SEPTEMBER 8, 2015
IN THE EARLY ’80s, the rock critic Richard Meltzer penned a little book titled Richard Meltzer’s Guide to the Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles. A collection of columns that Meltzer wrote for the L.A. Reader on indigenous architectural atrocities, the essays detail an endless parade of “florid vanity” and “Neo-somethings or other,” usually mashed together with other misbegotten period revivals. While Los Angeles may be unique in the breadth of its construction curios, other emerging postwar cities host similar domiciles of questionable taste.
David Heymann’s recent collection of short stories, My Beautiful City Austin, addresses this tragicomic fact of American life — all within the capital of Texas. Heymann is a working architect and professor of the subject at the University of Texas. His own designs, which when possible integrate aesthetically into the surrounding environment, could be described as retaining some of the values of Frank Lloyd Wright. These are not the kinds of designs, however, that figure into the stories of My Beautiful City Austin. Instead, they detail a fictional architect’s struggles with his clients’ desires, often for grotesquely ballooned versions of the small, porched limestone homes of the Texas Hill Country — that scrubby region outside Austin that serves as a gateway to the West for much of America’s imagination.
As a nearly decade-long resident of Austin, I found the houses mocked in some of Heymann’s stories to be true to life, as are the sorts of characters that make up the clients. But even for a non-Austinite, I suspect that the line separating David Heymann from the narrator will be difficult to hold. Heymann himself is well aware of this problem, and he writes in the book’s coda that,
Though I am an architect in Austin — and I did design a house for someone who insisted on a refrigerator deep enough for a pizza box — this book is entirely a work of fiction. To my beloved clients: rest assured, you do not appear in these stories.
So, these are definitely works of fiction (except perhaps for the stories about un-beloved clients). But they are fictions that are first and foremost observations of a place, each told through the eyes of a character whose name also happens to be David. The first story, “A Wish from Without,” is barely a narrative at all. Instead, it consists primarily of descriptive passages — which hold their own against the best of John McPhee — stitched together from memories, fragmentary images recalled from trips to the city in the narrator’s youth. In this way Heymann introduces us to some of the city’s iconic settings, such as the live oaks that line Lake Austin and the limestone of Mount Bonnell that overlooks it. The story ends with a polemic about the architectural difficulties of working within such an environment or, perhaps more accurately, the difficulty architects have convincing their clients to follow natural contours and properly use materials that reflect local geography. If you ever happen to be in a boat on Lake Austin, you can see for yourself how true this is.
In “Intern Owners,” the narrator finds himself designing a hillside house for his cousin on Town Lake, allowing Heymann to delve into the residential districts of an understudied Austin demographic: the newly rich, many of them Californians, whose fortunes have arisen from the influx of tech companies into the city. Their homes lie on previously undeveloped land, and it’s here that we first encounter the author’s architectural nemesis, grotesquely swollen versions of the “mythical older houses in the Hill Country: a simple limestone structure, with proper rooms, porches, a pitched metal roof — something that connected them with the built heritage of the landscape.” The problem is translating the simplicity of LBJ’s childhood home into the scale desired by these techno-aristocrats.
Of course, not all of these houses aspire to the quaintness of the Hill Country. In an exchange with a potential client, the narrator asks, “‘And the pretensions of these houses’ — I pointed to a faux-mansarded mansion — ‘don’t drive you nuts?’ ‘How do you mean?’ ‘Well, that house would be happier in the French countryside, if that countryside happened to be within the borders of Euro Disney.’”
In Heymann’s third story, David takes on two interns, both German architecture graduate students. They all occupy a duplex near downtown. The Germans have one-half for their residence, David the other half for his domicile and studio. Heymann returns in this story, “The Honey Trap,” to another iconic part of the Austin landscape: the Moon Towers, immortalized in Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused. In addition to revealing his own living and working circumstances, David also relays a story about a husband and wife named Frank and Cissy whose fortune is tied to the Gulf Coast oil industry. Heymann’s description of Cissy’s honeyed southeast Texas drawl is as strong as any of his descriptive passages, but, alas, his ear for dialogue is weak. For example, when Cissy expresses a desire for a home that will attract her sons, their wives, and accompanying grandchildren (the “honey trap” of the title), David responds:
Well, Cissy, I suppose we could ask your children to help design the house, or parts of it. Would that be smart? Though it sounds as if you’d like the new house to be more of a blank slate, maybe with each family having some privacy, or some part that they feel is their own.
