Public art is an interesting form of creative placemaking that can really shape and change a public space. It has the ability to give life to the space, adding beauty and inspiration. A great work of art can transform the artist’s message into an image that exudes a sensation that has the power to alter its entire surroundings. Such a work is not merely décor; it is more than meets the eye. For some, art is not easily accessible; therefore, the use of public art has become a way for artists to promote the value of art on a more widespread level. From monuments honoring political figures to modern sculptures in plazas to graffiti on public transportation, public art can be seen everywhere. However, a good form of public art not only has a commonly enjoyed aesthetic value that does not offend the public, it should be able to have the ability to bring a community together.
Socrates Sculpture Park, is unlike your average example of New York City public art. It is a unique site that demonstrates how a community can organize to reclaim and create a positive public space. Located in Long Island City, Queens on the waterfront, this four acre site is the only outdoor space in the New York Metropolitan area dedicated to exhibiting large-scale sculptures and multi-media installations that are changed annually. Once an abandoned riverside landfill and illegal dumpsite, Socrates Sculpture Park provides an extraordinary view of the East River and Manhattan that remains unobstructed by buildings, warehouses and all other urban detritus, and also acts as a background to the art on display in the park.
In 1986, a coalition of artists and community members, under the leadership of Mark di Suvero, created Socrates Sculpture Park on an abandoned and illegal waterfront dumpsite. They began cleaning up the land through the 1990s, and it was transformed into an open studio and
exhibition space for artists to showcase their work and a neighborhood park. Today, the parks message as a reinvented space still maintains. It stands strong on the message of reclamation, and continues to provide a field for artists to express themselves as well as offering numerous workshops and public programming tour programs. Year-round there are artist-led tours, educational initiatives for kids and teens, artist fellowships and architecture residencies. During the summer and fall, there are special events like theater, music, and dance performances, a weekend farmer’s market, outdoor cinema, yoga classes and even kayaking.
The spirit of a place is at the center of experiencing a new city or landscape. Every landscape has a unique spirit, which is communicated through the culture and the way in which people interact with the space. Our experience of space is more lived than mathematical, it exists in our body through physical interactions. The landscape has this universal power that enables things within it to be connected and puts emphasis on the subject’s experience and ability to move through the space. This is especially noticeable when visiting a foreign landscape. Copenhagen has a unique and distinct spirit of place, which is very different from the cities I am familiar with. For me, the spirit of Copenhagen can very much be seen through two aspects, their simple lifestyle and their emphasis on “hygge.”
Copenhagen is a small and easily navigable city- making it accessible for visitors to experience its distinctive spirit. Scandinavian design, which is characterized by simplicity, minimalism and functionality, permeates throughout the city. The overall aesthetic of the city asserts itself into not only the architectural landscape, but through the way people dress, the inventive cuisine, and the way in which people move around the city. When I visited Copenhagen, I was in awe of the amount sharply-dressed men and women filled the streets. Their style isn’t on trend or fussy, but easy, effortless and sophisticated. This aesthetic is also reflective of their cuisine, which focuses on fresh local produce. Everyone living in Copenhagen has a bike, it is by far the most popular way of transportation. Bikes are lined up all around the city, as people bike all around the city rain or shine.
The city is also centered around the Danish love or need for “hygge.” “Hygge” is an important part of the Danish lifestyle and is essential to the charming atmosphere of the city. There is no real direct translation for the word in English; however it is commonly translated as “coziness.” Denmark is one of the world’s happiest countries, despite dark winter days with only six hours of sunlight. When I visited Copenhagen last winter, everyone spoke about this concept of “hygge” as a defining part of their lifestyle. “Hygge” can be directly seen in the attractive rustic yet raw ambience of Copenhagen’s public spaces- candles, glowing lighting, and smooth wood. Candlelight is used in most of the city’s interior spaces, from cafes, bars, restaurants and in the home. The dim lighting helps to soften the minimalist Scandinavian design, and give sense off a sense of warmth. Hygge does not only relate to the physical surroundings, but also has to do with people’ behavior towards each other. It is a sense of intimacy. Another way to achieve “hygge” generally involves being with friends and family, eating and drinking. This social aspect can be seen through the numerous parks, where people picnic in the summer, and multiple bar streets with long wooden tables to allow large group gatherings and interactions.
