Thursday, February 10, 2005

Advancing a vision for public art in Chapel Hill

Urban planner Ronald Lee Fleming of the Townscape Institute gave thought-provoking presentation at Town Hall this afternoon on public art and architecture in urban spaces. On one point we didn't need to be convinced: we're beyond "plop art." We do understand the concept of the integration of art into the fabric of our town.

After that, he gave us a lot to think about. Fleming is also a preservationist. He was one of the founders of the Main Street project. His wants to make sure that the history of a community is reflected--or as he might rather put it, preserved, not lost--in the design and art of its public space. So for instance, one of the things he says the community should do before it engages an artist in a major project is to work out a set of "accessible metaphors." An old mill town, for example, might take its language from the machinery of the mills. Here are some other strategies he recommends:

Pay attention to edges and entries; nodes and "rondepoints" (elements within a plan that provide a focal point); vistas and perspectives; sites of intimacy and introspection; trails and corridors.

Integrate walkways throughout the town, even downtown.

Pay attention to what a child would want to touch, and to where you'll be able to smell the croissants.

Bigger is not necessarily better: Emphasize complexity and dynamism over size.

Take a lesson from Holly Whyte's research and insist on moveable seating (i.e., chairs).

Things to avoid: Generic street furniture, corporate branding, awnings, kiosks, and building stripes. (Tastless corporate architecture is one of his pet peeves (.pdf); he's with Wendell Berry on that.)

Fleming has some interesting ideas for potential commemorative markers: markers for where notable buildings have been torn down; markers for where deliberate political action kept a natural area unspoiled.

As a global reference point, he suggests a timeline of town history in Town Hall, a pictorial institution of memory.

All of these are good ideas. There are plenty of examples we can learn from--Asheville comes to mind, with its "Artful Asheville Along the Urban Trail" project. (The Art Deco Walking Tour cites buildings that were torn down or never built.) It's important to think about connecting with our past through public art. That's not the whole picture, but it's a part of it.

It was great to see so many people at this event. The conversation that came out of it will spill over into the upcoming discussions about a public arts master plan for Chapel Hill, the creation of which is a Town Council goal. In fact, a conversation about integrating public art into the community at many levels has been well under way now for several years: Fleming was impressed with where we are, as he should have been. We have a terrific public arts commission and the only percent for art program in the state.

Janet Kagan deserves a whole lot of credit for all that she has been doing to incorporate public art into the conscious thinking of all of us--and specifically for leading the effort to bring Ron Fleming to town. It's exciting to imagine what can happen next.

And speaking of public art, the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission would like to know what you dream about: that's this year's community art project. Last year's self-portrait project was a big success--so now, dream on!

No comments: