“If I ever write a book,” says Sinclair Black, FAIA, “it’s going to be called, ‘Austin Texas: Lost Opportunity National Park.’ So many of the good ideas people have had — sometimes they’ve been mine — haven’t happened. By the time you put a good idea through a political and bureaucratic filter, nothing good is left, or nothing happens.”
If that sounds cynical, it’s meant to. For the past 50-plus years, Black has practiced architecture and urban design in Austin with his firm, Black + Vernooy. In that span, he has assiduously championed a more urbane and civilized tenor for the Capital City’s built fabric. It’s been, at times, a brutally heartbreaking endeavor. For the architect — who grew up in San Antonio (“one of those authentic places”) and has traveled extensively in Europe and Mexico, studying and appreciating those locales’ organic urbanism and grand public spaces — the prevailing attitudes that have shaped the modern Texas city reverberate with all the sense and subtlety of a monster truck’s dyspeptic exhaust pipe. “Why are we so auto-centric?” Black queries, rhetorically. “It’s because we’re kind of dumb.”
Of course, some good things have happened. Many of the highlights of Black’s career, including several of the compromises, were on display for the last two months at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, in an exhibition called “101 Semesters Beyond the Studio.” (Black has taught at the school since Alan Taniguchi hired him in 1962, the same year he opened his firm.) The show surveyed the breadth of the architect’s output, which has included everything from private residences and retail spaces to corporate headquarters and urban plans — even a doghouse, which, for some reason, the curators appropriated for the exhibit’s branding. (“Eat your heart out, Aldo Rossi,” was Black’s tagline for that project.)
In all his work, Black evinces an affinity for daylight, natural materials, and human-scaled spaces. While generally considered a Texas regionalist, he doesn’t profess an adherence to any style. “I think in terms of space, light, and siting,” Black says. “The only thing I do well is site buildings. Some of that comes from growing up in Alamo Heights and trying to save every tree I ever met. It could be called an obsession, but not a style.”
He is most proud, however, not of any building he ever designed, but of the Great Streets Master Plan, which was a collaboration between Black’s firm and Donna Carter, FAIA, Lars Stanley, FAIA, Eleanor McKinney, Jose Martinez, and Charles Thompson, FAIA. According to Black + Vernooy’s website, Great Streets is “a comprehensive and integrated urban design strategy for re-making 306 blocks of public right-of-way in Downtown Austin.” The plan reorders the priorities of the street, putting pedestrians first, transit second, bicycles third, and cars last.
So far, Great Streets has only been implemented on the few blocks of rejuvenated Second Street, where it has been successful in both upping the tax base for the city (“We’re talking about billions of dollars for the investment of a few million”) and creating a convivial bustle in that part of downtown. The rollout of the rest of the plan, however, is in limbo, awaiting the approval of funding by the city’s political establishment — Black’s favorite target for scorn. “No-brainers are exactly what the city bureaucrats are not interested in,” he says. “If it benefits everybody and lowers your taxes, they don’t want it.”