To me, Copenhagen is one of the most inviting and appealing cities in the world. It offers a mix of historic charm and modern cool, that is so unique to the landscape. It is no wonder that it is the world’s happiest capital.
In Ed Relph’s Place and Placelessness, he writes about the effects of tourism on the landscape, with examples of large International style hotels, condominiums and holiday apartments. He writes, “tourism is a homogenizing influence and its effects everywhere seem to be the same- the destruction of the local and regional landscape that very often initiated the tourism and its replacement by conventional tourist architecture and synthetic landscapes and pseudo-places.” Immediately I thought of one hotel in particular, The Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, that embodied Relph’s idea of placelessness.
The Bonaventure Hotel by John Portman is the epitome of a placeless space and was critiqued by postmodernist, Frederic Jameson, for its isolation from the rest of the city. The landmark hotel was built in 1976 in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. It is the city’s largest and most distinctive building, composed of three futuristic mirrored-glass towers with exposed circular elevators. Driving down the freeway, it sticks out from the rest of the Los Angeles landscape like a sore thumb.
Being inside the Bonaventure Hotel is like being inside a maze, sending the mind reeling with its disconnected overwhelming layout. Having visited the hotel when I was in middle school, I still remember how disorienting the space was. Being inside, one would not be able to tell where exactly he or she was, as the building itself functions more like a Disneyland-like city than a hotel. As Jameson wrote in “Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” “The Bonaventure aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city.” The building is 33 floors, with the lower six commercially zoned to retail spaces. Each floor is balconied so that they overlook the lobby.
The Bonaventure’s placelessness can be attributed to many different issues from the obscurity of the building’s seemingly unaccessible entrances, misguided hallways, confusing multiple escalators and elevators, the clashing futuristic exterior with the tacky baroque interior, artificial indoor gardens, and empty public spaces, to the shopping complex, indoor lake and rotating rooftop lounge. Its reflective glass skin turns the surface of the complex into a mirror of everything around it thereby “achieving a peculiar and placeless dissociation of the Bonaventure from its neighborhood” (23). The building refuses to blend itself with the existing city. It offers everything from sleeping quarters, shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities, and offices, yet it feels completely empty and lacking.
Overall, the problem with the space is its disorientation of visitors. It is so easy to become lost within the cavernous lobby and therefore, it becomes impossible to find one’s bearings. We are not able to locate ourselves within the context of the building, and therefore we feel no sense of place.
Jameson, Fredric. “Culture.” Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 1. Print.
Architecture may be taken in as art, but that is not its essential mode of reception. Unlike painting where the viewer becomes absorbed by the work, architecture, by habit, is absorbed by the viewer and creates a sense of place. The Pantheon in Rome, which was originally commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and then later rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian around 126 A.D., is one of the greatest architectural creations of all time and the first example of I think of as an example of a true architectural experience that must be experienced in person.
Millions of images of The Pantheon have been reproduced and circulated; however, images can not capture the sensory phenomenological experience of being physically present in The Pantheon. It was first used as a temple to honor the major gods of Ancient Rome but nowadays, it is a landmark for people to visit and observe it’s architectural and historical achievements. Although the Pantheon can be observed in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist, it can also be a spatial experience, appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception- or rather by touch and sight.
The Pantheon features a rotunda with a portico of columns supporting the pediment. The rotunda sits under the world’s largest unreinforced coffered concrete dome with an oculus at top. The proportions were designed so that if the dome continued down, it would touch the center of the floor, creating a perfect sphere.
The coffering in the dome not only reduces the overall weight of the concrete but it creates visual depth and form. As the building was dedicated the the Roman gods, the dome was intended to represent the sky dome and the oculus was the opening to the heavens above. The Pantheon creates a unique experience resulting from a combination of engineering, material and emotional design. The exterior, although beautiful, does not have the same emotional effect as the interior. As one enters the rotunda, they are met with a soaring overhead dome and bright central oculus. The open-air oculus is the only light source, allowing natural light to freely illuminate the interior. As the sun moves and enters the oculus, it casts a strong spotlight that moves across the interior walls creating an ever-changing luminous glow.
