Christian Pongratz is a professor of architecture at Texas Tech University, but hearing him speak about the project Urban Stage in downtown Lubbock revealed that he has a knack for storytelling as well. “Small West Texas town without a lot going on,” he said, setting a familiar stage—wide roads, empty parking lots, and winds unfettered by natural vegetation. “But then comes in the major players—the university, the biggest employer in town besides the hospital—and they ask, ‘Is there anything else? What can we do?’ Well, we can do something.”
That “something” became Urban Stage, a student-teacher collaboration designed to showcase downtown Lubbock’s potential as part of an interactive community event. Pongratz and his colleague, professor Dustin White, lead 19 students as they designed and built art installations, coordinated with local vendors, and orchestrated a first-of-its-kind-event that highlighted the potential for sustainable living in a community where urban design and the environment merge.
Students engaged with a variety of fabrication techniques and materials—including laser-cut sheet metal, plastic molds, and metal pipes—in order to design and build the multi-part installation on a slim budget of $10,000 with an even tighter timeline of seven weeks. “That’s about half the time and money usually allotted to such projects,” said Pongratz. Limited resources lead the team to abort several of the installations halfway through execution, which White contextualized as “an important part of the learning process.”
Interactivity was a fundamental component of Urban Stage’s design, so most of the installations encouraged user engagement. The “Mushroom,” for instance, used proximity sensors to emit sounds and lights when people walked by. “That was quite sophisticated,” said White. “They [the students] had to collaborate with electrical engineers on that one.”
A second installation, the “Forest,” demonstrated how to engage the winds in a public space with thin, human-height sticks planted upright so that the passing air currents created a dance of color and movement. The Forest’s interaction with nature deepened after a rainstorm melted the sticks into an intricate weave.
Local nurseries donated cacti and other desert flora in order to demonstrate how densification of vegetation could transform the harsh bareness of Lubbock’s downtown into an urban green space. Low-water plants beautified the area, tempered winds and extreme heat, reduced the carbon footprint, and deepened the interactions between community and the environment.
Urban Stage went on for two weeks in early October, with varied and continuous intersections throughout. The art installations engaged children and adults alike. Local bands performed while participants sampled food from different vendors. Students and professors were present at the event, encouraging the community to ask questions and give feedback. “Students don’t normally receive feedback,” noted White. “Next year the community will hopefully be more involved in the planning, and earlier on.”
Community involvement is necessary in White’s view. Despite the recent drop in oil prices, Lubbock anticipates an oil boom that could draw between 150,000-200,000 newcomers. If the town wants to thrive, he said, it will need to concentrate on directing growth inward by fortifying current structures rather than intensifying urban sprawl. Lubbock’s climate also demands that urban growth incorporate the type of environmentally conservative measures demonstrated by Urban Stage. English lawns, for instance, are popular in the West Texas town, but are ultimately unsustainable due to water restrictions instigated by recent droughts—droughts that could become more frequent in the future. The project demonstrated that Buffalo grass and cacti are more realistic options. “Lubbock is an arid climate,” said Pongratz. “You have to be aware of that. To react to that.”
The installations remained standing a month after Urban Stage officially ended, a tribute to the project’s success and a hopeful indicator that the changes it recommended may not be unwelcome in Lubbock.