Public Art Along the Rose Kennedy Greenway

In May of 2008, with some fanfare, the Greenway Conservancy, the non-profit group that oversees the Rose Kennedy Greenway, touted the success of Mothers Walk, a fund-raising program allowing donors to buy paving stones etched with feelings of maternal affection and gratitude, to be displayed ad eternum along the linear parks in downtown Boston.
Alright then, it’s settled. Motherhood is a good thing and should be celebrated. For anything more substantive or engaging, best hop on the next Fung Wah bus to New York or northbound train to Montreal.

It’s a cliché that Boston, scarred by an era of reviled modernism, has over the past generation become highly conservative and parochial in matters of architecture, public art and urbanism. And yet no where is this cliché lent more truth than in the 30-acre stretch of parkland between Kneeland Street to the Zakim Bridge. As invigorating as the newly open space is, it lacks anything to challenge or enrich. This was supposed to be the time that, finally free of the ugly and divisive highway, we were going to create a cityscape for the ages. But like Gertrude Stein arriving in downtown Oakland, we find that there is no “there there.” This vapid, would-be urban space bodes ominously of a future in which Boston is a pleasant but increasingly inconsequential place.

What you need to know about public art along the Greenway is that there is very little of it, and that what exists is not easy to find. Most, according to Big Dig officials, is integrated into the landscape and infrastructure of the parks themselves.

Near Chinatown Gate is a Chinese chessboard pattern of paving stones created by California artist May Sun. The “square within a circle” pattern symbolizes heaven and earth in Chinese culture, and a river of stainless steel and colored concrete runs through the center of the piece depicting a map of Boston focused on Chinatown, South Station and the Fort Point Channel. In nearby Chinatown Park, both the fountain and the symbolic red metal “gate,” boldly cantilevered and meant to be a modernist foil to the more traditional Chinatown Gate at Beach Street, were designed by Christopher Bridle of Carol R. Johnson and Associates.

In the Wharf District Park, roughly in the center of the Greenway, the American History Workshop did a number of installations related to immigration and the topographical history of Boston. Landscape architect Dennis Carmichael of EDAW designed what are undoubtedly the most iconic installations yet – a dozen or so “light blades,” tall, thin steel frame structures inset with glass panels that, depending on the vantage point or time of day, resemble high-tech Easter Island sculptures or stacks of elongated televisions, all on the blink.

In Portal Park, the terminus of the Greenway featuring stunning views of the Zakim Bridge, artist Jamie Carpenter’s Cable Stay Bridge Fins could be thought of as a kitschy take on the 1950s automobiles that were the reason for the elevated highway in the first place. But in the context of a transition from a bridge to a tunnel, they seem out of place, even vaguely menacing.

Graphic artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s West End Echoes consists mainly of a large typographical treatment embossed directly into the concrete bridge abutment at Nashua Street. “The Greatest Neighborhood This Side of Heaven,” it reads, yet another collective self-flagellation for Boston’s destruction of the old West End community as part of urban renewal in the 1960s. Finally, at the Nashua Street Park, sculptor Jonathan Bonner’s Chambered Nautilus fountain is rendered in a playful, interactive spiral shape.
And that’s about it.

Fred Yalouris, outgoing director of architecture and urban design at the Big Dig and trained as an archeologist, managed to salvage numerous items of historic interest and installed them along the Greenway as artistic objects: Pieces of the highway itself, an old millstone, parts of old bridges. He defends the dearth of major sculpture as a reality of both fiscal cuts and Boston’s political culture.

When the project was conceived almost two decades ago, Yalouris explained, a modest one percent target budget for public art was established, or roughly about $30 million of the originally projected $3 billion project cost. But as construction costs ballooned, administrations changed, fingers wagged and heads rolled, the amount actually spent was a little more than half that.

“When I came on board in 1997, there were already a number of large major commissions in the works – fish sticking out of the ground, and so on,” Yalouris said. “But the design of the pieces was proceeding far ahead of the design of the spaces themselves. We had landscape architects pointing to art maquettes and saying, ‘You want me to design around that?’”