Despite the building’s massive size or the use of heavy concrete, the interior experience is one of visual lightness and one cannot help but to feel some type of emotional connection to the space. There is a mysterious tension, when inside the building, between self and the universe. Looking at the oculus, the heavens seem remote and faraway, enhancing the viewer’s experience. One can touch the surfaces, sit inside on the cool marble floor on a hot summer’s day, and watch the change in the interior light as the spotlight moves through the space. None of these experiences can be reproduced through pictures.
MacDonald, William L. The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.
A vernacular landscape, which J.B. Jackson discusses, is a cultural landscape that naturally evolves by the way people interact and use the space. It is shaped by its users and reflects the social and cultural character of the neighborhood. Jackson explores the fairly new concept of the car as a mobile private space that has shaped the design and format of the city. He writes, “the auto-vernacular lifestyle brings people together in open spaces designed for cars,” (30) such as “the interstate, the parking lot, the strip, the gas station…” (34).
Having grown up in Los Angeles, an extremely car-driven landscape, I am very familiar with these auto-vernacular landscapes. The car functions as an extension of the home as most people spend their commute enclosed in these somewhat sheltered spaces. It serves as a sort of bubble, in which people feel protected and removed from the landscape, despite the cars visibility. Drive thru culture has become entrenched in Los Angeles, where city planners anticipated widespread car use since the spread out nature of the city. There are drive-thru ATMs, fast food restaurants, delis, coffee shops, as well as markets with parking lots that have more square footage than the actual business itself. This auto-centric landscape creates a very detached lifestyle and decentralized city. Growing up, I remember my family would drive to the market that was 2 miles further than the closest market to our house simply because they had a larger parking lot. Parking becomes a huge issue in Los Angeles, something that I rarely think about in New York City.
This type of car-driven landscape is not as quite prevalent in New York City, since pedestrian traffic is certainly more valuable than car-traffic. To me, it seems as if New York City is designed at a more human scale than Los Angeles. Instead of drive-thrus, there has been a surge in more take-out windows and quick stop and go shops. On my block alone, 2 new businesses have opened that are window front businesses. Perhaps this is because of a lack of space, but I believe that it this is because businesses are trying to cater to the grab and go lifestyle of New Yorkers. This constantly on-the-go rushed pedestrian lifestyle of New York essentially shapes the design of the city. From the concept of the bodega, an all-in-one convenience store, to advertisements that are placed at the optimal location for pedestrian visibility. The street, as Jackson writes, “is the heart of the city.” (34).
Although Los Angeles is technically a metropolitan city, it functions a lot more like a suburb than New York. Los Angeles is vast, spread out over a long stretch of land with varying landscapes. On one end you have the ocean, and on the other end downtown. Each neighborhood has a different demographic and layout.
I grew up in Studio City, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Studio City is situated north right over the Hollywood Hills in between the ocean and downtown. It is a short 20 minute drive from anywhere in Los Angeles, making it a convenient yet more suburban area for families to settle down. The Valley has a bad reputation in Los Angeles as representing bland suburbia, with mile after mile of cookie-cutter houses, strip-malls, suburban sprawl and the 1970’s Brady Bunch aesthetic. It is here that the dreaded “Valley Girl” stereotype was based off of.
Growing up, people would always comment on the Valley as being “too hot” or “so far,” simply because it was over the hill. But that is not why it has gained its bad reputation. Its proximity to the rest of Los Angeles is exactly its problem. While it isn’t very different from most of middle America, it has the misfortune of being located right next to the more exciting parts, which have visually varying landscapes and architecture, such as Hollywood, Downtown, Beverly Hills, etc. – so by comparison, it looks flat and boring. Having such wide open streets is such a visual shift that we automatically notice it as different.
There are plenty of chain restaurants, two-car garages, drive-thru’s, and cul-de-sacs throughout Los Angeles, yet the San Fernando Valley constantly gets the brunt of the stigma of being a suburb because of its flat landscape and unvarying architecture. In reality, there are quite a lot of interesting spots to see in the Valley but the general impression people get during a quick- drive-through is that it’s just an endless carpet of low-rise suburbia, so the stereotype sticks.
