Q: Have you seen the concrete “moonscape” located at the corner of Fifth and Bowie Streets? What’s actually going on here?
A: Many people have asked me if this is some kind of art project, or has something to do with the building next door. Okay, bear with me for a second — in April of 1957, French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp spoke at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in Houston, reading from a paper he wrote titled “The Creative Act.”
The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
— Marcel Duchamp, 1957
Duchamp’s philosophy of “anti-art,” which eventually led to the emergence of the Dadaist movement, often involved pieces called “found objects,” or “readymades” — existing objects somehow repurposed by the artist and declared to be, well, art.
The most famous example of such a work is Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a 1917 piece comprised of a ceramic urinal purchased from a hardware store, signed by the artist, and mounted on a pedestal. The debate over what art actually is has raged ever since, and it hasn’t gotten any nicer in the interim.
I’m only telling you this, dear reader, because it appears you’ve noticed that the latest battlefield in this forever war can be found over at the corner of Fifth and Bowie Streets in downtown Austin, where I’ve fielded several curious inquiries regarding the point of this installation — you’re not the only one to describe it as a “moonscape,” though some folks prefer to call them “bumps.”
— Dan Keshet🚶 (@DanKeshet) January 3, 2018
Several people besides you have asked if this field of concrete moguls is some kind of art project. Based on the Duchamp stuff I mentioned earlier, I actually can’t confidently tell you whether or not it’s art — that’s apparently for you to decide — but after speaking with some engineers at Schlosser Development Corporation, the folks behind the Shoal Creek Walk mixed-use office building on the site, I can at least tell you it wasn’t meant to be art.
In fact, the so-called moonscape serves an important engineering purpose for a building that will eventually be constructed on top of it — part of what will seemingly be a second phase for the Shoal Creek Walk project. The bumps are comprised of a material called gunite, or shotcrete, a very dense and hard form of concrete created by mixing cement, sand, and water at high pressure.
Here’s an explanation from SDC principal and design director Rick Duggan:
“The gunite, as configured, is a material that is intended to, and will eventually be covered by a future building, like the restaurant at the Cirrus Logic HQ and under the parking deck at The Bowie apartments. The material has a suitable coefficient of friction for its location within the Shoal Creek floodplain.”
— Rick Duggan, Schlosser Development Corporation
I’m about as far from an engineer as you can get without your brain falling out, but my understanding here is that the density and hardness of the gunite, along with its weird mogul shape, will both increase the friction coefficient for the base of the building built atop the moonscape — meaning the forces potentially inflicted upon it by flooding in the Shoal Creek floodplain aren’t as likely to make the building slide around.
I explained the art stuff at the beginning because, despite trying to find an engineering explanation for this bumpy corner, I don’t think it’s my right to declare it simply functional. The look of this site has clearly had an impact on a lot of people, judging by my inbox — and like Duchamp said above, the spectator really is the one deciphering the art at the end of the day.
So, until SDC builds whatever they’re building atop the moonscape, I’d prefer to declare it the most impressive work of public art we’ve got downtown at the moment, even if it wasn’t intentional. I hope that clears it up for you.