Austin is the kind of town that is confronting the great schisms of our time: the American Dream versus sustainability, individuality-weirdness-local identity versus corporate technocracy, inventive culture versus hack conventionality.

Alley Flat Initiative. Photo: Michael Gatto

Alley Flat Initiative. Photo: Michael Gatto

Regardless of climate change (nine out of ten Republicans don’t believe we humans are responsible for it), the central Texas triangle – Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin – will continue to attract residents at the rate of 30 per cent per decade. When I first visited Austin in the late 1990s, the metropolitan area had a population of just over 1.2 million. Today it stands at 1.7 million and by 2030 it is projected to rise to 3 million. And yet the area has a shockingly low density of 157 people per square kilometre (London has 4800). Oh yes, never mind climate change: last summer Austin recorded 100 days above 40 degrees, yet people are still attracted to this city set along the Colorado river amongst undulating countryside.

Austin is the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ with hundreds of bands playing each week in 6th Street taverns and at jamborees like the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park, which in three days last month attracted a total audience of 200,000. It is in 6th Street and during the ACL days that the motto Keep Austin Weird is lived by conservative radicals. The culture clash of ‘conservative’ radical Democrats against the red-necked Republican majority in the State legislature – Austin is also the capital of Texas – is constantly played out.

In the last decade the former mayor, Democrat Will Wynn (sic), impressed a green agenda on the city’s policies, courageous but insufficient to stop the proliferation of the American Dream Suburbia. Admittedly, this dream continues to provide Austinite architects with tremendous opportunities to demonstrate their skills in designing single-family houses amongst the dense growth of trees, principally the slow-growing so-called live oaks with their small leaves and wide canopies. It will take decades to wean new residents off this dream. It will also take decades for politicians to realise that they have a responsibility to the greater whole in laying down restrictive development regulations, common sense rules that would have prevented the planned construction of the dinosauric Formula 1 racetrack.

Having said this, the bright spots in Austin’s development are the reconstruction of downtown area mostly with residential high-rises together with a vision for inviting streets with shops and restaurants. Parallel to the development pressure building up at the centre, there are smaller projects in the neighbouring communities, mostly unwelcomed by the locals as they are sensing a process of gentrification. One exception to this is the Alley Flat Initiative, initiated by the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Texas School of Architecture(UTSoA), which seeks to increase density by the construction of multi-generational, sustainable houses in inner-city districts. Thus from large to small scale, there are encouraging moves.

Austin is the city with the largest component of the University of Texas System with almost one quarter of its 200,000 students. Compared with other schools of architecture around the world, UTSoA offers idyllic spatial and financial conditions, something that dawns on our students when they go to the East Coast or abroad. My office, once part of the university president’s suite, is at the ground floor of the architectural library, Cass Gilbert’s interpretation of Labrouste’s Bibliothèque St Geneviève, and overlooks the main lawn at the heart of the original 40 acres. The University of Texas at Austin now covers 423 acres across the city. It includes the Lady Bird Wildflower Center, a botanical research institute which is now part of the school of architecture. It was co-founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of Texas’ only Democrat president Lyndon B Johnson, with the mission to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers.

Austin is the kind of town that is confronting the great schisms of our time: the American Dream versus sustainability, individuality-weirdness-local identity versus corporate technocracy, inventive culture versus hack conventionality. Austin is a microcosm of these contested territories. Texas, like the rest of the United States, was of course contested, wrought from native American Indians and Mexicans. Hardly any remain of the former, while ever more of the latter are reclaiming their old territory by legal and illegal immigration. Mixing these with the influx of retirees seeking year-round warmth as well as the feisty students and the weird and wonderful music scene makes for a town that is like a slow-motion, three-dimensional simultaneous experiment in city building: outcome open.

Okay, enough on the glories of Austin, it’s time for a pink Margarita and some Tex-Mex on the lake.

Wilfried Wang is co-founder of Hoidn Wang Partner in Berlin and O’Neil Ford Centennial Professor in Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin; he was co-founder of the 9H Gallery and director of the German Architecture Museum.

AT213/ November 10, p120