Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Public Art

Public Spaces


With its new plaza, Tysons begins to feel urban

Metro's Silver Line isn't the only indication the transformation of Tysons Corner is clearly underway. Further undeniable evidence: The Plaza, a popular new urban-style open space at the front door to Tysons Corner Center mall.


All photos by Dan Malouff except where noted.

The Plaza (that's its official name) is on the north side of the mall, near the pedestrian bridge from the Tysons Corner Metro station. Three new high-rises are under construction around the plaza, tightly enclosing the space like a genuine city square.


The Plaza and its surroundings. Original photo by Macerich.

The pedestrian bridge to the Metro station isn't open yet, because the high-rise it connects is still under construction. But when all is said and done, The Plaza will become the main entry point to the mall from the Metro. In a very real sense it will become the center of this emerging urban neighborhood.

Befitting Tysons, The Plaza is a thoroughly contemporary update on the classic city square. There's no marble statue in the middle, no grand fountain like in Dupont Circle. Instead, there are padded couches, small-scale artistic flourishes, and outdoor games.


Couches (left), and sculpted birds (right).


Ping pong (left) and corn hole (right).

The first plaza-fronting retail, a Shake Shack, opened earlier this week. More is coming soon.

One crucial difference between The Plaza and a traditional city square is who owns it. This may masquerade as civic space, but it's clearly private property. Security guards patrol the square, and you can bet homeless people aren't welcome to sleep on benches.

But still, The Plaza is a big step forward for Tysons. It's a genuine gathering place, and people are using it. Even without the Metro connection, plenty of other people were hanging out nearby when I visited last weekend. It's not the kind of place that a mere 20th Century office park would support.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


How to make cycletracks public art

As more cities build more protected bike lanes, some are beginning to use them as opportunities for public art. In Seattle, the new Broadway cycletrack includes a section with "art bollards."


Seattle cycletrack. Photo by Gordon Werner on Flickr.

Most cycletracks around the US use flexposts or concrete curbs to separate the bike lane from car traffic. A few use other methods like parking stops or zebras, but there are better-looking options available.

In addition to Seattle's art bollards, a growing number of cities use landscaped barriers.


Vancouver cycletrack. Photo by Paul Kreuger on Flickr.

These are great ideas. As cycletrack networks continue to expand, cities around the country can look for opportunities to make their bike lanes more beautiful.

But that being said, beautification adds time and expense to construction, and most cyclists would likely rank having more usable cycletracks sooner as a higher priority than art or landscaping.

So art is great, but there's definitely a place for easy, cheap flexposts.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.


Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Design competition aims to give DC beautiful and functional play spaces

There is a growing need for children's play spaces in DC, but some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space. To address this, the Office of Planning (OP) is holding an international competition to design art-based play spaces for underserved neighbor­hoods.


The winner of the Playable10 International Design Competition, a playground in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. The shape incorporates the letters "ATL." Photo by Cynthia Gentry.

This is the first time DC has held such a competition. "We are responding to the increasing number of families living in the District and their desire for more playgrounds," said OP urban designer Thor Nelson. "OP seeks a design that approaches play spaces in an innovative wayplayable art both kids and adults can enjoy."

KaBOOM, a DC-based organization that focuses on increasing kids' access to play, created a map that documents the District's "play deserts," where no play area exists within a half-mile walk of a given neighborhood. Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMA, and Southwest particularly need play spaces, as more families with kids move there.


Map by KaBOOM.

Play deserts have profound adverse physical, intellectual, social and emotional impacts on children. KaBOOM finds that neighborhoods without a park or playground see 29% more child obesity. Children without a park or playground are five times less likely to be a healthy weight that children with a play space within a half mile.

Furthermore, studies reveal that minority and low-income communities are less likely to have safe places to play and be active, impacting child well-being. Children in poverty are 159% more likely to be deprived of recess; 70% African American and 81% of Hispanic neighborhoods lack recreational facilities; and sidewalks in African-American communities are 38 times more likely to be low quality. As a result, more kids in these communities grow up with obesity and diabetes, in addition to other related health risks.

