" " Home Page Skip To Main Content
diversearts header
about diverseartsblues family tree projectaustin downtown arts magazineaustin jazz & arts festivalclarksville jazz sessionsdiversearts little galleryword/jazzarchive

Current Issue



Record reviews






Visual arts and Architecture

Buy advertising

Comment form


Austin Downtown Arts Magazine

Visual Arts and Architecture

Art in Construction: A Lost Art?

by Justin Davis

Construction and design are two things we see a lot of here in Austin. We see a lot of haphazard construction with a lot of careless design. We see a lot of artless structures being built here. Yet, Austin is not an artless town. We have a great heritage of art in construction that we still can and do appreciate.

Congress Avenue is an easily viewed example. Several of its older buildings, with their arches and detailed stone work, are a living testament to the fact that at one time construction workers actually were considered artisans. If you take a day and explore the Central Austin front-porched neighborhoods, you'll find artful construction here as well. And, on the South Side, around South First Street, you'll discover ornate tile work, woodworking and homes with vivid facades. Beautiful displays of creativity, emotion and internal life are exhibited for the entire world to see.

While all of the city's enclaves harbor a smattering of landscape construction artists, the South and East Sides seem to attract many of Austin's self-made ones. It is here where I found Thor, a high school art teacher, musician, self-made artist and self proclaimed "multi-headed monster."

Thor currently is making a home for himself. Like many people here in Austin, he has so many ingenious ideas, but so little time. However, he confesses that he is finding the time to transform his house into "a big sculpture," from "a shack to a palace," with the assistance of some old woodworking tools from around the turn of the century. Found at flea markets and on the internet, relatively cheap but well made, such hand tools were the only way to shape any sort of raw material before the dawn of electricity. When employing these rudimentary instruments, one not only gets a fundamental sense of their actual function but also have a surprising amount of control. This long forgotten relationship between the tool and wood endows the artisan with the patient dexterity necessary to create a distinct technique or image. The work may be slower, but it is more satisfying.

Back to Top

On the West Side in Tarrytown, where art is often bought rather than made by its residents, there is a construction site on a lot formerly full of brush and weeds. Alongside the emerging house, serpentine limestone walls meander throughout the lot to assemble a landscape and demarcate a garden. Paul Oglesby, designer and project coordinator, works diligently to put the final touches on one of two 1.5 ton limestone blocks that balance on the peaks of the walls' curves. Rare in his artistic impetus, this landscape construction architect will introduce climate-friendly plants to dry-stack limestone walls, towers and a pergola. His employment of simple hand tools and dry stacks (as opposed to mortar) fortifies the longevity, function and balance he envisions in his artistry.

"I definitely believe in using art in every way possible every day," Paul states.

To achieve longevity through art in construction, Paul believes you must understand all of what you are working with: the land, the surrounding buildings and your clients. You have the challenging task of negotiating present realities with lasting implications. You must create an appealing and functional design that will also stand the test of time.

"It's (the landscape design) not like some college conceptual art project where you're trying to create something to get some sort of point across. It's a living space," Paul stresses.

Cultivating such a space requires time and patience. For example, when planting a garden, it takes years to see the final product because plants are so infinitely variable. It is difficult to predict how they are going to grow and how the landscape will change. Paul has been experimenting with plants and horticulture techniques for over 20 years. He uses this knowledge to inform the decisions he makes about his current projects.

"There are certain key elements to a garden, things which people just like to have around them," he states. Stones, plants and water. Among the most basic elements of the earth, these landscape tools are nuanced over and over again in each and every one of Paul's projects.

But, he also admits, "Art is knowing when to stop creating and let the materials do the work. It (the ego) destroys art. You have to approach a project like a child. People have to be more humble when dealing with the environment (and) leave their egos at home."

Artful construction requires not only humility but also an understanding of the complexity of the world that surrounds us. "In a seemingly simple grassland, there's a lot happening that people do not see on the surface because all they see are the waves of grass. Underneath, you'll find all kinds of plants," Paul states.

Back to Top

Unfortunately, this type of complexity is often overlooked by today's construction industry. In fact, it is general practice for landscapers of all descriptions to forgo the kinds of systemic planning and building methods that consider the range of factors which influence the viability of a structure: aesthetics and beauty; the ecosystem and the natural environment; pre-existing structures and transportation systems; the economy; and longevity and stewardship to name a few. While most of today's structures do meet fire, safety and building codes, many fail to integrate themselves into the community that surrounds them. They fail to reflect the vitality of humanity. Rather, they multiply without a moment's notice, instantly obtrusive, infinitely consequential.

A growing number of people in Austin are reacquainting themselves with art in construction, particularly at their homes. In such a creative climate, this practice can only increase in the coming years. While we may not master the level of artistry displayed by European cities or even that of Austin in the late 1800's, we can at least attempt to reclaim a lasting, functional and beautiful aesthetic, one stone at a time.

Back to Top


Local Teenage Blues Sensation to Play at South by Southwest
by Erin Steele

Years of Films at South by Southwest
by Cesar Diaz

Interview with Hugh Forrest
by Meredith Wende