What's the story behind the giant blue sunflowers at Mueller?
They’re not windmills, satellite dishes or patio umbrellas for giants. Nope, those futuristic blue structures you see from Interstate 35 when driving past the Mueller development are sunflowers.
Sort of. Really, they’re art — one the city’s largest art installations.
Longtime Austinites will remember when Mueller’s 15 big blue flowers first sprouted. As the city’s population continues to boom with transplants, though, that art installation in one of the city’s busiest districts might be an enigma to some.
The collection of blue structures is formally titled "SunFlowers - A Garden of Energy." The flowers, ranging from 18 to 24 feet tall, are on the east side of I-35, just south of 51st Street. The whole project takes up about 540 feet in length. The "blooms" stretch 13 to 15 feet in diameter.
Massachusetts-based artists Mags Harries and Lajos Héder designed "SunFlowers," marking the western entrance of the Mueller mixed-use development, to make a statement about sustainability.
"The sun sustains all of our lives," the artists wrote in a statement. “All of our energy is originally solar energy, (and) it has created our world and fuels all our activities. Coal and oil are stored solar energy, but they are running out, and obtaining and processing them causes problems. For our future, it is a question of how we capture and use solar energy, so that it keeps us going without environmental catastrophe. The sun and its light are the medium of most art.”
As designed, the piece collects solar power through photovoltaic solar panels fitted onto its “petals.” Then, the “stamens” of the flowers are meant to light up an otherworldly blue at night. As part of the plan, extra power is to be diverted to the city’s grid.
In 2006, "SunFlowers” was chosen out of 37 proposals for a signature art installation at Mueller; the selection process was facilitated by the city’s Art in Public Places program. According to the Mueller website, the process “also involved a period of community input in which the public overwhelmingly selected SunFlowers.”
A number of local firms worked on the project. Dennis Steel Inc. of Leander fabricated the steel structures, and Alpha Painting in Round Rock gave them their signature blue color.
Installation of the metallic flower structures was completed in 2008, but they didn’t glow right away. Delays — caused by discovery of underground utilities at the site, as well as original solar panels that were defective and improperly sized — meant that the flowers were not fully operational until 2009, according to an American-Statesman report at the time.
Since "SunFlowers" sprouted over a decade ago, more large-scale art has appeared in public spots, said Marjorie Flanagan, senior project manager for Art in Public Places. The "Tau Ceti" mural downtown is 106 feet tall, and the "Meanderwing" sculpture at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is 90 feet long.
All that work to bring “SunFlowers” to life for your highway-viewing pleasure was paid for with $500,000 from Catellus, Mueller's master developer, and $50,000 from Applied Materials Inc. Austin Energy also gave out about $65,000 in rebates from its solar program. The city “didn't contribute any money to the art display, but it did help oversee the selection,” according to a 2008 Statesman story.
Is "SunFlowers" the most expensive piece of public art in Austin? That depends on your definition of public art; Flanagan said that "SunFlowers" is not part of the city-managed public art collection. Catellus owns the piece and maintains it. But if you're talking about big, pretty things anyone can go look at outside, it's definitely not the most expensive. “Meanderwing,” created by the firm Marc Fornes/THEVERYMANY, had an art budget of $1.55 million, Flanagan said.
The online dashboard that tracked the energy generation of “SunFlowers” has not been updated since August 2016. The piece no longer lights up at night, either. That might make you think that these big blues have stopped capturing solar power, but that's not the case, according to the development team at Catellus.
"The SunFlowers continue to generate electricity that is used by the adjacent retail center," a representative from Catellus said. The project generates more than 18,000 kilowatt-hours each year, according to the company.
The company said that it recently noticed that the lights were not working due to an issue unrelated to the installation's power generation. Catellus has hired a team to repair the lights.
So, don't be too blue. While you're waiting for the lights to come back on, the flowers still make a long, gray stretch of highway a lot more beautiful.
Austin360 editor Eric Webb leads coverage of the city's entertainment and lifestyle scenes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About this story
Hey, what's that thing? Where did that come from? As Austin welcomes new neighbors (hello, y'all), and as us locals start to wonder about things we've taken for granted, Austin360's Eric Webb is on the case in a series of Austin's Secret Origins. Email email@example.com with origin questions.