Ideas about play and playground design have changed dramatically over the years, as litigation in the 1970's and the release of safety guidelines for playgrounds in 1981 pressured designers and engineers to integrate these recommendations into new play sites. Cities and designers were concerned that parents would launch lawsuits as a result of injury their kids' experienced. As a result, rubber mats and wood chips began replacing monkey bars and dirt.

Now playgrounds are safer, but at what cost to kids? Research shows that these risk-averse playgrounds detract from kids' learning. Six kinds of risky play benefit child development: exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, speed, and exploring on one's own. When all playgrounds meet the same standards, kids aren't challenged and don't have space to be creative.

However, some playgrounds are going against the conventional wisdom. The Land, in North Wales, UK, is an adventure playground where kids can play with fire and wander on their own. They are supervised by "playworkers," professionals trained to create and manage a play environment for children. Adventure grounds are already being built across the US, such as the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California and The Anarchy Zone/a> in Ithaca, New York. Additionally, the Beauvoir playground, a favorite playground by the National Cathedral in Northwest DC, has lots of interactive and exciting structures for kids of all ages to enjoy.

In these new play spaces, kids experience self-growth and build confidence. In 2010, the Alliance for Childhood published "The Playwork Primer," which explains playwork and outlines how groups are working to establish playwork as a profession in the United States.

While the Playable Art DC competition is not looking for an adventure playground, necessarily, OP encourages applicants to approach playground design with varied lenses, and generate ideas beyond common assumptions. "While concerns of safety and liability are important ones, they do not have to negate creative solutions and enjoyable play spaces," said Nelson.

Interested designers, engineers, and artists can attend an information session tonight, and applications are due on April 24. ArtPlace America awarded OP a grant to fund the winning projects.

Community members will be invited to attend workshops with the designers of the winning projects. The more involved the community in the design of a play space, the more appropriate it will be. "One of the keys to a successful design is communication between community and designer," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play."

This is just the beginning of DC's effort to tackle the community's growing demand for play spaces. Let's get creative and encourage kids to do what they do bestplay and learn through play.

Public Spaces


Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.


Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Arts


New murals sprout across DC

DC is awash in murals. Four new murals recently went up as part of an arts festival sponsored by Heineken. Ward 7 residents banded together to give a beloved restaurant a mural. And a filmmaker's making a documentary about what murals mean to DC's culture.


Design for a mural at Thai Orchid in Ward 7. Image from MuralsDC.

Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Anacostia River, Thai Orchid is the sole sit-down restaurant on a block with a beauty supply store, liquor store, and empty storefronts. Opened in 2010, the locally-owned spot quickly became a local gathering spot. On her blog Life in the Village, Veronica Davis raved about the food, while commenters expressed excitement that they could eat out without crossing the river.

To say "thank you," neighbors want to beautify Thai Orchid and its block with a mural.

It's a testament to a business that took a chance on Ward 7 and represents a continuing commitment to local businesses. Supporters applied for funding from MuralsDC, a partnership between the DC Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and nonprofit group Words Beats & Life that uses street art to enliven neighborhoods and combat graffiti.

They had commissioned an artist to create the mural, but a small group of residents put a halt to the project, arguing that District funds should be used for more worthy causes. Now, the community is raising money to move forward with the mural without public help.

But murals are still going up elsewhere in DC. Working with MuralsDC, Dutch brewing company Heineken sponsored four murals in Shaw and NoMa and installed them last month. It's part of a larger series of murals Heineken commissioned in Atlanta and Miami. The DC installation coincided with the G40 Art Summit, a street art festival sponsored by the Art Whino gallery in National Harbor.


One of the Heineken murals. Photo by Lewis Francis used with permission.

It makes sense that Heineken chose DC as a location, with its long history of murals celebrating its African American and Latino communities. Filmmaker Caitlin Carroll was so inspired by the city's mural culture that she started working on a documentary about it called Painted City.

The film features art historian Perry Frank, who documents murals both past and present, and includes stories about murals that have been lost, highlighting the art's fleeting nature. Community pride and beautification is a recurring theme in the documentary, and Carroll also highlights the work of local artists who work with residents and kids to beautify their neighborhoods.

