Waller Creek Art Installations Highlight the Beauty and Social, Ecological Importance of Landscape Architecture in Downtown Austin

The AT/x installation at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

An electrifying sea creature with dancing tentacles; a waterfall that sparkles and rages; beautifully lit ghostly recreational tubes to replace the normal trash and debris: There are just two nights left to check out Austin’s Creek Show, an interactive, lights-based art show featuring installations by local artists, architects and landscape architects.

The show, which spans Waller Creek from 5th Street to 8th Street between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Nov. 12-Nov. 21, is a project of the Waller Creek Conservancy, a local nonprofit dedicated to transforming Waller Creek into a more vibrant part of Austin’s ecological and social culture.

Creek Show Installation Highlights:

The Natural Unnatural, by Clark I Richardson Architects:

The Natural Unnatural installation at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

The Natural Unnatural installation at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

The Natural Unnatural installation appears to flow as it changes colors. Photo by Maria Sprow.

The Natural Unnatural installation appears to flow as it changes colors. Photo by Maria Sprow.

This electrifying sea creature-like network of dancing cables is a metaphor for the complex system of controls needed to control water flow during severe storms and prevent flooding events.

“Flowing water can be graceful and seductive, but it can also be grotesque and terrifying,” states the installation’s description. “The Natural Unnatural aims to make visible this tenuous relationship between the natural chaos of water in an impervious urban environment during a large rain event, and the structured unnatural order of the manmade devices attempting to contain and direct it.”

AT/x, by Luke Savisky:

Creek Show visitors have fun interacting with the Waller Creek tunnel thanks to the AT/x installation. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Creek Show visitors have fun interacting with the Waller Creek tunnel thanks to the AT/x installation. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Creek Show visitors have fun interacting with the Waller Creek tunnel thanks to the AT/x installation. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Creek Show visitors have fun interacting with the Waller Creek tunnel thanks to the AT/x installation. Photo by Maria Sprow.

By far the most interactive installation, AT/x is a live camera and projector set-up that allows passersby a chance to interact with others and the surrounding structures in a graphic and psychedelic way that plays well with today’s contemporary selfie-obsession. As people pass by the camera, located just south of the 7th Street bridge, their image — distorted by lights and shadows — is projected onto the tunnel’s wall for everyone to see.

“Connections, passages and personal transitions are explored in this dynamic large-scale projection…bringing a bit of magic to a forgotten space — which speaks to the promise of the revitalization of Waller Creek,” the installation’s description states. “An alchemical blend of life and shadow, AT/x will echo the flora along the creek bed and fauna within the darkness of the tunnel itself, reflecting the dimension beyond the surface and opening the possibility of a perceptual and psychological shift within this haunting transitional space.”

Floating the Waller, by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

The Floating the Waller installation at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

The Floating the Waller installation at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

The Floating the Waller exhibition at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

The Floating the Waller exhibition at Creek Show 2015. Photo by Maria Sprow.

Perhaps the most direct installation, Floating the Waller helps visitors envision Waller Creek as something that it currently isn’t: a place to go for fun and recreation. In doing so, it highlights the creek’s existing problem with trash and pollution and asks residents to care for their urban environments.

“This portion of Waller Creek, like many urbanized water systems, flows with trash and pollutants, making it unfit for recreation or even human contact,” states the installation’s description. “Floating the Waller plays off the popular activity of floating the river, the epitome of water recreation culture in central Texas. The field of empty inner tubes symbolizes the disconnect between the desire to interact with the water and an aversion to do so in this environment.”

For more information on Creek Show art installations, visit www.creekshow.org.

The Vision for Waller Creek

Currently, Waller Creek is an under-used, disconnected pathway running along Red River from Town Lake to 15th Street. The creek itself is known more for its trash than its treasures, but the Conservancy wants to change that.

“Waller Creek touches many of the things that shape Austin’s identity, including UT, the Texas Capitol grounds, a growing medical complex, our famous music and entertainment district, Austin’s Convention Center, Rainey Street district, Butler Hike and Bike Trail, and Lady Bird Lake,” states the Conservancy’s website.

Designed by landscape architect firms Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., and Thomas Phifer & Partners, the Conservancy’s vision for the creek includes a world-class outdoor concert space at Waterloo Park big enough to fit 7,000 people. Other landscape improvements at Waterloo Park include a healing garden, a tiered lawn constructed over the creek and children’s playscapes.

The new Waterloo Park design, as envisioned by landscape architecture firms Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. and Thomas Phifer & Partners. Photo from www.wallercreek.org.

The new Waterloo Park design, as envisioned by landscape architecture firms Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. and Thomas Phifer & Partners. Photo from www.wallercreek.org.

In total, the Conservancy envisions the creek and its trail system connecting 5 different green spaces together, including a backwater pool for environmental learning programs near the Red River music district, a new grove of live oak trees at Palm Park, and a new floating pontoon bridge for pedestrians connecting Waller Creek to the south shore of Lady Bird Lake. The creek tunnel will also be widened in areas, and the area near the Red River concert district will be outfitted with a bridge that treats roadway storm water before feeding it into the wetland.

“Waller Creek represents the largest urban creek in the nation to undergo the level of transformation the conservancy envisions,” the Conservancy states. “This project will completely transform how disconnected entities and interests relate and interact with each other.”

While residents will benefit from the social aspects of the project, many of the creek’s transformations are ecological and environmental — and necessary for flood control. Waller Creek has a long history of devastating flash floods, dating back to a 1915 flood that killed 12 people.

To protect life and structures in the downtown area, the City of Austin took on a $150 million project to create a mile-long underground stormwater bypass tunnel. During severe storms, the tunnel captures water along the creek at Waterloo Park and diverts it away from downtown and into Lady Bird Lake. During normal flows, the tunnel helps keep creek water clean by collecting sediment and trash. And during dry flows, the tunnel will grab water from Lady Bird Lake to maintain its flow and keep the creek ecologically healthy.

All the future improvements to Waller Creek are made possible by the city’s $150 million Waller Creek Tunnel project.

All the future improvements to Waller Creek are made possible by the city’s $150 million Waller Creek Tunnel project.

“The floodplain of Waller Creek is 800 feet wide at points, potentially flooding significant areas of downtown. Waller Creek can quickly go from calm conditions to a raging torrent during a storm,” states the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department on its website.

The project is still in progress but already helped reduce flooding when severe storms hit in May 2015, according to the city. When it’s finished, it should remove 28 acres, 42 buildings and 12 roadways from the surrounding 100-year flood plain.