You’re not gonna see me calling anyone the “king of Austin architecture” (this column's title an exception; blame it on too much "Game of Thrones" reading), but if I were going to bestow such a silly-sounding title to someone, you might just see Dick Clark, of Dick Clark Architecture, wearing a crown.
I got to visit with Dick at his firm’s office in downtown Austin, tucked next to a few bars and coffee shops in the Warehouse District. Its small size belies this firm’s power; they may be operating at a streamlined number of folks right now (downsized in recent years due to the economy), but they’re still churning out lots of fun commercial, residential and hospitality spaces.
Dick himself is a kind guy, who talks loudly and confidently, rambles a bit when he gets excited about something and doesn’t dress like any architect I’ve ever met (well, come to think of it, he actually dresses in that sort of Austin “uniform” of casual clothes that people get away with in this hot weather). His office was just off the main firm lobby, small, with tall ceilings that ended in windows that let sun in.
Though you've no doubt heard of Dick Clark before, or read about him in an article, or seen some of his firm's work in person, there's a good chance you don't quite grasp just how important Dick Clark and his firm's been on the way Austin looks physically.
The way I see it, Dick’s been a major influence on the look of Austin due to five very important things:
Not only has he been practicing in Austin a long time (over 30 years), he’s got a rich history of travel, culture and practice behind him that he thankfully brought to Austin. He did his undergrad time at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture but went to graduate school at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. To date, he’s practiced architecture in Boston, Knoxville, Managua, Aspen, Copenhagen and throughout Texas. Not too shabby. Dick has been practicing in Austin so long, he estimates his firm has fostered over 20 architecture firms since opening. The truth is, many of Austin’s top architects owe a lot to Dick. (Even though many of the architects are his competitors, he says he has nothing but pride for all the great work they did for him and now do in their own practices.)
Fifteen years ago, Dick moved his firm’s offices to downtown Austin—the Warehouse District, to be specific. He did that for two reasons: to be closer to the action and effect some positive change to a downtown area that was sorely lacking in excitement, people and good architecture. You could arguably say it started with restaurants, for example (the no longer open) Mezzaluna, the first restaurant that Dick designed in the Warehouse District in 1989. It didn't take long for clients to approach him with restaurant plans, and Dick and his team were more than happy to add to the livening of Austin’s downtown area. To date, they’ve completed around 50—60 projects downtown (about 40 of which have been in the Warehouse District), like The Bitter End, Kenichi Restaurant, Maiko, Rain Bar, Ruth's Chris, Halcyon, 219 West, Spring Condos Interiors and more (just to name a few).
Of course, of the over 800 projects they’ve estimated to have done in the past 30 years, houses have made up a large percentage. Dick Clark was also one of the first designers to start experimenting with modern and contemporary design, especially in residential projects. And it's not just sheer volume of projects that sets the work coming out of Dick Clark Architecture apart from the rest; Dick and his team are coming up with innovative, interesting and modern solutions that fit with clients' needs and Austin's landscape. It's why you hardly see a year go by that the AIA Austin Homes Tour doesn't feature a Dick Clark Architecture-designed home.
Obviously, the man can design a damn fine-looking building. The proof is in the accolades (as well as the constant stream of happy clients). Like how many years he’s won an AIA Honor Award (eight) as well as a Custom Home Design Award an International Interior Design Association Award and was the first to win the Downtown Austin Alliance Inaugural Downtown Impact Award. Clients say he excels not only in the actual designs, but in his material choices and the guidance he gives in assuring that a project becomes its best. He makes sure his clients understand that you have to have good materials to have a good, long-lasting structure.
“You don’t want to design a crappy thing. A lot of times we have fights with clients, and sometimes suggest to them to increase their budget a little bit. Especially with restaurants. The more successful a restaurant is the more of a beating it’s gonna get, so you need to build a restaurant to take a beating. Sometimes people cut the budget in wrong places. You can beat up a restaurant in two or three years—and then clients aren't getting the bang for their buck with materials,” says Dick.
Maybe luck isn’t quite the right word; after all clients choose him because he’s got that talent and skill, but even Dick admits he’d be no where without good clients bringing him fun and challenging projects:
“If you don’t have a client as an architect, there’s nothing to do. You can draw fantasy houses or whatever. That’s also a uniqueness of this professional art form that we work in: that we have to have a client but once we get one and build something then it’s there forever. So it better be good,” Dick says.
Because it’s always been his intention to effect a certain look to Austin, he definitely considers the aesthetic when he works on projects, and heartily supports much of the change happening in and around downtown. In fact, the way he speaks, you get the sense he wishes it was moving much faster.
“I think the more that [progress and downtown density] can happen, the better this city’s gonna be. Up until five years ago Austin was a big town, and it’s now becoming a small city. You asked if I was a fan of the downtown density…I hope it gets much denser. The denser it gets the more cars get taken off the street. If more people are living down here there will be less traffic. I like all the things that are going on. The more that can happen the better. We’ve been on all these 'best of' city lists…well shit, we need to take advantage of it,” says Dick.