Why Is There Public Art?

by | Feb 6, 2018 | Art and Architecture

ART IN PUBLIC SPACES

Our upcoming third issue of The Right Angle Journal explores “Art and Architecture” – a broad and complicated topic, to say the least. Our contributors have taken a variety of approaches to the subject, mostly personal: How has the interaction of art and architecture affected their lives?

One of our essays discusses the importance of public art by comparing two pieces of public sculpture that are similar in subject matter and scale, but strikingly different histories. The following short discussion looks at three pieces of public art that are distinguished by the stories they tell.

INTRODUCTION

Like many of you, I live in a city, where there is scarcely a square metre of land that some architect, planner or designer hasn’t poked or manipulated – sometimes with spectacular results, other times, not. We are rarely consulted about these intrusions. They just happen.

Public art provides a significant departure. It provides a means of improving our daily lives by adding extra meaning to everyday forms and spaces and, in many municipalities, there is even public consultation – asking for our (or our representatives’) input. With public art, we all get the chance to engage with our built environment in a way that is personal and meaningful.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

The idea of art in public spaces goes back a long way. In earlier times, it was often intended as a memorial or as a declaration – of an emperor’s grandness, for example.

But then, as now, public art had three main goals:

  1. to grant authenticity to the space by providing elements that are appropriate to the location and help some way to recall its history, culture or mythology.
  2. to help extend the experience of the space by, for example, creating a mood or generating an activity.
  3. to be part of a story that personally engages users of the space, whether it’s a fairy tale, or the chronicle of a historic battle.

If you take a moment, you can probably think of several works of art in public spaces – freestanding or part of a building – that satisfy my three criteria and have a special meaning to you. I’ve chosen three pieces that have a special significance for me, because of the way they relate to their location, the kinds of emotions that they stir up and, especially, the many stories they embody – some well-known, some little known and some virtually unknown.

ARTWORK: MARTIAN TRIPOD, Woking Town Centre, Woking, UK; Michael Condron, 1998

A full-size sculptural interpretation of one of the Martian invaders described in H.G. Wells’s sci-fi novel War of the Worlds.

Authenticity – The book was written during the years 1895–1898, while Wells was living at 141 Maybury Road, about 1.5 km. west of Woking Town Centre. The fictional Martian landing took place in Horsell Common, about 1.5 km to the north. The events are fictional, but no less “real,” or “authentic,” thanks in part to the Mercury Theater broadcast, 50 years later.

Experience – It’s impossible not to be a little creeped out by the Monumental (7m), stainless steel alien. If you’ve read the book or seen any of the movie adaptations, then it’s even more chilling. There is a sense of magic, sci-fi, mystery, fright and a reminder that we are (only) human.

Story – In the H.G. Wells novel, large, scary Martians invade the earth and easily take over. Things don’t look good: the invaders are seemingly invincible. But they are ultimately defeated, not due human superiority, but by common earthly bacteria, to which they have no resistance. To give the story some gritty honesty, Wells has the invaders land in Horsell Common, just on the outskirts of Woking and begin their wanton destruction right there, making short work of Woking and environs. [3.House at 141 Maybury Rd.]

It’s easy to see why the people of Woking would want a statue of a scary Martian tripod in the centre of town. Those invaders helped to figuratively put the town on the map, by fictionally wiping it off.

Fifty years later, the story was revived as an episode of CBS Radio’s Mercury Theatre. The story, now relocated to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was disguised as a news report – a hoax – relayed by the sombre-toned young announcer Orson Welles (no relation to H.G.). Despite repeated disclaimers and apologies by the radio station, the broadcast created genuine widespread panic. Fifty years later, Grover’s Mills NJ commemorated the radio broadcast with a festival and a bronze monument.

But the most interesting story is the untold tale that has been revealed, over the years, by various biographers. Wells spent some happy years in Woking, living with his second wife, Jane Robbins, writing productively and learning to ride a bicycle. But his cynical streak was often evident. In the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, Linda Jackson1 quotes Wells as saying that he would like to “completely wreck and destroy Woking – killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways – then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”

Who hasn’t dreamt of blowing up annoying neighbours from time to time. Wells managed to do it without causing any real physical harm. Now that’s a story that is neither science nor fiction – just something we can all relate to – well worth celebrating in the centre of town.

http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/WellsHG.html

ARTWORK: THE ARCHER, Nathan Philips Square, Toronto; Henry Moore, 1966

A Modern bronze sculpture installed in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square when the Square and the City Hall behind it were brand new.

