A Smart Streetscape for a High-Tech Corridor

Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, after / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square, after / Christian Phillips Photography

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the center of technological innovation on the East Coast. But you would have never known it walking the broken-down, dated, 1980s-era brick streets. Home to MIT, Google, Microsoft, and many other start-ups, Kendall Square needed a new look that reflects the cutting-edge thinking happening in the buildings lining Main Street. But Cambridge, a historic district, also has a highly restrictive, limited palette of materials to chose from.

Working with real estate developers, the university, and other entities, a team led by local landscape architects with Klopfer Martin Design Group and engineers at HDR came up with an inventive solution, taking the standard Cambridge brick, concrete, lighting and building materials and coming up with something entirely new. The results are as innovative as anything created by the techies who work along the street.

As Kendall Square has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades, it also had to better “perform as an inter-modal transportation hub,” said Kaki Martin, ASLA, a principal with Klopfer Martin. The high-tech firms and university alike wanted easier inter-connections among the subway station and sidewalks, bike lanes and bikeshare system, and corporate shuttles and buses.

“Increased commercial development with lots of food establishments also meant that the streetscape had to not only reflected the character of the place, accommodate increased inter-modal transportation, but also become a place to not just move through, but also to linger and eat, meet up and gather.”

The design team removed the central median with “dated flag poles” to give more room for bike lanes.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Along the streets, new spaces were created for “furnishings, bus shelters, farmer’s market tents.” Scattered around major entry points are more contemporary benches, pre-cast concrete star-shaped benches, and unique bike racks that came out of a competition organized by the city’s % for art program.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

A custom cover and bench was created for an “immovable vent pipe” the subway system needs.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Klopfer Martin layered in double rows of trees in order to create “spatial structure.”

Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

The most interesting part of the project is the new palette of bricks. Klopfer Martin worked with the city’s brick supplier to create “custom palettes of varying percentages of the darkest and lightest bricks in the city’s standard mix,” set within 10 feet-by-10-feet swatches.

As Martin explained, “we went with a pixelated pattern for its techy connotation, and because there was no preciousness to the pattern.”

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Furthermore, the random pattern is very low maintenance. “When the head of the Department of Public Works asked me how I would feel when a gas line repair comes through the brick and messed it up, we said, ‘it didn’t matter.’  The brick could just be put down again without concern, because it’s about the percentages between darker and lighter bricks in a 10-foot-by-10-foot zone, not about a specific pattern.”

Use Video to Tell the Story of Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture is well behind the curve of using video to distinguish itself in the digital age, a trend I don’t see changing anytime soon. However, the opportunity is there for the taking. And if you don’t watch out, other design professions will seize the moment before landscape architects do. We’ve already had Architecture School, a Sundance TV miniseries, but that was six years ago and not much has been offered up since. But mark my words, it’s coming, and this is precisely where my own passions have intersected in recent years.

As a landscape architecture graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I opted to make a documentary film for my capstone thesis instead of creating a landscape design. I was interested in hearing what people on the street had to say about an urban design project going on right under their feet. I completed the 25-minute long documentary This Is Market Street about San Francisco’s Better Market Street Project, a multi-million dollar streetscape project that will eventually replace 2.2 miles of San Francisco’s most prominent thoroughfare.

An issue that stuck with me was the danger posed by car traffic to pedestrians in a walkable city like San Francisco. The pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco, which helped me promote the documentary, has been at the forefront of advocating for a safer, more walkable San Francisco since 1998. Last year, they commissioned me to create a public service announcement about Safe Streets for Seniors, and I jumped at the chance to use film to talk about cities once again.

My team and I created a 3-minute long short film, There’s Always a Way, using stop-motion animation to tell the story of a young boy whose grandmother is killed at a busy crosswalk (see video at top). We built models reminiscent of design school projects, studied traffic design solutions, constructed tiny crosswalks, and even fabricated some angry drivers for good measure. The process was analog, with us cramped in a tiny studio for weeks of animating and inching model cars along painted roads, frame by frame. The response has been exciting and supportive. To my satisfaction, the video has encouraged a discussion about our lives and environments.

Stories are the tool missing from the landscape architecture, a field which intertwines with people’s daily lives. Stories can get lost in the policies, the plant lists, and the concept drawings. We should pause to hear stories more often, and, if so inspired, make some of our own.

