By Naveen Waney and Sandra Gramley, Principals at Platt/Whitelaw Architects
A percentage of estimated construction costs for new buildings are required by many public agencies to be set aside to integrate public art. This can be at the federal level, like the General Services Administration, or the local level, like the City of San Diego and Port of San Diego.
The art for a public project can easily command a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars based on the percentage from the set-aside program. The value to the community can be even greater.
Integrating public art encourages interaction, beautifies surroundings and builds history. What would Grand Central Station be without its ceiling murals, floor tiles, Glory of Commerce sculpture or Tiffany clock? Art is one of the reasons that building has helped define New York’s identity.
Platt/Whitelaw has worked with some very talented artists from around the country who help humanize the environments we build, tell the story and invigorate those public spaces. We’ve had the good fortune to work with artists for many of our projects, including University City Fire Station 50, Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, Mira Mesa Park, South Bay Water Reclamation Plant, 65th & Herrick Pump Station, Chollas Water Operations Plant and Alvarado Water Treatment Plant.
Public agencies established processes where the artist is carefully and fairly chosen and has an opportunity to work with the design team early in the process. This allows the art to truly be integrated into the design of the building or landscape.
The City of San Diego works through its Commission for Arts & Culture office to notify and select artists. Artists apply for a project, and the Commission pulls together a committee of people representing the commission, the community, the building design team and volunteer artists to review applications. Artists are evaluated on originality, professional quality, experience with a design team, communication skills, professionalism and understanding of the project. From there, the top artists are interviewed, and one is ultimately selected.
When we participate on these selection panels, we gravitate to artists who aren’t married to one form of art so there are no limitations when they become part of the creative process. We enjoy sharing our project direction with the artists and seeing how it inspires their artistic ideas. Sometimes, the artist even participates in meetings with the community that shape the vision for the entire project.
Artistic inspiration can come from all kinds of sources. At our Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant project, after consulting with the client and design team, artist Jean Lowe came up with particularly engaging public artwork. At the plant’s operations and visitors center, Jean used terrazzo images to tell the story of water, wastewater and how much humans rely upon water systems. From a goddess pouring an urn to a representation of human intestines, Jean found a way to transform this topic into whimsical beauty that prompts people to reflect upon its importance.
On a public project, the artist, along with the rest of the design team, needs to be thoughtful about how the art will be accessible. With emergency and essential services buildings, the public may not be able to access the entire property – sometimes very little of the property, in fact. How then can the public interact with the art?
Artist Susan Zoccola whom we are currently working with on a fire station in University City, where the structure is situated adjacent to a canyon preserve, engaged with the community and fire fighters at the inception of the project. She flew in from Seattle, met with leaders of the community, walked the local canyonlands and mapped out the topography and watershed of the area. She took this knowledge back with her and transferred the imagery onto an approximately 18- by 30-foot, three-dimensional metal wall sculpture, which was integrated with the landscaping and the building façade facing the community. Open space in our communities is an incredible resource, and the artwork at this fire station celebrates it in an accessible way.
At South Bay Water Reclamation Plant, another secure facility, we worked with the talented local artist Paul Hobson. He devised a way to translate the flush of a toilet into a beautiful fountain bowl with its water running in a circular motion. Located in the middle of a circular driveway, the large fountain greets guests arriving at the plant. Paul also told the story of water from ancient times to current day with a hieroglyphic frieze attached to the top of the buildings wrapping the perimeters of the structure.
A “green paper” produced by Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network Council states: Public art humanizes the built environment and invigorates public spaces. It provides an intersection between past, present and future, between disciplines, and between ideas.
At Platt/Whitelaw we design for communities; we design for the public. Our buildings serve the public’s needs, but by teaming with artists, we make sure to engage their imagination too.
[Photo icon: artwork by Susan Zoccola at University City Fire Station 50]