Thursday, March 27, 2014

An Avenging Angel of Autoism and Ada Louise Huxtable at the Sculpture Garden

Have you seen the new sculpture downtown?

A week or so ago local arts patrons and the Oregon Artist Series reset the art at the Conference Center and installed a new piece of sculpture.

"Cien Años"
Devin Laurence Field
(But I read it as Robo-Nike)
Inside and accompanying it appears to be a new set of posters for the several of the sculptors themselves.

Information Display for Sculpture Garden at Conference Center
In the lower left of the group, one of the plaques appeals to architecture critic and urbanist Ada Louise Huxtable:

The goals of this Oregon Artist Series Foundation presentation include:

- To broaden public appreciation of sculpture,
- To expand public awareness of several of the Northwest's finest sculptors and their work,
- To foster an understanding of the processes involved in making sculpture,
- To develop an appetite for fine sculture within the urban environment

"The use of space and sculpture is traditionally one of man's most creative contributions where it counts the most: As a three dimensional part of the functioning city scene and of the activity of life." - Ada Louise Huxtable, 1973
Huxtable died last year at the age of 91.

In reflecting on what it takes to create a good place, and how far the "Before I Die" project went in meeting those requirements, she seemed like a good person to consider:
In his appreciation in the New York Times, its current architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, quoted her about some new branch libraries in New York (the state of the library system in NYC is highly contentious these days - read more at "Steamboats Are Ruining Everything" and Huxtable's final piece in the Wall Street Journal):
These projects are clear, visual demonstrations, which people need in order to understand how a high standard of architectural design and the refusal to go with hack work can have very real and sometimes unanticipated social, human, environmental and neighborhood consequences, often in parts of the city that need it so badly and that we hear so little about.
For Huxtable life was key. Kimmelman continued with another quote:
When so much seems to conspire to reduce life and feeling to the most deprived and demeaning bottom line, it is more important than ever that we receive that extra dimension of dignity or delight and the elevated sense of self that the art of building can provide through the nature of the places where we live and work. What counts more than style is whether architecture improves our experience of the built world; whether it makes us wonder why we never noticed places in quite this way before.
Kimmelman ends by highlighting "dignity and delight."
I want to suggest that the appeal at the sculpture garden to Huxtable misunderstands her sentiments, applying them to surface decoration rather than form and function.

The barrenness of the sculpture garden is an ornamental emptiness and far, far from anything we might consider a "functioning city scene." It is an attempt at delight, but it fails at dignity. If anything, the sterile concrete expanse looks cheap, an expression of that "demeaning bottom line."

Trade/Front and Commercial. With dual turns and a large radius corner,
it's difficult and intimidating to cross.  Who wants to "stroll" here?
This corner here is all about cars, not people.

The Scupture "Garden":  Mostly Empty Concrete on the Parkway
People don't, therefore, congregate in the space unless there is a special event at the Conference Center.  It is an annex and patio for the Conference Center itself, not a public space and "functioning city scene." It is marketing adjunct, not urban fabric.

So what exactly does the incremental addition of one more sculpture add?

It is interesting - perhaps ironic - that the sculpture was previously mounted in Lake Oswego, itself not exactly a hotbed of "functioning city scenes." Is there something inherently carburbian about the piece?

Mad Max 2:  The Road Warrior promo
Not at least according to the artist. While I read the sculpture as some post-apocalyptic Nike or Athena, or even Mad Max, the sculptor intended a different field for interpretation, not classical Greek but early modern Spanish colonialism in Mexico (which has its own versions of apocalypse, however). 

According to a Portland Tribune piece from when the piece was in Lake Oswego during 2006,
... 'Cien Años,' may fulfill more representational senses than an onlooker's romantic sense.

With its metal breastplate, its powder-coated steel wings and violent religious symbolism, the statue, according to [Board Chair of Lake Oswego Foundation for the Arts, Pat ] Vessely, pulls the viewer in.

'He [sculptor Devin Laurence Field] is so accomplished,' Vessely said. 'To me it is an intersting piece.'

Field said the symbolism of his 12-foot-tall piece derives from the city of Merida, Mexico, a city founded by conquistadors in the 16th century, at a time of religous brutality. Its people eventually relaxed, becoming one of the most longlasting stable cities in the region after it began to flourish with the export of sisal, the century plant whose dried fibers made firm rope, supporting 96 percent of the international rope industry at the time. The plant blossoms approximately every 100 years.

His piece, in turn, is a fusion of these micro-historical gems.