On a typical weekend night, the corner of East 7th Street and Avenue A transforms from a quaint residential and retail block to a nightlife hub, packed with groups of people loitering along the sidewalk in quest for their next watering hole. The streets become congested with the amount of taxi cabs that flock to this area following the crowds of nightlife party goers, adding to the bustling environment that the East Village is particularly known for.
The East Village and Lower East Side have the highest concentration of bars, restaurants and nightlife businesses in all of Manhattan, making it a popular destination for both local New Yorkers and tourists. People from all over the world want to experience the downtown excitement that these establishments have to offer; however, this over-saturation of nightlife establishments coincidentally presents issues for the greater interest of the community.
Having lived underneath a popular music club for almost three years, I have heard my fair share of complaints about bars and clubs in my neighborhood. I have heard my neighbors, who are active members of the community board, regularly complain about how these businesses have negatively affected their quality of life. In fact, The Manhattan Community Board No. 3, which covers the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown, has more noise complaints than any other community board in the city, forcing them to put restrictions on renewing and approving liquor licenses. The role of the community board is to enhance and preserve the integrity of their neighborhood based on the welfare of its residents. Although they have no official authority to make or enforce laws, the general interest of the community is at the forefront of their advocacy.
Community Board No. 3‘s infamous reputation in denying new liquor licensing is harsh but explained within reason. Diverse in culture, age, income and languages, the district has the third highest population density in the city with over 163,000 people. Home to artists, college students, families and young adults, the district is definitely an active community. Community Board No. 3 reviews nearly 1,000 liquor license applications each year and spends most of its time and little resources addressing complaints from nightlife businesses than any other issue.
Following a Jane Jacobs community model, the community board is aiming to maintain an activated neighborhood at all times of the day. According to Jane Jacobs in her influential book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, a successful and safe community has four key qualities: mixed primary uses, short blocks, varied buildings, and most importantly, pedestrian traffic at both day and night. The district has seen changes in the concentration of population and building usage as the local economy has heavily shifted to a destination nightlife area. Small local businesses have been forced to succumb to the growing amount of nightlife establishments leaving little variation.
After reading parts of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I felt a sense of anxiety thinking about what it means to be “lost.” After recently spending the summer in Shanghai, the idea of removing oneself from familiarity resonated with me. And the definition of getting “lost”, after reading Solnit’s take on the meaning, has changed for me in a positive way.
Solnit writes, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations…Lose the whole world, he asserts, get lost in it, and find your soul” (15). Getting lost allows one to explore. It allows people to liberate themselves from the pressure of society and revert back to nature. You are able to begin a new chapter of your life to discover and experience new things.
Although being lost is an uncomfortable feeling because it ultimately creates a feeling of vulnerability, it allows one to embrace curiosity, to adapt and to get in touch with oneself. From my own experience, you are able to learn so much more about yourself and your surroundings when you feel uncomfortable. Getting over this sense of anxiety is part of experiencing. People who are afraid to “get lost” because it causes a disorienting experience are holding on to the past. In order to be lost, one must have the courage to let go of baggage and be open to possibilities.
When I spent the summer in China, with very little Mandarin under my belt, it took me a while to feel comfortable. I underwent a sort of culture shock as I automatically felt a sense of unease as I couldn’t read most of the signs and was completely unaware of my surroundings. In contrast to New York, where I can quickly orient myself and read all the signs, Shanghai was completely foreign and I felt helpless. At first, I tried to get by with my minimal Mandarin skills, not really exploring as much as I had hoped because I did not like this feeling of not knowing. I would sit in my room chatting with friends back home and reading because I felt completely removed from this city. As unaware as I was, it did get easier as I started to let go of my inhibitions. I slowly began to let myself feel the feeling of being “lost” and being OK with it. Once I allowed myself to get “lost,” I really began to enjoy the city and embrace this uncomfortable feeling. I felt somewhat liberated not having any ties to it, and I felt like I could be spontaneous and care free. I was able to let my guard down and meet new friends, and have some great memorable experiences. My summer taught me that one can not look back on the past or look towards the future, but to embrace the present and be able to live in the now.
Kevin Lynch writes in The Image of the City about the highly imageable city and how people perceive cities through elements such as paths, edges, landmarks, nodes and regions. Through these elements, people are able to create individual mental maps and create their own visual memory of their surroundings. Lynch mentions that becoming “completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city.” This is extremely true in Manhattan as it is a relatively easy navigable city, with it’s organized grid plan to the numerous landmarks that serve as location placemarks. However since the city is constantly evolving, it is difficult to keep up with its ever-changing nature.
