Late at night, in the spring, when the humidity is high and the air is warm, one can hear a bright chirping in the trees and bushes. A person hearing this might mistake it for a bird singing in the night air, as the sound merges with the distant sound of live music and the mellow hoot of an owl on a power line. It’s a sound so common in parts of Austin that it has become the city’s background noise, weaving itself permanently into the earth. It’s transient, but enduring. Through its persistence, it shapes our experience of the city.
This night chirping is made by the Rio Grande Chirping Frog, which is common in Central Texas. It is just one of many vulnerable species of frogs and toads that sing and croak in the night. These small amphibians are found in the dense, brushy areas along the edges of the city’s creeks and streams. Most of the year, they’re teasingly elusive. If you begin to walk toward their sound, they go quiet. But at the peak of spring, if the weather is just right, they become so voluble that they can no longer hear your footsteps approach. If you stroll down the street on those special nights, you may have a small, slick, hopping visitor — or two, or three.
A sonic map of the chirping frogs and the city would reveal their proximity to the wilder riparian zones, like Shoal Creek and Waller Creek — waterways that wind north to south through the middle of Austin. The sounds radiating out from these zones just north of downtown form a fuzzy outline of the watersheds that cut through the grid of the city. They mark a sonic boundary of Austin’s wild spaces.
The original urban plan of Austin, from 1839, reveals a rigid grid laid out just north of the Colorado River. Waller Creek flows south from Austin’s northeastern edge, cutting through the urban framework as it makes its way down to the Colorado. This century-plus-old plan inaugurated a legacy of naming Austin’s north-south streets after creeks and rivers in Texas, such as Rio Grande, San Jacinto, Red River, Colorado, and Sabine. As a counterpoint, Austin’s east-west streets were named after native trees. Over the years, the tree streets were reassigned numeric titles, while the river streets have endured.
Looking at our sonic map would also reveal the range of the night singers trailing off toward the center of the city. As the creeks arrive downtown at denser, more restricted quarters, they’ve been channelized and stripped of their verdant, living edges — which serve as habitat for the frogs, toads, and many other aquatic species.
For years, portions of Waller Creek and Shoal Creek have been preserved as (relatively) wild and undeveloped landscapes, but they are far from pristine. These creeks are a contrasting mix of the natural and unnatural. Storks and turtles can be seen wading through pools of water mixed with the detritus of the city as it washes its way into the creeks. Mix in some oil and plastic, and you have a mash-up of wilderness space and urban drainage ditch. These wild spaces in the heart of the city have always felt unpredictable and out of control, and, at times, they are even dangerous. They are a kind of terrain vague — a mutant space that is part city infrastructure and part untamed realm, whose flooding has taken cars, buildings, and lives.
The City of Austin has been built up — and, in the process, often built over — these fragile riparian edges from its first urban plan. Waller Creek itself, whose water is supplied by its watershed, is but a small part of the larger ecological system. The lifeblood of the creek comes from the surfaces and structures that have been built over the watershed; thus, the watershed is fed with a toxic brew of oil, windshield-washer fluid, coolant, plastic, and garbage that collects on the city surface. The creek has historically been subject to a flood-and-drought cycle, but certainly not at the scale we see today, when much of the watershed has been paved and built over, increasing the volume of water that moves through the creek on a rainy day.
Due to this pileup of pollution, the loss of ecology in Austin’s watersheds has been enormous. Only winged and the hardiest of water-dwelling creatures have survived in the downtown areas. The frogs and toads — some of nature’s most vulnerable species — are long gone from the creek’s edge in downtown Austin.
Civic monuments in the city, such as figurative bronze statues, serve as a bulwark against loss. Traditionally, they attempt to carry collective values and meaning forward in time. These statues rise in the wake of a loss — the loss of something of value that a culture wants to retain. They attempt to fix ideas and memories in time and space. Commonly, they take the form of a cherished artist, or a war hero (often on a horse), and they honor the figure’s contribution by freezing them in time. However, any culture’s attempt to distill collective values is naïve. Ideas and values change.
There is a clear language to the traditional civic monument. Bronze is typically used for its permanence and durability as a material. The subjects are often scaled larger than they actually were in real life. They are often placed on a base or pedestal, and they are set in a prominent location, such as a city square.
“Amphibious” is Austin’s first civic monument crafted to honor a vulnerable species. It is located along two blocks of Sabine Street in central Austin, just a block from Waller Creek. The new monument is composed of 35 life-sized bronze castings of the various frogs and toads that inhabited the creek and its lost riparian edges in the past. It is meant to act as a field guide to lost frogs and toads of the area. Sabine Street, one of Austin’s north-south streets, was named after the Sabine River in East Texas. This street is only three blocks long and runs parallel to Waller Creek from Sixth Street to Fourth Street.
A traditional goal of civic monumentality is to be conspicuous, to be seen, and to honor the most visible members of civic life. “Amphibious” is inconspicuous and hidden. The tiny monuments are located under benches, on curbs, and in other unexpected places. A toad on a downtown street is not expected, just as one does not expect to see a civic bronze work of art under a bench. This monument is meant to be hidden in plain sight — to be discovered. It is permanent and built for the ages, but unassuming.
“Amphibious” was commissioned by the City of Austin’s Art in Public Places as part of a street improvement project. The portion of Waller Creek next to Sabine is the most urbanized portion of the creek. It has been reduced to something like a drainage channel. However, cities are fluid and ever-changing things. Waller Creek is slowly undergoing a major transformation, not back to what it was, but into something new.
The strange reality is that to bring a more balanced natural condition back to the creek requires an enormous amount of built infrastructure. The Waterloo Greenway, a massive new linear park and green space project for Austin, is set to create a kind of new hybrid zone, a greenway that is highly controlled yet more habitable to a wider range of the biological life — both flora and fauna — that lived in the creek before it was urbanized. The first step in this transformation was to install a 20-ft-diameter drainage pipe under the creek, from the north of the city through downtown, to the Colorado River. This will allow the drainage of waters upstream to be routed underground, leaving the downstream portions safe from intense flooding.
The result will be something that appears natural but is actually a controlled environment. This new stabilized natural system will also allow the creek to connect a chain of parks along it with the idea of creating a new active useful park system for city-dwellers, along with restored riparian zones for wildlife. This will be an important new civic space in the city.
As the creek undergoes its transformation to the urban greenway and linear park, there is the possibility the creatures will return. In this sense, the monument “Amphibious,” along Sabine Street, anticipates a possible future outcome while also commemorating a loss. It is a monument stuck between the past and the future.
Cast in bronze, the tiny memorialized creatures of “Amphibious” will last more than 1,000 years — a blink of the eye in the history of the earth, but enough time to make it hard to imagine how the city of that future will look. Over that time period, “Amphibious” will witness unimaginable changes. It will either become a monument to something lost or a tribute to something living that continues to shape the experience and sonic memory of the city. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
Murray Legge, FAIA, is principal of Murray Legge Architecture in Austin and co-founder of Legge Lewis Legge.