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Public Art Can Make a Difference

The cookie-cutter shaping and similar Modernist and Post-Modernist styling of most of the recent mini-mall, shopping center and office projects here and across the country have created, I feel, a deadening architectural banality.

In their predictable and cliche designs, the developments could be anywhere, and nowhere. Whether located along a suburban shopping strip or downtown, they seem to float on islands, usually in a sea of parking spaces, bearing no relationship in massing, scale or style to their neighbors, neighborhood or city, nor to the architectural traditions of the region.

The resulting scene “is a specter of ‘placelessness,’ ” declare Ronald Lee Fleming and Renata von Tscharner in “Place Makers,” published in 1981 (by Hastings House, N.Y. 10016). The authors observe that most malls and plazas have become dead spaces, void of any meaning or connection to our roots and aspirations, and telling no tales, aggravate the present condition of angst and anomie that afflict our age.

With this in mind they make an impassioned plea for “place makers” and “place making,” objects, be they sculptures, murals, landscaping, furnishings, fountains or fragments, that “help define, revel, enrich, reinforce, expand or otherwise make accessible place meaning.”

In short, public art that tells you where you are, to paraphrase the book’s subtitle.

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Once only thought of as sculptures or statues commemorating great events or people, public art over the last decade has become much more imaginative, and controversial.

In almost every major city there is now some sort of government-aided or encouraged effort to encourage public art, including Los Angeles, where the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency has made it a requirement of its program.

Our public spaces need such art desperately, given the continued misshaping of our communities by developers and architects more interested in generating maximum exposure and maximum returns than creating buildings that might better serve the user, and the city.

However, some of the public art here and elsewhere that has been produced under various well-intentioned programs seems like afterthoughts, dropped on plazas just as arbitrarily as the buildings they front were dropped on the city.

Just as there are bad buildings, there is also bad art, self-indulgent or inappropriate exercises that instead of telling where you are, as Fleming and Von Tscharner suggest, tell you where you can go, or something to that effect.

A current illustration of this is the George Herms concoction, “Moon Dial,” at the northwest corner of Santa Monica and Beverly boulevards in Beverly Hills. In most neighborhoods, the collection of rusted buoys would have been towed away by now for scrap.

Seeking to avoid such an embarrassment, and ever sensitive to the less-than-enlightened local interest groups, the Santa Monica Arts Commission (SMarts) is at present welcoming comments on five works of public art proposed for the Third Street Mall. After years of political posturing and back-room bartering, the city last month broke ground for a $10.5-million renovation of the mall and nearby parking structures.

The proposals are on view in the storefront window of 1345 3rd St. through Sept. 6, when a three-member jury will weigh the public comments and their own prejudices and make a decision. At stake is a healthy $450,000 for artist fees, construction, fabrication, transportation and installation, which will make the project one of nation’s more exorbitant public art efforts to date.

Whatever the price, the mall certainly needs something to lend it an identity, if not some verve, for the plan by the San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group approved by the city is a mixed bag of weak architectural cliches. The proposed Disneyland-like lighting, signage, fountains, street furniture and clock tower entryways pay little respect to the city’s unique bay-side setting and architectural history.

The feeling here is that the mall will succeed, not because of the design, but despite it. This is due in large part to an increasing general interest in the economic potential of downtown Santa Monica; an interest prompted by a latent recognition of its desirable location near the ocean, freeways and affluent residential neighborhoods, and the increased inaccessibility of other urban areas, such as Westwood and West Hollywood.

Looking at the future of downtown Santa Monica, its success most likely will not be dependent on opening the mall to traffic and more parking garages. More critical, I feel, will be the development of a range of housing within walking distance of the area. Only then will the mall fulfill the image of a promenade the city and vested real estate interests are anxiously promoting.

As for the five public art proposals that were winnowed down from 50 submissions, they include a conceptual scheme by Vito Acconci that looks like the mall after the earthquake; three overblown and overworked integrated steel forms by Guy Dill; a playful collection of giant topiary in the form of dinosaurs focused on a fountain by Claude and Francois LaLanne; a series of sculptures of acrobats performing stunts a la Muscle Beach by George Segal, and a large reverse flow fountain that can also serve as an amphitheater by Athena Tacha.

I found the Acconci scheme too heavy-handed; Dill’s too static, and Segal’s too cute, with Acconci and Segal’s also begging for new ideas, and Dill’s for attention. None of them displayed anything unique to the site, or new.

This, for me, left the LaLanne and Tacha schemes. I like both for the inviting water elements, but the LaLanne’s more for the additional dimension of the fanciful dinosaur sculptures. Santa Monica being different, deserves something different.

So into the mail slot at 1345 3rd St., goes my vote for the proposal by the LaLannes, and for public art.

Getting a no vote from me are the five submissions that have been selected out of the 150 or so in the West Coast Gateway design competition. The jury displayed little understanding of the city and less of the potential of the site, and the need for open space and pedestrian linkages downtown.

Perhaps the schemes will improve in the next stage of the competition after the designers actually tour the site over the Hollywood Freeway, north of the civic center, but I doubt it. Let us give the competition the gate, and start over.


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