State of the Art: Creativity and Culture in the New Seaholm District

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers and signs. On one side, there’s “Don’t Dallas My Austin.” On the other, there’s “Make Austin California.” As the city’s population explodes, both residents and government officials are striving to avoid those extremes and strike a balance between keeping Austin weird and helping it grow into a world-class city.

As Austin searches its soul to decide what it will be in the 21st century, one of the answers is a prominent destination for public art.

Developers, city officials, artists and civic leaders have been collaborating to commission an unprecedented amount of art to complement the commercial and residential development in the Seaholm District. Key to these efforts is the Art in Public Places Program (AIPP), which was established by the City in 1985 to commission and maintain cultural landmarks. We spoke to the team at AIPP about the exciting projects being started at Seaholm and what’s next for art in the district.

NADER TEHRANI, Untitled, Seaholm Substation Screen Wall

NADER TEHRANI, Untitled, Seaholm Substation Screen Wall

Design rendering of corner at future 3rd St and West Avenue
Scheduled completion: spring 2016

The screen wall is a 1225’ long installation that keeps the people in the Seaholm District safe from the substation, keeps the substation secure and acts as an artistic approach to city infrastructure. The vertical concrete posts will have integral color in shades of blue, green, medium gray and dark gray.




Design rendering of 2-piece artwork for Austin’s new Central Library
Scheduled completion: spring 2016

“Birds” is a 37′ tall kinetic piece mounted in the atrium and resembling a cuckoo clock with a moving pendulum. On level 5 of the Library, a computer-animated black bird will be displayed on a wall-mounted LED screen. The artist was inspired by the prevalence of black birds in literature and mythology, and in Austin.




Design rendering of three piece artwork for 2nd Street Bridge and Extension (West Avenue to Shoal Creek)
Scheduled completion: spring 2016

Two large creature-forms, made of glass fiber reinforced concrete, will sit in direct relation to each another and their surroundings across from the new Central Library, while another ‘creature’ has wandered off to sit at the corner of West Ave and Third St.
Taking inspiration from hippopotami and elephants, these biomorphic sculptures are a glossy deep gray, with subtle sparkles, with a surface texture resembling animal skin. The forms are inviting to touch and hug.

Seaholm Art Wall

The Seaholm Art Wall will be the most visible public art project in the district. In fact, it’s the largest public art project the city of Austin has ever commissioned.

The idea for the art wall grew out of a need to obscure the machinery housed at the active electrical substation in the district, both to make the view more aesthetically pleasing and to make the space safer for visitors. Meghan Wells, AIPP Administrator, says this is a nontraditional project for the city:

The Seaholm Art Wall will be…the largest public art project the city of Austin has ever commissioned.

“This is something normally Austin Energy would have handled, but we feel like it’s a real opportunity to infuse an artistic element.”

The wall varies in height from eight to 12 feet and wraps around the substation for approximately 1,000 feet. The City is working with artist and architect Nader Tehrani and his design firm NADAA to use conventional materials in unconventional ways, including timber, pre-cast concrete, and perforated metal panels. Several of the metal panels will offer visitors glimpses into the inner workings of the substation.

One of the most distinctive features of the initial art wall proposal was the colorful lighting. In fact, when the City Council was reviewing the designs, Council Member Bill Spelman cracked that “The only thing missing is a Pink Floyd soundtrack.” Since the initial acceptance of the proposal, Austin’s population growth has driven up construction prices, and the City and AIPP have had to scale back the rainbow-hued lighting in order to keep the project within budget. They are currently working with Austin Energy to explore how existing lighting could serve both functional and artistic purposes, in addition to finding ways to implement the lighting elements from the initial proposal while staying under budget.


Central Library

A new Central Library has been in the works since 1998, and the vision has always been that the new building would be one of the city’s signature centers for community life. It was up to AIPP to find a piece that could match the vision for the new space.

John Gillum, the Facilities Manager for the Austin Public Library, believes they succeeded: “We like to think we’re creating an iconic building, and I think this artwork is going to be iconic as well.”

AIPP commissioned internationally-known artist Christian Moeller to create a 37-foot-tall wall sculpture entitled Birds for the library’s atrium.

“We like to think we’re creating an iconic building, and I think this artwork is going to be iconic as well.”

