Hailing all the way from Larchmont, New York, Kevin Alter isn’t from Austin, or even Texas, yet he’s one of the most influential artists pushing the city through its constantly evolving identity. He has been in Austin twenty-four years though, arriving in 1991 to teach as a Lecturer at the University of Texas School of Architecture and has made the city his home ever since. In addition to heading Alterstudio, his firm that has won over ninety-five design awards, including the 2015 AIA Austin Firm Achievement Award, and many AIA Design and AIA Home Awards, he has edited twelve books, and is currently the Sid W. Richardson Centennial Professor of Architecture, the Director of the Summer Academy in Architecture, and Associate Director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at The University of Texas at Austin.
In addition to creating successful public and commercial work, Alterstudio is widely acclaimed for its houses. And within that, it’s been the firm’s relationship with the married couple/design team of Anne Suttles and Sam Shah that’s brought remarkable artistic uniqueness—a lovable, charming quality amongst awe-inspiring, sleek, yet functional, eco-centric modern designs. Their first collaboration, the Bouldin Residence, delivered many awards, including a National Dream Home Award and a glowing article in Dwell. Later, Suttles/Shah and Alterstudio reunited with the Hillside Residence, inspired by Marcel Breuer’s Bi-Nuclear House, which brought this design team again much deserved recognition and was featured in the AIA Austin Homes Tour. In looking at both of these homes it’s very clear that while they are both works of art, they are made for living a laid-back, sustainable way of life that completely fits the pace and character of Austin. They are fairy tale homes built to live a simple life.
Most recently, Alterstudio has teamed up with Suttles and Shah on two new projects: the upcoming South 5th, and Montclaire. In speaking with Alter, it’s very clear that he has a genuine admiration for the couple. His feelings towards them are inspiring, and say a lot about him as an artist. It’s clear that he couldn’t be further from the narcissistic, power and ego-driven artist. He is, instead, a sincere and humble man—someone who is clearly brilliant, yet very generous. For example, in talking about South 5th, Montclaire, and other projects, he made it very clear to me that he wanted to give credit to the partners at his firm, Tim Whitehill and Ernesto Cragnolino, for their creative vision in these projects. He said that Whitehill and Cragnolino were equal partners, and they were more talented architects than he was.
It’s rare to find this amalgam of qualities in an artist—someone who can lead—for he has several leadership positions in the University of Texas, in addition to leading his own firm—create, yet step to the side and listen, appreciate, collaborate with others. He’s the kind of artist anyone would dream to work with.
He came to Austin in 1991, and as he said, “He sort of always had a plane ticket in his pocket.” But that ticket fell through some hole, and now, lucky for us all, he’s here to stay. He’s going to see what this city becomes, and how he can contribute into making it a better place.
I spoke with Kevin Alter the morning after he returned from his lecture at Texas A&M in relation to the exhibition that the university is running about Alterstudio’s work entitled, “6 Houses.”
The Value of Architecture: So how’d the lecture go?
Kevin Alter: It was great. UT and A&M have a weird, acrimonious relationship. I never really quite understood it, but I had a couple students come up to me afterwards and say, “That was the best talk I ever heard.” They were super nice. There’s an exhibition there with some of the work. Anne and Sam’s houses were a part of it—both Hillside and Bouldin. I spoke a little bit about Hillside at the lecture.
TVOA: What kind of advice did you give the students?
Kevin Alter: I was saying at the talk when I was in school in a way we were all trained to want to have that ideal client with limitless budgets and just wanted to be your patrons, to support you in your artistic venture. And I say, that’s actually not what I’m interested in. I think the best projects come out of conflicting desires, and solving problems that don’t automatically seem easy to solve. Having different things being brought to the table, you end up with a solution that you never would’ve come up with on your own. I think those are richer. And a perfect example of that is the nice relationship we have with Anne and Sam. The end result is not something that could’ve come out of my office without them involved, or come from them without us involved either.
TVOA: You’re currently collaborating with Anne Suttles and Sam Shah on two projects—the Montclaire house and South 5th. These are two vastly different projects. Could you tell us about your creative processes in working with them on two very dissimilar ideas?
Kevin Alter: Anne and Sam are awesome. We did two other projects with them. I met Anne many years ago because she used to work for a friend of mine, Mark Word, an awesome landscape designer in town. And I met her because she literally was planting a little garden behind my old house, and she became to be quite good friends with my then one-year-old. She met Sam, moved to New York, and they moved back. They had to look for a piece of property, and we found this kind of interesting one on Mary Street in Bouldin, and we built this house for them. But then they wanted to keep doing it, so we made a spec for them for the house on Hillside. We got to know them quite well designing those two houses. Now, with Montclaire—Anne and Sam are contracting that themselves, and they’re doing a really great job. They have a tremendous eye for value, and saw potential in that house. And they made a house that looked very simple before so handsome and gave it a much higher quality. It’s very beautiful, very unexpected, and a great pleasure. The way they painted it, the way they landscaped it—it looks special—when you go inside it all unfolds in a way that’s really unexpected and very gracious with all the amazing finishes. I think it’s a very reasonable price point.
