Jay Voss's blog

Developing Austin for the Future

Triangle Blueprint

(Image Credit: austinchronicle.com)

This is most likely my last post of the semester, and I thought I spend it writing about development trends in Austin. Anyone who has lived here for more than a few years should be keenly aware of just how quickly this city is changing. Even my landlord is complaining. Well, he’s not technically complaining, but as soon as he has a vacancy to fill, it’s taken, and I think part of the game has been lost for him. But I digress. One of the things about expansive growth in Austin is that it tends to not coincide with urban planning, as I noted in a previous post about the Texas Capital Building. This lack of planning can be frustrating to locals because, well…it’s not Paris. But there’s charm in the city’s architectural idiosyncrasies, and these things do give the city a sense of character. Austin’s a lot like the grimy sci-fi of the original Terminator film, especially when compared to the forensic cleanliness of Star Trek’s sci-fi. So, anyway, there’s a weird thing happening throughout Austin’s current growth spurt, in which planned communities are popping up in the middle of old non-planned neighborhoods. Two questions come to mind: Does it really matter that these communities are planned given the irregular historical zoning beauty that surrounds them? And, secondly, what’s the appeal of these antiseptic neighborhoods, when Austinites could have…well, Austin?

The Austin Zen Center's Garden as a Model for Austin


(Image Credit: Jay Voss)

Nothing sums up the best of Austin’s landscape gardening tastes like the garden at the Austin Zen Center. Located on West 31st Street between Guadalupe and Lamar, the Austin Zen Center’s garden is impressive any time of year. Every plant in the garden is native. The vegetation in the garden never, ever receives sprinkler water. The entire growing space is focused around a gorgeous old live oak tree, like a dry landscape garden is focused around a sizable boulder. It’s only when you look at the Austin Zen Center’s garden twice that you notice the massive live oak isn’t centered on the acreage – that it seems to do so is only an illusion. Everything in the garden is clean, pure, and honest, and a steadfast commitment to these virtues on the part of those who care for the landscape has the effect of producing a space that is harmonious and seemingly balanced.

Searching for Wildflowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

(Image Credit: Jay Voss)

With spring now fully upon us, and the last frost finally out of the way, plants are starting to leaf in the Texas Hill Country. And aside from appreciating the odd dogwood tree early in the new season, this means that it’s time to go out and appreciate Texas’s extensive native wildflower population. There’s nowhere better to do this than at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Located several miles south of town, just off of MoPac, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a great place to spend an afternoon in the sun (especially if Barton Springs is on your way home). I could go on and on with Lonely Planet-like copy about why you and yours should make time for a visit this weekend, but instead I’ll just jump to the chase: the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is probably one of the most thoughtful public urban landscapes in the Austin metro area. It’s a very, very smart example of landscape architecture, and it ultimately serves a civic purpose.

Small-Government Urban Planning Sometimes Negates Itself

Texas State Capital

(Image Credit: dfwfoodtrucks.com)

There’s no doubting that Austin’s a great example of urban sprawl. Anyone who’s driven up Burnet Road on a shopping expedition, or down South Lamar looking for a romantic Saturday night dinner, has probably wondered at some point: Why can’t these things just be closer to where I live? Fortunately, I don’t think this question is born out of narcissism. Things are far apart in Austin. And given the town’s expanding population, they feel as though they’re getting farther and farther apart, with all the increased traffic and whatnot. Over the decades, this city has grown and expanded without any apparent civic regard for urban planning. Which makes the Capital Building a really interesting monument. The roads leading to the Texas State Capital are reminiscent of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s planning of Washington, D.C., and they convey a confidence in American governance that would make Governor Rick Perry blush. Either that or the eyes of Texas are upon us.

Shoal Creek: Perhaps As Resourceful As Urban Planning Gets

(Image credit: Jay Voss)

The park that stretches along Austin’s Shoal Creek is pretty amazing when you think about it. Starting near Lady Bird Lake downtown, the trails and bikeways wind all the way up towards 38th street. By my approximated Google Maps calculation, that’s nearly three and a half miles of gravel path, all of which feeds into the much longer Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail (discussed in my last post). Like the trails around Lady Bird Lake, in good weather the parkland around Shoal Creek is routinely flooded with Austinites seeking exercise and a break from concrete and metal. Joggers, walkers, and “mountain” bikers all frequent the trail. Around about 25th Street there is a leash free area for pets. At Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard there are three beach volleyball courts. Just north of 15th Street there’s an extensive playground and more volleyball courts. On the surface of things, there’s nothing exceptional about these recreation areas. Most communities throughout the United States provide their residents with public recreation. Indeed, community owned recreation areas have probably been a part of human settlements for longer than we can imagine. What I think is unique about Austin’s Shoal Creek and the surrounding environs is the extent to which the park consciously embodies a natural environment that challenges the skyscrapers in the distance.

Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike: A Lasting Anchor for Austin

Hike and Bike Trail

(Image Credit: Jay Voss)

If we’re to think about landscapes in Austin, it only makes sense to start with something in the very heart of the city. What immediately comes to mind, of course, is the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. This jogging path encompasses over 10 miles of mostly flat jogging track that weaves its way around and over Lady Bird Lake. It has proved to be an enormously popular place for Austinites to escape their concrete jungle. Go down to the area for an evening workout in the warmer months, and the trail will be so packed with joggers and walkers you’d wish you’d braved the midday heat. I’ve long thought all this activity around the lake to be one of the more inspiring aspects of living in Austin. There aren’t really any other cities that I can think of that offer up swaths of seemingly undeveloped land for outdoor recreation. Sure, there’s that stretch along Lake Michigan in Chicago, or along the quays in Paris, but nothing quite compares. The architectural thinking behind the Austin trail is completely focused on getting Austinites out and about, and given that the city is otherwise obsessed with finding all sorts of comfort via technological progress, I think the hike and bike trail is really admirable.

Can We Measure the Expansion of a City by Its Landscaping?

Changing Downtown Austin

(Image Credit: KXAN Austin)

It’s great to be back on viz. after a semester away. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps the most noticeable thing in Austin upon my return is the city’s insane rate of expansion. When one moves about town and looks at buildings, every few blocks or so there’s a new set of high rise apartments (or whatever) going in. Nowhere are the roads being widened to account for the new residents. Rush hour is literally a bunch of metallic, CO2-emitting rivers, and all this negates (at least for me) most pretences Austin makes towards modernity. I heard somewhere that 20,000 people are moving to Austin each month, although I have no idea if that’s really the case – the statistic can make one feel like they live cattle market. But to be fair, most up-and-coming cities can have that feel. Traffic rant aside, if Austin’s powers at be aren’t adjusting roadways to account for new residents, I wonder how smaller entities (such as neighborhoods, private residents, and institutions) are altering their own urban environments to account for the change. In some cases, perhaps, maybe a few brilliant environments that were designed 20 years ago are still healthy, despite all the change. In other cases, perhaps the city is designing new parks and gardens to address future public needs. I am going to try and dedicate all my viz. posts for the coming semester to landscape design in Austin. It might prove valuable, as I’m not sure these things are being catalogued anywhere else.

Some Predictions for Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby Film

I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to view a trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation yet, but I think I’ll see the film. This comment says nothing about my expectations for the film’s critical success, but rather reflects what a visual feast this production is sure to be. From what I can tell, the movie attempts to marry a 1920s aesthetic with the sorts of gratuitous celebrations I remember last seeing 1990s rap music videos. The parties in the Great Gatsby film, as you can glimpse above, seem to be indulgent and overly choreographed affairs. At times the frame rate even appears to slow down a bit (like the polo shot in the trailer above), and I think this is meant to give viewers an opportunity to take it all in. I remember first seeing this technique in rap music videos, when the director would give us a slow-motion pan shot of an eclectic street party. It’ll be interesting to see how successful Luhrmann’s marriage of this 1990s aesthetic is when added to the necessary narrative components of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. One of my reservations is that there’s a way in which the novel is anxious about gratuitous wealth, especially about the ways wealth can potentially corrode moral fiber, and idealizing such parties seems out of step. My other reservation is that, judging from the trailers alone, the movie looks like a 2010s fashion catalogue.

Musing About Aesthetics: Arnold Newman and Some Famous Architects

Arnold Newman, Robert Moses portrait

(Image credit: Harry Ransom Center)

It shouldn’t be surprising, but I was drawn to the photographs of architects in the Harry Ransom Center’s ongoing exhibit, Arnold Newman: Masterclass. They made the exhibit for me. Those of you who’ve kept up with my blogging in recent months know that I appreciate the art of designing interior and exterior spaces, and so to see photographs of architects in the Arnold Newman exhibit…it was a highlight. Jim and Rachel posted earlier this week about how Newman liked to place his subjects in front of something relevant to their work. Thus Igor Stravinsky was photographed next to a Steinway. I suspect this strategy served two purposes. First, and perhaps most importantly, framing subjects with their objets d’art allowed Newman to establish an aesthetic through which his own audience could gage his portraits. (We’d assume the JFK portrait was by Newman even if the photograph wasn’t attributed, because of the contrived way the White House sits in the background.) This surely eased Newman’s routine, as he had a formula to bring to each new shoot. Secondly, framing subjects with their objets d’art allowed Newman to comment on his subjects’ work, in much the same way that we might consider a modern Shakespeare production to be an interpretation of a Renaissance text. All of this is obvious and provocative in Newman’s photographs of architects.

Bob Dylan on Contemporary Literature

A few weeks ago a 2001 press conference with Bob Dylan emerged on youtube. Dylan, usually cagey and recalcitrant with reporters, is unusually earnest in the interview. He says a lot about his career and his Love and Theft album, which he was promoting at the time. You can check out a clip above, and the interview’s other five segments can be found on youtube. The reason I choose to bring this to the attention of the blog is that in the interview Dylan makes some interesting comments about the state of literature in America, and in particular some comments about how digital media is affecting the ways we feel. The comments, which I’ll outline below, are particularly relevant after yesterday’s massacre at the Boston Marathon, but I’ll leave that connection to your own reflections – we’ve all seen coverage of that tragedy, and I don’t want to add to the noise. As the version of Bob Dylan who appeared on the day of that interview might suggest, this post isn’t a work of art and thus I have no business telling you how to feel.

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