Nostalgia is a way of life in Austin. Yet while each generation has its own set of I-Remember-When’s, few Austinites pause in the midst of the city’s relentless growth and change to consider the How’s and the Why’s and the What-Happens-Next’s. In his well-received first work of fiction, UT architecture professor David Heymann explores the nature of change in his favorite city by asking tough questions about short-sighted design, natural decline, and where the responsibility lies.
My Beautiful City Austin is structured around a young Austin architect and his struggle to reconcile his own standards and ideals with his client’s unique, earnest, and often quite quirky tastes and desires. Each of the seven stories offers an entertaining and enlightening portrait of our evolving city. And while Heymann’s prose is loud, honest, and flat-out funny, his book is a grave reminder that Austin’s charming character and remarkable landscape are largely endangered by Austinites themselves.
The architect-turned-author spoke with the Alcalde about the methods and motivations of his newfound craft.
Alcalde: What inspired you to start writing fiction and what, in particular, inspired My Beautiful City Austin?
David Heymann: I’ve been a professor as long as I’ve been an architect. One of the things in my work as a professor is trying to reach a larger audience. So I’ve been toying for a long time in my own writing with different formats for getting information into place. [This] struck me as a way that I could talk about stories that are academically not very interesting but actually more interesting as fiction.
A: Like you, the book’s main character is named David, grew up in Houston, went to college in New York, and ultimately moved to Austin. Why did you choose to include these autobiographical elements?
DH: I wanted people to read it and be impacted by it like it is real. [I wanted] to take the fiction to this kind of edge to where you can’t go, “That was just made up.” So the tension between “Is it real?” or “Is it fiction?” was intentional. Naming the character after myself and having some biographical overlap was intentional.
A: The relationships between the architect and his clients are central to the stories. Why did you choose to focus on that?
DH: There are two parts. The first one is: Who’s responsible for the things that are happening [in architecture]? Where does the responsibility lie? On the one hand, it clearly lies with people who are building houses, for example, and what they want. One of the points of the book was to talk about these actual, real motivations. To me, these motivations play a really important role in why the landscape is becoming what it is. I also wanted to talk about this moment in architecture where architecture sees itself as more of a service, rather than a thing that guides people toward better ideas.
A: How did your overarching interest in the relationship between people and nature influence your work in this book?
DH: People move to Austin for all kinds of reasons, but one of the reasons is that the city just doesn’t seem like a city. The underlying presence of the natural is so profound here—more than anywhere else! Austin is this kind of exemplary city in that regard. So I would say that my whole interest in the degree to which architects were complicit grew out of a much deeper interest in Austin as a natural landscape. To be honest, the research grew out of the more fundamental [question]: What do people want in a natural landscape? When they build in natural landscapes, what are they looking to accomplish or achieve or find or solve?
A: How did you hope readers would respond to My Beautiful City Austin as they consider architecture, landscape, and the city?
DH: Mostly what I wanted was for people to dig a little bit further—just in their own thinking more than anything else—about why Austin was changing in the way that it was. And to a certain degree, I wanted to spread that complicity out. That complicity isn’t just with the city, or with planners, or with architects. It generally has to do with a larger sense of the set of motivations and desires about why people are moving here and what they want, what they bring to the table in terms of their desires. I wanted to write about [this] city that’s really in transition. It’s not really that young, beautiful, charmed city anymore. It’s really something a little bit older, a little bit more messed up, and in many ways, a little bit more interesting because of that.
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