For an architect, the revitalization of Waller Creek presents a rare and thrilling opportunity to change and uplift the heart and soul of a city with a lasting and permanent impact — which explains why the international search for the team to oversee the ambitious project resulted in dozens of portfolios from hopefuls around the world.
Among the architects vying for a chance to design the new urban space is local architectural giant Larry Speck, an Austinite and UT professor whose handiwork can be seen in such Austin icons as the Town Lake complex, the Second Street District and the Austin Convention Center.
Also included in his long list of accomplishments is Discovery Green in Houston, a project Waller Creek advocates and designers of all stripes have called an incredible success story and perfect illustration of how one well-designed urban space can completely transform the way a city’s residents enjoy their hometown. Speck is a principal in the architectural firm of PageSoutherlandPage in Austin.
The call for teams to apply for a shot at the Waller Creek project produced great excitement in the architectural community before last week’s deadline for applications, Speck said in an interview with CultureMap on Thursday.
Speck says that, as an architect, the project is the kind that “you give your eyeteeth for.”
“It’s huge. It’s a really, really important project,” he explains. “Everybody’s out there looking for those moments where you can do a Discovery Green or a High Line in New York or a San Antonio Riverwalk, and really be able to see a palpable change in a city that comes from some kind of physical gesture like that.”
Waller Creek, certainly, is one of those moments.
Burbling dankly between its polluted banks in a flood plain that doubles as a flop house and waste repository, Waller Creek has long been a blessing and a bane for Austin — which in recent years has worked hard to revitalize the downtown area but has never been able to develop Waller for flood reasons.
Even in the 1980s, when Speck was a cub architect working on the Town Lake complex, people were talking about building a tunnel under the creek to divert the floodwaters and make development feasible.
Better late than never. The tunnel is finally under construction and the Waller Creek Conservancy — the nonprofit formed by local philanthropists to oversee the project — is by all accounts well organized and ready to work.
That, Speck says, is the most encouraging development he’s seen for the area and another big reason he’s throwing his hat into the ring with 29 other applicants.
“You’re looking for something that's going to happen — not just stay on paper," he says. "And I think there’s a sense that they’re extremely well organized, and it seems like they’re in this to try to make it happen."
The conservancy has declined to release the names of any of the applicants and won’t discuss the teams, their portfolios, or their ideas until they announce semifinalists on Jan. 16, 2012.
From there, the field of 8 to 10 will be narrowed down further in April to the finalists — and they will be the ones to start submitting designs and ideas to the public by the end of next year.
Speck reached out to CultureMap to discuss his interest in the project, though he didn’t want to get into details about who his landscape architect would be or his ideas for the project.
Understandably, he wants to respect the conservancy’s wish for discretion.
But he did talk about his inspirations, some of his favorite spaces, and what governs his philosophy as an architect — as well as what he thinks the conservancy is looking for in its winning team.
“What people are looking for is a team that has all the right strengths and is able to hit all the bases,” he says. “It needs to be somebody who has to be incredibly creative and innovative and has big ideas, and presents some knock-you-on-your-ass wonderful options. But it also has to be somebody who could walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and make these things happen.”
Speck says Waller Creek has more potential than Manhattan’s High Line — whose creator came to speak with the conservancy a few weeks ago —and probably more potential than the 12-acre Discovery Green in downtown Houston, too.
Discovery Green, one of Speck’s projects, was a drab parking-lot wasteland in a tired and blighted area of the city, bordered by places like Minute Maid ballpark that attracted huge crowds — who then fled as fast as they could after their event was over.
Now, it’s a gorgeous green space that hosts concerts and ice skating and Zumba classes, a destination for visitors who once avoided it whenever possible.
“The difference was phenomenal,” Speck says. “Now it’s a magnet. People come there as a destination. In the first year, the convention center rentals went up 19 percent.”
Speck says that Waller Creek can undergo a similar transformation.
“Right now it’s kind of sad and derelict and maybe even dangerous, and imagine that — design can do this — it is transformed into a place where everybody’s really excited to be and the coolest place in downtown. I think that’s going to happen,” he says.
As an architect, Speck’s guiding principle is that buildings and natural spaces integrate with their surroundings, tell stories about the people who inhabit them or the places they represent.
Generic, “jazzy” details that could be found anywhere are boring and impersonal, he says.
“The places that are really magical are ones that just seem like a part of that culture and that climate, and that environment, and they resonate beautifully with the life that goes on there,” he says. “That’s the architecture that I love the most.”