This is perfectly reasonable language for a formal letter or a proposal, but it hardly seems like the way a man with the kinds of ties David has to Austin would speak to a woman with a deep Texas accent.
In the next story, “A Life in Ruins,” we meet a character for whom the narrator reserves nearly as much disdain as he does for the faux-Hill Country abodes, a decorator named Ben Cunningham (most certainly modeled on a real Austinite), who installs a Shaker-styled bedroom for a couple whose house David visits with his own potential clients during an open-house tour of the city’s homes. Another pair of nouveau riche with questionable taste, the homeowners reveal their knowledge of Shaker living is comically slender beyond a few aesthetic facts. David’s clients aren’t much better: they want a literal castle, with turrets and all. He, of course, acquiesces, comforting himself with the fact that at least their landscaping is an attempt to restore the area to a pre-settled state. His sigh of resignation is palpable.
On the one hand, Austin functions as a “destination city” and encourages people from around the country — especially young people who visit during the arts festival known as SXSW, not coincidentally the most pleasant time of year — to move here. On the other, Austin is the home of the University of Texas, and, like many college towns, it’s a site of nostalgia for people who spent “the best four years of their life” here before starting their work lives in Dallas or Houston. In “Patterns of Passive Aggression,” the narrator reflects on these varying aspects of his city while eating barbecue with other architects at the legendary Salt Lick in Driftwood, just outside city limits. Thousands of people go through the place in the course of a weekend — for the brisket cooked in an open pit, a renowned sauce, and 80 rolling acres of trees. UT alumni sit on the long picnic tables next to recent transplants, each silently questioning the other’s claim to the city.
There’s of course another detestable client woven into “Patterns of Passive Aggression,” but the chapter’s strongest quality is its description of Barton Springs, which Heymann calls “the great psychic heart of Austin.” It’s as apt a characterization as could be made of the place, and it allows him to engage in the kind of writing at which he so excels. Whatever brings you to Austin in the first place, whether you stay and develop a deeper love of the city in spite of all its problems, is really contingent on your relationship to the space around the clear, cold pool of water that breaks through cracks in the limestone after travelling hundreds of miles underground.
“Keeping Austin Weird” is where we meet the client who requests a refrigerator deep enough to hold a pizza box. But the story also has elements of classic farce, set in motion when this man’s neighbor attempts to poison an undesirable hackberry tree in an older residential neighborhood and also mistakenly kills a live oak down the hill. None of this is discovered till Duane — a holdover from the days when Willie came home and the Armadillo World Headquarters was where you spent your Saturday nights (in other words, the 1970s) — is hired by the offending neighbor to remove the moss balls that choke the live oaks along Lake Austin. The tree-killer only admits his guilt — and it’s really more like a sin in Austin — after Duane is caught having an affair with his wife. Duane’s only recourse, given the wife’s insinuation that her affair with Duane was not in fact consensual, is to shout, “HEY! If you’re calling the cops, turn your fucking self in! You fucking poisoned that tree, you fucking TREE POISONER!” After which Duane hightails it out of the neighborhood.
The professorial couple in “Gatherings on the Line” are the only clients who are truly responsive to the narrator’s ideas about architecture. Unfortunately, wanting community approval in an insular place like Hyde Park, they also seek the input of their neighbors. Of course, those neighbors gradually chip away at all that was innovative and environmentally integrative in the narrator’s design until the project becomes, for David, just another disappointment. Between the two stories lies much of what lurks in Austin’s “psychic heart”: the near-mythic figures from the past like Duane and the disheartening reality of the present. “Gatherings on the Line” ends with David high up in the UT football stands, where his client tells him, “I don’t think it is going to be worth the trouble.”
Overall, the strongest parts of My Beautiful City Austin are Heymann’s descriptive passages and his ability to conceptually frame a complex place in a series of interlocking stories. As a first-time fiction writer, his characterizations are more than memorable, without resorting to caricature — though his dialogue needs work. In total, a fascinating picture of the everyday life of a “destination city.” I look forward to reading more of David Heymann’s portraits of Austin, his — and my — beautiful city.