Programming the Moon’s Cycle

Tidal Radiance
, a new large-scale interactive sculpture by light artist and designer Leni Schwendinger, created for the new Port Pavilion on the pier along San Diego’s waterfront, is designed to be seen both by boaters on the water and strollers moving along the Embarcadero promenade. At night, this installation will be hard to miss given its lighting is programmed to follow the lunar cycle, while also changing for seasonal compositions, including whale watching and cruise season.

According to Schwendinger, during the moon cycle, the full moon phase emanates pale blues, while the new and quarter moon phases are represented by deep and medium blue hues (see image above). In addition, the lighting design moves beyond the sculpture to the base of the building: “Light projections onto the ground plane create an immersive environment–a visual and experiential installation to engage the public.”

The sculpture itself is purposefully a bit staid by day: the goal is to the set the stage for a dramatic nightime transformation. Schwendinger says: “I envisioned a monumental sea creature emerging from the shed at night.” 

The project uses light to explore change, both natural and programmed: “Whether animated patterns or a calendar of seasonal light sequences, one of my continuing challenges is to utilize the property of light to brighten, fade, and disappear – and to respond to controlled voltages through highly sophisticated computer programming. This element of controlled changeability – combined with color symbolism – allows me to create public art that not only pleases the eye but communicates and displays nuanced messages about the environment we live in.”

Indeed, Schwendinger, who has done major projects for the New York Port Authority, and is working on redesigning the lighting for a new pedestrian-friendly Times Square (see earlier post), has long used “controlled changeability” to powerful effect. Her work on the Coney Island Parachute Jump, “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower,” transformed a theme-park landmark into a shifting beacon of light, reflecting seasons, holidays, and, again, the moon’s cycle.

Read an interview with Schwendinger and check out her blog, which covers her “NightSeeing Lightwalks,” or guided evening tours of lighting, in various cities.

Image credits: Leni Schwendinger Light Projects

The Rediscovery of Wonder

In a recent TED talk about taking imagination seriously, Janet Echelman, creator of billowing, voluptuous fabric installations the size of buildings, described the unexpected trajectory of her fascinating career. Echelman’s work has evolved from large-scale fishnet sculptures created from traditional craft methods to engineered installations designed with software and made from high-tech materials. This is an unlikely occupation for Echelman who did not train as an engineer, architect, or sculptor.

Fourteen years ago, Echelman was a painter traveling in India on a Fulbright. At that time, she had been pursuing painting independently after applying to and receiving rejections from seven art schools. She planned to exhibit a series of paintings in India but her paints never arrived. She tried to switch to bronze casting instead but found the process too expensive and the results too heavy. Unsure of how to proceed, Echelman took what became a fortuitous walk along the beach that took her career in a new direction.

While walking on the beach, Echelman noticed the local fisherman bundling their nets into mounds on the sand. Though she had passed by the same scene numerous times before, she suddenly saw it with fresh eyes as a potential new approach to sculpture, “a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.” She began collaborating with the fisherman, learning their techniques and creating her own variations, fashioning the fishnets into large sculptural pieces. She hoisted her first work, a self-portrait humorously titled “Wide Hips,” on poles to be photographed and found the result “mesmerizing”: “It revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns.”

Echelman continued studying craft traditions and collaborating with artisans. She began working with lacemakers in Lithuania, appreciating the result of the fine detail in her work but also came to realize that she wanted to make larger pieces. Rather than creating an object to look at, Echelman wanted to make something more experiential, “something you could get lost in.” She returned to India where she again worked with fisherman, this time to create a net of 1.5 million hand-tied knots. The sculpture was temporary installed in Madrid where one of the thousands of people who saw it was urbanist Manual de Sola-Morales, who at the time was redesigning the waterfront in Porto, Portugal. He asked Echelman to create a permanent installation in a traffic circle in Porto. Though Echelman had doubts that she could create something durable, engineered, and permanent that would express her work’s idiosyncratic, delicate, and ephemeral qualities, she nevertheless accepted the challenge.

