arts & Letters
A Comic Elegy for Austin’s Built Environment In his first work of fiction, architect David Heymann weaves a series of short stories — by turns comic and wistful — of a young architect who fails to dissuade his clients from their follies. The trick is, the narrator (presumably, an alter ego of the author himself) manages to evoke Austin’s “ambrosial charm” and to deliver his critique with neither sentimentality nor polemic. Instead, Heymann’s stories marry the keen eye of a natural historian with a writer’s gift for lyrical detail. To appreciate this book, it helps to have a stake in Austin’s past — preferably one longer than an undergraduate’s fouryear residency — as well as its future. From Mount Bonnell to Lake Travis to Deep Eddy, Heymann reminds readers of the human scale of Austin’s unique
places, even as this scale falls away to development and destruction. Heymann is the Harwell Hamilton Harris Regents Professor in Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Describing himself as a “classic faculty brat,” Heymann grew up in Houston where his father, Dieter Heymann, was a professor of geology and geophysics at Rice. Heymann attended Rice from 1978 to 1981 before moving to New York to finish his degree. He is married to Sandra Fiedorek ’80. —lynn gosnell
Author Q&A “My Beautiful City Austin” (John M. Hardy Publishing, 2014) by David Heymann of it. My favorite is probably “Patterns of Passive Aggression,” which segues from a barbecue dinner with architects at the Salt Lick to a disquisition on whether Austin is actually a city to a description of Barton Springs to a hellish client request on Lake Travis. I like the constant tone of uncertainty that keeps undercutting the landmarks, and the balance of idealism and cynicism.
Is the unnamed narrator a kind of alter ego? Yes and no. I certainly share his understanding of Austin and the concerns he brings to what is happening. But the commissions are fictional. In my own architectural work I’m a lot better at finding innovative design alternatives for similar motivations.
Your dad was a geologist. Did you grow up sort of paying particular attention to the natural world?
How important is it to construe a house “in words first,” as the unnamed narrator mentions in one chapter? It is especially important if you hope to find the key set of desires to unlock the design of a better building.
Do you have a favorite of the stories in your book? I like each one for different reasons. Writing “Keeping Austin Weird” was an incredible kick: I laughed constantly while I was writing parts
Ric e M aga z i n e | wi n t e r 2 0 1 5
Read more about the book and author at www.david heymannauthor. com
Not fair! I have so many fond memories of each. That said, my wife, Sandy, and I visited my brother in Austin when our son, Walter, was 6 months old. He took us to Barton Springs and carried Walter out in the water. Walter’s reaction was one of pure bliss. So, OK: Barton.
There’s a brief and comic scene set at Rice about “late-night stoner parties atop the biology building.” How about another Rice story? As an architecture student at Rice, I was once crossing the main quad to Anderson Hall when I was run into from behind by a bicycle ridden by [then-President] Norman Hackerman. He clearly had not been looking, and he must have been lost in thought because his always somewhat stern visage did not relent as he surveyed me sprawled on the ground under his front wheel. I was in such awe that my immediate reaction was to apologize profusely for the trouble I had caused. He didn’t say a single word before riding off, and my respect for him only increased.
P I L A R PA L AC I Á
Very much so. I’ve always been a crazy birder. But my love for natural landscape is certainly related to my dad, [professor emeritus of geology and geophysics and adjunct professor of chemistry] Dieter Heymann, being at Rice. His specialty was chemistry, and his interest was space. He often had meteorites around when I was a kid. We camped for most of every summer and long weekends during the year throughout Texas and the West. His Ph.D. students would meet us in out-of-the-way places. They would lay for hours under the stars and call them out by number, which was magic for me.
Several of the stories reference Austin’s spring-fed pools. So, we have to ask: Barton Springs or Deep Eddy?