Authenticity – The Archer was especially sculpted for the site, to complement the Modern City Hall designed by Viljo Revell. The creation of the work involved a unique collaboration between the architect and the sculptor.

Experience – There is a strong visual and emotional connection with the building. The work is larger than human scale, but not monumental (although Moore regretted not making it bigger) and, before the civic square became as cluttered it is today, it helped to draw the site together stylistically and spiritually. Nowadays, The Archer is best appreciated as a proud reminder of an important turning point in Toronto’s history and, to an extent, continues to embody the city. It’s been called “one of the city’s most iconic pieces of public art.”

Story – The story of The Archer is the story of a city coming of age. During the 1960s, Toronto was a notoriously up-tight place. Compared with other great Canadian cities, it was non-descript, lacking Vancouver’s laid-back bliss and Montreal’s Gallic flair. In an uncharacteristically bold step, the city decided to hold an international competition to design a new city hall. The commission was awarded, in 1958, to a little known Finnish architect, Viljo Revell. The scheme – essentially two tall round brackets, embracing a flying saucer – was a jarring departure from the architectural norm in the mid-sixties, and it remains so, a half-century later.

Another striking feature of the design was the large forecourt – the first public square in the city – which Revell felt would benefit from a work of public art to complement and expand his architectural statement. He personally selected Henry Moore to create the work.

The Toronto public was not in love with Modern sculpture. A flying-saucer city hall was one thing, but paying $120,000 for a lump of metal was just plain frivolous. So public money for the project was withheld. To his everlasting credit, Mayor Philip Givens raised $100,000 in private donations. Moore lowered his price and the deal was struck. Mayor givens was voted out of office six weeks later, but it was too late to stem the tide. Toronto was headed in a bold new direction and The Archer had pointed the way.

This story, like the sculpture itself, is little known today. Nathan Phillips Square is more widely recognized as the site of the giant illuminated “Toronto” sign, and the site of many civic events, from art shows to concerts, just as Revell would have wanted. And as the city continues to mature and evolves around it, The Archer is still there, bearing witness to a process that it kicked into gear a little over 50 years ago. And thanks to the special relationship that ultimately developed between the city and the sculptor, The Art Gallery of Ontario now houses the largest public collection of Moore’s sculpture in the world – a special gift from the sculptor to the city.

ARTWORK: IMAGINE, Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New York City; the small park-within-a-park was designed by Bruce Kelly, 1985; the mosaic was a gift from the City of Naples

A mosaic tile paving pattern with the word imagine, in the centre, to commemorate the life and death of singer, composer, poet and illustrator John Lennon.

Authenticity – John Lennon lived in The Dakota Apartments, right across the street from Strawberry Fields. He was shot to death on the pavement in front of the building. The motto IMAGINE represents Lennon’s legacy, now fixed to an appropriate geographical location.

Experience – The mosaic is highly interactive. On any given day you may find flowers, poems, drawings and precious objects arranged around the central word. A visit to the site evokes sadness for the loss of such an influential public figure and a sense of nostalgia for a time when Lennon’s ideals of world harmony seemed achievable. For rare individuals who are unfamiliar with Lennon’s legacy, there is a sense of hope and an invitation to imagine things that may seem impossible.

Story – Over the ages, dead heroes have been commemorated with public statues – prominent landmarks that draw attention to the important stature of the figure being celebrated. This kind of memorial would not have served the memory of John Lennon. His message was soft and understated. While others organized rallies and marches, John and his wife Yoko Ono held “Bed-Ins for Peace.”

Imagine is a popular and particularly poignant song, written and recorded by Lennon. The story is a simple one: imagine a different kind of world, where peace and cooperation prevail. If you have difficulty imagining such a concept, a visit to Strawberry Fields may be just what you need.

EPILOGUE

Very often, public art is where you find it. It might be planned or unplanned, but it is certainly not officially sanctioned. It could be a mischievous work of graffiti, a collision of the ideas of too many designers in one place, creative negligence, or simple accident. You just have to look around.

Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.

– the young director in American Beauty

CONCLUSION

Everybody should engage with public art – even if you have to discover it for yourself. Try to understand it, relate to it, engage with it and become part of its story. It’s a really good way to enrich your urban experience.

 

NOTE: This essay has been adapted from a presentation entitled Built Environment Aesthetics: Experiential Art & Architecture, delivered at Sun Glow Window Coverings, December 7, 2017

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