• The project comprised 102 glowing tubes spread at 10-foot intervals along a 1,100-foot-long section of the creek.

Location Austin
Client Waller Creek
Architect Baldridge Architects
Design Team Burton Baldridge, AIA; Michael Hargens, AIA; Brian Bedrosian;
Laura Grenard; Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA; Andrew Fulcher; Tyler Frost; Elaine Shen
Photographer Baldridge Architects; Elaine Shen

Tracing the Line, by Austin-based Baldridge Architects, was a temporary light installation commissioned by the nonprofit Waller Creek Conservancy in 2014 to draw attention to its newly adopted master plan by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Thomas Phifer and Partners. It was one of five “illuminating works of art” located along different sections of the waterway running through downtown Austin. Baldridge’s project included 102 glowing tubes spread at 10-foot intervals along a 1,100-foot-long section of the creek. The top of each tube was set at a uniform level. The illuminated portion increased in length from one foot to six feet as the creek made its way downstream, to demonstrate the watershed topography’s descent in a highly visual, but also almost scientific manner.

The architects fabricated the tubes themselves, using a “collection of everyday items that can be found in the aisles of the big-box hardware store.” The light source was a high-powered LED flashlight inserted into a PVC conduit head. It shone into a plastic fluorescent tube protector capped with a reflective insert. This lighting device was supported by a 1.5-in black-painted PVC conduit slid over a steel tube welded to an 18-in-square, 3/8-in-thick steel plate. They installed the tubes themselves — as photographs of team members in rubber waders with a variety of measuring instruments amply demonstrate.

Night photographs of Tracing the Line’s light tubes at several points along the route evoke markedly varying sensations. Where they pass under a concrete post-and-beam bridge and under a barrel-vaulted viaduct, they appear as eerie sentinels marking an abandoned city. Where they pass through a pedestrian plaza filled with visitors, they act as garden lanterns, adding a festive touch to an outdoor party. This diversity of interpretations: land art, party space, public service announcement, and science project — all coming out of such an ad hoc, DIY contraption — appealed to the jurors.

“Tracing the Line is a project that we recognized right off as being unique, in that it was not architecture, but was telling a story about place, the urban made place as an intersection with the natural world — and illuminating that way in a very simple device, a very economical device, in this temporary emplacement,” says juror Anne Schopf, FAIA. “That device, I think, used its resources wisely to stretch and expand the understanding of what the natural systems were, here in Austin, and how that’s being somewhat strangled out by the urban environment. So very, very simple, direct, quickly understandable, and also very humble and simple to understand on many levels.”

Tracing the Line was refreshing because of the way it shows that the ability to evoke strong reactions is not necessarily tied to cost. The core idea was remarkably simple, and its realization was straightforward to the point of being diagrammatic. The end result was fascinating to the jurors in its ability to touch on many different concepts and disciplines with a minimum of means. Tracing the Line’s strength as a project came from its unusually direct translation from concept to execution, jettisoning all that was unnecessary along the way.

Ben Koush, AIA, is an architect in Houston.

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