Urban Placebo
by Claire Bedat

Can we separate art from its context in public space?  Curiously, we cannot begin to imagine Chicago’s Millennium Park without its Cloud Gate, or Paris’s Place de la Concorde without its obelisk. Both examples illustrate how we perceive public space via the iconography of an art piece. The scale and programming of Millennium Park, for example, can accommodate multiple monumental art pieces, and is conducive to large crowds and public events. The Place de la Concorde, on the other hand, is not small but its programming and layout are such that its sole art piece is constrained to one logical location – a terminal point, which is an integral element of the Champs Elysees.

This article attempts to examine whether we rely too much on public art as a placebo to enliven our impoverished urban landscape, and redirects our focus to the context in which art is located in the public space.

During our daily physical and virtual activities, we interact with various environments, built and non-built. Sensory information fills the drawers of our perception, forever altering the way we see, recognize, and relate to the environment we experience. Based on our aliveness and curiosity, we develop acumen in the art of seeing, we feel connected to or estranged from a place at any given time, even through the meanders of our dreams. While we can remember a place for its iconic nature, its composition, its elements, and its attributes, we also develop an emerging sense of belonging and meaning. This timeless impression is the product of accumulating a body of perceptual knowledge that makes us who we are and affects how we relate to our streets, work place, home, or virtual environments. Art can contribute to the iconic nature of place; however, it cannot act as a sole attribute.

Selecting the location of art is as important as selecting its shape, color and meaning. Too often, we use art to hide, buffer, or distract from a greater problem: a fundamental lack of planning and sense of a place. In certain cases, the decision to add art to our urban fabric falls under a municipal or local zoning regulation, with the responsibility of providing art falling within the developer/owner’s agenda. Vibrant urban communities end up with art that is placed here and there; at street intersections, at town squares, at transit stations, and on bridges and overpasses. Unfortunately, while art is present, it lacks presence. Nothing is free of meaning, but with no intent and presence, we end up furnishing our cities with art that encumbers our environment and its perception but adds no emotional value. We cannot simply use art as a placebo to mute the dissonance of our public space or alleviate the lack of identity of the context in which it is located.

Art needs to provoke thoughts or elevate our perception and sensitivity. We might begin by questioning the scale of public art. If it is too small, the element is engulfed by its architectural surrounding; if it is too big, it stands out without adding value to the overall composition. Art needs to be at scale with its surrounding environment, be unique in nature, have meaning, and relate to its context.

Can we have too much art in a city?  We need to question the criteria used to select and place art across our cities, and not favor multiplicity over quality in quest of the sensational and the new. Otherwise, we sell our sense of identity short for the sake of marketability. In certain cases, multiplicity is required, such as Millennium Park in Chicago, but those successful examples do not abound. Communities get involved in the negotiation and placement of art in the urban fabric, and planners and city administrators must play a significant role in finalizing the decision. They must guide the process of identification, and engage the design professionals so that the context supports the art and vice versa.

The city of Chicago needed a park to reflect its art and architectural heritages and entertain its busy urbanites by economically revitalizing Grant Park and turning it into cultural destination. The context was there, but its spirit needed talented artists, landscape architects, and architects.

At Millennium Park, city representatives and generous profit supporters were assisted by Frank Gehry, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, and Anish Kapoor. They were looking for an award winning design to turn an old parking lot into a prominent feature.

  Cloud Gate at Millennium Park – picture taken by Adriana Navarro a graduate student in the departments of Architecture and City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley. 

Millennium Park illustrates that art in the City cannot be fully appreciated independently of its context. Selecting art requires an understanding of how to  integrate its purpose and aim with its placement so that it can energize the environment as a whole.

Note: Millennium Park will be the topic of a field session at the ASLA Annual Meeting in September. The session, FS08, is entitled, “The History, Design, and Development of Millennium Park,” and will take place from 9:30 am–2:30 pm on Friday, September 18, 2009. See ASLA Field Session agenda for details and registration information.

Claire Bedat is a landscape architect at the Landscape Architecture Bureau in Washington, DC. She can be reached at: cb@labindc.com. 

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