Austin’s Art Deco

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

It needs to be said once in a while – Art Deco architecture is pretty great.

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to go on a walking tour of downtown Austin that centered around the great examples of 1920s-50s Art Deco buildings.  We saw into the darkened lobby of the Brown Building, the Chicago-esque Scarbrough Building, and the compact Fidelity Mortgage & Loan.  The tour was put on by the Austin History Center and was guided by authors of a new book on Hill Country Art Deco.  There is a soft spot in my taste maker for Art Deco. Seeing that my taste maker is usually geared too much towards historicism and sexy curves, I don’t feel like I’m alone.

Art Deco wasn’t Art Deco until the style was decades in the rear view. It began by stylizing the form to flatten the classic architectural decor (the column, fluting, pediments, etc.). Still holding to the idea that there can be style in architecture (which is a difficult mentality in that it’s limiting the complexity of architecture to a consumer product, even if it is), Art Deco digested the use of new products such as aluminum into a new obsession of the long vertical lines and swooping forms that soon redefined how people saw buildings.  Whether or not people began seeing Venturi’s ducks  and what I’d call googi-tecture in the port hole windows and curving corners is arguable (Hut’s is a hamburger, right?).

I believe the style of Art Deco, especially after spending time seeing some of Austin’s examples, proves that designers don’t live in a bubble without historical, political, economic, or social touchstones.  They were still holding to the basic rules of architecture, symmetry and composition of form and space, but they integrated a more restrained urge for the decoration, a greater willingness to stretch the bounds of material. Yes, there were still the statues and carvings of eagles,  the elaborate light fixtures,  and carved stone recesses, but these decorations felt more like utility, as though they were exploring the beauty of a machine with a budget. These buildings were invented from exciting forms seen in vehicles, rockets,  and airplanes. The flight/speed steel, aluminum, and glass.

This was the style that defines architecture for a pre-war America, The Great Depression, The Roosevelt years, and Superman. The devil is in the details with architecture and Austin has quite a few Chrysler buildings in it’s midst.


A Texas Drought

September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Proving the weather is more than the concern of farmers and a good place for conversational agreement, the 2011 Texas drought has quietly stayed under the radar as the rest of the nation gets the more wet kind of disaster.

It’s been since June of 2011 that central Texas has seen a drop of rain. I’ll round off and say it was June 11th at 3:00 a.m in the morning. Imagine that, three months of no rain?! Way back in the month of June the top movie was Super 8, not the motel chain, the top song was Rolling in the Deep by Adele, and the price of a gallon of milk was 3.69. Boy, were those the days!

Well, fast forward to September, and as I look out of my window in downtown Austin I see clouds far in the distance. They are tall, white, and chuck full of rain – rain this poor city will not see. The rest of the nation is under flood warnings, athletic events and car races are all being jeopardized by lightning and flooding, and all we in central texas are asking is – share the wealth!

It’s not only the lack of rain, it’s the weeks of 100 degree temperatures. We are on, to the date of this post, day 80 of over 100 degree highs. The previous record was a paltry 68, and the coming week is looking to bring us a cold break of high 90’s. This is apocalyptic and just no fun anymore. Maybe god is punishing us for Rick Perry, maybe the Chinese are using special un-rain makers on us because we are so amazing at job creation (not), or maybe it’s bigger – maybe it’s Obama!

The sooner the rain starts the sooner, I hope, will the taste of sand in the water go away, the sooner I’ll stop seeing birds with no feathers, the sooner I’ll not feel guilty about taking showers, and the sooner I can wash my car, and the sooner I’ll see the sweet return of blood sucking mosquitoes.

On second thought, it’s pretty great without mosquitoes.

Check out this animation of how Texas has “weathered” in this last month of drought, and the weather site’s tweets. It’s almost os if the state line was keeping the clouds out like an Arizona border agent.

Jones Center with an Arthouse

August 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

There are a million things to do at every moment, every place I live. I’ve always made the mental checklists of places and things I needed to see on a day or afternoon off, events and spectacles I need to take in in order for me to truly understand what it means to be in that place at that time with those experiences to be had.

And I am also pretty terrible at doing enough.

But like a bad recording of some random 80’s pop phenom I return to that strange push that gets me out once in a while, out to do some checking off of a list. It’s a strange burden of guilt that happens, to almost say yes to yourself.

Well, I’ve had the Arthouse at the Jones Center as an item on my list for many a month. Opened last October and designed by a great architecture firm out of New York the Arthouse is a striking juxtaposition of design along Congress Avenue. Bathed in all white with aqua punctured holes in the exterior the double story corner building almost wants you not to see it until you’re good and ready. Perfect for Texans.

