A View from Mueller
Brendan V. Wittstruck
Of all the islands he'd visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.
Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
By the time I first set foot on the quieted runways of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, the jets crossed overhead, unconcerned, going about their now customary business at the Bergstrom Airport to the southeast. It was 2005, and Mueller had succumbed some six years earlier to the demands of the jet age and the solidarity of nearly two decades of neighborhood voices. Now its runways lay silent, dark and inviting. We drank beers and tested those empty runways for the imaginary line between where we should and shouldn’t be, while across town planners laid trace paper over maps and colored in the future of our derelict playground in deft blocks of yellow and orange. To the west, the construction lights of the Dell Children’s Medical Center announced change. Gazing across those seven hundred acres to the setting sun behind the City's transforming skyline, I might have grasped at the nature, if not the form, of the beautiful, momentary transition that change would deliver.
I was myself evidence of a City in transition—born in Austin but returning after nineteen years, I was both from the city and seeing it for the first time. To say you’re from Austin remains a reliable currency in a city that still thinks itself small, and it was for me a particular defense upon returning in the fall of 2004 following an economic uptick that whose new dot-com royalty had supplanted the gritty oil money and the glossy marble of savings and loan. Folks could feel the ground moving beneath their feet, and they weren’t happy about it. Quietly at first came the rallying cry. Welcome to Austin. Please Don’t Move Here. To newcomers deaf to their plea, Austin’s economic boom signaled the wild west conjured up in so many carefully crafted histories.
I would leave again, this time for graduate school in architecture, and return again, this time to a paradigm where people thought of Mueller as a neighborhood and no longer as an airport. I returned changed, and found the City had kept stride . I saw Austin in spatial references where previously I’d relied upon personal references; moreover, I began to understand that I bore witness to precise moment in between a city that had been and a city that would be.
But the one undeniable constant of Austin is that it is always at this tipping point. Often it is too subtle to be noticed; other times it roars into City Hall in indignant throngs. That edge has always been there, and Austin has always two-stepped along its fulcrum.
Last September, in 2013, my friend Lauren and I set out to see Mueller again. It was an unimpeachable weekend, the first merciful autumn break from summer’s heat coming on the heels of both our birthdays, and it didn’t take much convincing to set upon the bikes. I was growing increasingly aware of the sea change that was taking place several blocks north of my Maplewood duplex, and I wanted to experience it more viscerally, as if standing in the palimpsest of Mueller might afford an opportunity to precisely insert myself in that moment of change. To be able to say I was there. Not merely perchance in Austin, not indeliberately driving down Airport Boulevard, not mulling upon change from the lumber aisle of Home Depot. There.
Another curiosity persisted: was there still there? Word was the runways had long since been demolished and that only barren paths remained as reminders.
Berkman Drive, which now extends across Mueller to Manor Road, had as yet been developed on only its western side; that afternoon, a row of immaculate townhouses faced an off-limits construction site whose lazy signs and silt fences were tacitly inviting many moments of quietly exuberant occupation. It might as well have been a city park: an infant took shaky steps beside her patient parent; a strolling man let his black lab off its leash; a slipshod cardboard home, empty, shook gently in the breeze. In the middle of a yet unfinished street stub, a group of elderly Hispanic men and women picnicked, defying the thought of its future traffic with their folding lawn chairs. That this space belonged to no one seemed unwittingly to invite its deliberate and expressive occupation.
We continued. The story of the airport unfolded in a geology of chiseled concrete. Piles of rubble were little mountains to challenge, yielding underfoot in sliding chunks. We pedaled through dust, gravel and weeds until, unceremoniously, our bicycle tires crossed a sweeping curve of thin yellow paint. And there it was: the runway. Obscured by drifts of sandy dirt, the painted marking that once directed taxiing planes now caromed into a mess of young mesquite, the last accidental vestige of the former life and untidy history of the space.
Lauren offered the right word for the space we were now occupying. Liminal is a term architects love because it explicitly describes an intermediate phase or condition while simultaneously alluding to a sensory threshold. The delight is twofold, and the persevering vestiges of the Mueller runway fulfill both.
First, spaces like present Mueller are transitional. Our cities are by nature incredibly dynamic beings, constantly shifting, moving, growing, shrinking, aging and so forth in spontaneous choreography. Essentially, this constant change demands a moment of transition—the mechanism of changing—which creates a condition neither previously present nor permanent. The fleeting nature of this condition is its currency, and acknowledging oneself within this space is to take ownership of a unique piece of a City. To this end, it is not necessarily the temporary nature of spaces from which we inherently draw value but the ownership of that space that comes with experiencing a finite moment within it.
The second delight is the inherent sensory “switch” in employing one’s multiple senses in a space which one is used to merely seeing (consider the bated breath with which one encounters the vast echoes of a gothic cathedral, or the tactile allure of a meeting with Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate). An airport, by definition, is a public venue the public cannot actually venture into freely, a space whose form we know intimately, and whose function we define with precision but whose physical nature we generally do not experience . By 2005, the sound and fury of the runway was long since silenced, but to set foot—first lightly, later with imperialistic vigor—on its concrete remained a haptic experience of a visual venue. The virtue of multisensory space in the built environment is covered eloquently by Juhani Pallasmaa ; I add that the moment of sensory conversion inherent in liminal spaces is essential to this virtue and defines, in part, their essential nature in our cities and environments. The threshold contains the sensory thrill; again, the multisensory exploration of otherwise visual space is where value is drawn. The transitional criterion of liminal space ensures the richness of this threshold—one doubts that airline baggage handlers in repeated occupations found the same contentment over the baking concrete beneath their boots as they went about their labors. Further, the illicit nature of spaces such as Mueller all but demands that crossing their sensory thresholds be a particularly deliberate.
