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Honoring Austin’s architectural footprint with Dick Clark + Associates

We sat down for a Q+A with Dick Clark + Associates architects Mark Vornberg, Kim Power, and Kristopher White to talk about how they navigate designing architecture in Austin.

ATX_MountainTopHouse

The Mountain Top house is unassuming in the front, but has a cliffside party in the back.

Photo by Dror Baldinger FAIA

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The South Congress Hotel, The Oasis, Perlas, Lonesome Dove, and Flyrite Chicken — these are just a few buildings designed by Dick Clark + Associates.

Opened in 1979 by late architect Dick Clark, who has been called the godfather of contemporary architecture, DC + A works on both boutique commercial and residential projects in the Capital City.

We sat down with the firm’s principal Mark Vornberg, along with partners Kim Power and Kristopher White — who have a collective 54 years of experience at DC + A — to talk about how the firm innovates within Austin’s existing landscape.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Kristopher White, Kim Power, and Mark Vornberg standing on the stairwell at their office.

Kristopher White, Kim Power, and Mark Vornberg have worked on some of Austin’s most iconic projects, like the South Congress Hotel and The Oasis.

Photo courtesy of DC + A

Can you tell me about what your day-to-day looks like here?

Kim | “All three of us are licensed architects. Ideally about two-thirds of our day-to-day is the architecture and then about one-third is running the firm.”

Kristopher | “We break up the firm into two factions: we have boutique commercial and high-end residential. Depending on how much work we have for each, one of the three of us is fluctuating between those. Mark focuses mostly on commercial, Kim and I are mostly residential.”

Mark | “We do a big variety of projects, so it gives you something to work on that’s a little different for every project. We do a good job of keeping people here a long time because of that.”

You’ve each been with DC + A for a long time — 27 years for Mark, 16 years for Kim, and 11 for Kris. Can you tell me how the architecture and design landscape has changed in Austin?

Mark | “In 27 years, Austin has changed a whole lot and it has always been growing, but it really has a very different feel. In the ‘90s, it was much more of a UT and a state legislature town. Downtown had very few tall buildings. Austin has really evolved into a big city feel, and [become] very diverse. I think UT in particular has brought in a lot of diversity that wasn’t here naturally.”

Kim | “When Dick moved the office to 4th Street downtown 30 years ago, it wasn’t what it is and he saw opportunity. There’s potential here. He influenced the building fabric around him. [When we moved the office to 7th Street], we felt like that was definitely happening here — 7th Street is a major thoroughfare and has a lot of potential.”

Kristopher | “Perlas was one of the first major buildings we did on South Congress and probably one of the first major large developments on South Congress. It kind of helped us understand what it could be versus what it was at the time. [...] It’s a lot of fun being at a firm that’s established long enough, but has a young kind of vibrancy to the people that work here.”

An indoor-outdoor interior with a view of the Hill Country.

Just check out the view at the Mountain Top house.

Photo by Dror Baldinger

What are the core values you keep in mind when designing a new project to fit into Austin’s landscape?

Kim | “Every project we do is site-specific and client-specific. It always starts with getting to know the site and the client, why they chose that site, what’s special about it, what the surrounding context is doing. Authenticity is another word that I think describes it well, like honesty of materials, of climate. Understanding what it’s going to be like to use these buildings definitely informs the shape and the design choices.”

Mark | “One of the things we get asked to work on quite a bit is the sites that got skipped over the first time. Somebody comes around later and says, ‘This is a great spot, if I can just figure out how to use it well.’ Whether that’s commercial or residential, we’re kind of known for taking really difficult sites and getting the most out of their potential.”

What does “honest materials” mean to the firm?

Kim | “We do use a lot of local Texas limestone and local natural materials that are inherent to the landscape here. In their use in the design itself, we really like expressing structure so you can see how a building is put together. [In our office], we left the concrete walls and kind of celebrated them. They’re imperfect, but they’re honest.”

Kristopher | “When you walk through our office, you hear a lot of, ‘It’s wood, let it be wood. It’s concrete, let it be concrete. And steel, let it be steel.’ Let’s not be fake, let’s be real. A lot of Texas vernacular is just that way, the same way [we used] that stone just because it was over there on the site.”

ATX_DCAofficejuxtapose

The DC + A office, which is shared with Scott + Cooner, was completed in 2020.

Photos courtesy Google Maps, DC + A, gif by ATXtoday

Can you tell me about your favorite projects DC + A has built?

Mark | “I love our office here. One of my biggest things is, what is the potential of the site or the building? How do we get to that potential? Some of the hardest sites are the ones where I feel like we fulfill its potential the most. Taking a pawn shop with no windows, and turning it into a really light, airy, inside-outside connected office and retail space is, I think, a good story of what can be done.”

Kristopher | “Those are our favorite projects, the ones that are challenging. There’s nothing harder to do than a flat lot with no trees and a client that can’t really make up their mind.”

A beautiful white deco house on a hill.

The Bohn House, built in 1938, was renovated by DC + A in 2014. Now, that small garage is a wine cellar.

Photo by Jake Holt Photography

How do you navigate working in residential spaces?

Kim | “Getting to know the clients as people is so important, and there’s no shortcut for that. It takes a lot of effort on that side, not just about the building, it’s about the people. Helping people identify and articulate how they want to express themselves [...] it’s a big statement about who you are, how you live your life. It’s fun to help people articulate that.”

What upcoming projects can Austinites expect to see in coming years?

Mark | “We’re building a new office for ourselves, along with a lot of partners, just a couple of blocks down. We really like 7th Street and had an opportunity to sort of recreate the process of getting to design our own space. We have another multifamily project going in on Riverside Drive, which is right where the new light rail stop is going to be. Austin’s becoming very urban, a light rail was a dream 20 years ago, and it’s actually become a reality now.”

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