Friday, October 21, 2011

...about public art: Mt. Rushmore

Heroic Scale • Mount Rushmore • Keystone, SD • Sculptor: Gutzon Borglum

Dynamite, scaffolding, winches, dangling bosun chairs and a temporary city of workers, laborers and support staff, over 400 in number, brought light to some of the darkest moments of the Great Depression, and an American icon to the hills of South Dakota. Their work, and the vision of Gutzon Borglum and the project’s unsung hero, Borglum’s son, the aptly named Lincoln, yielded Mt. Rushmore, an ode to patriotism that still draws almost 3 million visitors a year. A marvel of engineering, craft, dedication, ingenuity, patriotism and certainly, quirk on the grandest of scales, Mt. Rushmore still maintains the colossal nobility of its original intent.

And here, the size is the thing. Of an almost incomprehensible scale, yet rendered with superb delicacy. Remarkably, over 90% of the work was done the Big Bang way, with dynamite removing the heftiest chunks of the mountain’s original granite face. It’s hard to believe such earth-shattering means found such refined result. And it was all PC: pre-CAD, pre computer… although now, a high tech project is documenting the mountain with laser-precision.

The presidential choices were highly specific, based on the shaping principles their presidencies represented. Washington earned his place of prominence for laying the foundation for our nation’s democracy. Jefferson’s written eloquence, with our Declaration of Independence, secured his place (and also for the expansion of the states on his watch). Lincoln made the mountainous list for his unifying role during America’s Civil War. The Mt. Rushmore site page said it best: “Roosevelt was known as the ‘trust buster’ for his work to end large corporate monopolies and ensure the rights of the common working man.” Sounds like he’d be hanging down at Manhattan's Zuccotti Park with the Occupy Wall Streeters if he were still around. "The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States," wrote Borglum. The traits they represent and made them worth immortalizing in stone held great significance to a younger America, and extra significance now in a country that could benefit, it seems, from a return to these roots.

It’s also not without its sense of divisiveness (a trait of tension shared by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Serra’s "Twain"). There were (and are) issues with the ownership of the original land, a Native American population that still lives in the mountain’s shadow. And it is a bit of all-American hubris, man-over mountain bravado that would no doubt ruffle the feathers of the Audobon Society were an artist to take dynamite once again to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Is it corny? Naïve? A little, and perhaps. But it is also a feat we are not apt to see duplicated ever in our lifetimes, and that is just one more thing that makes it worth note and honor. And not just because they just don’t make presidents like they used to. This mountain is worth visiting. And the principles of the men it monumentalizes are certainly worth revisiting. Perhaps now more than ever.

Why are public art projects still so important? They create dialogue. They create points of pride. They encourage debate. They bring beauty. They help us honor the fallen and honor our neighbors. And sometimes, they pull us toward one big communal fire, as the stars drift overhead. There’s a lovely art to that.

What permanent public art would you add to the list? And feel free to blur the lines on your own definition. All good art does.

All photos:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line
Community: WaterFire
Playfulness: Crown Fountain
Divisiveness: Twain

More on the topic:

An interesting article on how scale contributes to the success, or at least impact, of a piece of public art can be found here. ApartmentTherapy took a great look at public art, most of a more fleeting, temporary nature, here.

...about Margaret Russell: AD 360

Photo: Architectural Digest Firooz Zahedi; Makeup by Margret Avery; Hair by Arsen Gurgov at Louis Licari Salon

She is a big deal in a small, impeccable package. Margaret Russell, current Editor in Chief of Architectural Digest, led the charge on the D&D Building’s Fall Market presentations “Transcending Boundaries in Design,” with her morning key note, an airy and engaging presentation full of smart and savvy advice. Her vantage point, currently atop the masthead of the shelter world’s grande dame, made her uniquely qualified to talk about boundaries, transcendence, identity and change.

