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Wood Blocks and Steel Feathers: Architecture at SXSW

By Catherine Gavin
March 18, 2014
Photo © Casey Dunn
Caret 6, by architect Kory Bieg of OTA+ and his UTSOA design studio, was inspired by the lines of ribbed Gothic vaults and made of thousands of diamond-shaped, CNC-fabricated pieces of sheet steel.

Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival—a week or so of music, film, and interactive events that draws thousands of visitors—has experienced ever-expanding scope creep since its small, loud beginnings in 1987. This year, architects got in the game, engaging the high-energy crowds with two noteworthy installations and one pop-up.  

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One, Waller Wall, was installed on the outdoor terrace of SXSW Create—a portion of the SXSW Interactive festival where hackers, makers, and DIY-ers held court with robots and 3-D printers while drones flew overhead. Created by architect Murray Legge’s Design 5 studio at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture (UTSOA), with support from the Waller Creek Conservancy, Waller Wall was the first of a series of installations planned to spotlight Waller Creek’s forthcoming transformation into an urban park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer and Partners. The primary objective of the wall was to educate the public and create awareness about the value of the creek, which meanders for 1.5 miles in downtown Austin.

The 18-foot undulating, plywood wall was filled with more than 1,300 blue “take-away” blocks, which festival-goers spent three days spray-painting—transforming the wall with a flow of activity. “I am so surprised at the response that we have seen,” said Legge. “It is like we tapped into people’s inner graffiti artists.” For Aaron Haley, director of SXSW Create, the installation only brought more animation to the event. “It is great to have art here with us,” said Haley.

Caret 6, a dramatic installation by architect Kory Bieg of OTA+ and his UTSOA design studio, provided the backdrop for Next Stage, the various panels during SXSW Interactive, and for the Renege Craft Fair, a supplemental event for the music portion of SXSW. Inspired by the lines of ribbed Gothic vaults, the design team used parametric modeling tools to create the structure out of thousands of diamond-shaped, CNC-fabricated pieces of sheet steel. The ephemeral cluster of arches rose 11 feet, cantilevering to the sides before cascading down to stretch across the floor. The original installation, 60 feet from end to end, was divided into 40-foot and 20-foot sections for the two distinct installations.

“The project explored overall symmetry defined by localized asymmetries,” said Bieg. “We focused on abrupt changes in the geometries.” The experiment worked, and the larger modules integrated seamlessly with smaller ones. Installed in a vast hall, Caret 6 looked like a fairytale of translucent feathers exploding from and falling onto the floor. Kids and adults were drawn to it, walking through and sitting under the arches.

A few blocks away, Gensler’s Austin and London offices were deep in discussion about how concentrated technology centers can influence cities. Their pop-up, The Hackney House, united architects, tech wonks, designers, politicians, and planners under the auspices of “Design, Make, and Place.” Located in a vacant building, Gensler designers left the raw space mostly untouched, adding translucent vinyl signage and sculptural elements made out of upcycled materials such as wood pallets. Gensler principal David Epstein led a panel on the challenges for architects to respond to rapidly-growing creative industries. His central argument promoted design as the foundation for successful placemaking, noting that young cities such as Austin and the London Borough of Hackney will thrive if they can engage their wired, tech-driven populations. 

Waller Wall and Caret 6 demonstrate the impact of thoughtful, small-scale interventions and their ability to attract people. As Epstein argued: “In the digital age, people still have a need to connect with each other on a human level, and the human component is the utmost basic element of architecture.” These two installations emphasized the role design can play in connecting people, by encouraging them to stop and participate in their immediate environments. They were the perfect additions to the already active playground that characterized SXSW.

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