'It has a stalk-like thing that turns into an angel, into a flower like the emergence of the city,' Field said.
Well, it if is supposed to be "a flower like the emergence of the city," like Mad Max or some other avenging angel it also presides over a crossroad of asphalt and concrete, not anything organic or green or human!  The "planters" are filled with red cinder rock, after all.

It's the victory of cars, global warming, and the costs it all exacts.

And in fact about Portland in 1970, Huxtable wrote,
Some day, some American city will discover the Malthusian truth that the greater number of automobiles, the less the city can accommodate them without destroying itself. The downtown that turns itself into a parking lot is spreading its own dissolution. The price for Portland is already alarmingly high. But there are no easy answers, or no American city would be in trouble.
You will have your own reading of the sculpture.

But as the Salem Public Art Commission together with the Oregon Artist Series is working on a project to install one or more pieces downtown (See Council agenda last month), I worry that they aren't really walking around downtown, but are driving downtown and looking at maps instead of thinking deeply about "functioning city scenes" and "the Malthusian truth" destroying them.

Update, Friday the 28th

from Elect Tom Anderson for Ward 2
It's great to see the post get some traction and discussion!

But I worry that it expresses the exact blind spot about which I was writing: we need to tame cars because cars have tamed us and are eating us and our city scenes.

Instead, the solution is more things!

The main claim here isn't that the square needs more things, more diversions. The claim is that it needs smaller streets and more adjacent buildings, residences, and businesses. (Or that the sculptures be moved to a place, like the north side of the transit mall, where people already congregate.)

The point is that this site is at the crossroads of two ugly urban highways and has insufficient adjacent land uses to be a "functioning city scene. Sure food carts or community gardens or trees would be nice - but there was already a piano here!  Music couldn't do it. The square doesn't need more stuff in an attempt to make it more of a "destination" - especially if it is envisioned as primarily a drive-to destination.

This is the same problem folks have when they think about Peace Plaza and Mirror Pond. These spaces don't need more ornament. They need structural change that involves other nearby land uses. Until we can get out of our atomic analysis of individual lots and think of pattern and relationships in space and in time, we will fail.

Walking, not driving, needs to be the primary relational unit of analysis. The fundamental mistake is the thinking that "we can leave our car-system in place" and all we have to do is put more stuff in the voids, and then they will be wonderful.

Anyway, this objection aside, it's great to see the discussion.


Jim Scheppke said...

Brilliant post SBOB. Yes, Salem has a drive-by sculpture garden. Soon we will have a drive-by WWII memorial on Court Street. I was on the site selection committee and argued strongly to put the memorial in the middle of Willson Park where the embarrassing Neil Goldschmidt children's sculpture is now (I argued for moving that to Riverfront Park near the Carousel). I was outvoted and the memorial is being built on a busy corner. It will be very unsatisfactory for meditation and reflection on the war and its veterans.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with facebook clip.

Re:WWII memorial

I'm glad you mentioned it. I've been holding off to write about it until it was complete and I could see it. It's an odd corner there, inert on three sides: The gravel lot where the Chamber of Commerce house used to be, the memorial site where a small hedge sculpted to say "Oregon" used to be, and the parking garage for the State Admin/Executive building. Only the Y creates life on the NW corner.

I think none of our wholly public war memorials are sited well. The cluster just north of Veterans Affairs is too hidden.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I was wondering what was going in on that corner! How come the public knew nothing about this? I sure hope it will have some greenery around it and a quiet place to contemplate our loss.

The sculpture 'garden' at the conference center is just pathetic! I have never gone to the conference center as it seems that it is not for the average person. More for the rich and connected than the average person.

But if I were to go to something at the center, I would agree that a quiet respite would be so welcomed. Being stuck inside a windowless room for hours listening to people drone on about this and that....even when you are very depleting to the mind and the soul. To have a beautiful 'garden' in which to rest and relax.

I like your ideas what can be done besides talk to get some action on this matter?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

You should wander into the Conference Center some time - it is open to the public during business hours. It is not awful, and parts of it are more than ok.

Consistently satisfying are the paintings. The historical marker on the stair landing overlooking the intersection of Commercial and Ferry is also very interesting and highlights an important set of lost buildings in Salem history.

As for the WWII memorial, Capi Lynn has written in the SJ about it several times over the last couple of years. A problem may be that the obelisk design is not very distinctive - the flip side of being a sort of "timeless" look - and may not be so memorable for those who are not already invested in it.

Anonymous said...

Susan, there's a short article in the newspaper today -

With it are links to at least three other previous articles on the memorial.