What started as a one-night folly to keep the public’s interest in the rehabilitation of Waller Creek has now mushroomed into a 10-night public art happening attracting thousands to a long-neglected stretch of the downtown Austin creek.
The third iteration of the Waller Creek Conservancy’s “Creek Show” starts Nov. 10. For 10 nights, three blocks of sunken creekside walkways between Fifth and Eighth streets will light up with five large-scale, site-specific illuminated installations, each designed by Austin architects, artists, landscape architects and designers.
A nonprofit partner working in tandem with the city to steer the transformation of 1.5 miles of downtown creekside, the conservancy plans to transform the urban riparian zone into an interconnected series of art-filled parks, trails, playscapes and bridges.
Some of that art has already come to fore. In March, the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation donated $1.1 million to facilitate public art along Waller Creek, with a collaborative initiative between the conservancy and the Contemporary Austin. The museum tapped Orly Genger to install “Hurly Burly,” a massive, site-specific installation made of repurposed lobster rope on view through early next year on a stretch of public park adjacent to the Waller Creek Boathouse.
But three years ago, looking for a means to get people at least familiar with often-forgotten Waller Creek, the conservancy tapped Ingrid Spencer, now director of the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, to organize the first “Creek Show.”
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“We knew it was a special part of the urban landscape, but many people were, and still are, unfamiliar with it,” Spencer says. “The combination of light and water at night makes the place look and feel magical, playful. And asking architects and artists to use common materials in uncommon ways for temporary installations heightens that sense of someplace and something that’s unusual and surprising.”
Here are the five projects illuminating Waller Creek this year:
Most visitors start their “Creek Show” journey at East Fifth Street, descending the stairs near Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden, which has a large creekside patio. It’s a complex site with a substantial change in elevation between the street and the creek, a footbridge and that guardrail-lined patio that juts out just where the creek becomes walled with concrete and slows in a soupy channel. Architects Tim Derrington and Wilson Hanks found the complications just the right challenge.
“Everything is complicated about the site, but that’s why I liked it,” Derrington says. “From the verticality of the site to the potential difficulty of finding a way to even install something there.”
The pair conceived of an elegant, 50-foot-diameter arch with flexible, linear LED lighting capable of changing colors and patterns.
But is it an arch, or is it — with its reflection — a complete circle, its bottom half sunk into the dark creek?
Says Derrington: “With its scale and the visual illusion it creates, it sets up a bit of mystery, like it’s an object from a future civilization.”
“Invisible and Absolute”
About 65 to 100 million years ago, Central Texas, along with about 40 percent of North America, was a shallow sea populated by marine reptiles called mosasaurs — huge, predatory ancestors of snakes and lizards. In 1935, a pair of University of Texas geology students found a 30-foot skeleton of the sharp-toothed sea creature in Onion Creek. The Onion Creek Mosasaur is on display at the University of Texas’ Texas Memorial Museum.
An acute creative interpreter of ecological and biological concerns, Austin artist Jules Buck Jones applies a certain whimsy to his 40-foot mosasaur that will loom over Waller Creek. But the reality of ecological change also looms. Jones asks: “What is scarier? A 40-foot monster or extinction itself?”
Landscape architect Alisa West says that she and her collaborator, designer Travis Cook, found intrigue in the singular tension that exists in Waller Creek between the built and the natural environment. The natural flow of the flood-prone creek is in the midst of a technical adjustment, as it were. The bypass tunnel currently under construction will keep the downtown section of Waller Creek from flooding. In the meantime, there are not-so-elegant diversion pipes lining the creek and held in place with mounds of packed caliche. West and Cook decided to celebrate the mundane beauty of these pipes, accentuating them with a long, Slinky-like helix that extends the length of the creek bed.
Austin’s often-difficult historical patterns of urban development proved inspirational for architect Kory Bieg. Waller Creek pronouncedly divides west downtown from the eastside. And Austin’s legacy of racial segregation pushed African-American and Latino populations into flood-prone areas in East Austin. “The Waller Creek improvement project is meant to remediate the flooding that disconnected parts of the city,” Bieg says. His installation “suggests how those parts are stitched together again.”
Bieg used 200 pieces of satin-finished aluminum to create undulating, zipperlike lengths that will be poised within the water, creating microrapids in a few places, the entire piece lit at night by 1,500 battery-operated lights.
“We were fascinated by a watershed map of Austin creeks and how it describes the way our city was developed,” says architect Dharmesh Patel about the installation he and artist Autumn Ewalt created.
When it rains, it rains hard in Austin, and the city often floods. Cumulonimbus and nimbostratus clouds are the type that produce precipitation, so Ewalt and Patel created their “Nimbus Cloud,” a geometric riff on a cloud that’s lit from within by programmable LED lights. This cloud is fancifully placed underneath the East Seventh Street bridge.