In these days of persistent and perplexing problems, here’s a little something in which we can take pride: Austin City Hall gets a rave review in an impressive new book.
For its perfect actions in response to the challenges facing our police department? Nope. For its equitable-to-all decisions concerning our rapid growth? Negatory. For its deft handling of the homeless situation? You’re kidding, right?
I said Austin City Hall, not Austin City Council. We’re talking about the downtown building at 301 W. Second Street, an edifice that to some is a monument to good government and to others a monstrosity of creative excess.
I like Austin City Hall. And, as happens about 71% of the time, turns out I’m right. Says so right there in “City Hall.” It’s a stunningly beautiful words-and-images book in which California writer/photographer Arthur Drooker celebrates 15 U.S. city halls, ours among them. And the section about ours is the only one in the book that includes the word “armadillo.”
In addition to Austin City Hall, an Austin resident is featured in the book. Historian Douglas Brinkley wrote the foreword that captures what many Americans think about city halls.
“For much of my adult life,” Brinkley writes, “city halls have been like rashes — best to avoid. Ascending an imposing granite staircase or entering via a glass revolving door smeared with handprints just to tell a clerk my Social Security number wasn’t my idea of a delightful afternoon.”
(Hmm. So famous historians are just like us. Sometimes they have go to into city halls. I guess to renew their famous historian licenses.)
“Imagine my delight, then,” Brinkley continues, “when I encountered the regal images in this extraordinary book and learned the backstories of some of America’s most essential places of governance.”
A delight, indeed. And Drooker’s photos of Austin City Hall are stunning. His text praises our home of municipal government as “Not a Buttoned-Down City Hall” and the entry about it starts with a nod to our “Keep Austin Weird” brand.
“With that slogan, it’s fitting that this proudly offbeat city has the most unconventional city hall in the United States,” Drooker writes.
(Note to Mr. Drooker: We’re more than a proudly offbeat city populated by the proudly offbeat. We are the downright weird home of lots of downright weirdos. And don’t you forget it.)
Drooker recounts the building’s history, beginning in the late 1990s when “Austin business and civic leaders wanted to revitalize the city’s downtown, which was then a nondescript area of mostly warehouses and industry.”
(FYI for those who were not here in the 20th Century, the old City Hall was at 124 W. Eighth Street. Boring, created in Austin’s pre-weird era.)
The new City Hall was planned as a centerpiece of a pedestrian-friendly mixed-use area in that part of downtown.
The city chose architect Antoine Predock for the project. He’s a Big Deal in the architecture world, whose portfolio includes San Diego’s Petco Park baseball stadium. The book recounts how Predock headed out to the Hill Country to get a feel for our part of the world.
This next paragraph from the book might be the most Austiny thing I’ve read in awhile: “Council members and city administrators rejected Predock’s first design because it wasn’t weird enough — an ironic twist for the iconoclastic architect.”
“That was a direct challenge to Antoine,” Paul Fehlau, Predock’s executive chief associate and project manager for Austin City Hall, says in the book. “He went back. We played with the diagram of the building. We had parts and pieces and things to play with and kind of tweak before Antoine really gelled on the form. Now, it seems quite cohesive, but it resulted from a challenge to make it weirder.”
(OK, I heard some of you snicker at “quite cohesive.”)
Throughout the process, city officials sought citizen input on what their City Hall should look like and be…
Read More: A little love for Austin City Hall