One of the beautiful things about architecture, Emily Little has learned, is that it doesn’t take broad strokes to make important changes. Take, for example, the outdoor lounge area at the Hotel St. Cecilia in South Austin, or the mirador that tops a former bomb shelter at a Westlake home.
Little designed both and still revels in the small details that can make such spaces into places people seek out for comfort and enjoyment.
“Really special places to me tend to be where a building meets the outdoors, where a wall is broken down, where you think ‘am I inside or outside?’” she said.
Little has more than 30 years of architecture work under her belt, but she didn’t start out in that field. A graduate of the University of Texas in the early 1970s, she got her degree in anthropology. After spending a few years in New York City, she gravitated back to Austin, where she completed her degree in architecture.
Little said that once she discovered architecture, she had a “eureka” moment. But her anthropology background still plays an important role in her architecture practice.
“I feel like it’s my basis for understanding the world: [In anthropology] you learn all the different ways people see the world and interpret reality, and I think that’s what good architects do. They see things through a user’s or owner’s eyes. Architecture is a re- flection of culture, and anthropology is a study of culture.”
Little is a principal with Clayton & Little, where much of the work that’s been keeping her busy lately has included adaptive re-use of historically significant buildings, such as the Hotel St. Cecilia. That hotel was originally a Victorian mansion, built in 1888. Whether working with commercial or residential clients, she said one of her firm’s strong suits is working within existing neighborhoods with sensitivity to the scale of the area. When using new materials or building new elements, she likes to make sure they knit well into the neighborhood instead of becoming an overwhelming presence.
Outside of Austin, Little is part of a team drawing up a new master plan for the beloved Jacob’s Well swimming hole in Wimberley and is working on new visitor centers for two Texas state parks.
Her passion, both within the field of architecture and outside of it, is the intersection of art, architecture and culture.
“Those are the things that thrill me, and how those feed us and form us,” she said.
As an Austin native, Little has had ample opportunity to watch the city transform over the years. And as someone who advises aspiring architects to look around them and see what changes, however small, can improve the space around them, she has found Austin’s growth thrilling.
“Austin is so exciting,” she said. “The concern I have is to not destroy our few remaining historic buildings. Austin doesn’t have a rich historic background. You drive to San Antonio, and there’s block after block of these amazing [historic] buildings…we don’t have all that. We don’t want to be all new—I like the new—but I like the mixing of infill with new building. I hope we all…keep that in mind.”