HOK opened an office in Austin in 2022, with Vanessa Rabe coming on board as practice leader and George Blume joining the firm as design principal. In this interview, these longtime Austinites discuss their aspirations for designing in and for the city they love—and share their favorite barbecue and taco spots.
Both of you have witnessed Austin’s transformation from a laid-back college town and counterculture haven, immortalized in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, to a thriving metropolis and tech hub. What has it been like to live through this transformation?
George: I was born in Texas and my family moved to Austin in the late 80s. I attended undergrad at the University of Texas (UT) in the 90s, so I’ve lived through many of the changes.
Austin has always had a unique charm, from Willie Nelson’s rebellion against the corporate country music scene in the ‘70s, dovetailing into a countercultural movement, to the affordability of the ‘80s that birthed the ‘slacker’ culture. It was never about laziness but about taking advantage of the low cost of living. This gave people the freedom to be creative. This environment paved the way for the rise of the tech ecosystem, with pioneers like Michael Dell selling motherboards from his mother’s garage. This mix created the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ ethos that encapsulates the city’s embrace of nonconformity and authenticity.
How did the 2000 dot-com bubble burst affect Austin?
George: It slowed things down, but we were still growing. Austin’s strength lies in its ability to balance a progressive culture with the economic advantages of being in a state like Texas. Coming out of the recession, money was cheap and entrepreneurs began to invest in the city more than ever. Austin thrives when it’s allowed to be itself, not a clone of any other city in the country. What I mean by that is that Austin could stumble if it tries to be something it’s not. We value authenticity and preserving our culture. If you move to Austin and embrace our lifestyle and try to improve it, you’re an Austinite.
Vanessa, can you tell us about the path you took to get to Austin?
Vanessa: I’m a native Texan but moved around a lot as a kid and, in the process, discovered that I preferred to live in warm-weather climates. In the late 90s, I applied to architecture programs across the South and fell in love with Austin. I went to UT Austin for my undergrad degree in architecture and have been in Austin ever since. While I was still in school, I got a job at a Texas-based firm that was working on the UT Austin campus. I have had the pleasure of working on many UT Austin campus projects since then and while I’ve had opportunities to move to other cities, I haven’t wanted to leave Austin. It’s home and I’m excited to have this opportunity to continue to influence my city’s architecture.
Why did you choose to join HOK?
Vanessa: I was drawn to a firm where I could keep design at the forefront while leading the business side. I previously had a very positive experience partnering with an HOK team for three months to pursue a project, and I was impressed by their collaborative approach.
George: What also attracted me to HOK was their genuine interest in our potential contributions to the firm. They were more focused on how Vanessa and I could make a great firm even better. That’s what locked it in for me.
What are your aspirations for the office?
George: Austin is one of the country’s fastest-growing cities. While we want to contribute to that growth and expand the office, we believe our growth should be organic. We want to design projects that are right for HOK and for the community, contributing to Austin on its terms.
Vanessa: There’s a misconception that we are only suited for designing large projects. But we are a very diverse firm—especially from a size perspective—and can really excel in everything from small office fit-outs to large-scale projects. Regardless of project size, we want to contribute to the future of Austin in every way we can and bring the high-quality design that HOK is known for to create authentic spaces for our clients in Austin.
George: We also take our financial responsibility to clients very seriously. If an idea isn’t financially viable, it isn’t truly a great idea. We strive to balance our clients’ budgets with our design vision.
What’s your vision for the studio culture?
George: There’s a lot of industry chatter about what’s needed to bring people back to the office. Everyone, including HOK, is producing white papers describing what today’s office tenants and brokers are looking for. And that’s all true. We want to make the office as engaging, cool and exciting as possible. But it’s also about giving our people reasons to come in and actively collaborate on projects. We’re building a studio that functions like a family, where everyone has each other’s backs.
Vanessa: It’s important to us to hire people that are comfortable learning and mentoring. A lot of learning happens when you surround yourself with diverse people with different skills and market expertise. We currently have a great group of collaborators who genuinely enjoy being around each other. In our open office environment, we overhear each other’s discussions, ask questions and contribute to solutions. Our office design helps foster that work environment we want to embody.
Can you describe the Capitol Complex Phase II project and its potential impact on Austin?
Vanessa: This is such an exciting project for HOK to contribute to. We’re designing two new state office buildings, an extension of the pedestrian mall and underground parking on 15th Street between Lavaca Street and Congress Avenue. Historically, downtown Austin, the Capitol and the UT campus felt like separate zones. The first phase of the project started near UT and extended halfway down the mall. Now, our project at Phase II will complete the connection of the south side of the mall with the Capitol. It’s exciting to be part of a project that enhances the connectivity from Lady Bird Lake north up to the campus.
George: With this project at a critical corner of our city, there’s a sense of responsibility to get these buildings right, as they’ll be a highly visible part of the city’s landscape for years to come.
Before we wrap up, we have to ask about your favorite places to get barbecue and tacos in Austin?
George: For barbecue, I’m a big fan of Valentina’s and Micklethwait. For tacos, it’s Veracruz.
Vanessa: For me, barbecue would be Stiles Switch. For tacos, it would be De Nada, which is close to the office.
What’s the neighborhood around the office like?
George: We’re in East Austin, which still has an edginess to it. It’s a very diverse neighborhood where everything seems to have been just shoved together. There’s a rawness and energy here that’s exciting.
Vanessa: There are so many different things within a five-minute walk. I love how you can go to a local artist’s shop, visit a brewery or rent a camper van.