On our end in helping contribute to this project, we tried to minimize our architectural fees by acting more as consultants. We didn’t do a big set of drawings—we just tried to help, come up with a strategy. It’s not something we’d typically do with other clients. We just know Anne and Sam a long time now and enjoy working with them. She’s got great intuition, good eyes, and saw the potential in this place. It was really the two of them that gave it the character. We went over there with them when they just bought it and talked about the ways in which they could renovate it, came up with a plan. It was kind of a difficult house. She had certain visions, but reorganizing it with the existing layout for it to be compelling was challenging. But we like a challenge, so it was an interesting project. The other three projects we did together were much more collaborative though.
TVOA: How does your working relationship usually function with clients?
Kevin Alter: It’s always different. Some clients want us to do everything. Some clients want to play a really big role. And Anne and Sam want to play a really big role, but they have great intuition, insights into what would be compelling. They find beautiful products and have a really good eye for putting interesting things together. It’s remarkable because neither of them are trained architects, so we get to come in and help their visions become reality.
TVOA: What was the process like for South 5th?
Kevin Alter: With this project Anne found this really interesting site, but it had incredible challenges. My partner Tim Whitehill worked on this project most closely and knows more about it than anybody. But I’ll tell you that it was a very tight site—between the slope of the land and this big tree that’s there, and the code issues in Austin. With all of these elements it was like a Rubik’s Cube, a project where you had to fit all the little pieces together.
TVOA: You guys kept the tree there?
Kevin Alter: Oh yeah, that’s a big part of it. It was an unusual tree, one that is very rare in Austin that grows off of cliff sides. It was very big, and Anne and Sam really liked it. We went and measured it. We wanted to approach these things professionally, but they never work quite like you think. We needed to know exactly where the branches hung, so we could fit the building just underneath it without hurting it. It was an amazing puzzle.
It’s interesting—architects don’t usually have repeat clients. We build a house for them, and they stay in it. It’s very unusual to keep working with someone, and that’s why Anne and Sam are so awesome. They give us a huge amount of trust. It’s an ideal relationship with a client—something that’s been born out of the collaboration.
TVOA: When they give you comments what kind of feedback do they give you?
Kevin Alter: It’s different on the two different projects. With the Montclaire one there was some figuring out how to organize it because it’s an older house and contemporary needs have changed—the size of the kitchen or the master bedroom suite, so we’ll help on making the space work but they come in and give it character. With South 5th, because that was such a difficult project, we came up with two of the only designs that would work, so we came to them with that—and we do a lot of work on computer models, so we sat with them and showed them the 3D modeling of a couple different versions, and we got their feedback on what they liked about one, or the other. They have a lot of faith in us, but then they really go through very carefully room-by-room, looking at how we organized it. Not everyone can see spaces like they can, so they have very pertinent comments on what would make it work better for them, what they liked and didn’t like. Some things changed—originally I had a sunken living room in there, because I would love to be the architect that brings back the conversation pit into common practice.
TVOA: I love sunken living rooms.
Kevin Alter: Yeah, I know, me too, but that wasn’t something they wanted. And it was a reasonable comment, that the space is more usable if it’s all on one floor and things like that, but that just shows how they’re interested in the whole thing, so on some level we went through every part of it, from the window wall to the guard rail. For example, we were trying to maximize the space of this room, so we were going to make the guard rail for the stairs quite thin, and I think it was Anne’s idea to use painted perforated metal, which is really lovely material, and it would be really cool in there. It’s a small example, but it’s the kind of thing they bring to the table in our working sessions when we’d sit down brainstorming.
TVOA: You guys just seem to have a great symbiotic relationship.
Kevin Alter: I think the world of those guys. They’re doing these things, and of course, it’s for their home, and their making money, but it’s a real passion for them. And these things are special. I teach too, so I often tell my students that they’re 18-30 years old. They have thirty years of experience living in the world. They have a lot of great knowledge about architecture, but they’re not necessarily utilizing it. And Anne and Sam are actually able to utilize it. They recognize what they like. They don’t always know how to bring it to fruition, and we help them with that, but the vision and the ambition is something that very much comes from them.
For me it starts with trust. Like in anything, when you have someone’s trust you have an obligation to really work harder. It’s like, they’re trusting you. Their trust encourages us to give it our absolute best foot forward because you don’t want to betray someone’s trust. I’d like to think that in everything we do we put our best foot forward, but I know that when someone trusts us like that, it’s a different obligation.
TVOA: Artistic trust is an organic relationship.
Kevin Alter: Absolutely. Also, I have a twin brother, and I feel like collaboration is something I have a birthright for, and a predisposition. It’s actually one of the reasons why I focused on architecture. I have a background in fine art as well. I actually really like the collaborative aspects of my field—that it’s not just born from my vision. The best projects are the ones that can’t be easily deconstructed any one person’s vision, either architect or client.
TVOA: I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Austin. You’re not from there, but you’ve been living there for twenty-four years.
Kevin Alter: I moved here in ’91.
TVOA: So you’ve really seen a lot of the transformation in the city. And in terms of your designs—most of them live in Austin, right?