Landmarks, in the sense that Kevin Lynch describes, are the “innumerable signs, store fronts, trees, doorknobs, and other urban detail, which fill in the image of most observers.” They are the visual aspects of the city that mark themselves on our memories, and therefore they are the way we navigate space, give directions, or even map out an image of the city for ourselves. For me, these landmarks are the corner stores, and other businesses that fill the streets of New York with their colorful signs.
I have lived in Alphabet City for the past 3 years, which in comparison to others is not long at all. However in that time period, I have watched my neighborhood with the bodegas, restaurants and shops that I walk by everyday change quickly. These establishments are my landmarks, like the bodega on 6th and B with the black awning and yellow font, or the French restaurant with the two round white tables in the window on 9th and C. However these mom and pop institutions are rapidly disappearing in favor of newer businesses, large real estate developments and corporate chains.
Coming back to my neighborhood from my summer traveling in Asia, my mental map of New York was no longer current. I felt disoriented walking around as the abandoned lot across the street was replaced by a new glossy apartment complex, the small Puerto Rican restaurant on 2nd and C was boarded up, and new unfamiliar restaurants popped up along the Avenue. So many of my landmarks that I had mentally marked have disappeared and I was only gone for a few months. I can only imagine how people who have lived her much longer have watched their familiar surroundings completely change. But this is an ongoing issue with the New York City boroughs. As space becomes more and more valuable, it creates a high turnover for businesses as rents keep rising, changing the urban fabric of the city. My mental map of New York is in constant flux, as my landmarks change. It creates a sense of disorientation that comes with this spatial and architectural loss of the familiar.
Marcus Garvey Park, or Mount Morris Park as it was originally called, is one of the oldest public squares in Manhattan. Located in central Harlem, this historic twenty-acre park has been vital to the life of the neighborhood for over 150 years. Centered on a massive and steep outcropping of schist, it is one of the most unique environments in Manhattan; however, its topography creates serious structural and maintenance challenges, affecting the way in which people use the space.
I first visited Marcus Garvey Park two years ago during a Landscape Design class. I was amazed at the acreage and space the park had to offer; however, it was practically empty and in extremely poor condition. The park is divided into a hierarchy of spaces, a ground level and upper level. The ground level contains most of the facilities, such as basketball courts, a baseball field, playgrounds, an outdoor pool and an amphitheater, and receives the most amount of traffic.
On the other hand, the upper level, formally known as the Acropolis, stands 70 feet above street-level and is an area of seclusion. The Acropolis provides visitors with a beautiful rare view of upper Manhattan but due to it’s natural rocky terrain, it has consequently become a hotbed for drugs and crime. Unlike the ground area, where there were a few young children with their parents, the Acropolis was deserted with a few homeless men lingering around and the occasional dog walker.
Upon entering, the unsafe nature of the park is also reinforced by signs that read, “Upper Level of Park Closes at Dusk.” The paths are very steep and hidden from the rest of the park as the Acropolis is overgrown with weeds and tall trees. The paths are lined with a black metal fence on one side to prevent people from entering the plant beds. In the plant beds, there are articles of clothing strewn beneath the bushes and trash on the bottom of the trees. The stairs are crumbling with loose stones and large cracks, and littered with condoms, drug paraphernalia, cans of empty beer, torn yellow caution tape and dead leaves.
Most visitors to the park and even maintenance workers do not bother walking up the deteriorated paths and stairs to reach the upper level because it is essentially empty and in such disrepair. Although Marcus Garvey Park attracts multitudes of locals daily with its many facilities and convenient location, the most extraordinary portion is neglected.
In his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William Whyte observed that public spaces should be activated with many people circulating around the area. There should be no obstructed views in or out of the park and people should be able to see other people. Although the Acropolis may be a retreat from the city, it is still important for people to be aware of one’s surroundings and stay in areas that are well lit, and easily accessible. Redesigning the park and making it attractive to as many people as possible will create a domino effect, as Whyte believed, and the crime and fear will disappear. It will benefit not only the park itself but the community as a whole.