It was no surprise to hear her say, “Reinvention takes work.” But surprisingly, she admitted change doesn’t come easily. “I hate change,” she said, with distinct lack of apology. Her confession got an almost audible sigh of relief from the slightly-sleepy audience. It was a breath of fresh air to those not-always-early adopters who felt technology has been passing them by with trends, Tweets and Likes, and those who assume the only way to get to the heights of Ms. Russell’s print and TV career is to run with change like a twenty-something. But, she went on, change is a given, in a world which morphs around, and out from under us. But her own way to cope sounded every bit plugged in, “I’m in ‘perpetual beta,’” a term destined to go viral before the last Q was A’d. It was the perfect phrase to capture how Ms. Russell has helped freshen the AD brand (and, she noted, it is every bit a brand as merely a magazine): stay fluid, stay focused on improvement, and never assume you are in the final version of anything.

That change she sometimes dislikes is coming fast to AD, and in some globally and essentially big ways: AD India will follow the brand-new AD China (“As thick as a phone book,” one AD insider later sighed, a comment on the thin spines of some US pubs, theirs included), and the Digest launches its very first PDF version, first to Kindle this spring, with a Nook version shortly after, perhaps giving Rue and Lonny a run for the Older money. It was an interesting statement on the heels of a comment that people covet and collect back issues, even heading to eBay to do it.

Ms. Russell, delivering the morning keynote at the Design & Decoration Building's Fall Market, "Transcending Boundaries in Design"; Photo courtesy the D&D Building and Editor at Large

Some of the fluidity of the work surrounding Russell’s AD comes from the migration to electronic media, and the unprecedented and immediate access social media and email has created. Feedback is personal, real and immediate, even if not always glowing when such a familiar, public and venerable brand is at stake. But Ms. Russell understands the responsibility that comes with the all-access pass electronic communication affords… changes have been made to the book (magazine speak for, well, “magazine”) based on reader feedback… a slew of somewhat cranky emails saved the annual Country Homes issue, which will return next Summer, as just one example. It’s an acknowledgment that although she has a decidedly vested interest in AD’s success, she is more guardian than outright owner.

As brand steward, Ms. Russell talked about her migration of an AD often characterized as “formal and frosty,” to “sunny, fresh” and “relevant,” a word that trended high during Ms. Russell’s presentation. She dove into the challenge first by looking back—into archives, past issues, and what she calls the magazine’s DNA… a favorite term of branding gurus— then forward… to technology, new markets, all in an attempt to reconnect with the audience that has always had at its center “a fascination with how other people live.”

Ms. Russell stated that she felt part of that DNA was “the interface between reality and inspiration,” another role she doesn’t take lightly. To give the magazine a dose of relevance, it was more about style of presentation than a redirect of content… there will still be the design porn of rambling country estates, gracious chateaus and Upper East pied-a-terres. But these still-classic interiors designed and shot by names long familiar to AD readers are more casual, with open doors, sunlight and the true-to-life appearance that shooting digitally now affords. (We learned that lesson from none other than frequent AD shooter, Scott Frances, and indeed, Ms. Russell used Scott’s own images to illustrate how digital technology allows them an outcome that’s closer to fresh feel than cold-hearted exactitude, in this publication that was one of the last holdouts in accepting digital files from its photographers.) Oddly, one tool Ms. Russell will be using to warm up AD is snow… they will be rolling out their first snow-covered images in December.

Margaret Russell, with the Decoration and Design Building's Ashlee Harrison; Photo courtesy the D&D Building and Editor at Large

This publication that used to boast they would “show up and shoot” (without a stylist or florist in tow) now opens the doors to tweaking under Ms. Russell’s watch, especially for the sake of a cover, which she admits is more business than art. Flowers and throw pillows are sometimes switched out and colors bumped up to garner more eyes on the newsstand, still the publishing world’s big driver right behind ad page count. Ms. Russell said the tweaks were a matter of “taking liberties, but staying true to the intent.” And she spoke passionately about wanting to reshoot an image because the scale of the space was lost in a too-tight photo crop, all in the interest of conveying a space’s quality.

Staying true to the magazine’s intended DNA means there will still remain a focus on architects, and that familiar departments are getting typographic re-dos and new names, mere shots of Botox, not full facelifts. It also means reader-favorite features like floor plans will be published unless privacy issues prevent.