This guest post is by Darryl Jones, ASLA, who recently worked at PWP Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, California, and is now a filmmaker based in Oakland, CA. More of his film work is available at darryljonesfilms.com.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

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Keller Fountain Park / Jeremy Bittermann, via the Cultural Landscape Foundation

Expand Sanctuary Concept Beyond the UndocumentedPhilly.com, 12/18/16
“I believe now is the time to expand this sanctuary city concept; to make all our cities refuges for learning, for health and safety, for tolerance and inclusion, and environmental quality.”

Revamped City Planning Aims at Neighborhood Revivals The Detroit Free Press, 12/19/16
“The City of Detroit’s Planning Department used to do remarkably little planning. Mostly the staff processed federal grant money for public housing or demolitions. One director of the Planning department confided to me years ago that he had more accountants on his staff than planners.”

Seaport District May Find Its Soul in Park Named for Martin Richard The Boston Globe, 12/21/16
“If our gleaming new Seaport District lacks a soul, it won’t after Martin’s Park is built.”

Celebrating a Rugged Vision of Landscape Architecture The New York Times, 12/23/16
“These bold environments, strung across an eight-block section in the city center, were designed by the modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his firm between 1965 and 1970.”

Eight Rooftop Gardens That Top the Lot The Sydney Morning Herald, 12/26/16
“When summer rolls around, as it will be doing before much longer, there’s absolutely nothing better than spending all day on a rooftop garden with friends, a fridge full of cold drinks, good music and never-ending views.”

New Ideas Needed to Solve the “Crisis of Maintenance”

A maintenance worker in Riverside Park / The New York Times
A maintenance worker in Riverside Park / The New York Times

The Urban Design Forum sees a “crisis of maintenance” in New York City, which has an estimated backlog of $50 billion in unmet infrastructure repair needs. In an innovative new ideas competition, they invite landscape architects, urban planners, developers, and architects to respond to the question: “How can we use design thinking, creative financing, new technology, and community organizing to maintain our physical and social infrastructure?”

They are looking for novel ways of improving maintenance for streetscapes, parks and plazas, in addition to housing, transportation systems, and civic and social infrastructure.

“We are looking for bold ideas with real world applicability. We welcome napkin sketches, policy proposals, detailed designs, essays, videos, etc. Ideas may apply to sites in the City of New York or the greater New York area. Examples from other cities that can be applied to New York City are also acceptable.”

The Urban Design Forum asks those who submit to think through the hard issues involved in maintenance, to ask themselves questions like: “How can we design public assets that minimize maintenance costs and adapt for future uses? How can we more equitably maintain parks and public spaces beyond high-income neighborhoods? How could we engage new stakeholders in the stewardship of public assets and public space?”

The winning ideas will become part of the forum’s “Maintaining” program, which will feature presentations and roundtable debates from March through September 2017. Winning ideas will also be included in a publication to be released in December 2017. The Forum expects the winning ideas to spread beyond New York.

Register by January 30 and submit by March 1.

Also, in Bandirma, a city of 143,000 on the Sea of Marmara in northwest Turkey, officials have announced an international design competition for a new park that can serve as a gateway to this port city. The first-place winner will receive 100,000 Euros. Register by February 3 and submit by February 24.

The Michelangelo of Snow

Cataloochee, North Carolina / James Niehues
Cataloochee, North Carolina / James Niehues

If you’ve herring-boned over to a trail map, or swished to a stop to take out your handy pocket map at a ski resort, you’ve probably seen the work of James Niehues, “the Michelangelo of snow,” but not even known it. For the past three decades, Niehues has painted the topographical trail maps that grace many of the major ski slopes in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He has created over 160, writes The Washington Post. Interestingly, Niehues only considers himself an intermediate skier.

His process for mapping a slope is intensive. He will fly in a Cesna plane to take aerial photographs. He told Cabinet magazine about his in-depth approach: “I’ll try and shoot the mountain from every angle possible, starting at about 4,000 feet over the summit of the mountain to get some very high altitude stuff, and then I’ll drop down and get more of the detail around the lower part of the mountain.”

He sometimes skis the mountain to get a “better feel for its features,” but admits he “has tried only about 5 percent of the resorts he has painted.”

He then paints each ski resort by hand in water color, painstakingly documenting every contour, trail, ski lift route, and, yes, every single tree.

