The four final teams competing for the opportunity to transform and create one of the largest civic amenities in Austin met in front of a packed house at the Blanton Auditorium Tuesday night for the third stage of the Waller Creek Competition, Meet Your Designers Night.
The challenge these architects and designers face when re-imagining the deteriorated, abused 28-acre downtown district is to engage the broadest swath of community possible. Don Stastny of Portland, whom Melba Whatley (president of the Waller Creek Conservancy) calls the "architect of design competitions," has engineered the competition and impaneled a jury of nationally recognized experts in architecture, design and environmental ecology to judge the contest.
Think about cities that have made an impact on your psyche; generally, in Stastny's opinion, it's the streetscapes and "the spaces in between" that truly define the personality of a place. The finalists have built careers around the world based on this approach to urban design, and the audience enjoyed the rare chance to see these experts essentially pitch themselves, their theories and their former work to Austinites and design aficionados.
CMG Landscape Architecture and Public Architecture (San Francisco)
Willett Moss of CMG took the podium, presenting the most straight forward "pitch" with the highest level of energy seen throughout the night.
He opened by showing us CMG's first project, the Crack Garden, which got a chuckle from the portion of the audience familiar with the oft' drug-riddled areas of Waller Creek. Beyond breaking the ice, his point was to demonstrate the firm's familiarity of intervention.
"What connects all of our work is the idea of ecology," he said. "We can reconcile this mess [of Waller Creek] with the idea that everything in the landscape can be reconciled."
He further made a point of the firm's capability by pointing out the environmental conditions extremely unique to CMG's Treasure Island project — a former naval base and man-made island undergoing a large scale reconstruction rooted (legally, even) in sustainability and social ideas.
John Peterson of Public Architecture (a non profit organization) honed in on their team's relationship with Austin. The work shown in San Francisco is fittingly colorful and Austin-like, and keeps children in mind. He reiterated that their team would make sure their design would be perfect to Austin, citing that good design is "responsive not prescriptive."
Referencing the current need for more public space in the South of Market district in San Francisco, Public Architecture often implements "weekend tests" to see how the public responds to and reacts with their design concepts before permanent installation.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer & Partners (New York City)
This team got a noticeably different introduction from Stastny, who lauded the group for its "mature approach" to design. Van Valkenburgh had his team members in the crowd stand up, which in a way made the formal event feel a bit more approachable.
This team was immediately and outwardly complimentary of Austin: "We're incredibly taken with Austin as a place," and intend for their reconstruction of Waller Creek to evoke "that sense of openness and equality that Austin is known for."
Van Valkenburgh helmed the ship of the Brooklyn Bridge Park construction — "an 85-acre sustainable waterfront park stretching 1.3 miles along Brooklyn's East River shoreline" boasting play areas, promenades and more. The firm keeps an eye towards "unexpected adjacents" that can be created during a project, like the Pier 62 skate park built during Hudson River Park construction.
Phifer best articulated the need to "reconnect east and west [Austin]," a problem that only a very in tune out-of-towner would know. "I've spent a lot of my life in Rome, and there's really a ruin quality to [Waller Creek]," he said to a laughing crowd.
Together, this team intends to reveal aspects of the natural Waller Creek environment though integrated environmental planning like that used for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, which in turn fostered the development of three emerging neighborhoods.
Turenscape and Lake|Flato (Beijing and San Antonio)
"So this is the obvious team," David Lake said referring to Lake|Flato's San Antonio roots. A former Austinite, Lake's familiarity with Waller Creek spans decades. Interestingly, Lake|Flato chose to team up with Turenscape of Beijing.
With a steady, calm delivery, the immediate focus seemed to be on water and comfort outdoors. "We understand Austin's incredible desire to be outdoors and enjoy the natural realm in any possible way you can," Lake said while projecting a photo of a project in San Antonio that showed a giant fan beautifully strung from a tree to cool outdoor, urban diners. Lake|Flato also created the master plan for mixed-use Pearl Brewery.
Lake spoke to the safety — or current lack thereof — in certain places of Waller Creek. "There's nothing like people to make a place secure."
Perhaps most unique is Turenscape's Kongjian Yu's background as a farmer in China who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. He referenced Zhonghan Shipyard Park as an example of how "existing assets can be preserved and adapted."
"A little touch can suddenly become a gathering place for the community," Yu continued, professing a minimal intervention tactic that can thereby transform a landscape into a "living machine" that can support biodiversity and introduce new species to the site, as his projects have done in China.
Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects and Rogers Marvel Architects (New York City and Austin)
This group immediately disarmed the crowd with comedic relief. Ken Smith began by introducing Manhattan's 55 Water Street project, the Elevated Acre, which he described as "an aging decrepit plaza o top of a parking garage — it was a great place to buy drugs."
Noteworthy is the decision to place a large beacon atop the elevated acre, part of "a strategy to making the place visible" and safe.
Christine Ten Eyck — comically exasperated after spending 20 years working with Arizona's "lack of water, funds or maintenance" — said "our mission is to connect the urban dweller with nature."
She previously worked on the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration project, which similarly divided Phoenix to the north and south. "We think that is a huge thing — the connectivity with the rest of the city."
Rogers Marvel Architects were recently selected for the redesign of the National Mall's Constitution Gardens, an impressive project which sums up this group's overarching theory quite nicely: "We want to give identity, a sense of threshold, set places for program to be engaged so the residents are as committed, invited and engaged with the resolution of the project as the tourists that are there. We want the same for Austin."
Clearly, all groups are candidates capable of reinvigorating a portion of Austin's "in between spaces," and we citizens should be so lucky to exercise their expertise. In Stage III, each team has received $100,000 to develop designs for the 28 acres around Waller Creek.
Get involved and stay up to date with the developments — the finalists will exhibit their designs for the public from Sep. 17 - 30. The jury will make its recommendation on Oct. 12. Check the website for the full schedule.