In the Big Change department, AD will now publish a full Sources list for the first time, a step Ms. Russell realizes tears down some of the barriers in between inspiration and reality. It’s also a user-friendly detail that will no doubt add robust content to their future online and PDF incarnations, a lesson perhaps learned from the online upstarts and the now-shuttered Domino.

I had the pleasure of joining fellow bloggers in the D&D Building's Bloggers Lounge, covering their Fall Market preview.

What won’t be changing, any time soon? Celebrities on the cover, like recent cover girls Ellen Degeneres and Jennifer Aniston. Why? Aniston’s cover broke previous AD print sales records, and Ellen’s cover generated a huge spike in social media buzz, Twitter trends, and visits to the AD website. These two kinds of stats show the two faces of magazines today, and in timelines and mindsets that couldn’t be more different… the months-in-advance cycle of print, and the daily immediacy and content hunger of online vehicles.

After showing off some images in the next issue to gorgeously illustrate the concept of classic but refreshed (a drop-dead and cliché-free lodge was an especially memorable example of that familiar-but-fresh perspective), Ms. Russell turned the focus to the audience of designers and entrepreneurs, taking her own AD brand journey and applying the concepts learned to their professional design careers. Her main message was at the very base of Branding: Get your story straight before you expect anybody to buy it. She spoke about the building blocks of doing so, from a starting point of understanding your corporate identity (in as basic a detail as business cards, which warmed this former graphic designer’s heart). Her other tips were refreshingly yet deceptively simple: “If you aspire to television, invest in media training,” and that the heart of your web strategy should be “clarity and beauty,” not bells and whistles. “If you give them a ‘skip intro’ option, they will take it.”

Back in the closet: Ms. Russell showed the closet of Portia De Rossi and Ellen Degeneres as featured in their record-breaking October issue; Photo: Roger Davies for Architectural Digest

Ms. Russell also acknowledged it’s often as much about protecting a brand as it is creating it, and managing the negatives as well as the positives. “Watermark your images,” Ms. Russell cautioned, noting how easy the online world has made it for images to wander far from their rightful owners. With her own humbling anecdote about once having to buy back the rights to her own name as a URL, her advice to “register your name, as a URL and on Twitter,” carried true weight.

For those in the audience hungering to have their personal design brand splashed on the glossy pages or shiny iPads of AD, Ms. Russell gave a tip, and an opportunity. As far as getting published, exclusivity is still key: they won’t publish anything that’s appeared anywhere else, including online portfolios and blogs (and I heard the same thing before from Managing Editor of Interior Design, Helene Oberman and former Style Director of House & Garden and Executive Editor of House Beautiful, Carolyn Solis. Even design legend Melvin Dwork told me a similar story later in the day about his own project being rejected when pictures surfaced elsewhere, on the watch of past Editor Paige Rense.). But AD is once again repeating its “Open Auditions,” a coast-to-coast cattle call to find the industry’s undiscovered thoroughbreds, proving they’re not opposed to adding to their list of design heavy hitters with fresh talent.

Ms. Russell with Jennifer Petrisko, Senior Director of Public Relations and Special Events at Architectural Digest; Photo courtesy the D&D Building and Editor at Large

What were the true surprises of Ms. Russell’s morning address to the troops? Her advice of “Don’t be all things to all people,” seemed slightly counter to a world where even her own magazine needs to be equal parts paper and plastic, and careers need to be organic and multi-faceted in order to survive an economy which Ms. Russell accurately summed up with “Business has a been brutal,” a comment which got more than a smattering of deflated nods from the capacity crowd. Another was the stat about the gender of the AD audience: nearly half of her readers are male… in a world that typically skews 85% in favor of female readership. Perhaps that’s why AD still shows more boytoys like Ferraris in Beverly Hills driveways and yachts on the Mediterranean than Manolo Blahniks scattered at the foot of sofas and bed frames.