Butternut, Massachusetts / James Niehues
Butternut, Massachusetts / James Niehues
Telluride, Colorado / James Niehues
Telluride, Colorado / James Niehues

He told Scout: “Hand painting offers more variety of expression in that each brush stroke is different, making each tree (which usually has the base shape, a shadow and a highlight) individual and natural. A ski resort trail map represents the great outdoors and the better this presentation portrays the natural vast scenery of the slopes the more inviting it is to the viewer.  I used to have a slogan that I used in my mailing to potential clients: ‘A quality trail map reflects a quality ski experience.’ A trail map must first be accurate, but a very large part of the equation is for it to be as beautiful as possible to entice the viewer.  I just haven’t seen any computer-generated images that do that better than a hand-painted image.”

For Niehues, the hardest slopes to depict are those that criss-cross multiple mountain faces, instead of just one. “The most challenging part of any multiple-faceted resort is moving all the elements so the entire system of runs can be shown in one view, without the viewer seeing any reason why it not just as it is portrayed!”

Killington, Vermont / James Niehues
Killington, Vermont / James Niehues

Niehues explained to The Washington Post that he “likes knowing that skiers take a piece of him in their pockets whenever they ski the mountains he has painted.” He said: “One of the more special things is that they come down the mountain and have a beer and open up the map and talk about their experiences and they’re reviewing my art.”

Smuggler's Notch, Vermont / James Niehues
Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont / James Niehues

See all of Niehues’ gorgeous maps at his website and purchase prints.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 1 – 15)

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The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative / Image: Michelle & Chris Gerard

America’s First Sustainable Urban Agrihood Is Growing in Detroit Curbed Detroit, 12/1/16
“This week, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) revealed its plans for the first Sustainable Urban Agrihood in the North End.”

Living with the Legacy of Capability BrownThe Telegraph, 12/5/16
“The rolling terrain of this part of flat-landed Lincolnshire is not of the Exeters’ making, but Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s, the world’s most famous landscape architect, who worked on the estate from 1754.”

Will the South Bronx Be Getting a Hudson Yards of its Own? The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/7/16
“New York State has announced it will cap a South Bronx railyard and build a large development on top to energize the borough’s economy.”

Celebrating a Rousing Year, From Public Spaces to Preservation The Chicago Tribune, 12/8/16
“Even without the global spotlight that accompanied last year’s first edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2016 was rousing year for the art of architecture in Chicago.”

Sexy Infrastructure and Other Notable Developments in 2016 The Huffington Post, 12/12/16
“Judging by the heaps of praise for projects, including Governors Island in New York City, Chicago’s Navy Pier, the Lower Rainier Vista at the University of Washington in Seattle, and plans for Dallas’ hugely ambitious 10,000-acre nature district, infrastructure is sexy.”

An Opportunity to Reinvent Infrastructure

Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post
Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post

With President-elect Trump coming into office vowing to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure, many cities and states see a potential bonanza for high-speed rail development, bridge and highway repair, and, hopefully, urban transportation networks. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell noted at The Atlantic‘s summit on infrastructure, the Republican agenda is to let localities decide — and that should hold true for their infrastructure priorities as well, even if it means bike lanes, which a number of Republican Congressional lawmakers have come out against. At the summit, experts called for using this investment opportunity to create smarter, more resilient infrastructure, unleash new technologies, and move to more equitable approaches for long-term financing.

Brendan Shane, regional director at C40 Cities, argues that with any new federal infrastructure investment, there is an opportunity to make infrastructure low-carbon and resilient. Complete green streets enable all forms of travel, but especially climate-friendly ones like walking and biking. The national energy grid is woefully outdated and could be updated to be more energy-efficient. Water systems could be made more cost-effective and resilient through the use of green infrastructure. However, he cautioned that “$1 trillion won’t go very far. Los Angeles just approved $120 billion in projects, and that was just one city.”

Improving resilience is the primary focus of Norfolk, Virginia, said Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer of this coastal city. Norfolk, which hosts the largest naval base in the U.S., just finalized its Vision 2100, which creates a road map for resilience and adaptation to both land subsidence and flooding from sea level rise. She said “resilient cities don’t wait for someone to save them, they move forward and find partners.”

Morris was optimistic the department of defense and federal government will continue to invest in making the base and the city that houses it more resilient. Norfolk plans on creating a layered system of defenses with wetlands, green infrastructure, berms, and gates. “The federal government wants to keep and protect national assets.”

