This exhibition wasn’t installed in a museum. Instead it opened this past summer as part of Austin’s parks infrastructure.
It was composed of bright boxes painted on grass in a tantalizingly organized grid. There were didactics and signage welcoming visitors and educating them about their experience.
This exhibition created eight-foot-by-eight-foot living dioramas for what once had been mundane outdoor activities — digging into a good book under the sun, inhaling a fresh breeze, feeling the crunch of grass underfoot, meeting up with a friend — that were now a rationed reprieve to be savored.
Depending on where you were within this exhibition, you might see the whole of the skyline stretched upwards framing an urban tableau: people and the structures of the city that brought them together, even if they were apart.
This exhibition was P A R K S P A C E, a temporary project that made physical distancing recommendations a visual reality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organized by the Austin Foundation for Architecture and other partners, it was installed at six major parks and public spaces in the city starting in June 2020 and continuing into the fall.
The project has its roots in Austin Foundation for Architecture’s exhibitions committee. Last year, the group quickly realized it would be unable to host a conventional in-person exhibition and quickly began work on a project to that support the city as it began opening back up after the lockdown.
“Most social distancing guidelines that we’ve seen have been pretty clinical and not very inspiring,” said Gerardo Gandy, an architectural brand experience designer at Gensler, who drove much of the project as a member of the committee at Austin Foundation for Architecture. “I think what’s unique about these is that you know they turned out to be something that was beautiful and even educational.”
P A R K S P A C E’s color palette was drawn from local wildflowers. The bright blue squares of Pease Park reference bluebonnets, the gradient of yellow, orange, and red at Roy G. Guerrero Park is inspired by the delicate blooms of Texas lantana, and Zilker Park’s hot pinks evoke prickly pear.
The beauty of P A R K S P A C E was in its simplicity. Planned and implemented in only a few months, the project provided parks managers who saw attendance grow exponentially a structure to welcome their public back and offered Austinites across the city a safe way to enjoy a moment of respite outside.
I think of this project as just another layer of our urban environment, no different from our streets, labyrinthian pipes and wires below ground — all of the systems that hum silently under our feet or above our heads. In architectural time, which is slow, it appeared nearly overnight, reminding of the power of design to be urgently responsive.
For a few months, this turf paint appeared thanks to generous designers and stewards of Austin’s parks and public spaces. It was a temporary exhibition in Austin’s long architectural story, creating space for city life to flourish again.
In time it disappeared, living only in memories and photos, ultimately as a part of our city’s archive of life through COVID-19 and beyond.
I spoke with Gerardo Gandy about P A R K S P A C E. Read on for his thoughts about how design can help Austin become more equitable and resilient.
Sightlines: Tell us about what kind of parks we should be designing for after COVID-19?
Gerardo Gandy: I’ve personally learned through P A R K S P A C E the importance of having access to open space. And the disparity in the demographics of where these open spaces are located within our cities. There are 22 public schools in Austin that double as community or neighborhood parks and that’s because a lot of those communities don’t have access to open space. That does happen to be for the most part in communities that have limited means, so it goes to show that there’s still quite a lot of work that we can do. I’m sure that if you looked at the COVID case map and those parts of our town that have least access to public space that there be some relationship.
S: What do you wish we already had in place in our city before COVID-19?
GG: I have really come to appreciate bike lanes. One of the interesting things that we able to see (at the beginning of the pandemic) was a glimpse of a carless city. With everyone staying at home, there were less vehicles on the road. That allowed the city to experiment and do all sorts of interesting things from closing down South Congress Avenue and opening that up to pedestrians to smaller pieces of other streets that have closed or some restaurants when they opened back up, they began using their parking lot for their operations. This notion of kind of reclaiming the pedestrian or cyclist reclaiming the city was something that was really great.
I was able to see the city from vantage points that I probably would have never seen riding in a car. I’ve come to appreciate going out and exploring your city by foot. It’s not until you’re walking around and exploring the city by foot that you realize there is no sidewalk on this entire side of the road and I’m either in the middle of the road or on someone’s lawn. COVID made us hyper-aware of our surroundings and aware of where there might be opportunity to bolster some of those systems.
S: How are you seeing conversations in your work change based on conversations about public health and equity?
GG:There’s been a really great movement happening not just within our office but across the firm to think about how we can design spaces differently and how we can include new viewpoints and perspectives and insight from all within the community into the design process. After (the murder of) George Floyd, it really just made us hyper-aware of how important it is to include the community in the design process even more so than we did in the past. By having those different viewpoints, it makes for a more well-rounded design.
S: How do you prioritize users’ voices when designing these spaces?
GG: I think we are more sensitive to making sure that we support the voices that are less likely to be heard. It’s about how do we elevate those voices that aren’t usually part of the design process or you know might be overheard? How can we make sure that they are as integral part of the design processes as some of those other ones that are larger within the room?
I’m a commissioner for the city of Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center and we are about to embark on a wonderful expansion of the center. Our goal is how could we make sure that that we are really building a center that is not only for Austin now but more importantly for Austin in the future. One of the things that I have been a big champion of is making sure that we’re listening to younger voices, for example. We’re trying to make sure that a lot of the local youth programs where we have students that are interested in architecture and design or engineering or construction are aware of the charrettes that we’re having for this project. And making sure that the architects that are a part of this project are able to you present a sort of community lecture that talks about their design process.
Conversely, I think the design architects can do a lot of learning from the community itself and listen to them to hear what their needs are and what the things that they think should be in this community center. One of the roles that we have as commissioners and board is making sure that the voices of the community are heard in the design process, so we’re kind of community megaphones and everything that we hear in these sessions is something that we want to make sure that we channel up as across our board and to City Council.
S: How do we plan public places to be responsive to future cultural, political, and health changes?
GG: We’ve been doing experience blueprints for projects thinking about what types of technology would be right, such as a public project here in Austin. Usually, touchscreens were the way to go, but one of the things that we’ve seen is the public shying away a little bit from that. People right now feel a lot more comfortable if they’re able to look everything up on their phone instead of using some of the larger wayfinding tools. At the end of the day, technology is always kind of like a pendulum that’s constantly swinging one way and it comes right back.
It’s also equally as important to think of the human factor in how we think of the future, especially when you think of communities that are at risk or elderly, for example. Not everyone is as comfortable with technology as we might be and so how do we plan ahead and make spaces that also feel welcoming to them. One of the strategies that we’ve thought through is making sure that there are attendants in the lobby for those that might not have or feel comfortable with that technology.
One of the things that we’ve learned from being in front of screens all day during the pandemic is that we really need that human interaction and that human touch. Making sure that we’re able to continue to plan for that safely in the future, whatever the challenge or next thing that we face, it’s going to be equally as important to really create spaces that are welcoming.