Few places would be so fiercely proud of a slogan that implores residents to keep their city “weird.” And it’s this passion for the unconventional that’s attracting so many entrepreneurs, designers, and other creatives to Austin.
“Austin is very much still discovering and defining itself,” says architect Michael Hsu, who founded his practice in 2005. “To a young designer it feels like an opportunity, because we’re away from the social and cultural hierarchies that you might find in New York, L.A., and Chicago. Austin rewards creativity and supports those who take risks.”
Such pioneering mindsets have earned it the nickname “Silicon Hills,” stemming from its reputation as a tech hub, particularly for new start-ups. Established brands like Apple, Facebook, and Google all have local outposts, but the city also provides an excellent testing ground for new companies and initiatives—Whole Foods started there in 1980, while, more recently, Car2Go used the city for its pilot program in 2009 before launching across the country.
As one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the United States, Austin faces affordability issues that threaten its status as a haven for creatives. It’s not only housing that’s becoming increasingly inaccessible, but also independent music venues, cultural hubs, and studio spaces. All this means it’s increasingly harder to keep Austin, Austin.
“It’s like as soon as development happens and a city grows, the first people to go are the artists, because they have the least amount of money for studio space,” Hsu says. A recent project by his firm, Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, is Canopy, which converted a concrete warehouse into an arts community that Austin has always been known for doing things differently. Though thoroughly Texan at heart, it’s often considered the quirky black-sheep sibling to other cities in the state.provides space for makers, artists, and other creatives. That project already has a substantial waiting list, while another—Springdale General, a campus of affordable maker studios, creative office space, and workshops—is in the works.
Mayor Steve Adler recently introduced the Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, which hopes to address these pressures on creatives by preserving music venues with land trusts, streamlining the permitting process with entertainment licenses, and codifying entertainment districts. In addition, the City of Austin’s new CodeNEXT plan—part of its 30-year Imagine Austin strategy—will revise the Land Development Code, with an aim of making the city more walkable and preserving the identities of its neighborhoods.
Though bike use is increasing, public transit is a challenge, particularly since the recent outlawing of ride-sharing companies such as Uber. Robert Hoang, director of marketing for San Antonio–based architects Lake Flato, adds that there’s also a need for Austin to establish a stronger urban identity. “As a creative destination and a current ‘it’ city, the architectural character and defining civic and urban park space is lacking,” he says. “There are plenty of high-rises going up, and park development, but nothing like Millennium Park or The Broad museum.”
Still, there is one crucial reason why a regional architectural powerhouse like Lake Flato, which has worked on numerous projects in Austin, chose the city as the location for its second office. “Austin is a remarkable place, with a very authentic spirit,” says cofounder David Lake. “Authenticity in place making is so critical when a city is expected to double its population by 2040.”