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How L.A. Missed the Train

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

A little more than three years ago, I telephoned a friend and proposed, “Let’s ride the rails.” The rails in question were those on Metro Rail. The plan was to spend the better part of a day checking out the art commissioned for subway stations and aboveground platforms on the Red, Blue and Green Lines. I’d seen some of the art on small portions of the system that I frequent, but several dozen other stations, between downtown and Long Beach, Norwalk and Redondo Beach, were newly opened or off my beaten path.

The journey lasted all day. Ride the train, get off the train, look around, catch the next train. We saw about 30 stations in all. This probably isn’t the way most people will experience art on Metro Rail, but we wanted to see a lot. And we did.

By the time it was over, I confess there wasn’t much I wanted to see a second time. There were worthwhile moments, but they were few and far between--a hallucinatory historical mural by Terry Schoonhoven at Union Station; a squadron of dreamy, flying figures suspended from the ceiling of the Civic Center station by Jonathan Borofsky; an eccentric group of enameled-steel heraldic shields that are part of Renee Petropoulos’ elaborate design for the Douglas-Rosecrans station; the translucent blue canopy Carl Cheng built over the platform at the Redondo terminus of the Green Line, which makes a commuter departing the train feel like he’s magically exited into an underwater world; and perhaps a few others.

Only one station seemed successful as a whole--Richard Turner’s transposition of a 1950s suburban tract house to a public transit platform near the airport (more about that station in a moment). By contrast, the overwhelming majority of works were eminently forgettable. Aesthetically, what had been touted as perhaps the largest and most imaginative transit art program in the nation hadn’t added up to very much.

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Since that trek, five more stations have opened on the Red Line, linking Wilshire Boulevard with the fabled corner of Hollywood and Vine. This weekend, the final three stations open to the public, bringing the 17.4-mile subway to North Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

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The artistic results are all over the place. Some of the more appealing projects and some of the worst will be found in these last eight additions to the 50-station art program. Color is perhaps the most effective ingredient in the newest stations: Sheila Klein’s pinkish, blue and lavender interior at the Hollywood and Highland station melds a brute industrial space with something distinctly feminine, while the cheery citrus color scheme devised by painter James Doolin for the North Hollywood station comes as a refreshing surprise (imagine: tangerine structural columns).

Still, the systemwide ledger doesn’t come close to balancing on the plus side. Overall, the art in Metro Rail is mediocre. Sometimes you even find yourself staring in utter disbelief, as in one chaotic station whose entrance hall is lined with 22 text panels filled with historical information about the site--22 panels!--as if a commuter might stop in mid-journey for a good long read.

Los Angeles is home to one of the most sophisticated art communities in the world. What went wrong?

The answer is long. It begins with unfortunate choices made many years ago, when the Metro Rail idea was being born.

I’m a big fan of subways. Mass transit is important for obvious reasons, like getting lots of people from point A to point B in an efficient and ecologically sound manner. But they also change neighborhoods by changing established patterns of human traffic. The urban organism gets reorganized, as stations alter the cluster of service shops and activities that spring up around them, and as individual mobility widens. New activities get knitted into the city fabric.

Most of all, I like the way the train functions as an urban Mixmaster. The city’s vast demographic jumble is blended in a daily ritual whose utter ordinariness makes it different from the special-event mix of concerts, sporting events or other large-scale gatherings. Metro Rail is a critical cog in the larger social engine of the city, because it helps ratchet up the sense of cosmopolitanism that makes cities worth living in.

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Feeling at home and alive amid the dizzying diversity of the world is essential to a vibrant civic life. No matter how many speeches get made by civic boosters, though, this feeling can’t be legislated from the top down. Mass transit is one way the frisson of cosmopolitanism bubbles up from ground zero.

A city that recognizes the power and value of cosmopolitanism would sanctify the social spaces in which it’s fostered. Alas, L.A. chose not to. Metro Rail’s aesthetic mediocrity was assured at the start, when a bureaucratic decision was made that an engineering firm, not an architect, would design the far-flung system. Designing meaningful civic spaces is an architect’s job, not an engineer’s. (For a fuller discussion of that decision and its ramifications, see the accompanying story by Nicolai Ouroussoff.)

A second fateful decision that further limited the possibilities for artistic success also dates to more than a decade ago. Responsibility for this error must be laid squarely at the feet of L.A’s art community.

Metro Rail succumbed to intense lobbying pressure from within local art circles to restrict the eligibility of artists wishing to participate in the project. Only artists living in California could submit credentials for review by the selection panels.

