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Austin’s New Central Library

With unique features and grandly scaled public art, there's a lot more to check out than books

austin central library

If you’ve driven, walked, or biked down Cesar Chavez Street over the past several years, you’ve likely noticed that with so much going on — and up — it’s hard to stay focused on what’s in front of you. Now that the construction fences are gone and the doors of the city’s most anticipated public building are open, it’s time to stop what you’re doing and take a look in and around Austin’s new Central Library.

Boasting 200,000 square feet over six floors, the $120 million library says a lot about Austin today: what we value and where we’re going. The building sits near the mouth of Shoal Creek at Lady Bird Lake and commands a prominent place in a skyline that the city’s first permanent settlers, who occupied the same spot in the 1800s, could have never imagined.

austin central library
Inspired by Austin’s grackles, artist Christian Moeller brings a few of the birds inside with his kinetic sculpture appropriately titled “CAW.”

Knowledge, technology, and inspiration are the new library’s watchwords and an in-person visit reveals the many ways each word comes to life. Located in the Seaholm EcoDistrict, the heart of downtown’s urban revitalization, the library’s flagship facility was designed for ultra-flexibility and to accommodate a lot more than books over the next 100 years.

The building’s overall design is the result of an architectural joint venture between the prestigious San Antonio and Austin firm Lake|Flato and one of the country’s oldest architectural practices, Shepley Bulfinch, whose portfolio includes university and public libraries around the world. David Lake, who grew up near Mount Bonnell, says that the building reflects the unique kind of energy Austin is known for. “The feel is exuberant,” he notes. “The skylight in the atrium beams light down, and it bounces off every opaque surface in the space. As you climb the stairs, you’re always moving toward the light at the top.” Lake says, “It’s like moving upward and advancing in knowledge.

Features that make the new Central Library a distinctly Austin-centric gathering space include an on-site cafe; a bike corral with room for 200 bicycles; a gift shop featuring local, sustainable literary-themed merchandise; a cooking demo area; two reading porches; a 350-seat special events center indoors, and an outdoor amphitheater; a green roof lush with native plants; and a solar energy generating system. You can also expect all the high-tech goodies a city like Austin demands in the form of 150 self-checkout devices, three RFID-enabled book-return drops that look more like ATMs, public-use Macs and PCs, and a tech petting zoo. And not to neglect the basics, the Central Library has a capacity for 350,000 volumes, with 589 comfy, colorful seats giving patrons plenty of choices for the perfect spot to settle in and stay a while.

austin central library susan lambe
Susan Lambe, the city’s Art in Public Places administrator, oversees Austin’s collection of more than 250 pieces of public art, located in places like the airport, convention center, parks and streetscapes.

Not to be outdone by the stunning views and volumes of fact and fiction, the new public art commissioned for the Central Library provides an equal source of inspiration. The energy it brings to the site is palpable, with work that’s large-scale, kinetic, and experiential.

Susan Lambe, who oversees the City of Austin’s Art in Public Places program, explains that — as has been the case with the city’s collection of over 250 pieces in the airport, convention center, parks, and other public places — the selection process for art at the new library was a careful one, both long and complex. It involved input from the public, and a selection panel of art professionals advised by stakeholders, as well as representatives from the city’s Art in Public Places panel, Arts Commission, and ultimately the Austin City Council.

“It’s a privilege and a responsibility,” Lambe says. “It’s a very thoughtful process, because our job is to bring public art to the community in the most beneficial way.” More than just enhancing a public space, it entails creating what ultimately become Austin’s cultural landmarks. “The artwork needs to respect and respond to the city’s values. Each piece must also be sustainable, something the city can maintain on a long-term basis,” says Lambe.

austin central library
Staircases and floating walkways meander through the six-story atrium.

The art at the new Central Library meets all of these criteria and more. The 37-foot-tall signature sculpture installed on the sunbathed wall of the atrium is appropriately titled “CAW,” as it most closely resembles a giant red cuckoo clock overtaken by blackbirds. From the side, you can catch a glimpse of the motor (built in Germany by one of the world’s oldest clock-making firms), which controls the gentle motion of the giant, swinging pendulum.

