Vague Terrain and Temporary Tigers: The Pandemic Place Questionnaire with architect Murray Legge

A small budget outdoor classroom meets the design challenges wrought by the pandemic. People need to have agency, Legge, says, in making choices about the public realm. And a great public space can be many different things simultaneously.


When I asked architect Murray Legge what our city needed, he essentially said nothing.

Invoking architect and theorist Ignasi de Solà-Morales’ concept of the terrain vague — a theory of unused urban spaces that can occupy the public imagination and spark curiosity — Legge felt that what Austin might need most is this kind of generative absence.

Part of the terrain vague theory is that there is value and possibility in forgotten spaces that aren’t marked by capital and commerce. Examples like hulking infrastructure in decay and empty downtown lots, short-circuit the relentlessly productive city.

These spaces are enchanting because they ask you to wonder why this slice of the city is different, why it hasn’t yet become a mixed-use development with an Orange Theory Fitness at the ground level. To imagine what it was in the past and speculate what it could become in the future.

And for a city that’s growing at a breakneck pace (even during and in spite of a global pandemic), it is refreshing to think that there is a usefulness for abandoned buildings, fallow lots, and maybe even downtown surface parking.

As so much of Austin gets rewritten every day at the direction and benefit of so few, it’s compelling to think that we need less, not more. It’s intriguing to consider that we can take space to hold onto our shared landscape and imagine something better, while also advocating for structural changes like public transit, affordable housing, eviction protections, a new land-use code, and all of those tools to make our city more livable and equitable.

Related: A Good-bye to 2020: Introducing the Pandemic Place Questionnaire

Legge and his studio are interested in thinking about and working in these unexpected places of potential. He delights in the temporary, the unfinished, and the slightly cryptic. He’s confident and quite effusive (we spoke for over an hour and a half). But reassuringly, he knows what architecture as a practice can do and what he as an architect can deliver.

His most recent project is a small budget outdoor learning space for Little Tiger Chinese Immersion School near the North Loop neighborhood. A companion to the meticulously conceived, and AIA award-winning, Little Tiger schoolhouse he designed in 2019, the new learning structure, designed for COVID-19 is nicknamed Temporary Tiger.

Stick framing, the off-the-shelf sunshade, and Little Tiger taking on the construction made the project’s price tag come to under $3,000. Photo by Leonid Furmansky.
Stick framing, the off-the-shelf sunshade, and Little Tiger taking on the construction made the project’s price tag come to under $3,000. Photo by Leonid Furmansky

It was designed in a few days, engineered in a few weeks, and built for around a few thousand dollars. It was also constructed by one of the founders of the school, significantly decreasing its cost.

The structure is constructed of wood beams and an off-the-shelf fabric material that functions as a sunshade. Legge Studio’s prior work has used stick framing — the name for the wood support structure instead of steel — in public art works and modest buildings.

By all accounts Temporary Tiger seems to have delighted the students and offered the teachers and school administrators a safer space to teach in-person.

It is refreshing to hear any kind of solution to a COVID challenge that seemed so easy and relatively inexpensive. And in a moment where hand-sewn masks continue to be one of our most effective tools in lessening the force of the pandemic, Legge’s project makes complete sense.

Seeing photos of the Temporary Tiger, where kids could both clamber up its posts like a jungle gym or settle into the work of learning at their individual desks, brought me a lot of hope. As Legge notes himself, the scale and flexibility of a small private school like Little Tiger allowed something experimental like this to come to fruition.

Classroom learning in the Temporary Tiger. Photo by Leonid Furmansky
Classroom learning in the Temporary Tiger. Photo by Leonid Furmansky

But in a country and a city that are still struggling with how to educate children through a pandemic which may last many more months, it’s this kind of exceptionally humane and rigorously original thinking and design we’re going to need.

As we catch up with architects, planners, and designers about what they’re working on through the pandemic, we’re also sharing a questionnaire about how our city should be designed and built for the future after the impacts and lessons of 2020.

Murray Legge’s responses are below:

Sightlines: Tell us about what kind of public spaces we should be designing for after COVID-19?
Murray Legge: I kind of resent the fact that architects have to do it at all. I love reading about architecture one-offs or precious little singular buildings that are obscure; I really like that kind of antiquarian approach to things.

If you look at the buildings that have been built in response to climate change or sustainability as an example to parallel that of the COVID response: that there is a singular building that is there doing all of these things like generating electricity and filtering water. But if you drive up to Cedar Park or Leander, with how many people actually now that have moved to Austin, there are hundreds of acres being bulldozed and thousands of shoddy houses being built. To me, that’s what we should be talking about. Not these precious little one-off solutions by fancy architects.

