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In defense of City Square 

A Raleigh Arts Commission member says the city should embrace public art

"I want to return to people the main role in defining a public square. To give them not objects to see, but spaces to use.... As an artist it is part of my responsibility to introduce beauty into the places where people live and gather. I have to think about function of course, but function alone is not usually enough to nurture the world."

--Artist Jaume Plensa, in an Aug. 10 public statement responding to concerns about his decision


click to enlarge Digital illustration of Jaume Plensa's design for City Square - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE CITY OF RALEIGH

Raleigh finds itself at a critical point in its ongoing progress toward being a better place to live and establishing its identity as a creative and innovative city. Substantial work has been done to create a foundation from which to build a vibrant urban core with the revitalization of Fayetteville Street and the new convention center.

A third element is now under scrutiny. World-renowned master artist Jaume Plensa has been commissioned to conceptually design a gathering place that's also a work of art in the hub of the city. This daring design requires much skillful engineering to make it an affordable reality. The question remains, will we dedicate enough of our resources, working in harmony, to further our identity as a creative place? Or will we fumble this grand opportunity to put Raleigh front and center in the eyes of the international art community?

Conservative thinkers have forever rejected bold and adventurous design. Impressionist painting was at first derided because one could actually see the brush strokes. The Louvre Pyramid designed by famous Chinese architect I. M. Pei turned Paris upside down when it was first presented, but it is now a widely recognized and iconic piece. Significant works are never easily achieved.

click to enlarge Digital illustration of Jaume Plensa's design for City Square - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE CITY OF RALEIGH
Our city decision-makers would serve us all better by embracing edgy ideas, outside influences and rapid change instead of pining for the nostalgia of the past. Should we not live for today and plan for an enjoyable future? This is the correct strategy for attracting and retaining the creative class of people. Growth in the Triangle has produced more divergence than unity, as much conflict as understanding, but the prospect of a forward-thinking community still seems possible.

Great art by its very nature is provocative both in thought and emotion, and it is sometimes controversial. Decisions concerning public art should not be about what any individual likes or dislikes. We should recognize the wonderful opportunity to appreciate Plensa's artistic interpretation placed before us. If we do not collectively work together to make this happen, there's a fear that Raleigh's reputation of disdain for public art will be even further propagated.

Those who see more value in hot beds of asphalt laid for the purpose of parking a car than in having a city square with cultural significance and artistic implications should be politely heard, but never taken seriously. Instead, we should seek to enlighten those who have not yet developed an understanding of the value of artistic expression, especially in the public forum.

Some of the concerns expressed about the design are, I believe, unfounded. One such concern is that the thin veil of light-emitting diodes suspended high in the air might obstruct the view of both the auditorium and the Capitol building at the opposite end. To make this a hot issue is either a shell game or an inability to visualize the completed exhibit. And by all indications, a permanent exhibit that will be a breathtaking experience for everyone who interacts with it.

Another criticism is that the turning radius around the grass plaza will be too tight for 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks to maneuver around. Are we really permitting 18-wheel trucks on Fayetteville Street? If we are, we shouldn't. It seems entirely reasonable to assume that the radius of those turns could be eased to allow for buses, emergency vehicles and parade floats. After all, was it not designed to be a walkable gathering place for the public and a destination for the traveler? A walkable place can allow for cars and parking without being like Interstate 40.

Many of the issues raised within the last several days are not insurmountable and can be resolved with compromising modifications and thoughtful resolutions--that includes the budget. I'm confident that the Arts Commission will provide the conduit necessary to ensure clear communication for all concerned, including the artist, the engineering team and the benefactor. I encourage city representatives, decision-makers and advisers to band together and enthusiastically clear whatever hurdles exist with this project. Raleigh has a rare opportunity not only to enjoy a centrally located promenade for its citizenry, but also to bolster its civic pride in possessing an objet d'art of international notoriety.

The author is a member of the Raleigh Arts Commission. He is writing on his own behalf, and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of other commission members.

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