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The problem with this self-serving scheme is not that artists in L.A. aren’t up to the task. The charms of the contributions made by Borofsky (who was then a resident, but who no longer lives here), Cheng, Turner and others is evidence enough of that. The problem is its anti-cosmopolitanism. Protectionist at heart, the restriction spoke of a parochial attitude that misunderstood what was at stake.

The locals-only restriction evolved from Metro Rail’s mitigation plan. The construction of a subway or light-rail system is hugely disruptive to everyone in its path--residents, business owners, workers--so careful steps must be taken to mitigate the disruption. Art became a cheap, handy, largely symbolic tool of the mitigation process. With promises of commissions for local artists, and promises that local committees would choose those artists, support in the vocal and influential art community was, frankly, bought.

Metro Rail’s mandated art program was budgeted at a modest $10.5 million, a drop in the bucket of what later turned into a bloated, $6.1-billion construction cost for the entire system. (As the construction cost escalated, the small art budget remained fixed.) But the selection process for artists can make or break any public commission, regardless of size. Metro Rail’s process was doomed.

A selection panel must be free--or, as free as possible--from the intense political pressure that always surrounds the process. Usually that means a panel that includes participants who do not live in the community, for informed outsiders can offer the panel disinterested, unencumbered points of view. Not only did that not happen with Metro Rail, exactly the opposite did: Non-Californians were kept off the selection panels.

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Each panel, which often chose several artists for more than one station, was composed of one area artist, two local art consultants and two neighborhood representatives. With locals-only committees culling locals-only artists, the dangers of parochialism weren’t lessened--they were magnified.

More than one local artist of no particular note--and who wouldn’t stand a chance in a national competition--won commissions to design entire stations. The provincial selection process guaranteed Metro Rail’s artistic mediocrity.

Mitigation also seems to have been the source of yet another limiting decision. Artists who were selected were urged strongly to research the history of the neighborhood surrounding their particular stations and to develop their designs in response.

Themes that grow from neighborhood history may have appealed to the vanity of neighborhood meetings, but it’s no way to commission art. Theme-ing stations begs for kitsch. Numerous artists obliged, especially with tired metaphors of Tinseltown ephemera.

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Historical subjects are not inherently bad, but their success depends on the specific talents of the individual artist. Richard Turner’s savvy station at Aviation Boulevard and the 105 Freeway is proof of that.

With its buff-colored stone and tropical plantings, the station design echoes the area’s vernacular architecture of the 1950s, the period when L.A’s suburbanization was in full swing. The Green Line route was partly designed to service workers commuting to the aerospace industry (now largely defunct), which helped drive L.A’s suburban boom.

On the station’s outdoor platform, Turner made passenger seating areas in the period decor of stylish domestic living rooms, with Danish Modern bentwood chairs, amoeba-shaped coffee tables and geometric rugs all translated into the durable public transit material of cast concrete. In this loopy riff on SoCal indoor-outdoor living, wind screens on the breezy platform take the shape of domestic picture windows.

Waiting for the train on Turner’s faux-suburban-home platform is like standing in one dream as it morphs into the next. Postwar suburbanization put the nail in the coffin of L.A’s once-proud mass transit system, as private automobiles replaced trolleys as the preferred mode of local transportation and urban density gave way to sprawl. Now, Metro Rail hopes to nudge cars back into the garage. Turner’s design frames these critically important shifts in our civic evolution, while our current nostalgic mania for ‘50s design gets playfully recorded.

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This is as good as public art gets--and it’s a rarity on Metro Rail.

There’s no reason to think that local, site-specific history is the only way every artist should go. Part of the success of Turner’s work can be traced to its reliance on purely decorative motifs. Thanks to the original decision to hire an engineer rather than an architect to design the transit system, artists were handed empty concrete boxes for the subway stations and blank platforms for the aboveground trains. In essence, their job was to decorate those boxes and slabs.

Yet, no bigger prejudice exists in art today than the prejudice against decoration. The prejudice is mostly sexist, decoration being dismissed as the domestic province of women and gay men, not the rigorous public arena of masculine prerogative. For Metro Rail, the upshot was that a pool of artists already restricted by geography was also largely unequipped, either through training or critical temperament, to deal with an implicit demand for enlightened decoration.

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So, what we have is a mass transit system largely composed of themed stations, most of them uninspired. Metro Rail is Universal CityWalk with artistic pretensions.

Maybe this whole fiasco can best be illuminated by one peculiar factoid: America is plunging headlong into the digital world, yet the most common art material that turns up all over the 50 Metro Rail stations is glazed ceramic tile. Painted, silk-screened, handmade, multicolored ceramic tile.

What’s up with that?


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