It’s a much broader, much bigger, much more systemic problem. Let’s talk about these bigger system-wide [structures] like the roofing industry or fulfillment centers. What broader or system-wide moves can we make and take it off of individual, bespoke solutions, which I think are fine maybe as models. But I think that it also distracts from the issue because everyone is focused on this one tiny thing that is going to save us.

S: What do you wish we already had in place in our city before COVID-19?
ML: I sometimes walk home [from my office where I work alone] and take like an hour to walk home, even though I’m a block away. It made me feel the shrinking of the physical realm. But it did make me feel the need for more of architecture that responded to the pedestrian experience. And what I mean by that is not just more sidewalks and things like pedestrian bridges.

There is something really special when you’re walking in Austin and there’s no sidewalk and you’re in the street, and then you’re like wow there’s a sidewalk. And then sometimes the sidewalk in some places veers off to somewhere else like on Shoal Creek Blvd. It turns into like an immersive kind of natural experience just that’s so fitting for someone on foot. To me, that felt really special and I guess I wasn’t as aware of it until COVID.

Temporary Tiger. Photo by Leonid Furmansky
The Temporary Tiger structure becomes a shaded playscape when class is not in session. Photo by Leonid Furmansky

S: How are you seeing conversations in your work change based on conversations about public health and equity?
ML: The issue of public health has always been pretty central to work of designing buildings and landscape. The building codes are, foundationally, based on addressing safe healthy buildings. With the recent pandemic, and since it seems that the virus is spread airborne and indoors, the question of air circulation and ventilation has become really important. IAQ (Indoor air quality) has been an important aspect of design for that last couple of decades and has become even more critical. In terms of equity there is a concept of “universal” design which in the broadest sense, means designing for everyone. More important is to address is who has been excluded and how can we change that? We’ve been spending a lot of time in the office to understand what that could mean and what truly universal design means.

It also points to our limitations as architects. What we provide is largely technical solution to things, which has its limits. I believe there’s a danger in thinking that there are technical solution to everything. We face some pretty deep challenging social problems so the question for us is what non-technical solutions can we provide, as designers, to help address these problems. It’s more of a cultural question, design culture, construction culture, etc. We work inside these systems and it’s often hard to get perspective on it. I guess that is the question. How to see it, how to gain perspective.

S: How do you prioritize users’ voices when designing these spaces?
ML: I feel like it’s something our work has actually gotten a lot better over the last few years. It’s a symbiotic thing; we’re getting clients that like the way we work, and it goes both ways. It’s really learning how to collaborate with your clients in a way through a kind of shared dialogue and conversation. Very rarely do we have a client that is like “we want you to do this you know we love what you did there and do another one here.” It grows out of site conditions of budget and needs, even if you’re doing like a little house for somebody or a remodel. The best architecture for us is when you’re really in sync with the clients for a conversation or dialogue. This is a very creative thing, it’s much more of a thought conversation.

S: What does Austin/Central Texas need more or less of in terms of built public space? And how do we plan gardens/streets/parks/plazas to be responsive to future cultural, political, and health changes?
ML: I think of the notion of the public space as a civic tool is a very traditional kind of European idea. Like you have a city with a public square, and you have a protest, or you can have a market. In Austin, I think about our most vibrant public spaces, people use it to exercise. Americans, we have to be doing things so we go to the public space to run, to bike. The Lady Bird Lake trail is our most vibrant public space, right?

I do love this idea of the terrain vague. There are public spaces that are abandoned or in a state of disuse. To a certain degree Shoal Creek is like that, Waller Creek was like that, the Seaholm Intake Building is definitely like that. They’re spaces for the public imagination to occupy. There’s something about abandoned pieces of infrastructure, its former utility and abandonment gives space for public wonder and speculation. That is what I love about temporary structures; they feel a little bit like that too. Is there a way you can create more utility in something like Seaholm, but at the same time maintain this abandonment and potential for different kinds of uses to occur? Let’s say you create a restaurant there, but then it’s always going to be a restaurant.

I think it goes back to giving people agency in the public realm. A great public space can be many different things simultaneously.

Penny Snyder
Penny Snyder
Penny is a writer and communicator who is invested in ideas of the public and access to art, architecture, and livable cities. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2016, with high honors for her thesis examining how neoliberal urban development around new museum buildings weakened public space.

Related articles