The series of aerial images below shows the airport as it looked around the time of its closure, under development and, finally, as a representation of its intended final build-out. The reactions to the vast difference between the latter and the former have been predictably reflective of a city coming to terms with a new future of growth. But the mechanisms of change are a necessary condition toward the creation of liminal space, in which lies the most expressive moment of existence in a constantly changing world. To look only backward is to accept stasis. To look only forward is to embrace without critique an antiseptic totality of vision. We understand the dual burdens of these warring conditions of past and future to be in inexorable tension; instead, this transition should be thought of as opportunity. As long as we exist in such otherwise disorienting dynamic conditions of constant change we might as well make joyful and deliberate use of the moments that change provides.
The conversion of Mueller from restricted civic utility to parcels of homeowner property has produced such an opportunity—a window of time during which the public at large can claim ownership of that space through its occupation and its tactile exploration. The empowerment of that ownership was what I sensed when I first set foot on its dark runway, although it would be years before I could begin to articulate that feeling. Six years earlier, I wouldn’t have been permitted to see sunset over downtown from the airport’s restricted expanse. Six years from now, that space will be parceled into implied yards of craftsman-styled houses and the stern countenance of their property lines, and that view will again be impermissible.
The idea of ownership brings up another necessary, if tautological, condition for the expression of liminal space: that you are in it. Acknowledging liminal space essentially represents a subverting of either or both of the conditions that bookend it; if a transitional space exists, it both assumes a cessation of the past condition and that the future condition is not yet manifest.
The sensory aspect demands that this acknowledgment must be derived from direct experience of a space, returning to the idea of the threshold and its deliberate crossing. Recall your favorite places as a child. How often were these places carved from pieces of the public realm—creek beds, a weedy cul-de-sac, train tracks—and forged with childhood imagination? There’s a dual thrill at play there: of making a space into something that it wasn’t, and of not getting caught. That thrill persists.
It persisted at Mueller that September afternoon. The signs and silt fences intended to deny possession of that space might as well have been so many welcome mats. Although this portion of Mueller remains an active construction site, carrying with it inherent liability and the presupposition of danger, there exists more powerfully an underlying institutional assumption that you’re not supposed to be here. But that afternoon the presence of a here seemed far too big a draw. Across those acres pranced the impenitent stories of people carving pieces of the public realm and forging them with imagination. Where once planes taxied, now a child learned to walk. Old friends made an uncompleted street into a rec room. These were not casual encounters with the illicit space of transitional Mueller; these were deliberate.
To the north, approximating the future northeast corner of Berkman and McBee Street, is a leviathan mound of construction fill dirt and rubble. Its occupation is unquestionably prohibited; beyond the City of Austin No Trespassing sign a chain link fence, moat-like, further insists upon its sovereignty, although the fence cowers and bends in places of repeated challenges to its guard. The fence, cheap and temporary, heralds the transitional mound, a by-product of construction grading whose south face is defined by a graded truck path cut through by deep channels of erosion and anchored by entrepreneurial plant species. A short climb to its unassuming summit presents a panoramic view that extends to the US-183/MoPac flyovers to the northwest, Mt. Bonnell and the Balcones to the west, the Decker Power Plant to the east, the steel and cranes of downtown to the south and beyond them, astride its own hill, St. Edwards University. Above the flatness of Texas, a conversation ensues between those hills and monuments. On a clear day from that hill’s unassuming perch, you can see the entire City of Austin.
The view from the Mueller hill is the physical and conceptual zenith of this exploration into transitional and illicit spaces, and in searching for words to capture the delight of this hill, I conclude with these arguments as criteria for its merit as an urban space and its visceral predisposition for individual experience: 1) it is transitional, 2) it compels multisensory exploration, 3) I am present within it, and 4) I feel ownership through this presence. Standing atop its simple mass, I transform the hill (a pile of construction fill) into something it wasn’t (a view). In return, the hill offers me deliberate participation in a specific moment of constant change, one that neither looks too stubbornly back nor too stridently forward.
Bolaño’s Ulises rejects reverent past-seeking and relentless pursuit of change’s product in a validation of existing in the moment one finds oneself. I understand this as an appeal to the transitional and sensory thrills of liminality, and I believe these thrills are abundantly manifest in the deliberate experience of the city’s informally illicit public spaces, so many of which long to be painted with childlike imagination. Austin sits on the cusp of wholesale change and feverish shape-shifting amid the indomitable cries of those who mourn a by-gone city recast in pastoral pageantry. But I believe that a more fulfilling accounting of our dynamic city would come from existing purposefully, deliberately and expressively in the rich spaces offered by mechanisms of change. In a year, the Mueller hill may be gone, and so the Mueller hill is one such rich space—in which to delight in briefly making your own and in not getting caught—and proof that a little civil disobedience leads to a much better view.
(special thanks to Dylan for her generous and meticulous editing)
This essay was re-published on the Rag Blog here. The Rag Blog (TheRagBlog.com) is a reader-supported Internet news magazine produced by activist journalists committed to progressive social change. The Rag Blog is a digital-age rebirth of the pioneering underground newspaper, The Rag, published in Austin, Texas, from 1966-1977.
 On the downtown skyline, the “world’s largest nosehair clippers” was now dwarfed by “world’s largest USB drive”.
 In the anthropological sense of liminality, an airport, functionally, is also an example of a liminal space; in an airport, one has left (A) the city from which one is departing, but has not yet arrived at a (B) destination, thus creating a spatial transition area which is neither A nor B. If you had a connecting flight through Denver, would you say afterwards that you had been to Denver?
 Pallasmaa, J. Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Wiley, 1996).