Eyesore, money pit, or romantic ruin, Intel’s Ozymandias awaits its fate
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817
Gripes and grackles love the Intel building, but the grackles know something the gripes ignore: Before it was an eyesore, a civic embarrassment, a symbol of Austin’s high tech downturn and the costs of Smart Growth, or a sober allusion to other buildings’ grimmer fates, it was a building — what the Intel Corporation calls “AN-2.”
What kind of building? Five stories of naked concrete, whose upper columns are tufted with rebar, AN-2 now looks like a cutaway illustration from some David Macaulay book on How Skyscrapers Are Built. Its raw bulk springs out in the sky, night or day. An architect would call AN-2’s current appearance a “wireframe”: a three-dimensional wire model of a structure that’s been peeled apart to show its crucial innards. With the final four stories unbuilt and no exterior, AN-2 is so spindly it resembles a parking garage, a prepubescent one. AN-2, the flat-chested parking garage.
Readers of the Chronicle will recall how AN-2 got this way (“Deconstructing Downtown,” April 20, 2001, austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2001-04-20/pols_feature.html). In January, Intel announced it would finish AN-2’s exterior but postpone moving its chip design activities there. A month later, Intel said it would halt construction altogether, citing a downturn in the chip market and a drop in Intel’s stock price. The halt meant that 1,500 Intel employees wouldn’t be contributing to the downtown economy, Intel wouldn’t be paying full property taxes, and, worst of all, the construction site would stay as it was. The current rumor is that Intel is looking for a buyer for the property; the company says only it will announce its plans for the building at the end of the year. Intel has until January 15, 2001, the date its building permit expires, to decide whether they’ll sell the property, complete it — or perhaps even demolish it.
Until then, think of AN-2 as an archaeological ruin: a physical reminder of a disappeared empire. The building is “a colossal wreck,” as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it in his 1817 poem “Ozymandias.” As Shelley’s poem recounts: At the base of a broken statue which is all that remains of an ancient city, reads an arrogant inscription from King Ozymandias, “Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.” The Romantic poets loved ancient ruins, and often rhapsodized about them (Horace Smith, a friend of Shelley’s, also wrote a deservedly lesser known sonnet about Ozymandias, titled “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite”). They loved to imagine the fragility of their own civilization. Obsessed also with Being Artists, they imagined how poems — like statuary, or buildings — are set adrift in time.
You can’t convince everyone that AN-2 is visually compelling. “Come on,” Madeline Aubry barks, and suddenly the interview is over. “I don’t know how you can call it a building. It isn’t a building. I don’t know what you call it,” she says. For Aubry, three jetliners crashing into buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11 provided her with the right metaphor for AN-2. “It looks,” she says, “like a bombed-out building.”
Aubry and her husband, Bruce Deatherage, survey the skyline from the seventh floor of the Regency South, an apartment building at 10th and Nueces. They have lived downtown for 12 years, and they expect their vista to be dynamic. They tell the story of the city in terms of what they once saw but now can’t. “We used to be able to see the Capitol,” says Deatherage, untangling an American flag from its pole. He points to the east. “Then they built this parking garage.” To them, new buildings always block old views and fill gaps. But AN-2 doesn’t block, and it isn’t a gap. It doesn’t do either. It’s undecided, and that’s what they can’t quite stand. If you’re not often faced with paradoxes, AN-2 will drive you nuts.
Looking eastward from the site of the Intel building downtown
Photo By John Anderson
On the phone Aubry insisted that AN-2 is an eyesore right out her front balcony. But from her apartment on the third floor of the Regency South, one can barely see AN-2 above the trees. So to get a clearer view, Aubry and Deatherage go up to the seventh floor. But AN-2 doesn’t look more imposing up there, either. It’s over a quarter of a mile away, and the cranes and concrete forms of the Nokonah building to the west, at Ninth and Lamar, are closer. If there wasn’t so much activity, you’d call them unsightly too. But they’re not abandoned ruins.
Or, as a Romantic poet would say: not yet.
Gravity or Opportunity?
Until its future is decided, AN-2 is a structure more interesting than the disappointment Austinites feel about it, and more compelling than their disgust.
For starters, let’s put AN-2 in the context of global real estate. If you think one unfinished building is unsightly, the Asian economic downturn in 1997 blighted Bangkok with 389 of them, representing some 200 billion baht (more than $6 billion) of investment. By 2000, the construction industry in Thailand had stabilized — but because the cost of building materials had increased by 30%, analysts expected that most of the buildings would be knocked down. Demolition has been the strategy of choice elsewhere, as well. In the overbuilt Hainan province in China, not a country known (at least since 1949) for its conscientious urban planning, city officials use a law that, according to China Online, allows them to “dismantle any unfinished construction project considered an eyesore in the cityscape.” A real estate bubble in the early 1990s left at least 200 buildings unfinished. In 2001 the wrecking ball took down 100 of them.
