Our reporting relies on your support. Contribute today! 

Help us reach our goal of $250,000. The countdown is on!

Monday, August 15, 2005 | “Bland.” “Trivial.” “Banal.”

These are the latest buzzwords aimed at the downtown waterfront. Not the baseball crowd murmuring after a loss at Petco Park, but rather, voices of a community utterly disenchanted by the Port District’s mismanagement of public art along the bay.

Last year the Port advertised for a heady $345,000 public art commission on a former harbor-side tuna factory at Barrio Logan. “Cannery Workers Tribute,” to be sited on a new plaza called the Parque del Sol, offered the possibility that, following a series of unpopular design commissions along the bay, the Port District would finally get it right.

Not even close.

The Port recently unveiled the winning “Cannery” design. The public outcry was summed up by one letter writer to the U-T: “This silly, insipid and completely unimaginative design is yet another example of the Disneyfication this city seems compelled to pursue …”

How do you lose a perfect landscape – in a region blessed with hills that cascade toward a stunning bay, against a backdrop of blue skies and mild summer breezes? How do you dullify a cityscape on the Pacific Ocean?

Step One: Build a mini theme-park-like, fake festival marketplace with no residential base and pastiche architectural themes. Call it Seaport Village.

Step Two: Construct a wall of high rise buildings, including a Convention Center, which surgically cuts off the bay from downtown.

Step Three: Omit from your downtown plan the design of extensive pedestrian connections between the bay and the city center. Stitch a major road in between the two.

Step Five: Make a series of questionable choices in public art commissions that fail to excite public spaces along the waterfront and in other key public places around the city center.

Welcome to San Diego, America’s Finest – and Uninspiring – City.

With all the bad news coming down the pike here in the last few months, why can’t local government find a way to bring exciting public architecture to San Diego?

Where is the cutting edge design that will allow San Diego’s waterfront to leap into the global imagination? How on earth can a much smaller city, Milwaukee – and not San Diego – be willing to risk hiring a global superstar architect – like Spain’s Santiago Calatrava – to design a critical civic space – the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) on the very public shores of Lake Michigan? The resulting building, the Quadrucci Pavilion at the MAM, is a stunning parabolic glass and white steel sculptural building that won Time magazine’s “Best Design of 2001.”

Why can’t San Diego be so bold? To date, this town does not seem capable of taking the big risks to make the waterfront daring, supremely artistic and inspiring. The Port District has consistently failed to land star designers like Ellsworth Kelly and Vito Acconci, both of whom submitted work that was later rejected.

“Any hint of visual controversy is discouraged,” says artist Mario Lara, a professor of design at Mesa College, who has worked on a variety of public art projects in the region. “To avoid conflict they end up encouraging work that is bland and generic.”

America’s Finest City can get a mayor selected “worst of the year” by one U.S. magazine, but the design of our city goes unnoticed.

“The Port thinks the public is afraid of anything new and different,” comments artist Robin Brailford,” whose portfolio of commissioned public works ranges from Los Angeles to Charlotte, North Carolina. Brailford is a member of the San Diego-based arts collective “Public Address,” which seeks to create a forum for standardizing the process of commissioning public arts works, and for protecting the rights of visual artists.

“(Those at the port) place too many restrictions on their commissions, so that few artists want to apply,” adds Brailford.

Indeed the number of artists who sent proposals to the Port District for the Cannery Workers Tribute was surprisingly small, according to some. The language in the Artist Request for Proposal for that project turned away many artists – it mentioned the term “figurative life-sized work” or “figurative sculpture” at least five times in its design instructions to proposal candidates.

Quite a few artists claimed that this was a major turnoff. “They have a reputation for choosing lame art,” said one designer. “And when you limit the design to bronze cast statues, you remove innovation,” the artist noted.

Why do public agencies like the Port District or the city of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture frequently tend to “dumb down” projects and thus stifle the kind of creative edge that would attract artists like Calatrava, Frank Gehry or Christo to the region, as well as engaging the talents of free thinking local designers ?

“It’s an addiction to innocence and a need to reduce things to the literal,” explains Wick Alexander, a talented local painter and public artist. “The Port Commission (or the city) believes that if the public does not get an artist’s work within the first millisecond, then it’s too dangerous. They are afraid to grapple with the depth of what art actually is,” he adds.

A connection can be made between the current public art crisis and politics.

“Many people want a simplistic world, said Alexander. “A world of black and white, with no grey areas. They opt for the black hat of Puritanism. Bush’s world of ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ Two city councilmen guilty on all counts. With art, anything that is conceptual, it is grabbed onto and opposed by a few people. They don’t want to have to think, to be challenged. They want bronze statues and simplistic icons.”

Are the gatekeepers of our public architecture so afraid of controversy that they defer to a pathologically reductionist landscape? Should we be content with purely figurative public art, with statues of fishermen tossing tuna fish in a curving arch pattern?

How odd for San Diego’s public art to embrace such literal representation when the underlying premise of the last century of modern art has been the celebration of the abstraction of form, and the multiple ways it can visually imply larger questions or emotions about the connection between place, politics and history.

In the midst of a period of political turmoil at City Hall, San Diego, with its natural physical beauty, could enhance its global image by becoming a leading innovator in public art and architecture. Barcelona, Vancouver and Lisbon have the same spectacular harbor geography, but their reputation for stunning architecture elevates them to a very different place than forgotten San Diego.

San Diego’s gatekeepers of public space must recognize that in the realm of art and architecture, decisions cannot be measured in purely rational terms. In the world of design, there must be grey areas and risk. Risk begets innovation. Public art can’t please everyone. What it can do is create dialogue. Good art stirs thing up. Bad art leaves a deafening silence.

Lawrence Herzog is professor of city planning and urban design at San Diego State University. He has written or edited six books on cities; the latest one is Return to the Center: Culture, Public Space and City- Building in a Global Era (University of Texas Press, 2006 in press).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.