What’s the inspiration for The Independent?

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Here’s a look at the progress of The Independent residential tower from the south side of Lady Bird Lake.

True confession: When I first saw the renderings of The Independent luxury condo tower, I was blasé. I’d previously seen some so-called “Jenga-styled” structures — loosely inspired by the Hasbro children’s game — that were in development in New York and Chengdu, China.

My first impression of The Independent was that it looked clumsy and contrived. Not to fret, though. Knowing the challenge of acquiring $300 million in construction financing, I never thought the project would ever see the light of day.

Let the record show I was a total dimwit.

Financing, city approvals and groundbreaking moved ahead spectacularly even by Austin’s notorious mired-in-red-tape standards. Today, the 58-story project has topped out — its silhouette lofty and illuminating.

Though it won’t be fully completed until next year, I like it. I really like it.

Even from afar, the tower scales in pleasing ratio to the rest of the skyline. The boxiness expressed in the renderings somehow look softer in reality — even from a close vantage point across Lady Bird Lake.

This project will turn heads from around the world.

While capturing a few photos on a scorching hot afternoon, I wondered whether architect Brett Rhode of Rhode Partners would provide a little color commentary about how The Independent morphed from his mind to a rendering to actuality. He graciously guided me back to the very beginning in late 2014 and early 2015, when the land deal was finalized.

“It started with me doing hand sketches and our in-house architects building models using our 3D printers,” Rhode said. “We looked at many variations, and began to settle on a direction based on the idea that we could use a handful of apartment floor plans and create a lot of variety for the buyers by flipping and rotating these plans as you go up the building. This in turn led to the idea of shifted tiers.”

A slightly different take on form following function.

The alpha design discussions naturally involved the development team — Greg Henry, CEO of Austin-based Aspen Heights, and project manager Ryan Fetgatter, also with Aspen Heights.

“One of my big goals was to advance the conversation architecturally and (they) were very supportive from the start,” Rhode said. “I wanted to create a sense of excitement on the skyline but with gravitas.”

Rhode’s desire to push a big idea reminded me of another spectacular project I covered shortly after becoming the real estate reporter at the Denver Business Journal. One of my first interviews was with internationally renowned designer Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum — a structure so off the wall that some early visitors claimed vertigo. How on earth did Libeskind come up with the idea?

“I sketched it out on a cocktail napkin while we were flying out of Denver,” he said.

Why not? Taking off from Denver International Airport to the west, Libeskind was inspired by purple mountain majesty. His staff of engineers would have to figure out the precise calculations for supporting 20 titanium geometrical planes jutting out in all directions from a 2,740-ton base.

Add in the challenges of creating expansive museum space for public consumption and building a gravity-defying structure, and you’ve got one colossal riddle.

Of course it’s expensive. No wonder most developers want to build simple, tried-and-true office towers. Grandiose projects demand premium architects, engineers, contractors, project managers, interior designers and vendors.

Why bother?

Henry, in part, wanted to make a statement about his home base.

“The Independent’s architecture was inspired by the bold and energetic spirit that has long buoyed Austin’s growing economy, reputation and success,” he said.

Fetgatter chimed in.

“The decision to go for a superlative, like the tallest in the city or the tallest residential high rise west of the Mississippi, was a conscious one — appropriate given the site’s location on the skyline and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

Kudos to Aspen Heights and its financial partners for aiming high.

Lately, what is under construction or in the works downtown looks suspiciously similar.

Check out this article by James Rambin at TOWERS.net, “Huh, These Towers All Kinda Look Exactly the Same, Don’t They?”

No doubt there’s some serious cloning going on. Office buildings by their very nature require certain floor plates and economies of scale. Office developers simply aren’t going to push the financial envelop to the same degree as builders of luxury hotels, condo towers and big ticket public projects.

So enjoy The Independent. It’s likely to be the city’s conversation piece for many years to come.

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