Remember that pocket patio and “Keep Austin Weird” sculpture planned in front of the Scarbrough Building at the corner of Congress Avenue and Sixth Street? I ripped on the sculpture a little last time for being kinda corny, but now I feel bad about it. Turns out a significant portion of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission really doesn’t like it.
The project, spearheaded by local landscape architecture firm dwg., will reclaim several parking spaces for the outdoor space as part of the city’s street patio program. Since the site is located both in front of a historic building and within the Congress Avenue Historic District, the project had to apply for a certificate of appropriateness from the commission — and the commission’s certificate of appropriateness review committee had takes:
The Committee recommends all aspects of the project except the sculpture.
— Review Committee Recommendation
Huh, I wonder why? Let’s check out the staff recommendation for the same application:
Approve as proposed with no recommendation regarding the sculpture. Staff supports the Committee’s concept that street features associated with historic buildings should be complementary to the architectural and historic character of the building, but does not necessarily share the committee’s vehemence regarding the installation of the sculpture in what is now a parking area adjacent to the building.
— HLC Staff Recommendation
“Vehemence,” huh? There are a lot of extremely understated sick burns going on here, something this commission seems to have a knack for. The item came up for discussion at the HLC’s May 21 meeting, so I went back and checked out where the drama was coming from. Turns out several members have some…concerns with the sculpture’s contemporary appearance as it relates to the Art Deco design of the historic Scarbrough Building it’s going to be sitting in front of.
The debate, since it’s essentially about judging the aesthetic value of an artwork, appeared to boil down to a matter of subjective taste:
“It detracts from the building’s ability to convey a sense of its own history, and that’s why I object to it . . . I think a different kind of sculpture, with different materials and different design elements, one that was maybe more artistic and had references to the decorative elements of the building would be more appropriate . . . I don’t think the Scarbrough Building’s history is conveyed well by the word “weird.” It looks gimmicky to me, and doesn’t respect the building.”
— Commissioner Myers
“Judging what is art from one person to another is going to be kind of difficult, and I think this commission could be flooded with such discussions . . . while I understand that you don’t feel like it matches with the building, to some degree I think to be able to look at that piece, and see the contrast with the building — because it’s not in the style you’re expecting, it doesn’t quite look Art Deco — then to me that is the beauty of it, that’s the art of it.”
— Commissioner Hudson
“We are not the arts commission, we are the Historic Landmark Commission. This is a historic landmark and I think the sculpture diminishes the importance of the building.”
— Commissioner Myers
“And I think it does the opposite, I think it enhances it. It shows it off.”
— Commissioner Hudson
That’s the discourse, folks! The commission’s real issue with the sculpture, beyond the whole “but is it art?” thing and the concerns that it might somehow distract passers-by from the gorgeous design of the Scarbrough Building itself, is the unclear nature of its permanence.
The idea behind the city’s street patio program is that parking spaces and other bits of city right-of-way in front of downtown businesses can be converted by their owners to street patios and sidewalk cafes to improve the streetscape, and these conversions are achieved through temporary license agreements that are renewed year-to-year.
These patios and other conversions might stick around indefinitely, but the point is that they’re built to be temporary — they can be dismantled if the city needs to repair utilities underneath them, for example, and if the business owner doesn’t follow the terms of the license agreement, the city can revoke it and force the patio’s removal. All the designs for the patios at the Scarbrough Building are clearly temporary, except for the sculpture, which appears to be slightly more permanent.
That difference led the commissioners to split the item into two considerations — the sculpture, and everything else. They unanimously approved the “everything else” of the plan, but the motion to approve the sculpture failed, with three votes for and five votes against. The commissioners decided to kick that item down the road to the next meeting, and in the mean time they’re going to try and clarify how temporary the sculpture part of the installation really is.
As more than one commissioner mentioned, approving a temporary sculpture is one thing, but approving a permanent one is apparently a horse of a different color. Despite rolling my eyes frequently at the whole concept of keeping Austin anything but “a place where housing is affordable for everyone,” I don’t really think the sculpture is so bad — corny, maybe, but diminishing from the Scarbrough Building? That’s a stretch, partner. You’d have to cover that building with a sheet to make it stop looking great.