Murals, along with public art in general, can let communities show neighborhood pride, inspire others, and provide hope. In an area struggling with unemployment, poverty, and crime, residents see art as a way to uplift and inspire.

As Carroll notes, "Every mural has a story." The stories often have an end as murals disappear due to new development or get damaged in building repairs. But even in their temporary nature, they still serve as a form of community expression.

Public Spaces


Murals in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region. Do you know where these murals are? If so, tell us in the comments.


P St, Georgetown. Photo by Erin.


Photo by nevermindtheend.


Photo by caroline.angelo.


Photo by caroline.angelo.


Photo by nevermindtheend.


Brookland. Photo by penguinef.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Transit


Mosaics could make navigating Metro easier

The Metro can be disorienting for a newcomer. For a long time after I moved here, I got turned around every time I changed trains at L'Enfant Plaza, and always ended up having to go back and read the signs. Could mosaics of the world above make it easier to navigate?


Mockup of a mosaic depicting the convention center at the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. All images by the author.

Metro's uniformity makes it difficult to navigate. I was describing this for a friend who grew up here, and he knew what I meant. My mother doesn't take the metro at all, he told me, because she can't read. The signs aren't any help to her, so she has to stick with the bus where she can see landmarks through the windows and not miss her stop.

Here I was griping because I had to read the signs to navigate the metro, while my friend's mother, like millions of other American adults, isn't able to use the metro system at all because she can't read the signs. I am a mosaicist, which means I make mosaics. When my friend told me about his mother's situation, it gave me an idea: why not put mosaics in the metro depicting the view on the street above?


Mosaic of my dog, Buddy.

Here is a picture of a 4'x4' mosaic I made of my dog, Buddy. Notice how the background in the mosaic meshes with the fence behind it. Imagine mosaics similarly made mounted inside the coffers (those pockets you see on the sides and ceilings of the underground Metro stations) depicting the street view overhead. As a train pulled into a station, you could "look out the window" to see where you were.

The mosaics, especially if illuminated, would help dispel the Metro's gloominess by adding color and "sunlight" to the platforms. At the same time, because they would sit inside the coffers, they wouldn't interfere with the grand vistas of architect Harry Weese, who designed the stations.

This project could engage the community, bringing in neighbors of each Metro station to select the subject matter for their station's mosaics. WMATA could set up a website where residents could offer suggestions for neighborhood landmarks or vote on others' submissions. WMATA could even advertise the submission process as a way to give every DC area resident a stake in "our Metro."


Mockup of a mosaic for the Gallery Place Metro station.

Mosaics could be of recognizable landmarks specific to the area around each station, like the Friendship Arch at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station or the Capitol dome at Capitol South. Or they could be of an interesting view, like the tops of rowhouses, or the entrance of the Thurgood Marshall Academy for the Anacostia station.

Each mosaic would have to satisfy artistic and technical conditions. For example, a mosaic of the skyline wouldn't work because the subject matter is too big to be rendered mosaically with sufficient detail. After passing WMATA review, the local ANC could select a final design from a list of top vote-getters.

The cost could be very reasonable. Each metro coffer is 100 inches wide. If the mosaicist used standard 5/8" x 5/8" ceramic tiles, the rendered mosaic would look very much like the mock-ups depicted here. The cost to complete a station would be less than the $250,000 per station WMATA already has budgeted for public art along the new Silver Line.


Detail of a potential mosaic.

Mosaics would be resistant to vandalism, easy to maintain, and easier to clean than the concrete they would cover. They could be made in sections, then installed all at once overnight with no disruption to service. They would also be durable. In my view, one of the primary benefits of installing mosaics in the Metro is that they could be historical windows into our time for future generations of riders.

Visual cues in the Metro system could add interest to every rider's experience. They're especially helpful for visitors and newcomers as well. But for those who struggle with illiteracy or a learning disability, mosaics below ground depicting the street scene above ground could provide life-changing benefits.

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