I visited the museum done by Zaha in Cincinnati, and amongst the strongest design concerns I remember was she had the desire to bring the street into the museum – physically. Her method was to curve the sidewalk under the hanging panes of glass and curl it right into the walking stairway talking the person to the galleries. I loved it in Cincinnati, the gesture worked for me, it was a happy trick. Whether or not LTL had this in mind when they set out I have to say I missed it. The front teases this hopeful propensity but fails to satisfy it. First off, the letters of the Arthouse bleed into the glass overhead, stretching the eye to the beautiful centerpiece of the stair – but try and find an entrance and you’ll feel yourself like a mime in a bad National Lampoon movie. I did a triple take, eyes lusting after the stair, outside the glass wall of the street before finding the “around the corner” all glass door. Howver, after that, the building was a pretty great work of detail and simplicity.

The Arthouse, without any boring reading on it – (but, go ahead… it’s got a great back story…) – I guessed was probably a clothing store then some sort of theater, then a period of dormancy that led it’s way to the chic museum culture we currently embrace. I know this because the easy telling stylings on the dry and broken stucco that still cling to the brick walls of the exterior wall. The past life was definitely incorporated in that respect – making me think of the musings on preservation and historicism by Koolhaas – and in a way it doesn’t take away from the darkened space. But was it does do is make me want to see more – is this a history museum? or art museum? I wanted to keep peering around corners to see large mockups of native americans and the first oilmen of the Hill Country. This museum just oozes some of that old world museum in it, the labrynth dark, slightly scary spaces we made to hold the other vestiges of a not that distant past.

The large open space after the stairway was set in many layers. I’ll describe four of them. On the floor I imagined painstaking concrete pours and tests and perfect control joints. On the exterior wall I saw people filing smooth jagged bits of steel pipe and rebar that exposed themselves during the remodel. On the interior wall I saw an all white symbol of terrifying authority – all white and all imposing.. ready to smash anything of aggregate. And above head, just a barn dance, a county fair barn dance ceiling peered down at me – just waiting for the polka to start while the sound of heavy hogs being settled down to sleep.  The space just held nothing – but all these things. Maybe that was the museums biggest success.

Also, If you want to get to the roof, wait until Wednesdays – because other than on that day… the giant elevator will open itself to you, let you enter, close itself, but it will not take you anywhere.

How to Attach a Movie Screen to a School Bus

April 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wanted to share an update to the Blue Starlite Drive-in.  Since we began showing the movies on E.6th in Austin we’ve had to laboriously piece together the screen for every showing.

Our screen is a great 9′ x 22′ heavy white tarp that is secured on all four sides with elastic ball straps. The original frame was of 1″ metal conduit that stood the screen roughly four foot from the ground.

Setting up and breaking down after every show was, of course, not fun. Every week I felt we were slowly making the screen’s support weaker and making matters worse was the screen still needed to be anchored to something solid so as to not blow away. And the screen just sat way too low to the ground, seeing that we wanted to fit more cars onto our drive-in lot.

Always looking to improve on the drive-in experience we looked towards a solution with what we had on hand.  So, add in an old school bus that was on site, some clever changes to our frame, and some tie-downs and sandbags we found ourselves the improvement!

Here are some photos:

With some recommissioning of the existing screen frame we anchored the screen to the bus, making successful a number of things.  One, is the screen doesn’t need anchoring. Two, it sits up higher. Three, the setup time is so much quicker and easier (with a little getting over my fear of heights and having to stretch a bit).

I’m super proud of this little move, and after finishing the second week – it has to be pulled out of the bus or fly away.

Uncut, Mycoskie, Neon Glasses, and Pee Wee: My SXSW

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Austin’s South By Southwest officially kicked off last Thursday and goes full bore into the next Sunday. Of course I’ve known it from the music it showcases and all the bands that come in droves to play small shows to huge audiences. I’m in the midst of seeing some great bands and staying up too late to do so.

What SXSW is also becoming respected for is it’s Film and Interactive Presence that run prior to the music days. In order to get free access to all the music I volunteered to be a grunt for the Interactive Panels that met in the Austin Convention Center. It turned out to be a great experience, I met some really good people and was able to catch some of the topics and people who sat in on the panels. The job I had was akin to herding cats, setting the room for the panel, and trying to generally be as informative to the guests and participants as I possibly could. Some of my highlights were as follows:

Talking with Casey Pugh of StarWars:Uncut about Charlie Sheen

Wondering during Blake Mycoskie’s keynote how crappy shoes sold for triple digits is a great business model

The Blogger Lounge

Being happily surprised by the comedian panel: Chris Hardwick and Carrie Brownstein?! Yes.