The Porto installation took three years to complete. Echelman spent two years searching for a fiber that could survive ultraviolet rays, salt air, and pollution, and was soft enough to move fluidly in the wind but strong enough to survive a hurricane. In an effort to give the form a precise shape that would allow for gentle movement, she sought the help of Peter Heppel, an aeronautical engineer who designed sails for the America’s Cup Racing Yachts. Since a hand-tied net would not survive a hurricane, she also worked with an industrial fishnet factory where she learned how to create lace from their machines. Lastly, in order to support the net, she had a 45,000 pound steel ring erected in the traffic circle. When the 50,000 square foot lace net was finally installed, it gave Porto a sense of place, and though it was a permanent, engineered piece, Echelman felt her aesthetic was not lost in translation. Standing under the net, she said she felt sheltered but also connected to the limitless sky, and the moment was life altering. She decided she wanted to “create an oasis of sculptures in spaces of cities around the world.”

Echelman has gone on to create installations in several other cities, including one for the Biennial of the Americas in Denver, where she determined a new soft structural method that would enable her to model and build structures at the scale of skyscrapers. The Biennial committee commissioned Echelman to create something that would “represent the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere and their interconnectedness.” Echelman had read about the earthquake in Chile and the tsunami that rippled across the entire Pacific Ocean. She was fascinated by the fact that the event shifted the earth’s tectonic plates, sped up the planet’s rotation, and shortened the length of the day. She obtained data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and translated it into a sculpture entitled 1.26 for the number of microseconds the day was shortened. Since the sculpture’s shape was too complex to support with a steel ring, Echelman replaced the metal infrastructure with a soft, fine mesh of fiber fifteen times stronger than steel. The result was a sculpture that was entirely soft and light enough to tie in into buildings, literally becoming part of the city fabric.

As a result of this piece, Echelman has decided that she wants to “create voluptuous, billowing forms at the scale of buildings” in cities around the world, especially in places she feels need them the most. She is also exploring new methods for other installations, including one for the Historic Philadelphia City Hall where she wants to create something lighter than netting to compliment the building’s architecture. Instead of working with lace, she has been experimenting with tiny atomized particles of water to create a dry mist that could be shaped by wind and that people could interact with and move through without getting wet. Using this capability, she wants to trace the paths of subway trains above ground in real time, revealing an “X-ray” of the city’s circulatory system.

In the meantime, Echelman says her artistic horizons continue to grow. Recently a friend called to tell her that an attorney in Phoenix who had never had an interest in art and had never visited the local art museum asked everyone in the office to go outside and lie under one of Echelman’s sculptures. They all lay out there together in their business suits sharing a feeling Echelman knows well, “the rediscovery of wonder.”

Explore Echelman’s work.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern

Rebel Art Goes Global

Rebel Art, an intriguing blog by French art critic and curator Alain Bieber (although he also seems to enjoy being confused with teen pop singer Justin Bieber) features a number of “rebel art” projects around the world, often created by well-established artists with MFAs. Given the huge numbers of projects covered by Bieber along with the proliferation of Web sites and blogs dedicated to tracking the work of street artists, designers, and sculptors, it seems rebel art in the vein of Banksy is exploding.

A few interesting projects:

Lucerne Shines: In their “fight against carelessly discarded waste,” street artists The Wa, Mr. Tallon, and Democracy Creative turned 16 bins into games in Lucerne, Switzerland (see image above and two below). The city becomes an “adventure playground.” Here pedestrians can hopscotch their trash into the bin.

Or line up for a throw.

Box: In Cordoba, Argentina, an argentinian artist, Pablo Curutchet, created a massive man out of nearly 900 pounds of cardboard boxes and tape. A dozen volunteers helped construct the project.

Another view shows the scale of the paper walker.

Citylights: Well-known German installation artist Johannes Abendroth, who just showed at the Venice Bienniale, creates subtle “high-compression street washing” art in Paris, Lisbon, and Berlin.

Outside the Planter Boxes: In Toronto, Sean Martindale organized a group of artists and volunteers to creatively reimagine damaged planters found throughout the city. “Through creative interventions, this project highlights some of the neglected city tree planter boxes that line our busy streets. These planters are made ​​of concrete and many are cracked or missing large chunks. Others have been replaced with standardized two-piece boxes. However, some of these are too small for the existing mature trees and their roots, leaving huge gap between the two sides.” One artist, Martin Reis, used lego:

Martindale’s contribution to the series is called “Fragile – Handle with Care.”

Chifumi: Lastly, one group of mysterious street artists, who call themselves “Chifumi,” created these elegant structures and set them within French forests. Little information is found about them online, but they appear to made from either paper or some sort of plastic. 

