Is an architect a content provider? That shorthand describes other cultural workers, from sculptors to filmmakers, who produce original and formal material to social and cultural effect. And yet the architect’s seeming expertise is not content (acknowledged as “program”), but form. The architect’s dream is not only that form follows function, but that function can be transformed and transcended by sufficiently fabulous or fierce form.

It’s a question prompted by the new Arthouse at the Jones Center, a kunsthalle and visual art organization in downtown Austin, Texas. Following a multiyear capital campaign and the inauguration of an architecturally ambitious new home, it eliminated funding for the position of its permanent curator—which, framed as a trade-off, has the appearance of, at best, establishing a zero-sum game between form and content. And at worst, of gaining a new body at the cost of one’s soul. Although that move followed some local tempests beyond the architectural accommodation, it presents that new home with dilemmas that its designers could not have foreseen.

It couldn’t have happened to a better building. Nor to one more up to the unexpected task. In its ingenuity and interactivity, the Arthouse—a remarkable, direction-setting project by New York firm Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects (LTL)—reimagines restoration and renovation as methods of architectural intervention and invention. The 20,830-square-foot structure began life in 1851 and was a theater by 1926; in 1956, it was converted to a department store with the addition of a second story and storefront windows featuring Austin-in-August sidewalk overhangs and awnings.

In 1995, the space was inhabited by Arthouse after a minimal renovation that essentially sealed off two-thirds of the building that were not up to code. The result required reuse that was more than usually adaptive.

Adaptive reuse is nothing new. It has been found at the intersection of art and architectural practice ever since artists moved into lofts and museums moved into mills. But here LTL goes further. Rather than a willful occupation of an obsolete mess, or a skillful erasure of that mess behind white walls and glass, the firm’s intervention draws together disparate surfaces and spaces—by exhibiting, exploiting, and strangely exacerbating the discontinuities and misfits to be found between them.

There is, to be sure, a big white wall. All 57 linear feet and 16,000 pounds of it, suspended and motorized like a flat from a theater grid, can glide around to reconfigure the major second-floor gallery in order to make use of the column-free house of the former theater. The workaday but hard-working wood joists above that column-free span are ennobled by an ipe structure that leans down from them in a kind of swoon, terminating in an entry desk and treads for a grand staircase; and presaging a 5,000-square-foot ipe roof deck above that is an elevator headhouse lookout and movie screen. Ducting, mechanicals, and structural reinforcement are tucked into the residual space between the former gabled roof and new deck, while the former theater proscenium frames a reading room.

Below, floor-to-ceiling glazing extends the logic of the former department-store picture windows and, shaded by a deep awning, provides a surprisingly glare- and reflection-free membrane between sidewalk and lobby. A constellation of circular punctures are arrayed across both lobby ceiling and awning soffit, featuring spotlights, speakers, or mounting points for temporary partitions. A similarly uncanny array of 177 4-by-16-inch laminated and LED-lit glass blocks puncture the façade at structurally opportunistic moments, bringing surprising daylight into gallery and ground-floor administrative space. Where the picturesque palimpsests of theater trompe l’oeil decoration, ghost stairs, and blocked doors have been uncovered along the interior of that façade, they have been left stabilized and visible with archaeological care.

The result—simultaneously exuberant and restrained—cannily co-opts the residual qualities of theater and department store, and stretches the project’s $4.3 million budget to an operational limit. This kind of treatment of an existing structure by architects is often called curatorial. LTL, veterans of much exhibition and installation design (including a 2004 venture at the Venice Biennale’s American pavilion that modified its classical columns into delirious fins worthy of a ’57 Chevrolet Bel Air), are those rare architects who appear to be as interested in the conditions that precede and proceed from their own work as in that work itself. Much of their early research, from dysfunctional doorknobs to a presciently tragicomic 1996 vision of a displaced World Trade Center tower as a floating urban-renewal project for New York Harbor’s Governors Island, represented the collection and juxtaposition of architectural artifacts to discursive effect.

The Arthouse’s curatorial conundrum is institutional as well as architectural. Some five months after reopening in October of 2010, the museum’s board, citing budget shortfalls, abruptly eliminated funding for the position held by curator and associate director Elizabeth Dunbar, who was Arthouse’s first permanent curator. That was closely followed by the resignation of one museum board member, and of another longtime staff member, Jenn Gardner, who told the Austin American-Statesman, “I strongly disagreed with the concept of Arthouse existing without a full-time curator.” A group of local artists protested by abstaining from, or topically and critically participating in, an annual fundraiser in which artists contributed some one-thousand small works for auction.

In architectural terms, these events could appear to come perilously close to those nightmarish tales in which ambitious institutions spend all their money on architecture, then die. The storied American Center in Paris famously spent some $40 million on a not-especially distinguished Frank Gehry building in 1994, and became bankrupt and homeless 19 months later; midtown Manhattan’s much-indebted American Folk Art Museum just sold its high-end 2001 Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects building to the neighboring Museum of Modern Art, and plans to decamp to a smaller satellite. The peril of such cautionary tales is that they can frame architecture itself as a kind of excess in which form comes at the expense of content, or mere exuberance comes at the expense of expression.

Architect and writer Thomas de Monchaux was the inaugural recipient of the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism. He teaches at Columbia University.
Architect and writer Thomas de Monchaux was the inaugural recipient of the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism. He teaches at Columbia University.

The case of the Arthouse is not one of budget shortfalls alone. Prior to her departure, Dunbar had expressed concern to the Arthouse board about an event in which artist Graham Hudson’s “Rehearsal at the Astoria,” a reconstruction of the legendary rock club, had been authorized as a promotional venue to Warner Music Group during Austin’s 2011 South by Southwest music festival. Earlier, a video installation had been suspended, without consultation by the artist, during hours when its potentially provocative content might have coincided with teenage educational programs. Such incidents are subject to debate about what is proper and proprietary in our experience of an artist’s authorship and intention. Yet they inevitably invoke universal issues of privacy and publicity, enclosure and exposure, installation and intention, use and reuse, that are all critically architectural. In this digital age of information architecture, there is a hierarchy of production and consumption that begins with the content provider, and ascends through a process of iterative gathering and filtering through aggregators and curators, eventually delivering you the feed you need. By providing the Arthouse with such stimulating material and conceptual content, LTL’s design has a curatorial effect not only on its physical structure but, arguably, on its institutional life: weirdness demands weirdness. “Keep Austin Weird,” reads the ubiquitous bumper sticker, referencing a lively live-and-let-live culture best exemplified by the city’s noted music and cinema festivals. The aggregated adaptations of LTL’s design serve as an invitation to its occupants to mirror back the liberties and sensibilities embodied therein. In this way, the Arthouse at the Jones Center has the potential to renew not only our approach to adaptive reuse when economic and ecological restraints have made that a critical endeavor, but also to renew our understanding of the cultural role of the architect.