Developing Austin for the Future

Triangle Blueprint

(Image Credit:

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?

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.

Renovating Austin: New Homes In Old Neighborhoods

Austin Home

(Image credit: Jay Voss)

There’s an odd thing happening in Austin’s older neighborhoods: people are moving in, tearing down whatever 1930s homes they find on their lots, and in these spaces constructing decidedly modern dwellings. The subsequent structure stands out on its block like you wouldn’t believe. There’s such a disparity between the neighborhood’s older ranch homes and these new structures of corrugated metal and cantilevered edges. It’s a contrast between the standout and the ubiquitous, and the standout wins the eye every time. To make things more interesting: the locals I’ve asked hate these new structures, while those of us who’ve moved here recently tend to find them more inviting. I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. Although I see and understand the detriment one might perceive in continuity’s disruption, isn’t such materialistic continuity exactly what Austinites are constantly going out of their way to subvert? What gives? Aren’t we all supposed to applaud when something immaterial keeps Austin weird? Coming at the issue from a different angle, I’m a fairly serious student of architecture, and so for me it’s always refreshing to see tasteful structures going up (no matter what the situation, really). To this end I think architecture in its purist form encourages balance and harmony, and building a mansion amidst cottages (just for irony’s sake, I guess) is arrogant and misguided.

This Week's New Yorker Cover and Frank Lloyd Wright

New Yorker Cover

(Image credit: The New Yorker)

This week’s New Yorker cover features a rendering of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, and I thought the occasion merited some meditation on what the museum means to us today. It’s an odd shaped building, and I can’t think of one that’s been built like it sense. Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House, pictured below and opened in April 2008, is a great example of how contemporary architects are still designing buildings for the arts in brave new ways. (That fantastic structure mimics a Norwegian glacier melting into the sea, and many of its smart features work to invite all of Oslo, not just the operatic elite, to inhabit within and without.) But no structure for the arts built since 1960 has been as original as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Opened on 21 October 1959, the Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wright’s last masterpiece. It was (more or less) commissioned in 1943, but the project took Wright 15 years and over 700 sketches to complete. Such revision is unusual for a Wright project, of course – most of his designs were completed in a matter of hours. (I suspect he was always thinking about his projects, and thus when the time came to get his ideas down on paper for clients there wasn’t much work to do.) What’s so unique about the Guggenheim Museum is that it’s a descending spiral. This design has two benefits: visitors can effortlessly enjoy the museum’s exhibit as they casually descend a ramp and, more importantly, the changing diameter of the spiral always allows for natural lighting at the art. Form follows function.

New Forms for Old Needs in Norman Bel Geddes’s "House of Tomorrow"

This image is the floor plans for Norman Bel Geddes's House of Tomorrow

Image Credit: Metropolis Magazine

Walking through the Harry Ransom Center’s excellent Norman Bel Geddes exhibit, one thing that struck me is that while Bel Geddes is particularly famous for his large industrial designs—radios, cars, cities, and stadiums, for example—he also directed his talents towards the intimate spaces of the American home. Before Bel Geddes designed prefabricated homes for the Housing Corporation for America in 1939, or published his 1932 book Horizons, he wrote an article called “The House of Tomorrow” for the April 1931 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The “twentieth-century style” he describes is one that he sees uniting form and function anew for the needs of the twentieth-century individual—or rather, what he imagines the twentieth-century individual to be.


Ai Weiwei after initial arrest

(Image credit:

I’ve been a fan of Ai Weiwei’s work ever since the Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate (October 2010). In that work, Ai commissioned 1,600 Chinese artisans from the town of Jingdezhen (a town that’s been producing pottery for nearly 2 millennia) to hand-paint 100,000,000 porcelain sunflower seeds, and the pieces were then scattered evenly on the floor of the museum’s great hall. Visitors were initially allowed onto the seeds, making the spot a lovely place to pass an afternoon. What drew me to the exhibit and its creator were not the political implications of the installation (which I’d come to respect later) or the smart way in which Ai decided to fill the Tate’s space, but rather the fact that 8 million extra seeds had been created to account for visitors taking a handful on their way out. It’s probably fair to say that most artists invited to fill the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall are rather finicky about their work, but here was someone honest enough to account for the fact that visitors might be tempted to take a piece home with them.

An Art Deco King James in the Orientalist Vein: François-Louis Schmied’s Engravings of the Creation and Ruth Stories

Schmied Creation Two-Page Spread: French on one Side, Animals on the Other

Image Credit: The Harry Ransom Center

Just before viz. took a break for spring, we visited the Harry Ransom Center’s newest exhibition, The King James Bible: Its History and Influence. Instead of finding only illuminated manuscripts, we were surprised to find contemporary art, literary manuscripts, film posters, and even a sculpture of a golden calf. The exhibition is not just a collection of well-preserved historic Bibles—it’s a unique collection of visual artifacts tangentially related to the King James Bible. As the viz. team walked around the exhibition, one grouping of images caught my eye. Art Deco engraver François-Louis Schmied’s artwork to accompany a French translation of both Genesis and The Book of Ruth from the King James Bible is absolutely stunning. The artwork is most interesting for its fusion of the geometric lines of Art Deco with the Orientalism of its creator and the lyricism of the Biblical stories it illustrates.

Art + Architecture: Fact and Fiction in The Buell Hypothesis

Buell Hypothesis: Blue Cover

Image Credit: Experiments in Architecture and Research

A few days ago, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) unveiled its newest exhibition, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream. A collection of five architectural plans that reimagine how five different suburbs in America could have benefitted significantly from Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, Foreclosed is an amazing exhibition that melds art and architecture, politics and place. Today, I’m going to discuss the impetus of this exhibition—The Buell Hypothesis. The Hypothesis is an amazing hybrid publication created by Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. According to the publication’s graphic designers, The Buell Hypothesis is “part socratic dialogue, part contemporary screenplay, part media scape and part power point slide presentation.” This hybrid production, with its emphasis on collaboration and reinterpretation, is an appropriate point of genesis for Foreclosed

Art + Architecture: Diana Al-Hadid’s “Suspended After Image”

"Suspended After Image": Entire installation, featuring stairs, paint drips, and plaster body

Image Credit: Sandy Carson, taken from CultureMap Austin

For those of us interested in architectural sculpture, the last few months in Austin (especially on the UT campus) have felt like gifts from the art gods. I’ve already written about one exhibition (the recently-closed El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa show at the Blanton Museum of Art). This month ushered in a second sculptural exhibition. New York sculptor Diana Al-Hadid’s Suspended After Image, a site-specific installation at UT’s Visual Arts Center’s Vaulted Gallery, is a feat of texture and height. As a fantastic example of architectural art, Al-Hadid’s most recent work for the VAC asks viewers to circumambulate the sculpture and ponder the relationship between memory, built objects, and humanity.

Create, Skate, and Destroy: Architecture in Motion

Thrasher cover, Love square

Rodney Torres, 50-50 through Love Sculpture, image from Quartersnacks

Street skaters love architecture. Few people other than architects notice or appreciate the designs in concrete, marble, metal, and brick that comprise a city, but seen through a skater's eyes, lines of movement appear everywhere. Ledges, stairs, hand rails, and even (or especially) smooth concrete and marble elicit a joyful recognition of possibilities. Rather than an agglomeration of static structures, the city becomes an invitation to motion; the skater desires contact with the hard surfaces of the urban environment. Assemblage of body, board, and buildings: a intimate becoming, in love with (the) concrete.

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