What The Heck Are Those Blue Panels Along The Lamar Underpass?

Jun 29, 2017

When you're driving down Lamar Boulevard between Lady Bird Lake and Fifth Street, do you ever look at the walls of the underpass beneath the train bridge? Do you look at those blank blue signs on the walls of the underpass and wonder: What the heck are those things?

Laura Bauman does. So she asked about them for our ATXplained project.

“[It] looks like somebody just cut up some old highway signs and it’s a practical joke,” she says.

There are about eight or nine of them on each side of the underpass, sticking out over the sidewalk. They’re highway rest stop blue, set at odd angles.

"I had a friend suggest they might be for diverting airflow?" Bauman says.

Well, they're not. They're actually art, one of more than 260 pieces in the City of Austin's Art in Public Places collection. But there’s no plaque or description of what they might be.

The origins go back to the year 2000, when the Austin City Council asked for a study to see how the city could make the underpass look a little nicer.

“Council actually looked at what can we do in this area to enliven it, to make it look more interesting and more beckoning to that area that is just north of the Lamar underpass,” says Sue Lambe, who directs Austin’s Art in Public Places program.  

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Thirty-one proposals were submitted by 28 artists. The group narrowed it to four finalists and ultimately chose a design by an architect named Carl Trominski. The installation was called “Moments.”

The original design for the east wall of "Moments."
Credit Carl Trominski/AIPP

A Rhythmic Experience

“The project site is visualized as a threshold between the Urban Austin and the Natural Austin,” Trominski wrote in his proposal. “The underpass marks a journey through the city’s self-image, between the urban center of business and entertainment to the city’s heart of natural beauty and enjoyment. This proposal intends to strengthen the expression and experience of this moment.”

The proposal included 12 blank blue signs on each side of the underpass. The signs would be set at angles, at 8 degree intervals. It also called for painting the squares of concrete on each side green and brown. Then there was a solar-powered lighting system that would bathe the underpass in blue light at night.

The original rendering for "Moments" at night (left) and what it looks like today.
Credit Carl Trominski/AIPP & Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT

“[Trominski] was actually thinking about those blue signs in ways of responding to the lake,” Lambe says. “He noted that the people running along the lake are doing so rhythmically and those signs were intended to mimic that rhythm. And he also noted that people were rowing on the lake and the dip of the oars as they went down the lake was a kind of rhythmic experience. He wanted to respond to that with these signs.”

The signs were also meant to be an “abstract reference to musical notes” and act as a “shadow indicator of the day’s progression.” The blue lighting was meant to “mark a spot in the endless miles of sodium orange lighting,” a reference to the type of streetlights used in the area.

The city paid $45,000 for the piece.

The Beginning Of Something

Since then, the work has become almost universally unappreciated. Personally, I have never come across anyone with a kind thing to say about “Moments.”

A few years after it was installed, the solar-powered lighting system was damaged and removed. The colored panels on the walls have become faded and worn.

Pedestrians and traffic alongside the art installation at the North Lamar railroad-bridge underpass.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News

When I tell Bauman the flaps are an art installation, she is disappointed. In her spare time, she’s a watercolorist.

“There’s so much better art in Austin. I’m sad to see my tax dollars used this way,” she says. “It looks like it’s the beginning of something.”

That’s a pretty good summation of most of the criticism I’ve heard.

“Unfortunately the blue panels are too vague to make for a memorable moment in Austin's public art history,” opined an item in the Austin American-Statesman in 2005. The article did praise the city for choosing a piece that was conceptual, not literal.

But, hey, that’s the deal with any creative pursuit.

Artist Magda Sayeg's "yarn bombing" of the Moments signs for Art Week Austin in 2010.
Credit Johnny Walker/Art Alliance Austin

“It’s OK if a third of the people love the work, a third of people don’t have a reaction and a third of people hate it. I think that can be the mark of success. We don’t expect to love every book in the library. We don’t expect to love every movie that comes out,” Lambe says. “I think that’s one of the reasons we love art. It gets us thinking and it gets us interpreting.”

In fact, in 2010, another artist added their take on "Moments". Magda Sayeg knitted covers for the blue signs as part of her "yarn bombing" project. People seemed to like that.

In Defense Of 'Moments'

I wanted to get some perspective from someone who does this kind of work for a living.

Thinking about a piece even remotely similar to “Moments” led me to one place: the lighting installation where I-35 crosses over Sixth Street — the one that looks like a giant ribcage.

Phil Reed and the I-35 lighting installation he helped design.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT & Cotera+Reed Architects

“There are these spaces in American cities now that are these kind of residual, leftover spaces that you might travel through — but no one seems to really possess,” says Phil Reed, the architect behind the I-35 lighting installation. He was actually a teaching assistant for a class Trominski took at UT’s School of Architecture.

Reed is quick to come to the defense of “Moments.”

“The positive thing about it, I would say — similar to what we did at I-35 — is your consciousness piques when you go through there. You’re looking for information and you’re not finding it,” Reed says. “Typically, people’s brains kind of shut off [when they’re driving]. There’s so much information coming in from your physical environment that you’ve got to kind of filter it out. And when you go to places like this, you’re going to think about something else when you’re driving through it. And it’s kind of a neat idea that you would bring this place to your consciousness through this little trick, if you will.”

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT

The Man Behind The Curtain

At this point, you’re probably wondering about Carl Trominski.

He didn’t return my calls asking for an interview. I wanted to ask him about his vision for “Moments,” about what he makes of the criticism and about what it all means. So, Carl, if you’re reading this: Call me, man.

But maybe he just wants “Moments” to speak for itself.

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