Looking Up at Laguna Gloria and Austin City Hall


Last Saturday, a chilly, blustery day under a brilliant cobalt-blue sky, my dad and I attended two docent-led tours about the landscape architecture at cultural sites in Austin: one at Laguna Gloria, the other at Austin City Hall. Led by landscape architects who’ve restored or designed these public spaces, the tours were hosted by the Cultural Landscape Foundation for its November 21-22 What’s Out There Weekend Austin. A total of 27 such tours were offered, free of charge, at sites all over the city, and they were so educational I wish I could have attended more.


I’ve been to both Laguna Gloria and City Hall many times, but it was interesting to hear the landscape architects involved with these projects talk about their design decisions and the history of each site. I didn’t take pictures during the tours, but I snapped a few beforehand. This giant, silver man, who looks like he’s made of aluminum foil, is a sculpture by Tom Friedman called Looking Up.


Molded out of styrofoam and pressed aluminum turkey-roasting pans, and then converted into stainless steel, Looking Up stands 33 feet tall…


…vying with nearby palm trees for vertical dominance on the lawn in front of the historic Driscoll House. Here it is with Dad, for scale.


The Driscoll House — the 1916 Italianate home of philanthropist Clara Driscoll, “Savior of the Alamo” — is today part of The Contemporary Austin (an art museum) and is the location of The Art School, which offers classes year-round in studios located on the lakeside grounds.


While the Italian-style gardens of Laguna Gloria emphasize vertical lines, like these palms…


…the contemporary design of Austin City Hall emphasizes horizontal lines. Carolyn Kelley and Eleanor McKinney, the landscape architects who designed the plaza and green-roof gardens of City Hall, led the tour, sharing that the building’s angled horizontal planes represent the ancient Balcones Fault that divides Austin’s natural landscape between blackland prairie to the east and rocky hills to the west.


The plant choices riff on this theme too, with Hill Country plants on the west side of the building, post oak savannah plants on the east, and prairie plants on the north. This raised bed, which faces south, is planted with Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and golden thryallis (Galphimia gracilis).


Austin’s an interesting city, and I enjoy learning more about it through tours like these. Fellow Austinites, did you partake of any of the Cultural Landscape Foundation tours last weekend? You can also read about cultural sites here and in other cities on the What’s Out There webpage.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

6 Responses

  1. Not surprisingly, at Laguna Gloria your picture perspectives capture the experience better than being there. We went with our Wyoming family in the September heat, and the sparse art and high temps left us unfulfilled, although the nature walk was good for us.

    We made the East Art tour and saw a lot of interesting works the first weekend. (We bought a Seth Schwaiger Lola – Lady in Pecan sculpture last year which would be great in the garden if I was willing to oil it twice a year.)

    If you’ll permit — one more comment from the lawn-almost-gone group. This year I came across the idea that the geographers consider the 100th meridian, that runs right through central Texas to be the dividing line between wet and arid growing conditions, so I’ve taken to being a wet gardener when I’m facing east and a dry gardener when facing west! So far so good…

    Sorry to hear about that Burning Flamingo at the South Congress Hotel. The new mixology can get pretty extreme.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Tom, a cool day certainly helps with any garden visit or outdoor stroll in Texas. :-)

      I agree with your disappointment about the sculptures on display at Laguna Gloria, although I didn’t find them too few but too many, and their placement didn’t please me or Dad. Of all the works, Looking Up is the only one I liked, although I’m not completely convinced it works with the site. And I miss Umlauf’s Poetess, which used to reside in the rose garden. I think the disconnect between the sculptures and the grounds is because LG is an art museum first and foremost. I get the feeling that the grounds are an afterthought.

      For all that, the grounds are pretty (although they could be so much more), and I always enjoy walking out on the peninsula to the Temple of Love. —Pam

  2. Mahee Ferlini says:

    Sounds like this would be an enjoyable trip. Great pics and interesting read. Thanks!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Laguna Gloria is a nice place to poke around for a half-hour or so on a nice day, Mahee. It’s not as “gardeny” as I would like, but its location on Lake Austin is lovely, and the stroll along the peninsula to the Temple of Love is especially nice. —Pam

  3. Lea says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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