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
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.
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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
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
"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.
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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
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.
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