Image credits: (1-3) Rebel Art, (4-5) Box / Pablo Curutchet, (6) Citylights / Johannes Abendroth, (7) Airport Planter / Martin Reis. Outside the Planter Boxes, (8)  Fragile – Handle with Care / Sean Martindale. Outside the Planter Boxes, (9) Chifumi.

Playing Games with the Urban Landscape

In some parts of the world, urban environments are being transformed into playscapes, sites for new creative expression, exercise, or games. Some of these new forms of interaction are amusing or exciting but also risky as well. Also, in some cases, these new ways of interacting with the built environment are outright illegal or at least frowned upon by local authorities.

As an example, take parkour, perhaps the most widespread of these new urban activities (see image above). Parkour, also known as “free running,” started in France and involves non-competitive running, climbing, and jumping through the urban landscape. A “traceur,” a practitioner of parkour, runs along a set route, navigating obstacles using his or her body. Participants can vault, swing, scale walls, and roll. Despite the obvious dangers like concussions or broken arms or legs, there’s now an official “Urban Freeflow” site with more than one million users and a magazine called “Jump.” Parkour also now has a rich history in pop culture. Watch “My Playground,” an introduction to a Danish film that explores how parkour is “changing the perception of urban space and how the space is changing the traceurs and freerunners.” Also, check out other videos on YouTube.

Perhaps more a flash in the pan than parkour, planking, or the “lying down game,” recently went viral worldwide, with The Wall Street Journal stepping in to track its development. Planking involves lying down in an unusual and often heavily populated location with arms pinned to your sides. To play, a photo must be taken and posted online. According to Wikipedia, to date, more than 315,000 images of plankers have been uploaded to Facebook and other sites. Two guys from northeast England claimed to have come up with the idea in 2007. The fad took off in the UK in 2010 and spread globally this year. Before attempting, it’s important to note that one Australian man just died trying to plank.

Another urban game to have popped-up and gone viral: urban golf, which is becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. and U.S. Urban golf courses are streets and neighborhoods. Wikipedia writes: “As in normal golf, many holes include hazards, but these are natural to an urban environment and are not bunkers (or sand traps), but street furniture and drains. Often many unexpected situations can arise from the environment such as dogs not kept on leashes tend to chase balls, players dropping clubs down drains, traffic, etc.” There are different sets of rules, but one group has tried to create a set of somewhat sensible ones, including playing away from people in less populated areas. In another example, Australian urban golfing apparently involves playing to the beach or pub. The player with the lowest strokes wins. Bonus points go to those who can pop a ball around a corner or bounce one off a tree “freestyle.” Helmets required for all unless tennis balls are being used.  

Lastly, the least dangerous of these new urban forms of play, but perhaps the one with the most vivid artistic impact is “yarn bombing.” The New York Times recently reported on this form of “artistic vandalism,” which involves making street art out of yarn. “Yarn bombing takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape. Hydrants, lampposts, mailboxes, bicycles, cars — even objects as big as buses and bridges — have all been bombed in recent years, ever so softly and usually at night.” Seattle even has a “YarnCore collective,” called “Hardcore Chicks with Sharp Sticks.” Etsy gone bad. See a slideshow of “grandma graffiti,” and what this one Parisian yarn bomber did with cracks in the pavement (see image above).

Image credits: (1) Parkour / Live Journal, (2) Planking in Taiwan / Reuters, (3) Chicago Urban Golf tournament / Broken Bat. Flickr, (4) Yarn Bombing / Juliana Santacruz Herrera. Flickr.

The Many Benefits of Public Art

According to Linda Slodki, Mt. Airy Art Garage, the arts are a highly cost-effective way of driving economic revitalization in urban areas. However, the arts not only spur economic development but also “shape our consciousness, create a collective attitude, inspire, remake behavior, and reduce stress.” In a session at the national Brownfields conference, both public artists and arts policymakers discussed how this process works.

Art Has Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, said the arts industries are deeply connected with economic development in his city. However, there’s still a raging debate over whether art has more intrinsic or instrumental value. Intrinsic value relates to the aesthetic value of any work of art, its own value as a piece of individual expression. Instrumental value relates to the ability of art to educate, create jobs, increase real estate value, build citizens, increase tourism, and provide other benefits.

While in 19th century France the argument was “art for art’s sake” because “art can’t support any political or social agendas,” Steuer says most artists working in the city today think “art can do both: provide aesthetic value and change the world.”