Minneapolis-based sculpture Andrew Leicester had a number of early commissions including giant sail-like structures, arrays of wood spears that resemble whale carcasses, and a giant codfish rising from the earth, tail first.

“Andrew’s designs became vulnerable,” Yalouris said. “A lot of people used budget cuts as a means to target artwork they didn’t like.”

“Boston is over-weighted with urban designers and architects,” said Leicester. “The city wanted to put the artwork within the green spaces, but the Turnpike Authority said it could only be at key intersections. The whole thing became a multi-headed hydra.”
Several people familiar with the decade and half-long process say that the art program suffered because it had no champions at the highest levels – whether at the Turnpike Authority, City Hall or the State House.

“There was no leadership at the top,” said Ricardo Baretto, director of the UrbanArts Institute of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “No politician is going to say they’re against art. But you’ve got to have the leadership willing to come up with the money.”

Providence-based sculptor Bonner said that the specter of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” hung over the entire process. (In 1981, Serra’s large wall of rolled steel was installed in a plaza in front of a Manhattan federal office building. When it was removed in the mid-1980s, it set off a firestorm of debate about artists’ rights and site-specific artwork.)
“I really do believe that public sculpture has to accommodate the people using it,” Bonner said. “Tilted Arc was a disaster. They had every right to remove it.”

And yet there’s no need to look to New York for examples of so-called “plop art” – designerspeak for arrogant modernist sculptures intruding into the cityscape. There are two excellent examples at the perimeter of the Greenway – Dimitri Hadzi’s “Thermopylae” in the plaza in front of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Government Center, and David von Schlegell’s four identical stainless steel sculptures adjacent to Harbor Towers.
Like Boston City Hall and Harvard’s Peabody Terrace, these are modernist objects that sprang from the supposedly greatest design thinking of their day, and everyone hates them.

Or do they? The Hadzi sculpture seems to be pretty much ignored, but the von Schlegall pieces, often compared to giant sun reflectors, have found a devoted following in teenage skateboarders, who can be seen on any weekend using them as launching pads. These kids are presumably oblivious to the artistic merits of the work, but ironically, in their indifference, they actually animate the sculptures and turn them into the kind of deeply engaged work that most sculptures say is their goal.

Rebecca Blunk, executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts, points to Anish Kapoor’s riotously popular “Cloud Gate,” in Chicago’s Millenium Park, as a contemporary public sculpture that enlivens instead of alienating. While appreciating the series of community meetings necessary for any approval in Boston, she acknowledged that the results often fall short.

“Public art is a way our city can be more interesting,” she said. “But those trying to organize community opinion can end up going for something that is ultra safe.”
History shows that people will often rail against iconic interventions into the cityscape, whether in the form of sculpture or architecture, only eventually to adopt them as revered landmarks – imagine Paris’ Left Bank without the Eiffel Tower or Kenmore Square without the Citgo sign.

And yet the Rose Kennedy Greenway is shaping up as a textbook case of political and artistic trepidation. Politicians and public alike have for more than a decade insisted that the original formula of 75% open space for the linear parks be preserved – but what good is bland, inarticulate open space, left unpunctuated by anything interesting or lively?
No space along the Greenway so begs for an iconic structure as Dewey Square, framed by South Station and numerous office buildings. This is like a blank canvas just waiting to be made into a great urban space. Unfortunately, a proposed for a metal lattice obelisk by Wellington Reiter, a former MIT architecture professor and now dean of architecture at Arizona State University, was one of the works eliminated by Big Dig budget cutting. It was part of a larger vision for the square that included an international news kiosks, a café and other amenities – in other words, the makings of a bustling, dynamic urban square commensurate with its location at the heart of New England.

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected,” the matriarch Rose Kennedy used to say.

It’s time, now, to increase the artistic and urban expectations for the Greenway that carries her name.

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