Many of America’s great universities were conceived as idealized cities, the most memorable possessing a spatial harmony that symbolically expresses the process of rational thought and invites contemplation—for example, the academic cores of such campuses as the University of Virginia, Stanford, and Harvard. Among these great spaces is the historic core of the University of Texas at Austin. Designed by Paul Cret at the turn of the last century, this highly integrated, well-defined landscape is composed of courtyards and buildings arrayed in careful harmony reminiscent of the Spanish Renaissance.
In the last half of the twentieth century, the integrity of many great American campuses began to erode. The Cret landscape proved no exception. As the car became a necessary part of the operation of the campus, roads, driveways, and loading docks gained visual prominence over such pedestrian spaces as allées, lawns, and terraces. Yet the center of the campus still offers glimpses of the original order and harmony. Huge trees grace hedge-lined greens; seat walls surround lushly planted beds; students sit on low walls and steps along well-scaled paths, free of cars. The purpose of the remodeling of the Speedway corridor and the East Mall is to extend the order of the historic core to the structural framework of the modern campus.
At its southern precinct, framed by the two buildings of the Blanton Museum, Speedway gives a view of the State Capitol to the south, a reference to the status of the university. Just to the north of the Blanton, sitting within a green meadow, is “Austin” by Ellsworth Kelly. PWP collaborated with the Kelly team on the integration of the piece within Speedway. The corridor itself will be narrowed to a pedestrian-friendly 30 feet wide. It will be paved in a mellow golden sand-molded brick referencing the warm golden brick that characterizes the traditional campus architecture. On each side, the space gained by narrowing the corridor will be lined with green lawns and shady trees. Rows of hedges reminiscent of the original historic quad will run perpendicular to Speedway and divide these dappled lawns into intimate spaces for conversation and study while providing settings for permanent artwork or temporary student sculpture exhibitions. Set back from the walk, broad beds of ground cover will soften the edges of the large academic buildings. Gaps in the current tree cover will be planted to increase shade, largely with live oaks.
At Speedway’s major intersections with 21st and 24th streets, new outdoor plazas will provide gathering places with food trucks and tables and chairs of a character to encourage social interaction. All will be shaded with umbrellas or orchard-like trees with the upper canopies gradually filling in to protect against the Texas sun. The large entry plazas at Perry Castaneda Library and Gregory Gymnasium will be replanted and configured more closely to the new human scale of Speedway.
Below: Speedway first phase opens (September 2016)
In a proposed scheme for the center of the East Mall, which stretches east from the historic core toward the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, wide seat-height beds of simple lawn would rise between the rows of existing oaks, providing places for informal repose, without inviting the spontaneous passages that cut unsightly desire lines across the existing grass. The dense canopies of the East Mall oaks would be trimmed to allow more sun on the green surfaces below.
Where East Mall tips toward Waller Creek, Paul Cret initially envisioned an amphitheater settled into the natural topography, within earshot of running water, and shaded by riparian vegetation. Today, this spot has become the largest single entry point to the campus, the primary student-commuter-bus drop-off just across Waller Creek at the football stadium. An overly monumental baroque fountain with walls stained by age currently blocks the western movement, its stairs running counter to the natural flow of foot traffic toward the central campus. The proposed East Mall Entry would replace this fountain with a wide cascade of running water interspersed by two broad bands of stone steps. The cascade steps would glow at night, leading the eye to the tower at the top of the hill beyond.