Confirming the maker of is a smart kid, and definitely insane

The volunteer crew of 18ABCD!

Seeing the visual note-taking of Ogilvy

Having Paul Reubens outcrowd Robert Rodriguez. The line traced the entire fourth floor of the convention center.

Being asked if ” (I) want to know about urthoughts?” at the trade show

Felicia Day

I felt the theme I saw most during the interactive panel was this idea of crowdsourcing for information and content. There seems to be a huge desire to use social websites (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare) in a more active way, not only as a passive tool but as an incentive program to invest in each other and our surroundings. This seems to really be driven by the advancement of the smart phone and the ability for people to not only receive information instantly on the activity around their location, but to contribute to that information. It’s a very exciting in concept – but do I really want people to know that I’m not home or that I’m home a lot!? and do I have to get a huge expensive phone that is more advanced than Apollo 13? Maybe next SX.

Blue Starlite Drive In

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have questions that at times take years and years to unravel. Before coming to a point where that question can be understood and possibly solved, I have normally continued to some other equally dire distraction. However, one I return to periodically is a beast I know as a drive-in movie theatre.

Yes, the type of drive-in Michael J. Fox runs his Delorean into on Back to the Future III, the place where anyone over 45 had their first heavy makeout session, and where anyone under 45 wishes they could have their first makeout session.

Why are they so terrific? Why are there none around anymore? When will they make an official comeback? Should they even make a comeback? Why do we need drive-ins?

Well, it’s more than one question I guess.

Drive-in theaters, also called ozoners, today are above all else the ultimate delivery nostalgia. They’re nostalgic because not many are around anymore and yet their mere existence is embedded in our past and contemporary culture. Somewhere in the late 80’s (I blame bucket seats and Reagan) the ozoner lost it’s audience of teenagers and families. The clunky huge, four screen, 1200 car drive-ins out in the countryside became ripe for the growing hunger of 90’s urban sprawl, namely housing divisions and super communities. Cars became bigger, we all got bigger televisions in our media rooms, and entertainment became a very private and isolated pastime. We lost the fun of making a “night of it”, getting all the blankets and chairs into the back of our pickup and sitting under the stars half watching the movie and half interacting with our friends, family, and perfect strangers a car next to us. It was just no fun I guess – or the idea of fun was misplaced.

Well don’t look now, but the drive-in experience is kind of making a viable comeback. In Austin Texas, the drive-in has found a home in the heart of the city – at the Blue Starlite Drive-in. This is not your granddad’s drive-in though. At the Blue Starlite Drive-in you can enjoy all the things that made the drive-in incredibly awesome, and you can throw in some new twists for free. The fresh air, the buzz of community, the enormous screen with Austin as it’s backdrop, the vintage speakers, the stars overhead, the popcorn, and the double feature. It’s enough to make anyone pine for the simpler times of 1950’s high school, classic cars, and that first kiss.

Of course, to live in nostalgia is super cheesy and the Cleavers are far from the family that I truly identify with, but I do think the drive-in offers a link seeded in a deep cultural psyche of many people. The drive-in was an extension of freedom and at the same time a fear/excitement of adulthood. Drive-ins are one of the few places where that universal process is central to the experience.

I’m sure the drive-in will never capture the landscape as it did 80 years ago, but here in Austin I think it can capture a small bit of the urban landscape. That’s right, to hell with noise ordinances and Hummers. Now with two locations, one on E.6th and the original on Cesar Chavez Blvd, the Blue Starlite is entering the fray of an American tradition. And it’s doing so by updating it, Richard Hollingshead is probably rolling in his perfectly angled grave at not patenting this idea.

The owner of the Blue Starlite, Josh, took it upon himself to hunt down outdoor speakers and paraphanelia from online, paint the side of a building white, buy a projector and trailer, and run an urban boutique drive-in. I love this on so many levels. The time is right, the place is right, and the drive-in is right. People are looking for genuine experiences, and they are finding drive-ins a perfect fit for an alternative and cheap way to get out and enjoy some freedom and adulthood making.

So I have a new question.

What’s better than watching Teen Wolf under the stars with a crackly old speaker hanging precariously inside your car ?


It’s an exciting time in Austin, the drive-in is coming back reincarnated after being gone for decades. Check out the website for all the details on showtimes, prices, and renting them out for a private event.

Blue Starlite Website

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