Originally published in Tribeza, October 1, 2003
Two-and-a-half years ago I wrote a short piece for the first issue of TRIBEZA describing briefly the potentials, challenges and immediate outlook for architecture and urban design in Austin. Those were heady days in early 2001 when this City seemed ready to accomplish anything it set its mind to. Ambitious new museums, performing arts venues, civic ensembles and urban infrastructure improvements were on the drawing boards and seemed certain to reach near-term fruition.
Given the precipitous economic decline that followed, it is actually quite phenomenal that so many of these projects have survived to either reach completion or at least to keep enough momentum that their outlook is still optimistic. On the civic scene, the new Community Events Center on Auditorium Shores is up and thriving. The expansion of the Austin Convention Center has more than doubled that facility’s capacity while also giving it a powerful new “front door” presence and a much more integral position in the fabric of the Sixth Street Entertainment District. The new City Hall is emerging from its mammoth construction excavation-slowed down, but still on track.
Dreams of a badly needed new generation of cultural facilities have been more vulnerable to the economic downturn. But while a number of particularly well-conceived plans for new Austin museums and performance places have stalled or died, the University of Texas has picked up some of the slack by garnering substantial private resources and expanding its longstanding role in enriching the Austin cultural scene. The staid old HRC Building on a prominent corner of Guadalupe and 21st Street has been transformed into the remarkable Ransom Center Galleries. Sophisticated and original both in the nature of its exhibits and its fresh new architectural character, this treasure-trove for the humanities is just the kind of jewel that can give Austin its own unique cultural distinction. The new Blanton Museum of Art has broken ground on its landmark site where north Congress Avenue terminates at the UT campus and promises to be a commodious home for an extraordinary collection which the University has been unable to display.
Significant strides have also been made to plug some of the “snaggle-toothed” gaps in the fabric of downtown Austin. Even when the infill involves an isolated or unremarkable hotel or office building replacing an open parking lot, the new energy and activity generated contributes to a livelier downtown. When there is a well-coordinated effort to raise the bar in terms of both architectural and urban design, as in the mixed-use CSC/AMLl/City Hall district centered on Second Street, the effect can be more synergistic. It is new and refreshing to see urban residential buildings balancing the overall chemistry of uses downtown in a significant way. Large, sophisticated projects like the Nokonah and Austin City Lofts predict a new way of living in the city and a new citizenry with a substantial stakehold in downtown.
Exciting recent developments, unforeseen in 2001, also promise to enrich our urban and architectural landscape in the foreseeable future. Whole Foods has, once again, proven itself a model of creative Austin entrepreneurship by investing in an expanded headquarters downtown. Most exciting of all, is the decision to replace one of downtown’s most notorious eyesores-the unfinished INTEL “mainframe” on Republic Square-with a new Federal Courthouse to be developed through the Federal Government’s prestigious Design Excellence Program.
But while all of these projects bode well for Austin’s commitment to be a proud, progressive city which can protect its uniqueness while moving forward into the future, there are signs of great danger as well. Start-from-scratch developments on large parcels of land at the city’s periphery have not provided the same positive outlook as downtown. Even when enlightened developers have entered the arena with the best of intentions, their efforts and those of their architects seem to be stymied.
Why is it that even in tough economic times the cancer of cacophonous, confusing suburban sprawl proliferates unabated? Banal subdivisions continue to ravage Hill Country landscapes, while strip malls and “big box power centers” spring up along roadways and clog intersections. The national/international market of retail chains seems to have invaded Austin particularly mercilessly over recent years, leaving their standardized boxes surrounded by seas of asphalt-often abandoned in a few years for bigger boxes with bigger parking lots at the next “hot” new retail corner.
The battle cry of “Keep Austin Weird” is, for me, a call to all of us to help keep Austin unique-a reflection of the remarkable assets we have inherited in terms of the physical environment and a bellwether for creative and dynamic development focusing on a rich quality of life for the future. We do that by voting with our dollars to support the institutions and businesses that build in a way that makes our community more particular and independent and by avoiding generic, faceless development like a plague.