Creative Action, the wildly successful 15-year-old Austin, Texas, non-profit has opened the doors to its first ever permanent home. Known for its innovative arts programs that reach more than 20,000 kids via classes held at schools, libraries, churches, and even juvenile detention centers, Creative Action (CA) operations had been based out of a tiny 2,000-square-foot facility that amounted to nothing more than storage space for its materials. Karen LaShelle, CA’s executive and artistic director, reminisced somewhat ruefully about having to conduct the program’s important training sessions in the kitchenette of the previous facility.
CA’s new home, a bright and agile building designed by Tom Hurt Architecture, joins the Sustainable Food Center and PeopleFund to complete a “social profit village” located alongside a high-profile transit-oriented development in East Austin near the nascent MetroRail line. Although the bulk of CA’s work still happens in the community, the building is a huge shift for the organization. “It lets the community come to us, and we can interact with people here,” said LaShelle. The two-story building allows CA to expand its programming and, for the first time, establish a neighborhood presence. And, because its programs reach people all over the city, the prominent East Austin location will foster much-needed cross-pollination among diverse sectors of the community.
The site is highly visible, oriented toward Martin Luther King Boulevard to the north, but oddly shaped, with a long stretch of the light rail line forming its diagonal southern edge. Despite its geometry, architect Tom Hurt and his team saw an opportunity: The site also enjoyed the most visible location, facing the parking lot with a patch of open lawn in front. Embracing CA’s theater and performance component and Austin’s love of outdoor activities, Hurt’s design establishes the building’s facade as a threshold between activities happening outdoors and indoors. The approach to the entry already alludes to a theatrical moment, the building’s narrow porch providing an elevated podium, and a protruding platform—the landing for the external stair—acting as a balcony to be used in an event or performance. It also acts as a billboard for cheerful identity signage, extruded from its white metal structure.
The beating heart of the design is the solid materiality provided by a two-story, structural brick wall that begins as a portion of the building’s facade and then snakes its way through the interior, providing a tactile, solid spine. Built from salvaged brick, the wall provides both backdrop and focal point for the building’s activities, creating a wayfinding element and an organizing feature. It can be seen or touched from virtually anywhere inside the building, encouraging movement through its doorways and openings, and affording glimpses into classrooms through small portholes (actually chimney flues laid on their sides).
It is a metaphor for CA’s programs, which aim to help people build a sense of themselves from the inside out, using different forms of art as the conduit. And the brick can take a beating. “Allowing the kids to interact directly with this materiality helps give them a feeling of place and a sense of ownership of the building,” said Hurt. The wall terminates at the building’s parking lot frontage, remerging from the interior to act as the backdrop to a prominent double-height display window that showcases CA’s props and other materials.
CA’s new neighborhood is growing. A mixed-use building expected to break ground in 2015 will bring art galleries, restaurants, and even a hospice center to the development. Seven additional acres of housing units and transit-oriented development will also bring more people to the area. But even after just one week in the new building, LaShelle was already noticing the positive effects. “Having a special place to go changes kids’ perception of themselves. It helps people see Creative Action in a fresh light,” she said. “And it elevates us all.”