Sunday, October 19, 2008

Playing in Traffic

Red Whistper Bench #9. Powder coated steel. Jim Galluci, Greensboro, NC.

I've spent part of the weekend at the Maryland Institute College of Art attending a conference called Social Studies: Educating Designers in a Connected World (more on this tomorrow) and I found myself wandering through a median strip. There is an installation called Outdoor Lounge with several individual works composed of structures, chairs, and tables. I failed rule #1 of magazine layouts: I didn't take the establishing shot. So imagine a wide grassy median about the size of 1.5 car lanes sitting in the middle of four lanes of parking and traffic. The median sits on Mount Royal Avenue, the busy road that bifurcates the college.

I'm intrigued by underutilized spaces being activated, as my post about Urban Interactions attests. This median strip is a great example. How many pedestrians would ever pause here? I've walked past it and over it a hundred times, but I've certainly never hung out here. It's actually quite lovely, with landscaped gardens and trees for shade. Somehow it's off limits, though, to anyone other than a passerby rushing from one side of the street to another. Perhaps it's the vehicular island effect: it's kind of difficult to shut out the persistent noise and energy of the cars on either side of you. And people stare at you, which isn't the best way to ease into a relaxing experience, even though urban parks are oftentimes as much about being seen as passive activities, like reading. But when you are being gawked at through a car window, it makes you feel like a rare species in the zoo, which, come to think of it, is an apt analogy for the pedestrian in Baltimore. A very rare species indeed.

There are installations where you are instructed to Sit, Eat, and Chat:

Evidence of eating...

There are lounge chairs made out of plastic barrels:

Another lounge fabricated from concrete, and mutilated chairs and tables:

(This one made me think of Peter Eisenman's cracking concrete pillars at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.)

The exhibit was bookended by two structures. This one—a front and back porch with only the one-dimensional idea of a house in between—has clearly seen activity. There is graffiti and old newspapers, tons of beer cans, and a well used grill.

A structure on the opposite end of the median called Temporary Public Library fared much better. Fabricated by Mexican artist Ivan Hernandez Quintela out of wood, chain link fence, and plastic, there is but one lone beer bottle sitting on a shelf and the only graffiti is sanctioned. Maybe it feels more like an exhibit and therefor did not attract as much activity and vandalism? (Or maybe Baltimore's old slogan "The City That Reads," is true and there really is some respect for the written word.)