Mounted on an adjacent wall on the fifth level of the building is an accompanying oversized, circular LED screen depicting a mystical blackbird set in a Texas landscape. The screen’s frame contains a sensor, which responds to movement around it and sets the bird in motion; its head moves into natural poses instantly familiar to anyone who’s encountered Austin’s prolific grackle population.

Lambe recounts that Christian Moeller, who created “CAW,” says he was entranced by the grackles on his first visit to Austin, many years before he knew he would create art here. The artist, whose portfolio includes largescale work around the world, researched blackbirds and discovered their significant presence in literature and mythology.

“It’s a privilege and a responsibility… More than just enhancing public space, entails creating what ultimately become Austin’s cultural landmarks.”

The representation of the birds, with whom we share our city and who carry on about their business just outside the library’s walls, in combination with the homey feeling of a cuckoo clock contributes a strangely domestic element to the library’s overall ambience. Moeller notes the communal nature of blackbirds’ behavior and that some types of blackbirds are among “the most intelligent animals on the planet … What do I want to convey to the people of Austin? Nothing they wouldn’t already know. You don’t have to like them.  Just live with them like we do with any other neighbor.”

Lake, who was present at the artist selection, says he appreciates the choice of Moeller’s “CAW” because, among other reasons, it’s “very particular to Austin.”

Immediately outside the library are completely different kinds of art to take in. “Wander,” created by local artists Chris Gannon, Chadwick Wood, and Brockett Davidson, is a playful interactive piece that starts at a sculpture called the “Beacon.” It invites participants on a real-life “choose your own adventure” that takes players to historic sites, public art installations, and the eclectic nooks and crannies of Austin’s urban core. Working with local writers and illustrators, the artists created four narratives accessed via a mobile app or a printed piece checked out from the library.

Some of the art seamlessly incorporates public safety into its design. Probably the most technically site-specific piece is “Power Picket,” by artists Nader Tehrani and Dan Gallagher. By necessity, the work straddles the line between art and infrastructure. The installation, composed of pigmented precast concrete pillars on its north and south sides and perforated metal panels on the east and west, acts as a physical barrier around the EcoDistrict’s electric power substation.

austin central library
An LED screen featuring a mystical blackbird responds to motion around it, causing the bird to strike lifelike poses.

“’Power Picket’ is a beautifully artistic solution to a real-world problem of safety and security,” Lambe explains. “The cost to move the electric substation was prohibitive, so Austin Energy asked us to collaborate on a solution.” Not only does the work address practical concerns, but it also offers differing visual experiences to passersby, depending on their speed and mode of travel. “It looks one way to a pedestrian walking by, and offers a completely different experience to someone seeing it from the window of a moving car, a bike, or a nearby high-rise.”

Austin artist Judd Graham’s work, located along the street between Shoal Creak and the power station, also incorporates functional safety in a very organic way. His work titled “Array” is comprised of hand-forged and densely textured steel sleeves, which are installed over nine of the bollards that define the pedestrian space from the road. The companion piece, “Spin,” made from the same materials as “Array,” measures seven feet tall and rotates on a hidden axis. As its name suggests, the piece begs for a friendly nudge to move the heavy pillar from stillness into spinning motion.

austin central library
The rooftop garden, lush with native plants and a Live Oak, offers spectacular views of the city and Lady Bird Lake.

The most massive (and, for kids, possibly most huggable) of the new public art installations is “Crullers,” a group of three pieces inspired by beloved animals like elephants and hippos and the many definitions of family.

Texas artist Sharon Engelstein used steel armature, milled foam, and pigmented glass fiber-reinforced concrete to create the imaginative grouping. Big Mama Baby and Little Mama nestle together on the grass across from the library, seeming to wait patiently for Tall Solo, who appears to have wandered over to Third Street and West Avenue. Though not representing any family of creatures in particular, “Crullers” still conveys a sense of kinship; each member looking out for one another, right at home in their new neighborhood with the library at its center.

Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2017