Gabe Klein, co-author of Start-up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneuriship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, and Niki Christoff, head of government affairs for Uber, called for using new technologies to improve urban transportation infrastructure. Klein said the department of transportation’s smart cities challenge was brilliant at leveraging $40 million in prize money to create “$500 million in strategic planning” on how to use technology to reduce congestion and pollution and improve safety and efficiency. 

He said second-tier cities like Pittsburgh — the site of Uber’s self-driving ride-share experiments — are great places to test new transportation technologies, “as they can get things done faster.” 

Klein sees a mix of driven and autonomous vehicles for “a long time,” with a painful transition period over the next 20 years. Eventually, with the explosion of automated ride-share vehicles, 90 percent of cars in dense urban cores will go away, freeing up space for housing and parks.

Christoff noted that one of the biggest obstacles for automated vehicles are potholes, which cause confusion for the computers. She said Uber may eventually share the data automated vehicles collect on potholes with local transportation departments. If they are fixed, it would be a win-win for the private and public sectors. 

Klein said cities can also turn to the public for help in fixing potholes, asking them to identify and submit information. In D.C., when he was transportation commissioner, he created Pot-hole-palooza, a crowd-sourcing effort, and then sent out an “auto pothole killer.”

While Trump aims to use some mix of private and public funds for infrastructure, there was discussion on what happens long-term after the money has been spent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since the 1972. One innovative model piloted by Oregon last year finances road and highway investment through a usage fee, a tax for miles traveled, instead of the usual federal gas tax. Some 5,000 cars participated in the pilot.

Instead of privileging the low-gas use of hybrid vehicles, the system, which involves adding a small USB-like device into cars’ speedometers, treats all miles traveled the same. “It’s more equitable, and the payment system is transparent. At the end of the month, you receive a bill like you do for water or cell phone service,” explained Richard Geddes, with the American Enterprise Institute. As part of the scheme, there are rebates for any gas taxes. 

In a poll from last year, Oregonians were split on the idea of replacing the federal gas tax with a mileage based approach. Still, the idea of charging vehicle owners based on how much they actually use and wear down roads seems more direct, understandable, and fair. 

On Climate Change, Trump Moves from Denial to Being “Open-Minded”

President-elect Trump has moved away from outright denial that climate change is happening. In an interview with Fox News, Trump said he is “open-minded” on the environment, but also believes “nobody knows if climate change is real.” He said he is “studying” whether the U.S. should pull out of the UN Paris climate accord, which has been ratified by 117 countries as of December 12. Trump’s default stance is any regulatory effort to reduce carbon emissions will in turn reduce the economic competitiveness of U.S. industries. His stated goal is to cut federal regulations in all forms in order to grow jobs and the economy.

Over the past few weeks, Trump has sent confusing signals on the climate. One one hand, he has made some gestures that have raised hopes. In a meeting with the editors of The New York Times, he admitted there may be “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. He met with former vice president Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate advocacy, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who produced a documentary on the flooding induced by climate change. Gore described the one-hour meeting with Trump as “lengthy and very productive” and the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. Gore said Trump’s daughter Ivanka, likely a key advisor, is “very concerned” about climate change. Given how positive Gore was about the meeting, there was some hope that Trump’s private views may be evolving and that he may end up changing his public positions.

On the other hand, however, in public, he has moved forward with nominating two climate doubters for key positions that impact our environment, health, and well-being. Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruit, who led Oklahoma’s lawsuit against President Obama’s clean power plan, has been tapped for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is seen as a close ally of the oil and gas industry and has said “more debate is needed” around the already-settled global consensus on climate change.

In a press release, Trump’s transition office wrote: “For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn.” Pruitt “will reverse this trend and restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.”

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Washington Post: “Pruitt has a record of attacking the environmental protections that EPA is charged with enforcing. He has built his political career by trying to undermine EPA’s mission of environmental protection. Our country needs — and deserves — an EPA administrator who is guided by science, who respects America’s environmental laws, and who values protecting the health and safety of all Americans ahead of the lobbying agenda of special interests.”

Senate Democrats have vowed to fight tooth and nail against Pruitt’s nomination and make the vote on his confirmation a litmus test for supporting the environment and science. However, given Democrats changed rules on filibusters, Pruitt only needs 51 senators to end debate and move forward with a vote.