That’s Asia, you say, the land of irrational exuberances and popular delusions. Yet it happens in the U.S. too: In one fiasco, the Eastland Mall in Tulsa, Okla., was left half-finished in 1976, when the general contractor went bankrupt. Construction didn’t begin until 1984, when the property was bought by a developer. A few years later in east Dallas, hundreds of half-finished condominiums sat empty while vandals damaged them so badly they had to be bulldozed.
But demolition doesn’t happen often in the U.S., not when real-estate development is a lucrative way to park cash and the American government will back speculators who lose big. In the late 1980s, so many unfinished condos and office high-rises were strewn around various American cities (including Austin) that a term was coined for them: “see-through buildings.” A “see-through” is a building, usually enclosed with a glass or precast “skin,” that doesn’t have an interior. Houston was one city famous for its see-throughs, some of which didn’t have tenants for over 10 years, among them a three-story building near I-45 and FM 1960. Once used for medical records storage, it mostly sat empty. Without ceiling tiles, and a candidate for arson, it wasn’t a very potent symbol of anything.
A surplus of office space can translate into economic advantage. In Houston, see-throughs were crucial for the city’s next round of economic growth. During the 1990s, more than 200,000 immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa moved in, and cheap real estate helped them buy houses and start businesses. Now, according to Reason magazine, over 30% of Houston business is minority-owned.
The Way to San Jose
It’s also interesting to put AN-2 in the context of what other tech companies — and bona fide high tech cities — decide to do with their construction plans. Like Intel, Cisco Systems, the San Jose-based manufacturer of networking hardware, suffered the effects of a downturn. During the 1990s, their phenomenal growth had led to rapid construction as well. In 1990, their sales totaled $69 million; by 2000, sales had risen to $19 billion — with profits of $5 billion. But in 2001, sales dropped 30%. Cisco stock lost 76% of its value, about $400 billion. The Los Angeles Times reported, “the company also halted a building binge and plans to install windows on empty shells to prevent the incomplete structures in San Jose from becoming eyesores.”
The San Jose skyline currently contains “a couple of hundred thousand square feet” of see-through office space, according to Steve Emslie, the deputy director of the planning department in a city that’s inured to the upticks and downturns in the technology industry. “It’s just that this time,” says Emslie, “it happened so quickly.”
Even so, San Jose isn’t dotted with concrete wraiths. “All of them will be secured and the exterior completed,” Emslie says. This is because if a building stands unfinished for too long, the city takes enforcement action — for instance, citing an unwrapped building as a public nuisance. That’s why Emslie, who hadn’t heard about AN-2, was bemused at the news. “It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t close it in,” he says. “We’re not immune from this kind of thing, but it’s a lesson that cities need to be careful, and make sure there are plenty of checks and balances in place to keep this from happening.”
But the checks and balances that are available in other parts of the country, where attitudes about private property tend to be less absolute, aren’t available in Texas. City of Austin officials assert that because Intel is a private company building on private land, the city cannot require them to finish the building. “The city can require that the ‘remains’ of the building be left in a condition that is not detrimental to public health and safety,” says Sue Edwards, the director of redevelopment services, who negotiated Intel’s $15.1 million incentive package.
“Bulletproof” (l-r): Ian Searcy, Katie Phillips, Ryan Thompson, and Carolyn Moore, with panels from the project behind them
Photo By John Anderson
Janet Gallagher, the director of the city department that grants building permits, described how AN-2’s remains were prepared: The perimeter fence was strengthened; buffalo grass was planted as erosion control inside it. Exposed steel was painted, along with other “patch-work so we don’t have destruction problems, to protect the steel and concrete.” Concrete stairs between floors were taken down and portable folding stairs, enclosed in locked chainlink cages, were installed, and “polymer concrete caps” were placed at the top of each column to protect it from water damage.
Not much more needs to be done, says Sharon Woods, a professor of civil engineering at UT-Austin. The concrete in bridges and other exposed structures usually contains a mixture that creates millions of tiny air bubbles within it that allow it to expand and contract without cracking. AN-2 wasn’t built with such additives, but it isn’t in danger because central Texas doesn’t have severe freezing and thawing cycles. “The only issue,” Woods says, “is that you have some exposed reinforcement [steel] that could start to corrode.” But starting again is easy: “You clean it before you start.”