As an example, Steuer pointed to MASS MoCA, a 13-acre site in North Adams, Massachusetts. An unused building was turned into a space for “huge art installations.” MASS MoCa has had a “transformative effect on its community.” The building also houses creative design businesses like Web design firms. The museum itself has attracted 100,000 visitors, contributed $15 million to the local economy, and increased local property values by $14 million. In another example, Steuer explained how the Brooklyn Art Museum draws in half a million visitors a year and has helped preserve a multi-cultural neighborhood filled with old buildings. In addition, both of these projects had positive benefits without kickstarting gentrification.

Future Farmers Use the Land to Create Art

Amy Franceschini, an artist with Future Farmers, explained how her group reintroduced the concept of Victory gardens in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (image at top). Victory gardens were an initiative of the U.S. defense department during World War II designed to improve the self-sufficiency of the U.S. population. Families were encouraged to grow food in back lots or yards. Furthermore, President Roosevelt’s WPA put a lot of great artists to work creating “printed propaganda.” Franceschini believes “the imagery was key to the success of the project.”

To get their own massive public art project going in a major civic space, Future Farmers created their own imagery and tools. Their logo was a “pogo-stick shovel.” They designed a fun wheel-barrow bike. Seed banks were created for San Francisco’s distinct micro-climates. An online garden registry was created. With a $60,000 grant from the city, they also created a set of test plots throughout the city, which included raised beds, seeds, and water. In addition to educating residents about self-sufficiency, urban farming, and American history, one tangible result of this project was a directive that formalized the city’s committment to urban agriculture. Also, the art project brought in lots of visitors to City Hall.

In Philadelphia, Future Farmers has just launched an innovative project called Soil Kitchen. Given the building the team used is near a scultpure of Don Quixote, Franceschini decided to add a windmill on top of the building. Within the building, Future Farmers set up a soup kitchen for local residents. In a sort of interactive art piece, residents get free soup if they deliver a soil sample. Soil samples will be tested for contaminants and then plotted along a map of the city. The goal is to get thousands of samples to determine a broader soil remediation plan in the city.

Mel Chin Makes Fundreds

Mel Chin, public artist and provocateur, leapt to the stage at the conference, ripped off a staid suit to show an undercover miltary uniform, and brought out a large shovel. Leading the crowd in a marching cadence, he sang about his Operation Paydirt and Fundreds Dollar Bill project.

Chin said New Orleans was a “disaster before it was a disaster” because its soils were the most contaminated in the country. Extremely high levels of lead meant that “more than 30 percent of the population was poisoned before they reached adulthood.” He found that $300 million would clean up the city’s soils but he quickly realized getting a hold of those funds from the federal government was going to be very difficult.

Chin decided to create a public art project that would raise awareness about the dangers of soil contaminants and the need to remedy the soil problems in New Orleans. With a revamped biofuel-run armored truck, Chin travels to communities and schools around the country, asking students to create their own Fundred Dollar Bill. His goal is to create millions of these (he already has more than 350,000). Chin said “because we don’t have the funds, we must create something just as valuable as money. Human creativity is worth more than $300 million.”

Within communities, he’s created “safe houses”, buildings with fake bank vault exteriors. Using guards, a safe house stores some 10,000 Fundred dollar bills. Schools gather the community, waiting for the safe house to be opened, only for the kids to discover they need to create their own Fundred once they get inside. The armored truck also drove these bills to Philadephia, the site of the original U.S. Mint. His ultimate goal is to send these to Congress to get them to act on soil health. After coming to D.C., these bills will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum. Chin said they may end up at either the American History Museum or Hirshhorn.

Chin sees himself as merely a conduit or channel for collective action, not a clever conceptual artist. “Intense collaboration is the only way to get something done. I play a subservient role. I am just a delivery guy.” Given he’s too old to be an emerging artist, he believes he may be “submerging.”

Learn more about the Fundred Dollar Bill project and see a slideshow.

Image credit: (1) MASS MoCA / More Intelligent Life, (2) San Francisco City Hall Victory Garden / National Empowerment Network, (3) Soil Kitchen / Future Farmers, (4) Fundreds / Arts USA, (5) Fundred Safe House / Good Magazine

Landscape Architects Improvise with History

At Dumbarton Oaks, landscape architecture historian John Dixon Hunt examined how contemporary landscape architects deal with history, arguing that many of these designers, being artists, are actually “improvising with history.” Improvisation may even be a key part of their job, but they must do it well. Unbound from “memory and context” but still knowing a site’s history, landscape architects can then be free to invent their own versions of history.

