It is likely that San Francisco’s extraordinary Salesforce Transit Center, which celebrates its unveiling Saturday, Aug. 11, will be a public favorite and a historic contribution to the city’s cultural fabric. Whether the individual works of art installed there under the auspices of the San Francisco Arts Commission, a city agency, will be as successful over the long term is less sure.
The four works — only three of which are completed — were commissioned at a cost of $4.75 million. Each has its strengths, but all are subsumed into a vast machine of commerce, their authors required to pay such deference to the visions of the master architects that they retain little power as independent statements.
Even before trains roll into the transit center’s lower level — optimistic estimates put that more than 10 years away — the center will lift East Bay buses off the city’s streets, providing faster and safer trips and a pleasurable elevated view of downtown’s glittering new high-rise neighborhood. As a structure, the center is built around a soaring Grand Hall of sparkling white and crystal. Its rooftop park puts us instantly in mind of a fresh-built version of New York’s High Line. We float several stories above the street, as if through an urban canyon on a verdant raft.
The distinction often made today between architecture and art has not always existed. More and more, contemporary artists are ignoring that fuzzy borderline, bringing the disciplines ever closer with their embrace of environment and public engagement as elements of a new “social practice.” As an integrated work, senior designer Fred Clarke’s transit center structure and Peter Walker’s sweeping top-floor landscape can only be called a significant and invigorating art experience.
The works created by artists James Carpenter, Julie Chang, Jenny Holzer and Ned Kahn are stylish enhancements of that experience. They function primarily as decorative elements in the larger design scheme.
The effect, as an Arts Commission press release proudly puts it, is to “blur the lines between art and architecture.” To blur is to dim, however. In the context of the transit center, these works yield much of their power as independent statements.
The most striking of the commissioned pieces is Holzer’s digital work “White Light,” which encircles the main atrium with 16-foot-high excerpts from historical and literary texts. All related to the Bay Area, they are spelled out in animated, pulsing LED configurations.
Some of these texts are on view for no more than 20 seconds; others run as long as 90 minutes. The longest excerpt thus far, taken from a work by poet Edith Arnstein Jenkins, had to be broken into shorter elements — its full length is five hours and 20 minutes.
The artist told a press tour that the current content total of some 30 hours eventually will double or triple. Holzer said that her piece will give waiting travelers “something to keep them company and to occupy their minds.” To grasp the full meaning of the rapidly passing words, however, would require the attention of a Chauncey Gardiner.
In the daytime, from below, snippets are decipherable with some difficulty; from the second floor, one can watch through strips of LED lights, unreadable close-up, to make out sentences across the way as they circle around. I have not seen the work at night, but the challenge is not light or contrast — I don’t think the texts were ever designed to be read in full. They are embellishments, their embedded meaning notwithstanding: a glittering necklace, white against the white skin of the soaring atrium.
The other two works now available to view are decidedly less complex in concept. Ned Kahn’s “Bus Fountain” will charm viewers with a sequence of small geysers along a path in the park, erupting as they trace the movements of vehicles on the bus level below. Such dry-deck fountains, generally seen with children chasing water spurts and burbles, have become commonplace in shopping malls and the like. Here, the pattern is not random, but a map and measurement of urban transit activity.
Julie Chang’s “The Secret Garden” is a half-acre expanse of terrazzo, covering the whole of the Grand Hall floor. It is a free-form, contemporary California update of ancient decorative themes, festooned with local flora, punctuated by images of hummingbirds, and brass inlays with multicultural associations.
The art and the architecture all fit together like the costume of a well-dressed politician.
The best public art has never been discreet, however. The origins of the form are in religious and civic monuments around which entire cultures were built. A sculpture of Athena was not one element of the Parthenon, it was the reason for the temple. The Colossus of Rhodes was molded from weapons left behind by a fleeing enemy.
And it has never been polite. It commands public squares and major intersections, if not entire harbors or mountaintops.
It makes a point, which is why religious radicals blow up statues and political activists demand new icons.
If the low point for public art in America was around 1909, when construction of Confederate monuments peaked nearly half a century after the Civil War, the high point was surely the 1930s and the WPA’s celebration of the heroism of labor.
The days when a public work of art commissioned by an official body had the power to shape thought or action are probably behind us. One representative of the San Francisco Arts Commission could not tell me whether the Holzer work was supposed to be programmed in complete sentences (it is). Nevertheless, she described hours of careful poring through texts to avoid content that might offend.