More Voices: Sinclair Black

For this article, we asked people around the community and the country for observations about Sinclair Black. The comments collected below help fill out the portrait of the man and the architect. – K.G.

"I have a hard time thinking of Sinclair Black as a "New Urbanist" because he was preaching his unique brand of urbanism long before that term was invented. I think he is just a quintessential urbanist. He loves cities and the kinds of interactions people have in cities with every fiber of his being, and he has been a tireless advocate of making better urban places for every day of the more than 30 years I have known him. If that does not merit a lifetime achievement award, I am not sure what does.

"In the late 1970's Sinclair produced a drawing of an aerial view of Downtown Austin that got published on the cover of Texas Architect. It showed no new tall buildings south of Sixth Street. His vision for the next decades of Austin's growth was to keep everything at four to five stories tall with tree-lined streets and buildings built out to all block faces, producing a well-developed pedestrian environment. Of course that did not happen.

"But what Sinclair's drawing did was to focus everyone's attention, not on the skyline of our embryonic Downtown, but on it streets and sidewalks and pedestrian places. That drawing, along with Sinclair's City Hall competition entry, the development of his own offices and surrounding buildings on Fourth Street and endless hours of promoting, cajoling, and haranguing that Sinclair did over the next decade, kept our city focused on the pedestrian environment.

"Twenty years later we can finally see the fruits of all of that labor in a Downtown that really does have, in a growing number of places, a rich, vibrant urban life.

"Sinclair's message has never been terribly complicated. He believes in eternal verities of public life. There need to be shady places to sit and talk and have a bite to eat. You need to see your neighbors walk by and be able to greet them or at least nod. The scale of the streets and of the buildings needs to be intimate and friendly. Cars should be present, but controlled so as not to dominate. There should be a mixture of uses all smashed together — housing, retail, offices, recreation — so as to create convenience, security, and round-the-clock activity.

"Much of Sinclair's best work (like the aerial drawing of Downtown) has never gotten built. His redesign for I-35 as it moved through Downtown Austin had seeds of brilliance.His projected adaptive reuse of Seaholm Power Plant for a Children's Museum was amazing. The city of Austin should be hanging its head in shame for not having built his streetscape redesign for the Drag, which was completed years ago and will be the purest embodiment of his notions on Great Streets, if it ever gets built."

Larry Speck

Principal, PageSoutherlandPage

Former dean, UT-Austin School of Architecture

"My partners and I first met Sinclair more than 20 years ago when we were preparing the plan for the Austin Municipal Office Complex on the site of the current City Hall.

"As part of the planning process, we organized an idea design competition, which he handily won. His solution gave life to the vision of the area as a mixed-use district and a community gathering place — with active ground-level restaurants and shops, a major civic plaza, and upper-level offices, hotel rooms, and residences.

"Sinclair's vocabulary was rooted in the rich traditions of Central Texas: Thick masonry walls with punched openings, arcaded walkways, intimate courtyards, generous overhangs, and sloping roofs. This was in 1984, almost 10 years before the birth of New Urbanism. At the time, architects were focused more on making iconic statements than on contributing to a community's sense of place and identity.

"Over his entire career, Sinclair has demonstrated the ability to make great buildings and urban spaces that grow out of the culture and place that is Austin and Central Texas. We heartily congratulate him for this award, and are thankful for his clear vision and commitment to urbanism and the community."

Jim Adams

Principal, ROMA Design Group

"I've known Sinclair since I was a kid back in the late Sixties when he joined UT's School of Architecture, while my Dad was the Dean. Growing up, I had always idolized his architectural talents, but looking back I realize what an urban design guru he actually has been. His 1984 design for the Municipal Office Complex was a true example of 'New Urbanism' probably even before the movement arose. Because of this, to me Sinclair is Austin's "Renaissance Man."

Evan K. Taniguchi, American Institute of Architects

President, Alan Y. Taniguchi Architects & Associates

"How do I see Sinclair as a New Urbanist? I don't. Sinclair really transcends such labels. While he is certainly an Urbanist, his contribution is that of a consummate architect/planner. He is most comfortable with materials, artisans, and construction methods native to the region, and he brings his great knowledge of urban architecture throughout history and the world to all that he does. But for him, this is nothing New.