Upticks, Downturns, and Decisions
When the chip market nosedived, Intel halted 20 construction projects around the world, said company spokesperson Jeanne Forbis. The last of these was AN-2. In downtown Austin, AN-2’s hulk may be colossal, but as one project among 20, it doesn’t seem extraordinary at all. Back in January and February, it was easy — and sort of comforting — to imagine Intel’s centers of operations around the globe all similarly dotted with concrete skeletons.
But as Forbis discovered later, a full list of 20 projects isn’t available. Why not? As it turns out, Intel didn’t have 20 projects — or more precisely, not 20 projects that had broken ground or been publicly announced. Forbis now says that the Santa Clara headquarters isn’t releasing this information. “So I said,” she says, “‘Can I have the list of projects that were publicly announced?’ Now I’m negotiating with [Santa Clara] about what they can give me.”
At press time, a full list still wasn’t forthcoming, either from Forbis or her bosses in Santa Clara. However, a Web and published database search confirms only five other outright Intel construction stoppages, four of them in the United States and one in Ireland (see “Best-Laid Plans,” below left). After recently laying off 250 workers in Ireland, Intel has publicly committed to restarting the project in 2002 — depending on the market.
According to sources in those locales, these delays haven’t impacted any downtown areas like the AN-2 stoppage. Normally Intel builds in suburban office parks, where halted construction isn’t strikingly visible. “Here everybody’s worried about them slowing down,” one source in Folsom said, “but there’s no hue and cry about construction.”
So far, Intel has portrayed its decision to halt AN-2 as a response to factors that are beyond its control: the chip market, the stock market, consumer confidence, corporate technology investment. “We’re hoping by the end of the year to be able to make a decision as to when we can restart the building,” Forbis told the Austin Business Journal last March. “It’s really based on economic conditions.” In fact, however, Intel maintains a high degree of control over its decisions. That is, the company didn’t halt construction on AN-2 because it was forced to. It halted construction because it wanted to.
According to the trade papers, Intel usually acts quickly to redirect capital, halting projects on nonessential infrastructure. AN-2 was one of those projects, even though Intel’s investments in construction and new equipment in 2001 have risen. Says one industry observer who participates in Intel analysts’ calls, “They say R&D is a primary concern. So is making sure they have production capacity in place, for when the chip cycle starts back up.” This explains why Intel actually invests more when revenues are low. In 2001, at the height of the downturn in the chip market, the company has budgeted $7.6 billion for capital expenditures, whereas it spent relatively less during the two previous years (around $10 billion). If chip demand goes up in 2003, as many experts had been forecasting, then Intel’s capital expenditure strategy will have paid off.
But the climate since Sept. 11 has changed all that. Shekhar Pramanick, a securities analyst with Prudential Securities in San Francisco, predicts that forecasts might have to be adjusted several quarters. Even before Sept. 11, the outlook wasn’t good. On October 17, Intel announced that its third quarter sales were down by 25% and that per-share earnings were down 94% from the same period last year. The industry had been predicting increased demand from hand-held manufacturers — but demand for hand-held devices has also flattened.
Hans Mosesmann, an analyst at Prudential who follows Intel closely, doesn’t have an opinion on AN-2 specifically. “However,” he says, “Intel’s current renewed focus on core businesses translates into more R&D located near their newer fabs or in Silicon Valley.”
O Bla Di, O Bla Da —
To attract Intel downtown, the city of Austin offered the company $15.1 million in waived fees, deferred costs, and infrastructure subsidies. Intel has already gotten half of that amount in fee waivers. Meanwhile, Intel pays $500,000 a year in property taxes on its Austin sites (including $218,000 on AN-2), valued at $20 million. On a total value of $69 million for a completed AN-2 ($160 per sq. ft.), the annual property tax would be around $1.7 million.
One of the rejected designs for the “Bulletproof” project. The actual panels will portray a view of Congress Avenue looking toward the Capitol.
Then there’s AN-2’s evolving relationship with the downtown scene. Contrary to the gripes, its concrete innards apparently haven’t slowed growth. “We’ve got a lot of projects to carry us through,” says Charlie Betts, the executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, citing two hotels, four residential projects, the new city hall, the two CSC buildings, and the convention center. “When you put Intel into context with everything that’s going on right now,” Betts says, “it just pales in comparison.”
One of the residential projects — the Plaza Lofts, a 10-story apartment building under construction across Republic Square Park from AN-2 — is said to be selling well. According to Alan Holt, a sales representative for the Sutton Company, the developer of that property, about half of the 60 units in the building are sold. And he says AN-2 hasn’t impacted sales at all. “Life goes on. The news of the event turned out to be more significant than the event.”
