The NoMa neighborhood due north of Union Station has seen its share of transformation in recent years as apartment and office buildings replace parking lots. However, that sense of discovery ends abruptly upon entering one of the many underpasses on the neighborhood’s eastern side. While the underpasses provide easy access beneath the Metro and Amtrak tracks, few pedestrians would consider those spaces–cloaked in dank darkness–engaging or imaginative. As the sun sets, they feel more like desolate obstacles to hurry through than welcoming neighborhood connectors.
That feeling will hopefully change early next year when the winners of the NoMa BID’s underpass design competition will create “stunning contemporary art exhibitions” according to the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), beneath the underpasses at Florida Avenue, M, L and K Streets NE. Ten finalists were announced on August 14, 2014 and while it is unfortunate that no DC-based artist made the final cut, four of the proposals include artists as sole or co-executors of the design teams. We encourage the selection committee to give greater weight to these artist-centric proposals.
The underpass project is a game-changer for the neighborhood underwritten by a hefty $1.75 million dollar budget. It is also a chance for the NoMa BID to showcase the importance of the visual arts within the context of neighborhood growth and identity, also known as “Creative Placemaking.” An independent panel of judges is overseeing the selection process and a community presentation is scheduled for fall 2014 to display the final proposals to the pubic. While not spelled out in the request for proposals, based on a survey of the finalists’ websites, it appears the jury is focused on installations that will bathe the underpasses in cutting-edge displays of light. This preference for light as a primary medium makes sense in such a dimly-lit space and may help to explain why artists focused on murals or other surface treatments did not make the final cut.
The fine arts and applied design, while often-times complimentary, are not synonymous.
That said, we can not help but notice that the roster of finalists is skewed towards architecture and design firms. While there may be practical or logistical reasons for this–architectural firms may, for example, be in a better position than individual artists to demonstrate a track record of project management–we worry that this reliance on “design” will result in work that is derivative and lack true artistic engagement. Our concern is underscored by the results of the NoMa BID’s first foray into public sculpture, unveiled earlier this spring at the corner of 1st and M Streets NE.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 30, 2014 introduced Torqued Tensility to area residents and office workers. Situated on a concrete plinth, three steel beams rise vertically into the air with a fourth beam held in suspension between them by torqued wires. The sculpture rises three stories high and is meant to be a focal point at the intersection. You would be forgiven if you assumed at first glance, as I did, that the piece was created by American artist Kenneth Snelson whose work also can also be seen blocks away at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In actuality, the selection committee chose NADAAA, a New York City and Boston-based firm specializing in architecture, landscape and urban design. Perhaps the designers at NADAAA were unaware of Snelson’s decades-long exploration of three-dimensional space, but the distinction between his artistry and their over-wrought design quickly becomes apparent upon closer inspection.
Where Snelson’s creations celebrate the weightlessness of their core materials, the derivative Torqued Tensility feels trapped by its reliance on geometry as its focal aesthetic. Wires zigzag smugly without touching, clever enough, but they serve little purpose, creating a piece that is overbearing rather than inviting. Larger cables anchoring the three vertical pillars to the plinth reinforce this image, making the piece feel more like an extension of the adjacent building’s structure instead of a discrete artwork. Rather than subtly commenting on or expanding upon an already-established artistic paradigm, Torqued Tensility woos passersby with a sense of banal hipness.
Rather than another missed opportunity, we hope the selection committee’s upcoming decision values artistic ingenuity and exploration over derivative design.
That is a forceful critique to write, but it needs to be said. The fine arts and applied design, while often-times complimentary, are not synonymous.
Where Torqued Tensility defines an intersection, the underpass project may define a neighborhood. It is grander in scale and budget, making the final artistic selections much more important. Rather than another missed opportunity, we hope the selection committee’s upcoming decision values artistic ingenuity and exploration over derivative design.
We encourage readers to attend the NoMa BID’s public presentation of the ten proposals which will take place sometime in the fall of 2014 (see below). East City art will publish the details of that event when they are announced. More information about the project can be found at www.nomabid.org/underpass-competition
Editor’s Note: The image provided by Kenneth Snelson is for illustrative purposes only. East City Art is solely responsible for the opinions expressed in this editorial.