Washburn

The Art of Artful Places

You almost never see a cow in a tree. That's why I was so surprised that day in February when I encountered one at the Docklands, a new green redevelopment district in the City of Melbourne. The Cow (and tree), it should quickly be noted, were in fact part of an unusual art installation, and while I certainly knew immediately what it was, I was still pleasantly taken a back at seeing it, and seeing its interesting setting. It is the work of artist John Kelly, and was inspired by efforts in World War II to disguise Australian airstrips by putting out paper mache farm animals. One day Kelly wondered what would happen to these camouflage pieces in the event of a flood, and thus we have "cow up a tree." This specific piece of artwork epitomizes for me the intrinsic value of public art, and the sense of intrigue and interest and beauty that such pieces can bring to the city. The cities that I enjoy the most are places where there is much to see at pedestrian level, and where there are surprises like this around the corner. I think we enjoy a bit of mystery in streetscapes as well as a bit of whimsy. I have been impressed that some of the cities that have made the most progress in promoting sustainability are also ones that have emphasized the importance of community art, and have put into place some of the most creative ideas for stimulating and providing avenues for our creative impulses. The city of Melbourne has shown a remarkable commitment to infusing its streets and public spaces with art. And it is probably not a surprise that its citizenry has responded with an enthusiastic embrace of its public spaces and pedestrian streets. Melbourne has an emerging and well-deserved reputation as a city that has sought to transform its downtown into a vibrant pedestrian district. Jan Gehl has called it the "Melbourne Miracle." It has gone, in the course a couple of decades, from being a largely car-dominated city-center to one where people are relishing time outside walking, strolling, eating at outdoor cafes (Melbourne went from having only 2 outdoor restaurants in 1973, to a remarkable 356 by 2004). Melbourne has taken many steps to enhance its downtown: more housing, extending the city's grid to encompass and accommodate new growth (the Docklands is a notable case in point), creating new public spaces like the extremely-popular Federation Square, re-paving the pedestrian spaces throughout downtown with bluestone, installing new street furniture, encouraging flower shops and other smaller kiosk businesses, and encouraging new outdoor restaurants and café. And the commitment to funding and installing new public art is a big part of the story here, it seems to me, and a significant aspect of what makes spending time there fun. It is the larger art pieces in important places like the Docklands, but this city has thought creatively about other places where art might help to entice exploration and re-discovery. Melbourne funds a laneways art program, for instance, that has seen some of the most interesting installations in the city's extensive set of laneways and alleys. Here the goal is to nudge residents and visitors into venturing off the beaten path a bit. These installations have included: a faux bank safe, wedged high above one alley, as if the robbers had been caught in the act; a set of drainpipe periscopes offering unusual views of the city's skyline; a harp powered by the wind; and even a gurgling water installation that encourages pedestrians to step into and on this flowing pavement. Public art here becomes a useful strategy for to encourage the exploration of otherwise forgotten and hidden parts of the city. There are equally impressive artful stories from other Australian cities. Brisbane, for example, has a program to encourage the painting of otherwise drab signal boxes. Originally meant as a strategy for combating graffiti, there are now some 900 signal boxes that have become metal canvases for an impressive array of art. Neighborhoods and local residents are encouraged to employ design that builds on their community history and heritage. I especially like the idea that art, public art, is not just something that is the domain of the professional artist. Every city, every community, harbors an immense reservoir of creative energy, something that can be put to good use in strengthening commitments to place, making places more profoundly unique and different, and in just generating urban experiences that are fun and joyful. And there is just simply a need to give people artistic outlets, places and opportunities where they can be expressive, where they can stretch those (largely dormant) artistic muscles. People and kids just seem to need to draw, to doodle, to see how lines and color can add up to something unplanned. But we have too few opportunities for this, too many inhibitions perhaps in adulthood. Here we might learn from kids, who seem to have a limitless pool of creative energy to tap into, and seize the chance whenever it presents itself. Street closings and block parties can convert, if only briefly, hard surfaces of asphalt and concrete into large linear canvases. Bridges and building facades provide opportunities for community mural projects, and leftover neighborhood spaces offer the chance to build and erect things that bring a sense of delight and pride. My own City of Charlottesville has for a number of years operated a unique and sometimes controversial public art program called Art in Place. It selects each year, through a competitive process, about ten works of art, mostly sculptures. A small amount of funding is provided for the artist. The art is installed on very visible sites (largely along major roads and mobility corridors) throughout the city, where they remain for a year, when the process is repeated and a new batch of pieces replaces them. The controversy comes sometimes in the selection of the art, and disagreement about the artistic merit of the pieces chosen -a kind of controversy that is to me one of the interesting and valuable things about the program. It has exposed us (collectively, as a community) to a variety of different artistic expressions, that sometimes demand a degree of aesthetic stretch, and that provoke some interesting discussions among friends and neighbors. The city also occasionally purchases one of the pieces and adds it to its permanent collection. The value of this program has been made clear to me in some very personal ways. While there have been plenty of pieces that I've disliked, there have been many that I have been fond of, and some that have become beloved. One of the most dramatic pieces of art to have come out of this program is one produced by my talented artist neighbor, Tom Givens. It is a full-size Sperm Whale's tail-we affectionately refer to it as the "Whale's Tail" or just the "Tail" sometimes. It is perched on a spot of forgotten turfgrass, an awkward space occasionally mowed by the city, but otherwise sandwiched between a bridge and several high-volume neighborhood roads, and mostly forgotten. The story of the producing and transporting whale's tail is interesting in itself, almost a community legend (certainly a neighborhood one). Tom worked tireless to assemble and shape this beautiful and unusual piece, all from left-over wood strips acquired from a local high-end furniture maker. The tail was so large that it required a crane to lift it up and over the Givens house, then slowly transported by flatbed truck in the very early hours one morning. I don't think it is an overstatement to say that the installation of the Whales tail has transformed this space and our neighborhoods' appreciation of it. In some ways it is as though we suddenly noticed a spot of land that we just hadn't seen or cared to see before. The Tail is now a landmark and has created a bit of a gathering spot for the neighborhood and community; people assemble there to watch the city's fireworks show on the fourth of July, for instance, and the tail seems to have become a bit of a rendezvous site. I enjoy seeing the Tail everyday, and I know many others do as well. But the value of this kind of art is multifaceted. My hunch is that the more of these sort of encounters we have during our day, and the more we see our communities as grand canvases for creative expression, the more we will see our homeplaces as distinctive and special, and in turn (hopefully) the more we will relish and care for them. But I don't know that research will necessarily bare this out. What if it doesn't? What if all that Whale's Tail does is make me smile, make me feel good on a bad day, or give me that reassuring visual cue that home and family are not far away-it would still serve an essential role, one that illustrates well the art of artful places. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ——————– Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.