Category Archives: Public Art

DOUBLE TAKE

So you’re an urban designer of some kind, and you just won a job to redevelop a site within a stunning city. It’s stunning because it holds centuries of heritage and is already a great place with many things to do. What do you add? How do you design something in a space for a city that is already great? Wouldn’t something new be almost offensive?  What do you do?

I’ve seen this happen a lot in Europe. But out of the successful ones, one element stands out the most – reflection.

Landscape Architect Michel Corajoud who designed the riverfront along the Garonne river in Bordeaux, France, said:

“We already have a beautiful place here. The best thing we can do is to simply double it.”

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And that is exactly what he did with the Miroir D’eau – the focal point of the entire riverfront site. His 2009 design became extremely successful and managed to draw many people back to the riverfront from which their City originated. At the Miroir D’eau you will find a long elevated base plane with a thin layer of water. Sometimes, small fountains embedded inside the pavement shoot water out of holes accross the platform, but when they don’t, people often walk accross it and play in it. Not only is this place a beautiful, unique, interesting and interactive nodal & destination point, but it also clearly reflects the historic buildings behind it (Place de la Bourse) into the water, doubling its beauty.

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2013 has brought a new site to the map – take a look at the Vieux Port Pavilion in Marseille, France. Architects Foster & Partners designed this reflective stainless steel canopy to reflect the city’s UNESCO World Heritage port. The overhead plane creates a public room, a defined space, and a sense of enclosure – all elements that entice pedestrians to divert their path in order to experience walking under it. If all else fails, the reflection, which creates an illusion of people walking upside-down on a nearly-invisible cieling, is sure to peak their curiosity.

“It’s quite literally a reflection of its surroundings – its lightweight steel structure is a minimal intervention and appears as a simple silver line on the horizon” – Spencer de Grey, head designer.

CR_Cloudgate

We have also seen examples of reflection in North America. Anish Kapoor designed the Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as the ‘bean’ in Chicago. This stunning piece is now a widely recognized landmark in the City, and visitors flock to visit it as a destination point. People take interest in its odd shape. The reflective stainless steel surface reflects and distorts the Chicago skyline and visitors experience a fun-house mirror effect when walking around and through it, observing their reflection. Chicago reflected, yet projected through a new lens.

“There is something about opening one’s heart to the possibilities that one doesn’t even truly or readily know are there.” – Anish Kapoor

CAIRNS BOTANIC PBH 018

Charles Wright Architects won the 2012 far north Queensland Awards Auilding of the Year with their mirror-clad Cairns Botanic Gardens Visitors Centre design. The building was designed to be invisible amongst the surrounding trees of the gardens in order to blend somewhat seamlessly with the beauty of the site’s natural state.

“We proposed a design which literally reflects the gardens as camouflage for the building.” – Charles Wright Architects

Reflection in urban design around the world has become a modern trend. Its impact is both aesthetically pleasing and respectful to existing settings.

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THE THING ABOUT THE EMERALD CITY


Short visits to foreign places can often leave a percieved impression on travellers that may stray to a certain degree from what those places are really like. However, these short visits can sometimes be insightful to permanent residents who naturally disregard certain details of where they are from, simply because those things seem normal to them. What may be special to you may go unoticed to someone else: like the bicycle culture in Copenhagen to someone from Orlando, or the grand new-age architecture and car-oriented built-form in Dubai to someone from Bordeaux.

The following text outlines the city elements that embody the character of downtown Seattle (WA) to a short-term traveller:

 

Attention to detail

What stands out the most in Seattle are the little things. Seattle is a great city for its investment in all sorts of urban pockets – interesting car parks, miniature squares, miniature parks, resting spaces -, in public art, in informative signage, in facade and street materials, in facade details, in crosswalk and bike path clarity, in restaurant/cafe/bar density (even hidden and facing the back alleys like Bathtub Gin & Co), in street decor, and what it’s most famous for – trees and other greenery.








Independent Retail Competition

There may be a Starbucks on every corner (and if not, on every block), but that doesn’t seem to change the fact that independent restaurants, cafes and bars have the upper hand in downtown Seattle. There is a culture of visiting cool and unique places, and they make for a cool and unique sense of place. Having so many different and unique shops makes a street so much more unpredictable, vibrant, interesting, and desirable. It’s always about – let’s go to THE Unicorn. Let’s go to THE Poquitos. Let’s go to THE only place that can make you and your belly feel that way. Seattle most certainly does not allow people to feel like they have to settle for a Starbucks to ensure a decent cup of coffee, a Molly Blooms for a decent beer, or a Jack Astor’s for a decent dinner.




Traffic Flow and Patience

Seattle is nestled between mountain ranges and is overall extremely hilly and full of sharply sloped streets. So sloped in fact that if a car’s brakes stop functioning or if a child accidentally runs into the middle of the street, a collision of some sort is bound to occur. Due to the geography of the land that the tightly knit street network grid is placed upon, there is very little reaction time to avoid collisions.

This is why, even after a long red light and no cars, people do not jay-walk in Seattle and most drivers do not speed. This city must have some of the most patient, respectful and educated travellers anyone has ever witnessed. No one seems to be in a rush. It is no wonder their dangerous-seeming intersections still exist – it is because people know how to use them (not that I am crazy about roundabouts or anything, but take that roundabout complainers!!).



Urban Pockets

Space is very well used within the downtown urban core. No nooks or spaces go wasted, and are always used up by something to make a space or a journey more enjoyable or interesting. One of the most impressive aspects of Seattle’s public realm is how many urban pockets there are, and how many of them are used to illuminate the streetscape with a node, a feature, or an activity. These pockets bring the streetscape to a pedestrian level, add character, and make it easier to get around by using cognitive mapping – “meet me by the popsicle sculpture…”.











Punks and Street Kids

Yes, punks. They stand out. And not just any punks – Seattle punks. They have this thing about them that makes them distinctive. A distinctive grunge/streetkid culture. Sometimes it’s as if they are always the same group of them because they all kind of look the same and act the same and do the same things (all-black clothing, usually involving chains, tattoos, funky hair cuts and hair colors, smokey makeup, and random piercings, usually hanging out with 2 or more people and one or more dog, usually smoking, and can usually be seen like this hanging out in parks and public squares). But then again, this is just a generalization and an outsider impression from someone who was slightly intimidated! It had to be mentioned because it really does add to the character of the city.

So the thing about the Emerald City is – the little things. The little things, like public art details, resting spaces and overhead canopies, manicured and interactive little spaces and nooks, and interesting facades. The little things are what give short-term first-time travellers a good impression of this City.

PS: To any Grey’s Anatomy fans, no, Seattle isn’t what they make it look like on the show.

HUNTSVILLE

From an aerial point of view the town is located in what seems to be the middle of nowhere Ontario, the urban boundary is small and the built up area is even smaller.

Huntsville Urban Centre (Watson & Associates Economists Ltd., 2006)

From a pedestrian point of view, density is relatively sparse for the most part and very low-rise.

But something more is happening in Huntsville other than lacking the basics for a typical interesting destination city (like rows of skyscrapers and intricate subway systems). Huntsville is a place to get inspired because it has an incredibly distinct, strong and consistent small-town sense of place. This persona can be sensed immediately from the groups of teenagers walking around and hanging out together, to the representative outdoor Group of Seven paintings and murals plastered in every dull corner or wall in order to bring it to life.

It can also be noticed by taking even a quick glance at the main downtown commercial strip – every shop is a family-run or small business giving the whole space a down-to-earth feel, and most of the shops have heritage facades with detail and effort put into the looks of every sign, entrance and awning – a breeding ground for strolls and window shopping.

The best part about Huntsville is the layering of multimodal connectivity, and the efficient use of unused space within the built-up boundary (even though there is a lot of room available in the outskirts). Facing the river at the swing bridge at almost any given instant, one can observe the following movements all at once:

  • Cars [inconveniently trying to get through]
  • Buses
  • Active and passive Pedestrians almost everywhere including the sidewalks, the public space in front of the river, and on patios
  • Cyclists commuting or cycling for pleasure
  • People passing by on boats
  • Etc

This kind of movement makes people from all levels feel like they are part of something – a community. And where the layers cross, life is bursting!

Neighbourhing the downtown core are several cottage-style resorts such as Hidden Valley Resort (for a more simplistic, natural and low-key, yet still beautiful and relaxing getaway) and Deerhurst Resort (for a more upscale experience). There are cottages and resorts for everyone’s taste, and they are a great place to stay overnight in order to access Huntsville by day or by night. These touristic accomodations are popular summer long-weekend destinations.

This place is like a little world on its own – truly a place to be inspired from and to grow fond of.

BURLINGTON ORCHIDS

I am not from Burlington, but I heard about this project through a friend of a friend of the artist – Alex Pentek (information about Alex: http://nationalsculpturefactory.com/?page_id=1416). This article summarizes the project quite nicely and has some pictures.

Looking at the artists’ body of work, you can see that he works with similar projects internationally. One of my favorites is the Dandelion sculpture. As someone who was torn between fine arts and urban planning going into university, I find this project really interesting because I can see here where the two worlds meet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like the part in the article where it says that the artist was seriously challenged with his commision due to lack of inspiration. He says, “the infrastructure was fully functional, but something had to go in here to lift it up.” Looks like he was trying to work with the physical and functional aspects of the site in order to create room for emotional attachement and meaning.

You can collect from the article that his colorful and horticultural approach was not random – rather, he drew from the existing history of the city.

 

If you continue reading other articles about this project however, you will find that the concensus of the residents of the city is that they don’t like the project! Their main complaint is that they are not impressed with bringing in an international artist, and also that they think the orchids are completely random – even weird-looking! I’m wondering if the existing meaning that was incorporated into this project would have been less ‘random-seeming’ if the artist was local, since they might have known better? And in that case, I’m wondering where that inspiration would have been drawn from. How truly evident is the horticultural history of Burlington?

Knowing nothing about Burlington, but being from a comparable city (Oshawa), I appreciate the look of the orchids because they add contrast to what is already there, they soften the harsh greys of the highway, and they add a point of interest to the bland and mundane highway sense-of-place. But maybe this is too unexpected for people – maybe it’s because we have an idea of what a highway should be like in our heads, and adding any public art or design to it would be ‘weird’…

 

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