Today, many landscape architecture students don’t want to bother with history. “They want to design something new,” says Hunt. A site’s history can be about the natural history of the site, the site’s development, the changing ownership, and also “memory,” which “doesn’t even need to be historical,” but can be “fabricated.”

Hunt pointed to a number of contemporary landscapes to illustrate his ideas. For example, at the GasWorks Park in Seattle, an old industrial site turned into a park, the site’s history literally leaches out of the ground in the form of toxic sludge. Even though park visitors can pay close attention to the site’s history if they want, much of that history has been repurposed. Old tanks are now used by scuba-divers to explore. Walls are now meant to be scaled. Bunkers are now gardens designed for meandering. In a similar example, Park Bercy in Paris features old wine storage facilities and casts embedded into the new park. In a contrasting example in Paris, Citroen, a French car manufacturer, completely demolished its old car manufacturing plants to create Citroen Park.

One Parisian park Hunt spent time exploring in his talk about landscape and memory was Park Atlantique, which sits above a high-speed rail station. The park has a maritime theme with seaside plants, games, a promenade, and weather station. “The site isn’t derived from historical events. However, it successfully creates a memory of trains and the seashore on an anonymous location.”

Jumping to New York, Hunt said Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, has created a new form of history with his fake rooftop garden for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which can only be seen by those working in the huge buildings looking down on it. Smith created a “camouflage-like painted garden” in this instance. In another example in the UK, Martha Schwartz, ASLA, transformed history in her Manchester Exchange Square project by “designating a new boundary between the modern and medieval times.” There’s a sloping edge indicating the space where a bomb hit, and other key “story elements” incorporate into the site. In Portugal, Joao Gomes de Silva used a set of consecutive gardens to “bring home distant memories of distant colonies to Portugal.” Each garden uses native plants and design elements from those colonies, like Macao, to create a “memory of empire.”

Finally, he pointed to Maya Lin’s masterful Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which makes a painful history abstract and accessible to all. “With its sunken descent into the ground, we follow the litany of death.” 

Landscape architecture is one of the few arts in which history can be created. “Landscape doesn’t have to honor history.” Pillaging an “endless bank of history,” landscape architects play the role of “critical historians.” That being said, these artists of the built environment should “always study history. If they are good, they can then invent their own.”

These days, Hunt said, there’s an awful lot of terrible landscape architecture out there, “really bland stuff,” that could be picked up and put anywhere. He’s also “fed up” with many landscape historians who want to spend a week on a studio trip to a foreign city. “This is just like some sort of tourist trip, and helping to create a global, homogenous view of landscape.” In other words, to invoke history properly, the landscape architect has to be “sensitive to that place.”

Check out Hunt’s book on the “afterlife” of gardens.

Image credit: (1) Seattle Gasworks Park, Ping Chen / Picasa (2) Parc Atlantique, Paris.

Christopher Gielen’s Aerial Photos of Sprawl

In one session at the TED Mid Atlantic conference, German photographer Christoper Gielen showed his startling aerial images of American sprawl, but asked viewers to consider them as an “aesthetic experience.” Shot while hanging out of a helicopter, Gielen’s photos demonstrate that very similar sprawl shapes appear across the country.

To find his sites, Gielen first examined statistical databases and honed in on areas with the highest foreclosure rates, which he said indicate where the most unsustainable development is. In Houston, he found perfect web-like networks of prefabricated houses with trees exactly in the same place. One community in Nevada (see image above) is “so perfect” incoming aircraft use it as a marker on their way to the airport. As for the community, “it’s sold as active living, but it’s isolated in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a prison of our own making. People are really inside their cars or homes watching TV.”  

The high foreclosure rates among communities in Florida and Arizona demonstrate that many of these sites are economically unviable, but Geilen says they are also environmentally destructive. In one Florida sprawl community (see image below), the wetland was drained then water was reintroduced into managed channels. “The flow of the Everglades is being slowly cut off by development.”

While land-use policymakers want to “reconnect the severed arteries of the Everglades” and create “archipelagos of development” in a sea of of untouched landscapes, many sprawl communities continue to be built.

On a more existential note, Gielen also asked why he was seeing the same forms over and over again in different parts of the country. “There must be some geometric sociology. Why do these shapes — circles, stars, or webs — come into form? Is there something deep in the human psyche?”

See Gielen’s photographs, which he will publish in a book next year.

Image credit: (1,2,3) Untitled / Christopher Gielen