Public Art on Sound Transit
The Link Light Rail system in Seattle opened last year. Currently it is in service between Westlake and SeaTac Airport. Barbara Luecke gave a talk this evening at Richmond City Hall, the first of this year’s Lulu Series on art in the city. I am going to depart from my usual technique. Although I made notes as she spoke, it would be a great deal of work to make them coherent, and in any event all of the images she used are available on line. I think that it only makes sense to talk about the issues – not the art itself, which has to be seen to be appreciated.
Sound Transit allocates 1% of its project construction costs to art. This art program covers all of its system – bus, commuter rail and light rail. Art is considered to be an integral part of each project and the program is involved from the very earliest stages. The talk this evening was solely directed at the art works on the new light rail line. The images she used are all part of a set on her flickr stream and some of the projects are linked from the Sound Transit website - scroll down to the heading Link Seattle – SeaTac Airport and there is a list of projects, but note that not all are as yet on line there.
One point she did make is that the construction of the light rail line has been much slower than our Canada Line construction, with a great deal of commitment to community consultation throughout. This has lead to significant public conversations, about every aspect of the project including its art. Some installations are more controversial than others, but every one now has its own band of supporters. Art is also being installed as part of the construction process – for example a major but temporary light show at Capitol Hill Station. In shops that have been vacated prior to demolition to make way for station construction, art was installed into the buildings to keep the street interesting. The videos of these installations are well worth your time.
My criticism of the Canada Line was that it all looks very bland. The comparison in my mind was with the much more individualistic Millennium Line stations – many of which were of striking architectural design and also incorporated public art. Some of the art at Canada Line stations seems to me to be a bit of an afterthought.
Others are simply temporary – part of the current Biennale which will be taken away when that event is over.
In any event, these items were not considered as part of the line, they simply occupy space left empty by the project. This is direct contrast to how art has been incorporated into stations, and other structures like power substations and ventilation pipes in Seattle. (By the way the two images I have used are mine and are creative commons. All of the STart on Link images are copyright, so I have not embedded any of them – but you can easily see them by following the links.)
The argument is about the quality of the public realm. I think one feature that is probably worth remarking on is how the use of these art pieces has greatly reduced the graffiti and vandalism that had been blighting these areas before the LRT was started. Art is supposed to stimulate, and so of course there are a wide variety of opinions. If the only criterion was public acceptability, the result would also be bland and tasteless. But it seems to me that one way to upset people is to simply plonk down a set of standard components, regardless of the neighbourhood, all designed to some corporate image. That was the mistake made by the first Expo line – and has been repeated by the Canada Line. Both speak to a “culture” that simply looks at the bottom line and seeks to stay on time and on budget. Those are considerations, of course, but they are not the only ones. Transit has to be part of the city – and a part that we feel belongs to us. Indeed, the best transit systems inspire affection – not alienation. Which do you think we have achieved?