Trump has also announced Montana state Representative Ryan Zinke, a conservative and climate doubter, as his pick for the department of the interior, which oversees the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all 400 national parks and 500 million acres of public lands. According to Scientific American, the secretary of the interior is in charge of “development of many of America’s fossil fuels and renewable resources, including all of its offshore oil, gas, and wind development.” Federal lands are now the source of “more than 20 percent of all the oil and gas and 40 percent of the coal produced in the U.S.”

Zinke wants to further boost energy production and mining on federal lands, but maintain federal control of those lands, reports The New York Times. One semi-positive note: “He has consistently voted in favor of maintaining the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded by royalties from oil and gas exploration on public lands but intended to preserve other natural habitats.” He is also a supporter of renewable and alternative energy.

Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of National Parks Conservation Association told The New York Times: “Though Mr. Zinke has expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and opposes the sale of public lands, he has prioritized the development of oil, gas and other resources over the protection of clean water and air and wildlife.”

Meanwhile, Trump still seems to believe environmental regulations are behind slower growth. He told Fox News: “You look at what’s happening in Mexico, where plants are being built, and they don’t wait 10 years to get an approval to build a plant, okay?” he said. “They build it like the following day or the following week. We can’t let all of these permits that take forever stop our jobs.”

And at a conference hosted by The Atlantic, Democratic officials like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell aped these views, arguing that environmental assessments can take too long and hold up infrastructure projects. With Trump proposing $1 trillion in infrastructure investment, state governments have already begun jockeying for a slice. Virginia Democratic governor Terry McAullife, a major Clinton ally, also didn’t focus on the climate or environment in his remarks, instead promoting Virginia’s ability to leverage private-public partnerships to build highways, declaring the state open for business. Sadly, there was no mention of how climate, economic growth, and infrastructure are intrinsically linked.

A Dashboard for the Earth

Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech
Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech

If we want our planet to be able to house 10 billion people and also want to preserve biodiversity in the future, then we need to leverage the new technologies associated with “big data” and artificial intelligence. Using these sets of new technologies, we can create a dashboard for the planet, with up-to-the minute data on ecosystem functions continuously feeding in. We can create a unified system that “interrogates the environmental condition of the Earth,” said Microsoft scientist Lucas Joppa at a conference organized by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, today we are nowhere near this “Bloomberg terminal” for the planet.

Discussions throughout the conference were a strange mix of extreme optimism about the capacity of technology to solve our problems and deep concern for the state of the global environment.

While Joppa seemed pessimistic about the climate and health of our ecosystems, he lauded the potential of new technologies to be applied to ecological conservation and restoration.

Apps leveraging “deep learning neural net” technologies can enable people to quickly identify and classify plants. A site called Wild.me borrows the face recognition technology of Facebook to identify individual animal species. Through this technology, a whale shark specimen could be identified by its particular markings and characteristics. Caption bots, which are used to auto-generate captions for images, can also be tapped to label plant and animal species.

Citizen science efforts, which involve the public in conservation efforts, can scale up with the Web and big data. With Zooniverse, people participate in assessing all this biodiversity data, explained Ruth Duerr, with the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship.

And at the planetary scale, new satellite technologies, like the small, distributed network of satellites offered by Planet Labs, promise to make it easier to get a clearer understanding of the state of the environmental in real-time, said Duerr, creating even greater sets of more precise data.

But all that environmental data needs to be more closely connected with social and economic data if we want to get closer to that whole Earth dashboard, argued Robert Chen, a scientist with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He pointed to his team’s efforts to map settlement patterns, including urban growth. And another project maps the connections between cycles of investment in real estate and vulnerability in flood-prone areas.

Integrating multiple layers of data is the next step, as is using the data to create predictions about possible outcomes. “Big data can help jumpstart the use of well-integrated, usable data and information for managing people and natural resources. We can use data to show how real-world issues interact.”

What’s holding this dream back for now is the variable quality of map-related data and the lack of legal and system interoperability between data sets. To push that forward, he called for more work on creating international open data standards, and more lawyers to get involved to ensure “everyone who needs to has the right to use data — that’s critical.”

Brad Garner with the U.S. Geological Survey pointed to the major gaps in water data in the U.S. Surface water is somewhat well-sampled, but each state uses a different measurement system, so integrating the data into a national view is basically impossible. For groundwater, there is a lack of even basic data. “We have no national sense of water use. How can we not know how much water we are using?” He was not optimistic in the near term, but said the open water data initiative held promise.