To an interior design industry, and within the halls of a to-the-trade building which both wrestle with invention, the economy, definition and boundaries themselves, there were some moments in Ms. Russell’s keynote that seemed to point out the disparity between top-tier and entry level, and revealed “relevance” to be highly relative. Ms. Russell encouraged a $5,000 to $10,000 investment in a web presence, and said, if you need to stay on top of social media, “Have someone on your staff do it.” To this sole proprietor, that top-end web investment number, and reliance on staff, seemed way more aspiration than reality. But, with a business card I’m super proud of in hand, and my own URL rightfully mine, a boy can dream.

Proving that Ms. Russell’s AD has kept in touch with the state of current affairs, and acknowledging that a desire for good design has perhaps sometimes outpaced the economy, she promised Architectural Digest will remain all about “taste, not pricetag.”

Get social: You can find Architectural Digest, Editor at Large, Scott Frances, the DDB | Decoration and Design Building and Go Design Go on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

...about public art: Twain

Each day this week, I'm looking at my list of top public artworks, and the traits they share that make them great.

Divisiveness • Twain • St. Louis, MO • Richard Serra

St. Louis interior designer, blogger and all-around dandy Scott Tjaden pulls a local plug in his own addition to the list. He adds the cerebral and (some find) brutal work “Twain” by Richard Serra. Why it works, Scott thinks, is its split personality: Massive and planar, or delicate and linear, dependent on vantage point.

“Although perhaps merely a monumental bronze sculpture to pedestrians (and really disliked my most), the sculpture became something else to me as I viewed it from above (like everyone else working in the skyscrapers), “ says Scott. “Suddenly, it revealed itself as a black drawing of a broken-segmented polygon against the green of the lawn where it sat. I starred at it for quite some time.”

That split personality causes polar opposite opinion among visitor and resident, creating a love/hate debate about the piece. Why is that a good thing? Because Art should have the ability to spark debate, to be fickle, to be two things to two people (even if the crowd-pleasing outnumber the controversial on this list), to fail at first and then to succeed. And sometimes, like in life, it is better to “be” than to “be liked.”

“It's the perfect example on how a public piece of art can change and be reinterpreted depending how it's viewed. At street level, I'm a speck of dust on the paper where this particular drawing is drawn... never realizing its secret,” says Scott.

Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Twain has its fans and its detractors. That tension gives both pieces a reverberating energy. It's also the perfect piece of rough geometry counterpoint to the graceful St. Louis Arch.

Thanks, Scott!

Earlier posts:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line
Community: WaterFire
Playfulness: Crown Fountain

Tomorrow: Mt. Rushmore

Monday, October 17, 2011

...about public art: Ft. Worth Water Gardens

Each day this week, I'm looking at my list of top public artworks, and the traits they share that make them great.

Integration • Fort Worth Water Gardens • Ft. Worth, TX • Architect: Philip Johnson

To round out this list, I looked to my design-savvy friends for notable suggestions outside my own travels, and Architect and RISD classmate Scott Briggs (noted for his own work on the Children's Library Discovery Center, Delaware Children's Museum, and as lead designer and project manager on the Children’s Museum of Virginia, among others) added the Ft. Worth Water Gardens, designed by architect Philip Johnson. Says Scott, “It’s a pleasingly, serene series of fountains, pools and garden spaces by Philip Johnson. His work was so uneven over his long career, but I think he got it just right here— a real crowd pleaser.”

It pleases, no doubt, for the reasons the Crown Fountain and WaterFire do: people, simply, love to play in water. But it also works because it is integrated into its surroundings, and it becomes a modern interpretation of the man-made hills and dales, lakes and streams of the past’s grand public parks like Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park and the Boston Common. It uses the principles of art— rhythm and repetition, compare and contrast—to almost musical effect. (In fact, sound is a great player in this watery spectacle).

It all but begs you to dangle a leg and dip a toe, to use its contemporary steps and concrete shapes as landing pads and stepping stones. It creates its own world that has proven almost as irresistible to movie makers (It was featured in Logan’s Run) and ad men, where it’s rarely upstaged by the shiny Buick or Chevrolet parked on its steps.

