An Architectural Tour
The Nokonah, was the most expensive high-rise condominium ever built in the Texas capital. San Antonio firm Lake/Flato was involved with the design initially, until the developer insisted on wraparound balconies—a deal-breaker that caused the firm to bow out respectfully, leaving Austin architects Graeber, Simmons & Cowan to finish the job.
A quietly handsome tower, the Nokonah sits downtown on the corner of Ninth and Lamar Streets. Units in the northern portion of the building have impressive views of the Texas Capitol and the infamous University of Texas tower. The southern panorama—a Whole Foods supermarket, traffic lights, low-rise retail and commercial buildings—is less ceremonious. The Nokonah’s densely-packed 99 units ranging in size from 700 to over 5,000 square feet make it unique in Austin’s luxury housing market—which has, like too many American cities, gone the way of the McMansion (Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computers, has a sprawling estate at the city’s outer limits which eclipses the Seattle manse of fellow techno-ego Bill Gates by a few hundred square feet; it’s so large that astronauts can surely see it from orbit).
If the Nokonah is high-end developer’s work, it’s at least tasteful and well-executed, with top-notch construction quality and superb finishes and fixtures. Former Texas governor Ann Richards owns a condo there, as do other well-heeled, well-connected Austinites, I was told. Was it designed to be sustainable? My tour guide didn’t know.
From the Nokonah’s cool, distant beauty, I went directly to the warm embrace of the Broken Spoke, one of the city’s oldest dance halls. I’d been there twice before in previous visits to Austin. It’s a single-story, barn-like structure with a bar, some tables for eating, a mini-gallery of photographs and other memorabilia, and a dance floor flanked on both sides by tables where you can sit, drink Shiner Bock, and watch couples of all ages cut the rug. Some of the two-steppers have been married happily for years; others are lovers whose shared futures are unknown and unknowable; many just come together a few times in any given evening for a good twirl on the boards, nothing less and nothing more.
The owners celebrated the Spoke’s 38th birthday while I was there, and TV crews roamed the place that evening, doing interviews; I told a reporter that the Broken Spoke was really “authentic.” I feel sheepish now about using such a precious term, but I will say this: their customers are loyal to the point of fierceness, and they obviously love the place. The waitstaff love it no less: their eyes twinkle when they serve you, and they look almost apologetic when you tip them, like they know everybody is equally lucky to be enjoying the scene, so why bother making a buck off it? Such fealty gives the Broken Spoke a gravitas beyond being just a really fun place to drink beer and listen to live country music.
It’s not just a building, it’s a community—and that makes it one of the most sustainable buildings I know of.
Notes from Deborah Snoonian, P.E.