Follow the Light

On the subterranean beer garden’s creek-side deck, a picnic table is packed with a young professional bunch in rapt conversation, men with their backs to the water oblivious to the glowing presence creeping up the wall behind them. From Waller Creek below, looking up at them and the rest of the Austin skyline, the beast is visible in full: a ghostly creature emerging from the murky depths, its long legs, made of flexible LED Neon lights, frozen in mid-leap, looking as desperate as any other Austin-dweller for a good seat at a bar patio downtown.

This is “Waller Phantasm,” University of Texas School of Architecture Professor Clay Odom’s contribution to the lambent menagerie of the 2015 Creek Show, the second annual walking tour of temporary installations along Austin’s mostly forgotten downtown stretch of Waller Creek. Even the existence of this stretch of the creek has remained a mystery to people who’ve lived in Austin for years. In a city so in love with itself, Waller Creek might be its least appreciated attraction.

But not for long. The creek is undergoing a massive transformation — a $150 million flood control project that will contain the Waller in a downpour and keep its flow consistent in a drought, accompanied by a chain of new downtown parks overseen by New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Peter Mullan, former vice president of New York City’s Friends of the High Line, is leading the Waller Creek Conservancy, a 5-year-old nonprofit booster club for the creek that is working to attract investment and build excitement for the creek’s new life as a signature Austin attraction.

Job number one is a bit of social engineering, encouraging Austinites to start connecting with the creek and building memories before the parks are complete. Over nine nights in November, that’s what Creek Show did for thousands of people, illuminating the normally desolate, foreboding creek-walk confines as a place of discovery and wonder.

“The creek is beautiful in its way,” says Creek Show director Ingrid Spencer, “but it's also abandoned and kind of dirty and dangerous. But what's to come is going to be fabulous.”

Five installations from Austin-based architects and artists made it happen. Upstream from Odom’s “Phantasm,” lurking beneath an Eighth Street bridge, a spidery tangle of ropes illuminates the creek in shifting colors. This is “The Natural Unnatural” designed by Clark Richardson Architects, a suggestion of the meandering unseen pathways that will form the new and improved Waller. Seen from street level, with the owlish Frost Bank building towering above, the piece forms the underside of a monstrous urban jungle.

Architecture firm Specht Harpman’s “Volume” is a reminder that the creek itself has a wild side of its own: a long, luminous curtain of pumped-up creek water adds a soothing presence to the scene, until, at random intervals, it overflows into an unruly waterfall beside the walkways.

These paths were packed on the show’s opening night with a diverse cross-section of the city, most of them wearing thin glow-stick necklaces. Smartly dressed couples trade notes as though making the rounds of an east side gallery, while unsuspecting Sixth Street bar-goers, drawn like June bugs to the light, fawn over someone’s miniature goat whose name is Princess Buttercup, and dads with strollers struggle to negotiate the very non-ADA-compliant platforms spanning the creek between Sixth and Seventh Streets.

Those immovable platforms help underscore the joke in Ten Eyck Landscape Architects’ “Floating the Waller,” a matrix of inner tubes — chosen specifically for their photoreactivity — glowed a striking green in ultraviolet light. At first glance, their stretch of Waller Creek looked like the most orderly float ‘n’ bloat in Central Texas. But the Waller is, for now, untamed, and a downpour halfway through the show flooded the creek and loosed a section of the tubes from their tethers. Designer Christine Skaglund says their team improvised a fix for the show’s final days, stringing a series of the tubes together into one giant ring.

The spirit of Creek Show — sparking visitors’ imaginations about this long-forgotten space — may shine most brightly in artist Luke Savisky’s “AT/x,” a projection of swirling shapes on the underside of a bridge with interactive experience built in: a camera pointed back at the walkway collecting images of visitors’ faces to shine onto to bridge. Savisky says that as he watched visitors interact with his piece — he sat with his equipment through each night of the show — he saw those connections being made, between friends sitting together at his camera, the underside of the bridge above them, and their reflections in the creek below, quite literally seeing themselves in the creek for the first time ever, a vision of creekside times to come.

“Hopefully,” he says, “that creates a space for them to kind of lose their ground a bit and allow their minds to go into a different space. Even though they're looking at themselves, they're seeing something else.”

This article is online content for the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.