City Regulations vs. Art in Not-So-Weird Austin, Texas


Art may be timeless and powerful, but nearly as timeless and powerful as municipal regulations. A story unfolding in Austin, Texas, which apparently, if bumper stickers you see there are to be believed, prides itself on being "weird":

 In the case of theCathedral of Junk, artistic vision and the Austin cultural skyline lose.

Yesterday Vince Hanneman, the artist behind the cathedral, announced he is tearing it down. 

The cathedral had been slowly growing/accreting new parts in Hanneman's back yard since

1988, becoming a genuine piece of roadside Americana and even being featured on a postcard issued by the city. However, earlier this year Hanneman found himself on the wrong side of the city's Public Assembly Code Enforcement unit, which had major concerns about the safety of the structure and wanted Hanneman to pull the structure back out of the easement. There were also concerns about how accessible the structure could be to the public.

There had been serious efforts by Hanneman, council and city staff to try to come to some accommodation. However, on June 15 Hanneman released this statement, announcing his decision and thanking everyone that had tried to help:

Your efforts have helped soothe my bruised heart. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to tell you that our efforts have been in vain. The City has made me alter the Cathedral so much that little of its original charm is left. They are still wanting a building permit for what is left. Therefore, I will be continuing to dismantle what remains. Also, visitors will be turned away. Thank you everyone. It's a sad day for me, but much more so for Austin and, by proxy, the world…..

This is not the only recent incident in which local coding regulations and artistic expression have become social flashpoints. In 2008, the PACE unit was criticized for its closure of the Enchanted Forest, then the United States Art Authority (hosting Texas author Joe R. Lansdale June 16) got caught up in red tape about the certificate of occupancy. Then there was the long, weird debate about whether Ralph the Cactus Planter was art or a junked car. Last year, there was great debate over whether a mural was art or graffiti.

I wrote in Reason magazine's May 2008 issue about how a gang of artists experimenting with alternative energy solutions were bedeviled by city officials in Berkeley, California. Jesse Walker blogged last week about Jesse Howard, whose outsider art morphed over time from civic nuisance to museum fodder.