"By living successfully in both the world of academics and the profession, he successfully melds these two worlds, as a teacher, practitioner, and community activist. Of all his contributions, I think his single-minded belief that Great Streets are what define great cities, is the most significant.

"His architecture itself is always of the highest design quality and his sense of scale, materials, expression of structure, functionality, and elegance are in evidence in all of his work."

Girard Kinney

Principal, Kinney & Associates

Design Commission, city of Austin

"Sinclair Black could be called a Pre-New Urbanist. His understanding of the formation of towns in their natural topographic and regional setting, fused with his realization of ongoing needs for community pedestrian dimensions, created new realizations for Austin in the early 1970's. His published study of Austin Creeks, his work on Great Streets, and his inventions of building types to create a healthy urban density has focused the city's attention on the prospects of a dynamic downtown.

"The urban activity you see in Austin today came from seeds planted by Sinclair Black 30 years ago."

Hal Box

Former Dean, UT-Austin School of Architecture (1976-1992)

"Sinclair Black is a living archive for the physical fabric of Austin. No one has more knowledge or wisdom about how the city of Austin was planned and, just as importantly, why. For decades, Sinclair has held fast to his belief in the intrinsic quality of Austin's original plan. Through architectural fads, land booms,and building frenzies, Sinclair insisted on respect for the integrity of Austin's core and its history. It is his gentle and fatherly nature, combined with incredible thoroughness, that makes Sinclair so persuasive."

Mike Krusee, Texas State Representative

"Some say it's dangerous to hang out with iconoclasts like Sinclair Black. For me it's a thrill to be so close to the firing line. Why do I say the 'firing line'? Because visionaries make the status quo feel very uncomfortable: Sinclair engenders the discomforted to step up and explain their stupidity. He basically outs those who benefit from inertia.

"The famed urbanist Andrés Duany says that real town planning looks forward 50 years. Sinclair looks forward 100. That is why he has been so effective promoting great urbanism in Austin. What makes Sinclair's vision so credible is that he also understands today's application. Good urbanism requires great bars, for example; and I have enjoyed many a fun martini in Sinclair's world at Cedar Street.

"The reason Sinclair is so influential in planning is that he motivates people to get involved in the community process. He got me so fired up about our faltering physical future, I changed careers from lawyer to town planner."

Scott Polikov

Principal, Gateway Planning Group

"Whereas many New Urbanists are really more New Suburbanists, at least through their work, Sinclair is a 'true urbanist.' As Austin has evolved from a sleepy college town to a dynamic metropolis, Sinclair has been on the forefront of advocating urbanism.

"He devoted his entire career to advancing urban design, both through his teaching and his practice. In addition to his practice and teaching, Sinclair is a public intellectual who gives generously of his time and talent to a wide variety of community endeavors. He can be very tenacious when he believes in something."

Fritz Steiner

Dean, UT-Austin School of Architecture

"Sinclair acted decisively as an architect and as a developer when few believed that Downtown Austin had a future. He dared speak up 25 years ago, in favor of an Austin architecture and urbanism that honored the Texas Statehouse building, Congress Avenue, and all the assets of the historic city, over arbitrary and mindless development. He is still arguing in favor of a more humanely scaled and beautiful Downtown than most believe is possible. He has taught and practiced an architecture that is native and committed to the built and natural environment of Central Texas.

"He has taught two generations of architects at the University of Texas to see their work as incrementally building up the city and nature. He has directed them to look for meaning in precedent, to respect great existing places, to invent in the context of history and tradition, and to be responsible for their actions as stewards of a millennial profession.

"His projects are quiet and appropriate to their place; most often, I may not recognize them as his. I admire the Downtown Great Streets Plan and his great perimeter-block housing project on Second Street."

Stefanos Polyzoides

Principal, Moule & Polyzoides, Pasadena, Calif.

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