When I was on the plane heading to Austin, I was flipping through the pages of the in-flight magazine when I stumbled upon a little article about something in Austin known as the “Cathedral of Junk”. This “cathedral” in fact referred to a giant structure made entirely out of discarded rubbish, built by one man named Vince Hanneman over the course of several decades since the late 80s and still being built and added onto today. What struck me in the article was the satisfaction this man could get from finding something like an abandoned shopping cart or a disused bathtub, since anything could potentially be turned into building material for his structure.
In a society that encourages consumption at any cost, where objects (to say nothing of people) are increasingly seen as single-serving and disposable, I found it rather radical, counter-culture, and simply inspiring to find a use, and even an appreciation, for objects that others have discarded as useless. Even though I only had a couple days in Austin, being a fan of surrealism and sustainability, I knew that I had to make a pilgrimage to this cathedral.
After a couple of lovely, sunny winter days in Austin, just before we were meant to drive on to Houston, my friend and I decided to check out the Cathedral of Junk as the last visit of our Austin itinerary. We plugged it into the map and drove over the river down to South Austin, turning onto a green, residential street. No cathedral, let alone any junk, in sight. We pulled up to the address indicated on the map, which appeared to be an ordinary house. Then my heart sank as I saw a sign on the lawn that said “Cathedral of Junk – Visits by Appointment Only”. It seemed that the article I had read on the plane had failed to mention that the cathedral was actually in someone’s backyard, and thus not as easy to visit as it would seem. Well, knowing that it would likely be several years before I ever returned to Austin, and since we had already driven down, figuring we had nothing to lose I went up to the side gate, where I could see someone on the other side, in the kitchen of the house off to the side.
Figuring it could only be the owner of the house, I said hello, and asked as politely and charmingly as I could if it would be possible to visit the cathedral. I explained that I had read about it on the plane on the way to Austin, and it had really piqued my interest. As expected, the owner told me told me in a firm but friendly manner that visits were by appointment only, and that I should come by another time. I explained to him that I was leaving Austin in just a couple hours, and that since I lived in France so it would be a long time before I could come back another day. He stared at me for a minute, in my denim jacket and cowboy hat, beaming my friendliest smile, and decided that “just this once”, he would make an exception and we could visit the cathedral. Overjoyed, we thanked him profusely as he opened the gate for us to enter the backyard.
As we entered, he seemed bemused, wondering out loud why he had decided to give to us “the golden ticket”, when he had already refused two or three girls that day (“cute ones, too”), one of whom had even come with her mother. I don’t know if he had actually refused people and really did decided us to grant us exceptional entry, or if he actually let everyone in but never admitted it to anyone, but we felt pretty special nonetheless, and the visit immediately became imbued with a sacred aura, as if we were being allowed to see a religious relic normally closed off to the public.
We entered the backyard and we greeting by the towering Cathedral of Junk, a truly impressive monolithic structure, especially if one considers the fact that it’s built solely out of discarded and donated objects, held together here and there by some concrete or rope.
The cathedral may seem like a mere accumulation of junk upon first glance, but there is a method to the madness. In the main “chapel”, walls were organized by color : one blue, on red, one yellow, on green, made up of a seemingly infinite quantity of quirky objects: tin cans, empty bottles, old tires, tubes and pipes, license plates, mannequins, broken chairs, old bicycles, rusty lamps. From the vaulted ceiling hung string of old CDs, which gently spun around in the light breeze, catching the sun’s rays and casting them all around the cathedral in prisms of light.
Impressively, there were actually multiple levels to the cathedral. We climbed up the spiraling ramp to the second level, making sure to step over the freshly-painted multicolored stones embedded in the concrete supporting the ramp. This spiraling ramp led to an open-air kiosk at the very top of the cathedral, resembling a large birdcage, with a bench surrounded by plants, offering a moment of contemplative meditation, romance, spiritual introspection, or whichever other emotion or feeling the Cathedral of Junk may inspire among its pilgrims.
Like most surrealist or fascinating locations, words can rarely do a place the Cathedral of Junk justice; it must be seen and experienced in order to be truly understood. But the world needs more places like the Cathedral of Junk, so it’s a pilgrimage that is definitely worth undertaking. But when you do… call ahead and book an appointment, just to play it safe. And as the cathedral’s builder said to us as we left his backyard… keep Austin weird!
The article that inspired my visit: United Hemispheres Magazine – “Junk in Love”
Sentimental thought of the day: