• “Downstream Upcycle” by Design Workshop. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

Waterloo Greenway (formerly Waller Creek Conservancy) welcomed a record-setting 60,000 guests to its 6th Annual Creek Show. This temporary, interactive exhibition featuring site-specific light installations spanned the banks of Waller Creek between 9th and 12th streets in downtown Austin on November 7-17. Six local teams of designers and fabricators united to provide an experience rich with food, live music, and fun for all ages. The event has evolved from its humble beginnings: What started as a single-evening affair in 2014 has become one of the can’t-miss events of the fall season. 

“Light House,” a collaboration between Sunny Schneberger and Norma Yancey, AIA, anchored the southern edge of the show. Curtains of illuminated chords dangled from a gabled frame. As visitors moved through the installation, they were forced to navigate these “boundaries” of light, which proved to be more permeable than they seemed from a distance. Conceived as a metaphor for life’s obstacles, the installation was intentionally malleable, suggesting that elements in our own lives that may seem impassable are often navigable when confronted directly. 

Design Workshop’s “Downstream Upcycle” employed more than 17,000 hotel shampoo bottles that were filled with UV-reactive dye and then mounted onto an array of recycled metal barrels. Bathed in black light, the aggregation was not only a dazzling backdrop for countless selfies, but also a stark visual reminder of the waste created each day by hotels benefiting from Austin’s booming tourism industry.

Striking for both its scale and simplicity, “Aurora,” by 1909B, was a sprawling matrix of vertical white LED light tubes that rested directly on the creek bed. The fixtures responded to adjacent sounds in unpredictable ways, making use of the installation’s broad footprint to create a hypnotizing, albeit occasionally abrasive, environment at the center of the show.

As visitors moved north, the creek bed narrowed to accommodate an overpass at 11th Street. Frances Peterson and Kevin Sullivan worked within the confines of the tunnel infrastructure to create “m e a n d e r,” a field of dangling white “tendrils” illuminated by black light. Dense clusters of strands yielded to a clearing at the tunnel’s midpoint that became a natural moment for gathering. Envisioned as a metaphorical “fissure in a supernatural aquifer,” the installation aimed to remind visitors of the “invisible forces responsible for the natural features that all Austinites cherish.” 

BOKA Powell’s “String Theory,” which inhabited the next overpass, at 12th Street, held back from the pedestrian path to hover over its own reflection in the creek water below. Eight harp-like LED armatures were mounted according to the cadence of the structural beams supporting the road above, twisting from top to bottom in varying degrees. The formal gesture was subtle, but visually compelling. “String Theory” was meant to symbolize life’s twists and turns and dark and light moments. The clean detailing and adept siting made it one of the show’s most visually striking installations. 

Arguably the most technically sophisticated exhibit, Nelsen Partners’ “The Ghost Boat” imparted its own lore to Creek Show’s ever-evolving fable. Instead of invoking a metaphor, the architects (and fabrication partner Mother Built) designed a kinetic installation consisting of a series of fluorescent white oars reconstructing the motion of rowing. Cloaked in mystique and refreshingly literal, “Ghost Boat” romanticized the eerie, undefined fate of an Austinite lost roaming the beauty of the creek in a bygone era. Contributing to the mystical aura was a custom soundscape provided by local musicians SlowBurst and guesthouse. 

As Waterloo Greenway celebrates Creek Show’s considerable momentum after six successful seasons, it’s worth pausing to consider the potential of the next decade. Austin’s local design community has been rightfully prioritized during these foundational years, but as Creek Show continues to grow in scale and audience, perhaps the time is upon us to open the call for entries to a broader swath of designers.  

Christopher Ferguson, AIA, is an architect at Clickspring Design and co-founder of DO.GROUP.

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