Why do we need art in urban areas? What is art for anyway? Would a vampire make a good urban planner?
... and other questions about art as part of urban planning and landscape architecture
Next, my journeys in this tropical Southeast Asian country led me to a meeting with a forthright and sophisticated German, Tobias Baur, co-leading the Singaporean office of Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl, a renowned landscape architecture company based in Uberlingen, Hamburg, Beijing and Singapore. Our discussion ranged from questions like: "What is the purpose of art in public space", to "Will all cities be similar in 200 years". Here's a short look into some of the topics touched on in our conversation. My citations in bold, his in bold italics.
Designer as artist
A standpoint I have faced many times in discussing the inclusion of artists with people from the design field is that, as many professionals feel, there already are artists in the team - them.
In many cases, we see ourselves as the artists.
Now I'm sure some artists will jump from their chairs on reading this outrageous claim of the similarity of skills of a landscape architect and a contemporary artist, but that is a misjudgment, as the issue is more fine tuned that that. When you look at the works of companies like Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl, there are, undeniably, artworks integrated in their work, designed by the company team itself.
In general, if you think about art in public space, you'll immediately have to face the question of defining the word "art". If you choose to call a sculptural, intricately designed, interactive water feature that touches the hearts of children and adults that use the park in question, an artwork, then, well, companies like this are very capable of creating art as part of their designs without the help of the contemporary art field. And - as all artists can understand - they like doing it. So why give the task to someone else? In what case would that add to the quality? Which brings us to the question of:
What is the point of art in public space?
At the moment, I personally work in several different projects and roles to facilitate the collaboration between the field of contemporary art and the field of urban planning and design. Why go trough all that trouble? What's the point?
Why should there be art in urban areas?
That's a good question.
After some thought, I got three answers, coming from someone that has worked in the field for a couple of decades. Talking from the point of view of a design company, Baur firstly saw immense value in integrated, interactive artistic features that bring the space, its meaning and use to a new level. For example, say you design a floating, sculpture-like form to be installed next to a sea shore plaza, that would rise and fall according to sea level. As well as a sculptural object, it also raises awareness of altering sea levels, and works as a signal of rise and tide, changing its form as the day passes. The object could definitely be seen as an artwork, but it's also strongly connected to the landscape and the overall design.
From another point of view, the same sculptural object, brought to land, with no more than an aesthetic purpose - still probably seen as an artwork - might become a bit separate from its surroundings, and would certainly be very different in meaning. This is often the case with artworks that are separately curated afterwards - they can also feel separate. Whether or not this kind of an art object is needed in a place is a harder question to answer and depends a lot on the other features on the site and the project in general.
Thirdly, there is the case of art that creates controversy and questions, helping people start conversations trough often-temporary projects related to current issues. This kind of art also has its place in urban realm, but the context has to be selected well. So it really depends on the project and the site, if there should be art, and what could be its role.
Art as tool
An aesthetic object, that doesn’t need to be understood. An idealistic icon, showing people where to aim or what to respect in a political sense. An interactive, playful sculpture, that connects people around everyday activities. A shocking element prompting important discussions. Art in public space has seen many meanings trough centuries. What, if any, would be a timely task for art in urban areas?
At the moment, with Europe struggling with the migration crisis and economic stagnation at the same time, I have wondered, if art in public space could be used to help tackle the side effects. I'm thinking that art might be one of the tools to create understanding between different groups of people and help prevent political and cultural clashes.
So you think art needs a reason?
Well, no, but I do think it is valuable to discuss its meaning.
At the moment I'm inclined to agree with Alain De Botton in seeing art as a tool for understanding. The British philosopher argues, in his books and through some excellent and concise YouTube animations such as this from his School of Life project, that we should take visual art off its pedestal and use it in a more practical way, as we already do with music. Music can help us deal with our more dark or sorrowful moments, understanding our common humanity and putting our problems in perspective. Visual arts could do this too, if they were approached differently. And in a sense, if we could use this tool as a community, public space would be the most natural place.
So coming to Singapore I was wondering, if the country known to work hard to keep the different ethnic and religious groups in harmony with each other, had used art in public space in this sense. Art as a tool in creating understanding and connection.
Tobias Baur pointed out the famous sculpture, "First Generation", in the riverfront, where local boys are jumping in the river to swim.
An artwork that anyone can connect with, it could indeed, in my opinion also, be seen as a vehicle to remind us of our common humanity. A connection to the past - for Singapore as a country, and for all of us as a connection to our childhood. Understood by everyone, regardless of nationality, race, and other cultural constructions, the work gives voice to a collective understanding of what it feels like, sometimes, just to be alive.
But then you walk on and you see this fat bird.
He's referring to another famous sculpture, with arguably a bit less obvious connection to the community. I felt the same way on my first encounter with this work. Difficulty to understand its meaning.
I guess, unlike music you listen to at home, art in public space is something you can't pick and choose. So in order to enjoy the healing and uplifting experiences some artworks provoke in you, you'll have to be ready to deal with someone else’s sense of humor or expression of identity. Which, I guess, can be seen as a practice in acceptance of others in itself.
The more I meet people in this field, the more I learn, and still, the less I feel I can claim to know. As our conversation trailed into questions about the future of cities - how they, trough global capitalism, tourism and immigration might come to resemble each other more and more - how should authenticity of place be understood in a world of growing cultural connections - and what our responsibility as professionals of urban planning could be in improving and developing areas, even trough art, if our development leads to rising property prices that drive people out of their neighborhoods - I again, as sometimes impulsively happens to me, wished I was a vampire, to be able to live trough the centuries and see how things will develop. To better understand, what the world will be like, and what, from that perspective, we as professionals should do today.
But the thing is, that future will be filled with people just like us, trying to make sense of their very ordinary lives. To understand how they feel, we just need to honestly look at how we feel. What are our shared values, as humans, and how we can work together to create urban surroundings that are aligned with those values. From this point of view, questions like who is an artist and who is a designer seem irrelevant. The question should be, how we can create the kind of conditions in the working life, where we can use all the talent and resources we collectively have, transcending professional roles, to achieve these goals. Now there's work enough, even for a vampire.
For an extensive list and photos of projects by Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl, do have a look at their portfolio here on their website.
P.S. If you're thinking vampire stories are silly, so was I before I saw Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch, which so eloquently portrays, how it might feel to have the perspective of centuries to human endeavors.
Header Photo: Tianjin Cultural Park. Photo: Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl. More info on the project can be found here