The park’s three main pools: the Aerating pool, the Quiet Pool, and the Active Pool, reveal an architect’s gift for crafting a progression of spatial experiences. It’s been given a good recent scrub and new access to the city’s Convention Center to keep this a fresh and worthy Art destination.

It’s all folded into the Ft. Worth landscape effortlessly, like it was applied to existing terrain by modern Mayans. And that it seems like it was always there is, in large measure, a measure of its artful success.

Thanks, Scott!

Earlier posts:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line
Community: WaterFire
Playfulness: Crown Fountain

Tomorrow: "Twain"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

...about public art: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Each day this week, I'm looking at my list of top public artworks, and the traits they share that make them great.

Minimalism • Vietnam Veterans Memorial • Washington. D.C. • Sculptor: Maya Lin

I saw it as a teenager, on my first trip to D.C., and with no direct connection to the Vietnam War, it moved me immensely, and stuck distinctly with me to this day. From the air, it is a boomerang in the grass around it, or perhaps the wings of a stealth bomber. From the ground, at arms length, it is what creator Maya Lin calls “A book outdoors,” a reference to the decidedly non-monumental scale of the typesetting of the list of names of the dead. It is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the list of the lost hangs above and around you, represented solely with tiny type on an understated yet overwhelming run of granite.

It was a risk, this bare and elegant design to honor such a fraught moment in our history. On paper, it’s no wonder the piece had its doubters, its execution so deceptively simple. But in real life, this slice in the earth makes its point with cutting simplicity, perhaps more than any other in this city of striking monuments.

It uses its site to great effect, and although highly sensitive to the controversy of its subject and design selection, it is not without understated political statement about perhaps the most controversial and divisive national act of aggression since the Civil War: as you move further into the monument, you get deeper and deeper underground… and two landmarks of D.C., the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monuments, disappear, the sounds of the city are muffled. It is a stop-you-in-your-tracks statement about isolation and abandonment that uses site and sense to great effect.

Ms. Lin’s design revolutionized public monument design, and many pieces since, like the World Trade Center waterfalls, owe much to her spare design. She in turn owes much to the simple, staggering power of engraved dates and names on a single tombstone. Here, together, this tragically combined American family speaks to what Ms. Lin stated as “The universal loss of people in a war.”

It is proof that a minimal hand can paint the most striking picture. It is also living proof that a memorial can indeed succeed, if not soar, in the realm of Art.

Earlier posts:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line
Community: WaterFire
Playfulness: Crown Fountain

Saturday, October 15, 2011

...about public art: Crown Fountain

Each day this week, I'm looking at my list of top public artworks, and the traits they share that make them great.

Playfulness • Crown Fountain • Millennium Park, Chicago, IL • Sculptor: Jaume Piensa • Architect: Krueck & Sexton

The kids who have been here all afternoon know when it’s coming, and press up against the video wall or run out into the direct line of fire on some secret timetable. Then, as a giant face looming above them closes its eyes, a spout, spray and tide of water wash away the cares of anyone within squealing distance of Chicago’s Crown Fountain (the second appearance of a piece from Chicago’s Millennium Park in this little list). It is a watery, wet cycle repeated many times throughout the day, and the kids have it timed to the second, although the adults seem to have no clue to its cascading tides.

The sound of their happy shrieks and loud cascade of water become important parts of this totally contemporary piece of public engagement, snaring yet another sense in this engaging piece by Spanish sculptor Jaume Piensa. It is the silly grandkid to the regal Buckingham Fountain (itself a worthy destination deserving honorable mention on this very list) just a short trek away, another grand and watery marker of time.

Like its other neighbor Cloud Gate, it possesses a sense of silly that is an addition to the beauty of the piece, not an override. If you took away the water, took away the kids, this piece would still be striking, hypnotic, captivating and totally modern. The giant faces take on the presence of some sort of wise Elder Council. They are a calm and serene series of guardians and representatives of the city, with a patchwork of age, skintone and facial trait that celebrates and reflects the slightly wetter patchwork scampering at its base.

