the student body and the faculty, there are people from all over the world, from every background and perspective. This melting pot creates neutral ground where these things are not loaded with one particular perspective. They do not get co-opted by any one group. For example, when we were designing The Color Inside, the Muslim students were very excited about it because they wanted a place to pray. There was discussion around the idea of providing a place for foot washing, but the student representatives decided against designs that would suggest ownership by one religious group. Instead, they encouraged their peers to use it for prayer anyway. Austin is similar even though its form, the marble panels, and the totem are based on Christian tradition. It is not a Christian space, which makes it welcoming for all. Had it gone to a Christian university, then it would have been seen as a Christian thing. I think that it is really beautiful that it has already been and will continue to be adopted by people from all backgrounds.

UTSOA: What experience do you hope visitors to Austin walk away with? How does the architecture of the space guide people through this experience?

RA: The architecture of the space is the experience. It does not actually guide. Ellsworth wanted to create an experience. He said, “I do not want the art to be on the walls. I want the art to be the walls.” In the case of Austin, the art is not only the walls. It is the ceiling. It is the floor. It is an all-encompassing immersive environment. From the moment you see it from the outside, approach it, and go into it, the experience is what I think Ellsworth intended. He would have hoped that it would bring people a sense of joy, peace, and rest. That is my hope as well. My hope is when visitors see it that they do not see Ellsworth because he would not want to be seen, and that they do not see the architect because we do not want to be seen in it. I hope that they see the work for what it is and are able to find their place in it and maybe reframe their view of the world—or view of their own life—and somehow be transformed by that experience.

JL: To put it simply…joy. Although the work is not a chapel and has no religious connection, there is something deeply spiritual that visitors experience. The interior surfaces serve as a stage of sorts and the colored windows are its actors.

UTSOA: What would you say is the most surprising aspect of Kelly’s Austin?

RA: The most surprising and yet the most expected aspect is how the colored light plays in the space. We had modeled and tested how the light would move to see what it would do at various times of the year, but a computer model cannot truly model sunlight. It cannot model the nature of the sun beaming through a nearly perfect spectrum and casting a glow. You just do not know what is going to happen. Every day is different depending on the quality of light. The space is ever-changing. It is always a surprise every time you walk in. On a cloudy day, for example, there is a sense of walking in and being at first disappointed because of not seeing the colored tumbling squares vibrantly cascading over the walls. But, after a little while, you begin to see colors that you had not seen before. They begin to merge in these spectral ways on the white plaster walls that is surprising. It causes you to slow down, to really look carefully, and to experience the art in ways that you did not know you were going to experience it. Every visit is a unique encounter.

Viewing the marbled panels has also been surprising to me. Hand drawn in the ‘80s, we digitized them and brought marble samples to him for selection. Even though they are pretty small—40 inches by 40 inches—in a fairly large space, I was just dumbstruck by their power. I think Ellsworth actually may have said this—that he wanted to hang something on the walls so that no one would be tempted to hang something else—but they are not just something on the walls. They are so powerful and integral to the experience. They are very soft. They don’t have a shiny finish but still reflect and absorb light. They’re masterful. Carol, my wife, and I stood in front of each one to meditate on that panel. Each one is profound. I think there is a potential for every individual person visiting to encounter something very deep, real, sacred, and spiritual no matter where they are coming from. That was a surprise to me.

As an architect, it might have been more of a revelation than a surprise that what we had created, while it is a building, is not a building. It is hard to even put your hands around what it is. It is not a Richard Serra—a piece of sculpture that exists in the landscape. It feels, on the one hand, really tiny and, on the other hand, just enormous. If you could somehow remove the buildings behind it and take a photograph of it, you would have no idea how big or small it was. It is extraordinary. It is unusual. I think for architects it is hard to wrap our minds around that. For artists, it is hard to wrap their mind around that because it is also a building. It raises a lot of questions—that is part of its beauty. As you wrestle with those questions, you realize there actually are not any answers. You make peace with that. I think there is a beauty in not getting your questions answered. I think that would also please Ellsworth.

JL: The most surprising aspect, for me, is how well it has been received by all that have visited. Looking back, it was a daunting task to help Ellsworth execute his vision in such a way that it appears he sculpted the building with his own hands.

UTSOA: As an alumnus of the School of Architecture, what is one piece of advice you’d like to share with students and recent graduates?

RA: It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. Sometimes, as architects, we get caught up in our egos. We think that somehow ideas spring from our brain, but that is not how it happens. We are not the great creators who sit in our ivory tower and dream up stuff that is then realized. In fact, inspiration comes from various places. I do not know where Ellsworth found his inspiration beyond the Romanesque churches in southern France, but our job was to take that inspiration and to make it into a building, which is always the case. We took his invisible ideas and had the privilege to see it realized. We should lay down our egos and contemplate how we can contribute to making the world a better, more ethical, more just, more beautiful place through our practice of architecture. In doing that we can accomplish remarkable things.

UTSOA: Thank you, Rick and James.

The Overland “Austin” team included Rick Archer (Principal in Charge), James Lancaster (Project Manager), Garrett JonesBrad Bailey, and Lucas Mackey.

The original story can be found here.

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