Waller Creek’s Peripatetic Image
by Erika Huddleston
Waller Wall, an installation piece displayed during Spring 2014 SXSW Interactive Create, is the exciting rst commission of the new Creek Show arts-based programming of the Waller Creek Conservancy. The Waller Creek Conservancy is a private non-profit working in partnership with the City of Austin to steward the transformation coming to the section of Waller Creek between Waterloo Park and Lady Bird Lake. Creek Show will erect temporary art pieces over the next few years as fundraising and public awareness build for the civic landscape architecture project. Creek Show co-chair Hope Hasbrouck says, “Creek Show proposes to transform Austin’s Waller Creek into an active venue for art, architecture, and landscape architecture. A series of temporary installations will appear along the 1.5-mile site in an attempt to surprise and delight the community.”
Waller Wall came about through the efforts of Waller Creek Conservancy President, Melba Whatley, who instigated the idea of forming a public art initiative for Waller Creek. Whatley called Architectural Record Contributing Editor, Ingrid Spencer, and UT Landscape Architecture professor, Hope Hasbrouck, to develop Creek Show. As co-chairs, Spencer and Hasbrouck invited Murray Legge, Austin architect and a current professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, to create the first Creek Show installation. Legge’s Fall 2013 Design 5 undergraduate studio took on the art piece as a semester long research and design and fabrication project. Fifteen students, Ben Goldberg, Charlotte Friedley, Kara Turner, Yingqian Zhuang, Cheryl McGi n, Pearlene Cheah, Kathe Meyers, Philipp Hufschmid, Ariana Hallenbeck, Jose Ricky Zendejas, Raveena Bhalara, Claire Fonaine, Aubrey Werner, Ricardo Soto, and Kaitlyn Guerner, designed the project under Legge’s instruction and created Waller Wall.
Materially, the 200 sq ft piece is assembled out of a set of parts. It flat packs into a truck and then is erected as jointed modules that can be deconstructed and rebuilt again and again with templates. The wall exists as a moveable piece to be sited anywhere rather than as a site-specific installation interacting with the particular location of Waller Creek. The piece’s indeterminate physical siting is in many ways relevant to its meaning. With its exible portability, Waller Wall may be erected near or far from the creek in any space or non-space and all the while is successfully placemaking for Waller Creek. “If you give people a platform with which to develop a relationship with a place, they will do so very quickly because they did something fun and creative there,” says Danya Sherman, master’s student in urban planning at MIT, and previous Director of Public Programs, Education, and Community Engagement at the High Line. Waller Wall sets up a place wherever it is and with art’s pixie dust, gives Waller Creek the magical ability to materialize throughout the city of Austin at large to meet people and engage.
“Waller Wall sets up a place wherever it is and with art’s pixie dust, gives Waller Creek the magical ability to materialize throughout the city of Austin at large to meet people and engage.”
Visitors walking up to Waller Wall first see one side of the piece which is shear and orthogonal and then they walk around to see the reverse side, which is an undulating, organic form. Legge says of the design: “the two-sided structure comes from the creek running along the city edge’s straight orthographic geometry. The creek meanders and carves itself through the city– a fundamental duality between the more natural carved erosion of the creek against the city grid.” The design process began with the students diagramming Waller Creek’s creek bank morphology, which they then translated into data sets and a 3D model in Rhino. The students designed a hand-built stacked construction method evoking the geological sedimentation of the creek bed limestone. Horizontal sheets of plywood alternate vertically with rows of pine 2×4 boards until a “wall” is layered up onsite—a mimesis of the natural processes itself. And, when people crowd around the wall, the metaphor carries on as the swarms appear to be like the flowing creek water– nearly acting as agents on the carved wood of the piece. The 2×4 boards or “louvers” are arrayed within the layered plywood as if moving with the ow of water in the creek. The boards are stained on one side in translucent hues of watery royal blue, turquoise, and indigo and are flipped in sections so that the pale cream unstained raw wood contrasts as a ribbon against the blue stained boards.
Two protrusions that function as shelf/seat/table extend from the undulating side and become worktables where spray paint and stencils sit placed for visitors to use. All ages can participate as there is a lower paint shelf for children and a taller shelf for adults. Small wood “takeaway” blocks inside the layered design of Waller Wall provide the design’s planned visitor interaction. These wood blocks were designed by Legge and his class to be removed over time, spray painted with stencils as mini art pieces, and then taken home as keepsakes by visitors in a dynamic erosion of the wall. Legge says that “unexpectedly, many people reinserted the blocks into the piece. We were excited by that.” Over time, the controlled design of the wall became inhabited with brightly colored reinserted blocks and overspray marks of people decorating and embellishing. Whether the blocks are removed or left behind, Waller Wall allows the individual takeaway blocks to fluidly come and go within the structural wood framework—just as the future park will embrace a multitude of open-ended activities within its bounds. This invitation to the community to come and play, investigate, make art, and enjoy changing the art piece, invokes, perhaps coincidentally, the iconic community wall visited by pilgrims in Jerusalem. At the Wailing Wall, too, viewers are participants who leave written prayers in the rocky limestone crevices.
Public art sited outdoors enters the context of landscape architecture. Creek Show co-chair Ingrid Spencer says of outdoor artworks, “You don’t have to enter a building to find something beautiful or delightful. You don’t have to pay a fee. Outdoors anyone can chance upon it. It’s not as precious.” Recently, an array of compelling public art pieces sited in the landscape invite viewers to interact as participants conceptually just as Waller Wall does. Examples include artist Erica Felicella’s (un) burden in Dallas parks where visitors walk up to talk to the artist sitting on a platform. Or Rachel Feinstein’s newly opened Summer 2014 installation for Mad Sq Art at Madison Square Park in New York City where Feinstein plans for her three built theater stage follies to be climbed by parkgoers whom she envisions as Commedia dell’Arte actors. If the 2004 Chicago art piece Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa in Millennium Park were designed today, just ten years later it would very likely have the viewers’ own faces instantly projected onto the falling water as they stand and face the artwork. The crowd-drawing ability of interactive outdoor public art can be a microcosm of the energy and activity to come in a future public park project. It is tempting to mentally populate the fabulous design renderings of Van Valkenburgh and Associates for Waller Creek with the energy and life Waller Wall brought to the Long Center Terrace in March.
Perhaps, with public art in the landscape, the act of gathering people together is really the art itself. Murray Legge and his students created Waller Wall to be not a static installation but to be a dynamic platform for interaction with visitors. The extraordinary craft, creativity, and sculptural impact of the art piece define its initial value but as it draws people in through its visuals, it retains people through the interactive component of the takeaway blocks. The result is a successful engagement tool on behalf of the Waller Creek Conservancy. “Art can be created at a small or crazy scale, its effects can be limitless. Marry that to a super pragmatic, bureaucratic process in a larger discussion about improving the built environment and we have much more to discuss,” says John Arroyo who worked on public art projects in conjunction with the LA River and is now a PhD at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “And, artists are nimble! We can do so much with $15. So, when you give us $50 it’s awesome. When you give us $50,000, it is a parade.” Waller Wall is part of a wave of public art that values engagement over monument. It sounds simple, but gathering us in a place in real-time to share and talk might de ne the most in uential public art and landscape architecture projects of our time.