And Mathew Hansen, professor of geological sciences at the University of Maryland, and a member of the NASA Modis team, explained how crucial Landsat data is to understanding climate and ecological change, and land use, urbanization, and deforestation trends around the world. NASA has purposefully made all its land map data freely accessible, so anyone can download and analyze. Many countries facing deforestation crises use the data to track illegal deforestation, and map analyses have even been used to pursue court cases against loggers.

Bringing together disparate sets of data into a unified whole planet view is a noble goal and can lead to more responsible human management of our fragile ecosystems in our era of the Anthropocene. The “bad news, however, is we’re not focused enough to integrate these systems,” said Joppa.

He thinks the U.S. national ecosystem assessment, which was promoted by President Obama’s administration, could perhaps help kickstart the effort, at least in the U.S. He’s hoping a huge data collection and analytical effort for our nation’s ecosystems will continue into the next administration, given time is short to stop the worst environmental damage.

In coming years, advanced artificial intelligence can then be used to find trends and predict scenarios through big data. “We need artificial intelligence to save us from ourselves. My worry is A.I. won’t come soon enough.”

Symbols and Systems: The Work of Barbara Grygutis

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Part of Barbara Grygutis’ acclaimed sculpture, Dawn’s Silver Lining. / Oro Editions

When reductionist artwork, like a Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian painting, succeeds, it succeeds in part because of the role it affords us, the viewer. Faced with a vacuum of meaning, we impart our own identities on the work, gratifying ourselves in highly-personal ways. Artist Barbara Grygutis, whose sculptures are featured in the new book, Public Art / Public Space: The Sculptural Environments of Barbara Grygutis, practices a different reductionism. It’s not us, but the sculpture’s setting that completes the composition.

The book’s subtitle tells us a bit about how Grygutis sees herself, not just as a composer of materials, but a composer of environments. Many of her sculptures cast intricately woven shadows, filter and disperse light, or consolidate it into beacons. The resultant spaces are elevated by the sculptural work and reconstituted environmental qualities. Bronx River View is one such example. This collection of sculptures transform the walls of an above-ground subway station into windows and seating. The view works both ways, and the light cast inward onto the train platform illuminate the sculptures and the passage of time.

Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis
Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis

“If you look back at civilizations, we learn about them through their art,” Grygutis says in an interview at the outset of her book. That’s an edifying thought if we consider Dawn’s Silver Lining, a sculpture that epitomizes Grygutis’ most successful work (see image at top). Set in Salina, Kansas, the surrounding rural landscape is flattened into a silhouette of trees and vegetation and pressed onto perforated aluminum: the reduction process. The silhouettes are then re-extruded by the light, the quality of which is constantly changing.

It’s not always enough to simply reduce. There must be a re-introduction of substance into the artwork. Without this — or with too uncritical a reduction — the piece can suffer from a poverty of meaning. Grygutis’ Drop in Prewitt Park is a 35-foot steel and glass sculpture of a water drop. Set centrally to rippling landforms, the sculpture is intended to read as the moment of congruence between water and earth. Instead, because of the drop’s very recognizable and very flat form, it reads as a corporate logo, a symbol rather than a system.

Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis
Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis

This logo-ization of complex system holds back a few of Grygutis’ sculptures that seem to have powerful ideas behind them. Weather, an oblique steel and glass structure located in North Richland Hills, Texas, is meant to evoke the meteorological systems that our landscape is subject to. But the pattern emblazoned in the glass says less about our weather systems than a barometer. Grygutis’ sculpture Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs, is quite literally a giant symbol, π, comprised of several other symbols borrowed from keyboards and calculators. There’s literalness in this and other Grygutis sculptures may put an expiration date on them.

Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis
Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis

Other projects, like Flaming Arroyo in Las Vegas and Frequencies, a project slated for completion in 2017 in Palo Alto, feel timeless. The latter, which is comprised of five perforated aluminum sculptures and set on a tech campus, indexes electromagnetic frequencies that are ordinarily invisible to us.

flaming-arroyo
Visitors gather under the sculpture Flaming Arroyo / Oro Editions
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis

This is Grygutis at her most impactful, manifesting the unseen or ignored forces of our environment with sculptural interventions that beg people to slow down and take notice.