Monday, May 23, 2005
There's an Institutional Bias at Austin City Hall
Mayor Will Wynn invited me to a wing ding at the new Austin City Hall last Monday for the Austin Music Foundation. I do not recall being all that close to Mayor Wynn. In fact, I am not quite sure how I got on his email list. It might have been because I emailed him a few months back to gripe about the $750K taxpayer shakedown for the Midtown Night Club. However, I was thankful for the opportunity to hob nob with the local glitterati and consume free beer and Taco Deli delights. Well, "hob nob" is too strong of a word. Given the conglomeration of music industry hipsters, glitzy arts benefactors, and primped politicians in attendance, I felt like the geeky freshman at a high school dance who neither deserves nor receives any attention.
However, it did give me a chance to get up close and personal with local taxpayers' contribution to the Austin skyline: Austin City Hall. Admittedly, I am a Johnny-come-lately to the City Hall design discussion. Becoming an Austin homeowner and property taxpayer less than two years ago, I have only recently begun to be concerned with such things. But I've quickly learned that the new City Hall, with its bizarre design sensibilities and counter cultural pomposity, is an apt metaphor for Austin politics.
With that in mind, the following panoply of pictures should help you better grasp the soul and spirit of Austin city government.
This is the southeast corner. Some of the stonework and landscaping are attractive, but why make the roof to appear like it is in a state of collapse? Remember, it was purposely designed this way. Also, the odd angles and copper (an unusual building material), undoubtedly drove up the cost versus a more practical design.
Here is the northeast corner. Maybe Austin aspires to be like San Francisco in politics and culture. Perhaps that's why city hall looks like it's been knocked off kilter by an earthquake?
What in God's name is this?
The southwest corner. Maybe I am just a cultural dilettante, but I am having a hard time identifying the unifying theme of this design and the landscaping features.
The front. I know they need to protect the front entry way due to security concerns. But did they have to put the entrance to the stairwell facing visitors as they approach? Also, notice the other buildings to the right. Their builders had no problem combining aesthetic pep with conventional architecture, mainly because there seems to be a unifying design paradigm for each.
View from the top sun deck. Notice that the roof over the lower sun deck would provide little shade from the noon day sun. This is a bummer for city employees wanting to enjoy the stunning view of Town Lake during lunch time on summer days.
One of the stairwells, purposefully built crooked. The scraggly thing on the wall is not an unfinished electrical conduit. It is art.
Men's wash room. At first, seeing the counter three inches from the wall looks like shoddy workmanship. But the other wash rooms are built the same way. Another bizarre design choice.
This picture is my favorite, because it symbolizes what the new city hall is about:
Taxpayer money going down the drain in portentous style.
Of course, I am concerned with the extra cost required by city hall's trendy design. It would be more rational to propose a professional but spartan building paid for by tax dollars and design frills paid for by private fundraising drives of the artsy and civic minded.
But the bigger concern for me is what City Hall communicates.
The town's city hall should be a symbol of the community. With it's baffling, gratuitous, and whimsical form, Austin City Hall seems to say that Austin is overcome by its fabled weirdness instead of peacefully co-existing with it.
In the book How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaeffer said, "A person's worldview almost always shows through in his creative output." So, what kind of worldview spawns Austin City Hall? Judging from the creative result, I would have to say a worldview that is disjointed, at odds with reality, and ultimately pointless.
Certainly, City Hall should communicate the artistic distinctiveness of Austin. But it could have done so in a way that is connected to the natural order of things, without the sheer aburdity now present at Cesar Chavez and Lavaca. City Hall is a vehicle for carrying a message to both citizen and visitor about Austin as a place to live, work, learn, and do business. The city fathers, charged with the stewardship of our town and image, opted for the chic, fragmented and fleeting, instead of the rooted and true.
"[Jesus said] Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."
The design of the new Austin City Hall may be inspired by a desire to fulfill stated Communist Goals, as mentioned in the 1963 Congressional Record.
Ok... probably not, but there are some undeniable similarities between some of the old Communist Goals and the design of the new Austin City Hall. On January 10th, 1963 a list of 45 “current” Communist Goals was read from “The Naked Communist”. Stated Communist Goal #23 was: “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art”. Part of stated Communist Goal #22 is to degrade artistic expression by changing our nation’s previous artistic landscape to “substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms”. Although I highly doubt Austin’s new City Hall was intended to consciously fulfill Communist Goals 22 & 23, one can not deny the similarity between the Austin City Hall’s Architectural outcome and previously announced Communist Goals.
Just some amusing historical observation :)
Thanks for reading VitW.
"I agree with you that the building itself is BIZARRE, but I do like how it was constructed"
I should make a distinction between the design and construction. Props to the construction engineers and crews who actually assembled this monstrosity. The fact that it hasn't fallen over already is testament to their heroic exertions.
But still, the design is there for the whole world to see. If this is supposed to be the symbol of the city, then why does it look unhinged, unreal, and unnatural? Is that what we really want to communicate about our fair city?
Thanks for reading VitW.
"Does Austin look to Paris for architectural inspiration? "
I dunno', but I just hope Austin does not look ot Paris for public policy inspiration.
"...but after all wasn't the point of the Voice in the Wilderness critique that Austin can't get anything right? "
Well, I don't know if I'd go that far. The point I was driving at is that if creative output reflects what we believe, than the city fathers must have a disjointed worldview indeed.
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