The sculpture will be shaped like a cuckoo clock and will incorporate the outlines of grackles, representing not only the local bird population but also the prevalence of blackbirds in myth and literature.

A separate but related work on the fifth floor of the library will be a computer-animated grackle on a large LED screen. However, instead of a looping video, a computer program will determine how the bird moves so that it more closely mimics the motions and intelligence of a real bird.

When developing the proposal, Moeller says that he was inspired during a visit to Austin by his encounters with local grackles and their “unique kind of attitude towards their human co-habitants.”


2nd Street Woonerf

As part of the Seaholm revitalization, the city plans to construct a new portion of 2nd Street that will extend from Nueces Street over Shoal Creek to the newly extended portion of West Avenue.

This 2nd Street extension will be a woonerf, which is a Dutch concept that translates to “living street.” An urban design technique commonly utilized in the Netherlands, these living streets give legal priority to pedestrians and cyclists but allow drivers to move through at slow speeds.

Above: a woonerf design for the city of Toronto by Christopher Glaisek

Above: a woonerf design for the city of Toronto by Christopher Glaisek

To separate pedestrians from vehicles, traffic bollards (tall concrete posts) will be installed along the street. Last year, Austin Art

The 2nd Street extension will be a woonerf [or] “living street.” An urban design technique commonly utilized in the Netherlands.

in Public Places solicited proposals for art sleeves that would cover approximately 12 to 20 of the bollards.

Local artist Judd Graham was selected to create nine bollard sleeves made of mild steel that will be fullered, creating a hand-worn, artisanal look. In addition to the bollard sleeves, Graham will be creating a complementary sculpture that will be approximately 72 inches tall. The idea for a sculpture that could be a place-making object came out of Judd’s collaboration with the project team after his selection.


Sharon Englestein’s Crullers

The bridge extending 2nd Street will pass directly over the Shoal Creek Trail. Combined with the development of the 2nd Street Woonerf and the new Central Library, the area is expected to be a center of pedestrian activity. AIPP was looking to create a piece of art that could be dynamic and engaging for the children and families who will be passing through the area.

AIPP was drawn to Houston artist Sharon Englestein’s Crullers because of its contemporary look. “Her art has very clean lines and bright colors and it’s anthropomorphic,” says Wells. “It’s got an almost child-like, playful quality.” The crullers are an extension of some of Englestein’s earlier work using bulbous shapes to create creatures and figures that are familiar but still abstract.

For these particular pieces, Englestein was inspired by hippos and elephants. In her proposal she says, “The [crullers] are inviting to touch, but are by nature stand-offish like the animals they characterize.” Made of glass fiber reinforced concrete, the figures will be gray with textured skin like that of the animals that inspired them.


Upcoming Projects and Existing Works

Existing public art in the Seaholm District includes Open Room Austin (top) and the art on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway (bottom).

Existing public art in the Seaholm District includes Open Room Austin (top) and the art on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway (bottom).

Several more public art projects planned for the district are in various stages of development. Currently, AIPP is reviewing 31 artist proposals for a light-based sculpture at the entrance to the district’s public parking garage, according to Jean Graham, a coordinator with AIPP.

There are also funds for art at the Green Water Treatment Plant and the Pfluger bridge extension, though these projects haven’t yet reached the proposal stage.

These new commissions are in addition to existing public artwork in the Seaholm District that pre-dates the current revitalization efforts. Open Room Austin in Sand Beach Park and the art on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway will also be part of the District’s atmosphere. And while not officially in the Seaholm District, The Austin Wall in the new federal courthouse near the district is yet another piece of public art that is helping burnish Austin’s growing reputation as a creative capital.

This article originally published in The Admire Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [February 2014].
Download the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.

Art and concept photos provided by The City of Austin.

Woonerf photo by &Co Architects / Catia Da Silva

jamiesmithheadshotJamie Smith

Local Arts Columnist
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Jamie Smith is a writer and content strategist based in Austin, TX.
She writes for and about people and organizations doing innovative work in the fields of arts and culture, design, social justice, travel, and technology.
If she’s not writing, she’s probably at a book club meeting, traveling through cities large and small, or trying to tackle Austin’s outsized hills on her bike.

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