What does he think of AN-2 as a building? Holt hesitates. “I’ll just say this,” he says. “It’s the cleanest concrete I’ve ever seen. They must have had someone in there sweeping it every day for two months. That is one heck of a clean site.”
Taking Our Time
The building site plans for AN-2 describe it as 348,833 square feet. But only when I stood inside it did I realize its massive volume — each floor is more than 100 feet across, and the bare ceiling is more than 20 feet high. One day in September, I visited the site with Jeanne Forbis and Todd Patterson, the site manager, who pointed out elevator shafts, staircases, doorways. “This is where employees will enter,” he said. “And over here is where the trucks would have come in.” I asked him which verb tense is the right one: is, would, will? “Would,” he said.
From the outside of the white plywood and chainlink fencing that surrounds the block, AN-2 looks like any construction site on an off-day. Officially it’s been inactive since the middle of July, when the cranes were removed. But when I looked beyond the walls, what I saw weren’t “lone and level sands.” (I also didn’t see Aubry and Deatherage’s building.) From inside AN-2, the view of the city’s color and movement framed by the gray-brown ceilings and floor is a good sell for the city. Intel could dissolve its public relations worries by letting people roam around the premature wreck with their cameras, like tourists at Macchu Picchu.
Some people have become professionally attached to AN-2’s present state; among them are four UT design students hired by Intel for $30,000 to design and produce some piece of public art for AN-2’s exterior. Turning the building into something productive — or at least visually compelling — is a deft public relations move, perhaps spurred by two separate design competitions sponsored by the Chronicle (May 11, 2001, austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2001-05-11/portfolio.html) and the Statesman. Yet it’s also unique in the world of design and architecture, which generally shuns buildings that don’t do what buildings do (shelter people, signal status). For the moment, AN-2 is being re-conceived as an opportunity for Intel to produce something witty, aesthetically pleasing, and civically responsible.
Whether or not Intel gets a good return on its $30,000 investment depends, in large part, on what the students produce. Carolyn Moore, 21, Ian Searcy, 25, Ryan Thompson, 21, and Katie Phillips, 21, are thoughtful, earnest, and smart enough to realize the civic importance of their project — particularly after Sept. 11, which puts AN-2’s potential impact on the city’s architectural profile into an abrupt historical perspective. It also depends on whether the project, called “Take Time,” ever goes up, and if so, how long it stays.
The students have been working since June, when they first presented a set of three designs to the Downtown Austin Alliance. Someone at the meeting was so impressed with their presentation that they told the academic advisor, Dan Olsen, that the students’ designs were “bulletproof” (hence the name for themselves they’re currently kicking around: Bulletproof). One design featured glittering plastic fronds hanging inside AN-2, and in another, adages and facts about the building were tiled on huge sheets of plastic that would be removed, one at a time, to reveal an image of a half-empty glass of water. What Bulletproof is now planning for AN-2, they say, isn’t quite so arch. Instead, it’s playful, but philosophical. “We wanted to give Austinites a visual pause,” Moore says. On further details they’re understandably cagey, since the project is scheduled to be announced soon, perhaps this month.
Bulletproof is giving Intel what it wants. Intel wanted an object that changed over time, and they didn’t want a corporate logo. The company also wanted something that would address AN-2’s current state. “They felt that if they tried to hide the building, it would be a lot worse for them. They weren’t afraid of making fun of themselves,” says Searcy.
After touring the site, climbing to the top floor, driving around and photographing AN-2 from different perspectives, Bulletproof members say they’re attached to the hulk, and that Take Time reflects the beauty they see in it. “We feel kind of defensive, because we like the building,” continues Moore. “We didn’t think it was this big ugly eyesore, so we wanted to protect it in a way.” They all like AN-2 because it’s unexpected and new. “I like the raw color of the cement,” Thompson wrote me later, in an e-mail from the entire group. “It has a sort of ancient ruin quality, void of any ornament or architectural flourishes.”
“I like the rebar coming out of the top of the columns,” Phillips wrote.
“I like the building’s emptiness,” Searcy wrote. “Empty of people and of the usual architectural clutter.”
“When we were first given a tour of the building I was amazed at the view of downtown Austin from the top floor,” Moore wrote. “The concrete slab created a new horizon, bleached white by the sun, that simply dropped off at the building’s edge.”
Such is AN-2’s currently paradoxical nature: The material fact of the concrete skeleton isn’t disgusting, but aesthetic evaluations reduce it all the same. And, while it doesn’t fit the canonical definition of “a building,” it does much of what a building does. It’s not there, but it is. And if the building is ever completed, it will be a shadow of its current self, less interesting and more determinate: a ruin of a ruin.