But in all its crowd pleasing, it never becomes Disney-fied (not that that’s a bad thing), due to the heroic scale, debt to cool video technology, a bit of hard edge and the serene parade of faces, spouting water like the gargoyles they are meant to harken. Fitting, that reference to a city so indebted to architecture and the building arts.

Photo: Cesar Russ

It is a remarkably formal structure for such a modern monument: two spare 50’ towers flanking what amounts to a 232’ foot reflecting pool between them. Those faces are high tech versions of fountains owing much to the spitting lions and spouting dolphins of classical design. But with references to history (instead of slavish duplication) this a public formality for a new age.

Part of my respect for this piece also stems from the respect given it by its creators, guardians and visitors. In our nervous, litigious, overly-insured age, there are minimal signs of warning, it is not overly patrolled, and it is kept clean and safe by a citizenry that is stoked by civic pride, not admonished by “No Littering” signs.

Like WaterFire, it is a beautiful deception, making unwitting convert of people who frown upon or fear Art, or bemoan the diversion of public funds into such works. Maybe they do realize it, but are just too busy toweling off a happy, wet and exhausted daughter, son or grandkid to care.

Earlier posts:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line
Community: WaterFire

Friday, October 14, 2011

..about public art: WaterFire

Each day this week, I'm looking at my list of top public artworks, and the traits they share that make them great.

CommunityWaterFire Providence, RI • Artist: Barnaby Evans

On certain nights throughout the year, down the center of the Providence River, wood fires in iron baskets hovering above the water are hand-stoked by volunteers drifting by on boats, cloaked in darkness, shadow and smoke. Embers swirl, fires crackle, and you need a cosmic chiropractor if you are unmoved by the visual poetry of it all. One can almost imagine mythical creatures summoned by the scent of woodsmoke and the hiss, rush and crack of fires, each in various stages of ebb and flow. Some roar up in a shower of sparks, some silently glow until once again fueled, all reflected up and down this urban river uncovered in a brilliant act of civic re-planning and modern archeology.

Its elements—water and fire— are elusive. Its seasonal presentation creates an act of communal ritual that makes Providence’s WaterFire a large-scale piece of community-forging performance art that seduces, transcends, engages. It speaks to our primal roots and our ingrained desire to gather at fireside or water’s edge.

Brown Alumni and creator of WateFire Barnaby Evans has experimented with the mystical and mythical combination of fire and water in various places and temporary installations before, but this permanent piece has created a mesmerizing center to the elegant Renaissance of a once-gritty little college town (home to RISD, Providence College and Johnson and Wales, to name a few). He’s managed to combine a sense of the ancient, and a sense of the new, and knit a place together with wood and water.

It brings people together… from the hundreds of volunteer firemakers to the mesmerized viewers and visitors along the riverbanks. Its scheduled lightings create a buzz and sense of occasion that many urban centers would kill for. “When’s the next WaterFire?” is a local (and tourism) catchphrase, proving that Art might just be good for Business, after all. And on that business end of it, Providence has done an exceptional job of keeping the events more festive, less carnival. Even necessary corporate sponsorship is handled gracefully, and never overshadows the sense of reverence or the hushed sanctity of the event. Piped in “world music” doesn’t demean the basic and elemental nature of the piece, although it would all work brilliantly without it.

In our often art-critical society, sometimes the best measure of the success of public art is that visitors are unaware they are looking at Art at all. On the brisk October night when WaterFire first entranced me, there was also a special installation of media artist Jenny Holzer’s, whose cryptic yet familiar words were being projected onto the newly opened (and marvelous) RISD Library. A bit of a darling of the art world, the cerebral Ms. Holzer can be an acquired taste. As her words and phrases flowed up out of the water on the façade, a family passed before me, stopping at Ms. Holzer’s temporary installation. The patriarch chuckled to his family, “What the hell is that? I just don’t get art.” They then continued to stroll down the Providence River, drawn here by the deceptive art of WaterFire, basking in their own silent, but glowing, art review.

You can follow WaterFire on Facebook.

All photos: WaterFire

Earlier posts:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line

Tomorrow: Crown Fountain