Kevin Alter: Most stuff—we’re doing a couple things in Dallas, California, New York. But most of it is in Austin, and I like that. I like living and working in a place that I know well, and can participate in. I came to Austin to teach at the university. For the first ten years I was here I sort of always had a plane ticket in my pocket. It was like that line from The Godfather, “You try to leave and it pulls you back in.” I actually was going to leave though. I had a job at Columbia, and I thought it was time to go back to New York, but I liked Austin a lot, and I preferred The University of Texas. Austin is a lovely town to be an architect in, to raise a family, and to live in. My partners and I are all really committed to the place, and participating in making it better.
TVOA: Can you describe the architectural changes you’ve seen in Austin throughout the years?
Kevin Alter: I really didn’t start practicing until the very end of the 90’s, 2000 maybe. There was nothing modern in Austin then. Now you throw a rock and you hit a modern building or a modern architect. They’re not all very good. In fact, most are really not. But I think it’s exciting to be in a place that is embracing a modern way to live. I think it’s all too often seen as a style here, meaning clean lines and things like that, rather than a lifestyle. Modernism was amazing because it radically changed the paradigm of houses. Instead of objects on a pedestal—these were buildings that were integrated into the landscape, that integrate one room into the other, embrace light or serendipity, using materials for their character rather than decoration or shapes. Austin is the kind of climate that you can build in that fashion. There’s something about modernism that’s also inherently, or potentially inherently casual, and Austin has that too. There’s a beautiful photograph of one of the buildings we did of the Lakeview House, and in the image there’s the client with her son, and she’s wearing flip-flops. It’s a fancy house, but she’s wearing flip-flops. It’s very Austin. It’s very nice to live casually—indoors and outdoors. I’m very excited about Austin architecture—mostly in housing. I think the most interesting work is coming in housing. The big buildings are still very, very conservative here.
TVOA: Do you think Austin needs more modern, big buildings?
Kevin Alter: For sure. There’s one building that’s been built recently by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam—the Federal Courthouse. That’s a very fine piece of work, and it really shows how beautifully a well-done, modern piece of architecture can fit in the city. The W is a handsome building—in some ways it’s more postmodern than modern, but it’s a really beautiful piece of architecture. There’s so much building in town, but most of it is kind of conservative. It’s a young, intellectual, energetic crowd in Austin. I think it could be a little more ambitious with its architecture. But it’s getting there. The architecture is far more interesting at St. Edward’s University than the University of Texas. Things take a while to change, but they are changing. It’s just a little slower. It’s not San Francisco. But there are many things about Austin that are not San Francisco.
TVOA: Well it’s in the center of Texas.
Kevin Alter: And there’s no ocean. But things are happening here. If you live in a compelling, modern house, or see modern houses in your neighborhood, you might want the same thing for the place you work in. There are some developments happening. It’s actually happening more in private development, rather than in institutions.
TVOA: Besides big, modern buildings, are there any other changes you’d like to see in terms of urban design in the city? Any changes that you could see architecture being an influence in that?
Kevin Alter: Sure, first, it’s very distressing that Austin as a city has consistently voted down light rail and things like that. The problems with traffic congestion are serious now, and they would’ve been radically alleviated had we actually looked for public transportation in a serious way other than buses. I think the original light rail plan was to split through South Congress and come up to the university. That would’ve been awesome. I think it was local stores that didn’t want it because it would have taken up parking, and now you can’t park anywhere near that part of town. In larger, infrastructural planning, the presence of public transportation would be a huge improvement. I-35’s presence is a real divider of east/west, and there are some interesting plans to sink it, do what they did with the Big Dig, which radically changed and transformed Boston. Similar kinds of things could happen in Austin. It’s 2015. You can’t not think about a sustainable way to grow.
I don’t like terms like “green architecture.” I feel like it’s just one of the many things. If you do things beautifully, you have to do things sustainably. I feel like we are terribly short-sighted with things that are being built. Austin is hip and happening right now, but I’m not sure that the larger plan is in place to make that growth sustainable. We don’t have the New York subway system, but that really allowed for New York City to become an incredible city that allows for diversity. You may remember how terribly segregated the city of Austin is. It’s ridiculous. You go to Houston and Dallas, which are hardly as liberal, and they’re much more integrated. I think there are larger planning issues that really need attention, and sadly, I don’t think the attention is not there. The neighborhood associations have too much power. They tend to be vested in things remaining the same.
TVOA: And Austin’s not staying the same. Austin is growing.
Kevin Alter: It is, and I wonder must a house must be built on a big lot. There are all these rules in place to make everything feel quite small. I think we should come to grips with the fact that it is getting to be a proper city and maybe we should allow for a little more density. In Bouldin, they should be allowed to build denser. But there’s a short-sightedness in Austin, and a lot of factors trying to keep it a little town. I get it. I don’t like that people are rude on the road, not letting you merge into traffic. I feel like there are many things about Austin that I lament, but it’s a growing, awesome city. It’s nice to have growth, but I do wish Austin was as progressive with its policies and really sustainable growth as it is with other things, like cool houses.