On the heels of the Waller Creek Pop-up Adventure Picnic, when the typically deserted Palm Park hosted five hundred Austinites with an evening of food and live music, there may soon be several other reasons to visit Waller Creek before its upcoming metamorphosis from derelict and forgotten waterway into a vibrant downtown destination. If funding prevails, Creek Show, a series of temporary installations, will appear along the 1.5-mile Waller Creek site in an attempt to surprise and delight the community while also creating awareness about the importance of Waller Creek’s transformation for Austin’s connectivity.
“Illumination is the theme,” says Ingrid Spencer, co-director of the project. “Our team has at least six Creek Show projects currently being prototyped, each involving lighting and each designed by local architects and landscape architects. If the funding can be secured, we’re ready to start making Waller Creek an active venue for art, architecture, and landscape architecture.”
Waller Creek Conservancy Board President Melba Whatley envisioned Creek Show as a way to engage the public in Waller Creek’s ongoing transformation during the two years that the massive tunnel infrastructure project is underway. It also aims to get the community excited about the possibilities and significance of the Michael Van Valkenburgh and Thomas Phifer-designed park. The tunnel, scheduled to be completed in early 2015, will remove 28 acres from the floodplain, protect the creek bed from erosion, and help keep the creek’s water clean.
“The great challenge for us is to encourage people to think about Waller Creek as a place to go, when there is really nothing for them to visit yet,” said Whatley. The first iteration of this effort was the Palm Picnic, and Creek Show will continue to activate Waller Creek in anticipation of its integration into the urban fabric and its evolution into a destination in its own right.
Waller Creek at its heart is a landscape architecture project that banks on the fact that green space has consistently proven to be hugely effective in terms of transforming cities. Creek Show is a landscape architecture-led endeavor; co-directing with Spencer is Hope Hasbrouck, landscape architect and UT Austin professor. Along with Hasbrouck and Spencer, the Creek Show team consists of two other landscape architects, Jason Sowell and the firm Design Workshop, as well as three architecture firms, Baldridge Architects, Thoughtbarn, and Legge Lewis Legge. “We have assembled a team composed of some of the most creative minds in the city for this effort,” said Whatley.
“The Waller Creek Conservancy has gone to great lengths to reach out to and engage the broader community in original and unexpected ways. The jury presentations and selection process for the design team was a public event,” said Murray Legge, FAIA. “The Creek Show is another great example of this kind of ingenious outreach.” The installations will occur in and around the creek and will be visible from the nearby streets.
The logo for the series, designed by Pentagram Austin, plays on the idea of the creek’s current condition, with a beauty-and-the-beast themed artwork featuring a creek monster illustration by award-winning artist Marc Burckhardt. “Waller Creek is a freak now,” says Spencer, “and the logo plays on that ‘creature from the Black Lagoon’ idea. But the creek is coming to life, and we are eagerly anticipating the change from ugly to beautiful. Still, there’s a bit of nostalgia for the raw state of the site as it is. The monster represents all that.”
Spencer says others recognize the importance of bringing attention to the creek’s current state as well. Local architectural photographer Casey Dunn is currently photographing the bridges, tunnels, and other areas along the waterway, and his photographs are part of a book, designed by Pentagram, titled “Not Forgotten.” Much like the series of photographs Joel Sternfeld shot of New York’s High Line in its wild and abandoned state before it became a celebrated New York City park, Dunn’s photos will provide a valuable document of Waller Creek in its current wild and unkempt condition.
The Creek Show projects on the table — tentatively scheduled to begin popping up this fall — are less freaky and more refined than the logo suggests, with everything from glow-in-the-dark graffiti that will create a luminous path along the creek, to a line of LED-lit balloons tethered and controlled to reveal the creek’s trajectory, to a bridge of light, suggestive of the journey from now to the future destination that Waller Creek promises to become, to “Lightening in a Bottle,” a project that could potentially create a new habitat for fireflies along the creek.
But Spencer believes the program can be expanded in the future to include all manner of artistic, architectural, or performative programs.
“This current group of projects focuses on illuminating the creek, but we hope the Creek Show series will continue even after the tunnel infrastructure is complete and Van Valkenburgh and Phifer’s transformation occurs. There will always be a place for interesting artistic works in and around Waller Creek. We’re pretty sure this monster has legs.”
Concept: Jason Sowell, Landscape Architect and UT Austin Assistant Professor
“Afterimage” will consist of images, words, and stencils painted in photo-luminescent paint on the street, tunnels, and bridges along Waller Creek. The glow-in-the-dark graffiti will provide a glowing outline of the Waller Creek site.
Tracing the Line
Concept: Baldridge Architects
An orchestrated event that highlights the creek’s untapped spatial and social potential, “Tracing the Line” consists of a series of 220 large, round, latex balloons, each containing an ultra-bright LED, suspended on approximately 10-ft centers at a single chosen datum — close to the level of the creek on the north end and above the street level at the southern terminus. Although the views within the creek are often obscured, the winding line of airborne lanterns should become increasingly visible as the evening progresses into night.
Concept: Legge Lewis Legge
“Light Bridge” is composed of repeated hanging rope or wire elements that include segments of electroluminescent (EL) wire. Segments of EL wire are arranged to create a glowing three-dimensional volume/image of a bridge hovering in space over the river. The vertical elements will be lightly weighted and connected at the bottom to prevent tangling while allowing movement. “Light Bridge” will sway slightly in the breeze, giving the volume a shimmering spectral presence.
High Water Mark
“High Water Mark” is a manifestation of an invisible line that will soon be erased: Waller Creek’s 100-year floodplain. Sitting approximately 20 ft above typical water levels in the creek, the floodplain has stunted development within 28 acres of downtown for decades. “High Water Mark” will make tangible a fragment of this disappearing floodplain, with a compelling 100-foot-long installation of fluid EL wire, suspended above the creek at and under the 7th Street Bridge. The bridge is a hidden gem of spectacular double curvature stonework, and “High Water Mark” will offer a chance to see it illuminated.
Concept: Design Workshop
“Flow” is a kinetic installation that aims to capture and reveal wind patterns within the Waller Creek corridor, while providing shade and shadows. Strategically located on each side of 6th Street, the horizontal tapestries will emulate the flow, rhythm, and surface of the creek at the 6th Street grade level, allowing for automobiles and pedestrians to view and interact with the piece. Up-lit from below, the lightweight tapestries will change color, creating an ever-changing landscape.
Lightning in a Bottle
Concept: Jason Sowell
With the goal of transforming an aspect of Waller Creek’s ecology into a visual spectacle and community event, “Lightning in a Bottle” seeks to release the Photinus pyralis, or “firefly,” common in the wet meadows and creeks of Texas, into Waller Creek’s appropriate habitat. Tapping into the resources of the Firefly Meadow at UT Austin’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, the project could be a magical summer event.
Octavia Hayes is an Austin-based writer.
This article is expanded content for Texas Architect, July/August 2013