Art

mitigating construction impacts through placemaking in St Paul (video)

Any large transportation infrastructure project involves the temporary inconvenience of construction. While a new rail line or viaduct might be a lasting asset for a city, and one that continues to be useful for decades to come, short term impacts can prove disastrous for people involved in commercial activity around the construction zone, and disruptive to neighborhood residents. In some cases, business owners have even been driven to legal action by this issue. Part of the problem is that for the duration of construction, inconvience, noise, and rubble can come to define perception of the corridor where work is being done. 

5VDEYtLHowever, disruption can also be an opportunity. In St. Paul, a local nonprofit called Springboard for the Arts led an initiative ("Irrigate") to try to respond to the construction of the Central Corridor Green Line and support local businesses and neighborhoods through a placemaking approach. Irrigate provided hundreds of artists with training and funding to do small projects in neighborhoods along the corridor in collaboration with business owners and neighborhood groups. This grant-funded program was specifically oriented towards improving business and neighborhood viability.

Here's their video:

 

A program like this can help to mitigate construction impacts through direct financial stimulus to artists, indirect support for businesses through those artists' projects, and a high level of media visibility that can change the conversation or perception about a place. Irrigate's goal was for the story of the Central Corridor to be about arts, thriving businesses, and healthy neighborhoods, not the inconvenience of being in a construction zone. 

As a City of St. Paul policy director puts it in an independent audit of the program:

While the City of Saint Paul tried feverishly to garner positive coverage for the benefits of transit that the Central Corridor would bring to the community, their positive message was consistently diluted in the media by negative stories about the impact of construction. As Irrigate projects began popping up along the Corridor in unexpected ways, the disruption of the many small projects quickly had a surprising impact. The magic of art started a different conversation, something that couldn’t have been predicted  but was such a blessing. Irrigate’s public process engaging artists from the community to support local  businesses provided a nimble and creative way to influence the narrative and change community  perceptions of the value of community development. Irrigate’s approach taught the public sector that  sometimes it’s alright to let go of the bureaucratic process to allow for a more organic process of  community engagement.

Here, "placemaking" doesn't mean a bench or a mural; those are tactics. With Irrigate, placemaking was sustained investment in this corridor over a period of years, supporting hundreds of projects. 

Apparently, Irrigate has been successful enough for Springboard to create a toolkit to duplicate the progam elsewhere; according to one piece, it's already in use in Cleveland and Mesa, Arizona. Transit agencies could learn a lot from this example when laying the groundwork for their projects. While the work that Springboard did here is probably outside of the capabilities of most if not all agencies, building connections to foster this type of action prior to a big project could prove to be a prudent investment.

Image: Springboard for the Arts

looking for structure: the metro maps of Jug Cerovic

Paris-based Serbian designer Jug Cerovic tipped me off a month ago to his remarkable work on subway maps, collected at his website and since hailed at Atlantic Citylab.    If you want to geek out on beautiful detail, go to his website now.  Here, I'm interested in looking from a fuzzier distance.

 

Moscow-metro-subway-map-1000

His work interests me because I'm always trying to help people see underlying principles of network structure, such as the high-frequency grid in all its forms, and often contending with the seductive allure of its opposite, the seemingly endless loop.  

Cerovic's eye has picked out these forms, and fondles their contrast expertly:  He picks out a central loop in every city that provides a hint of one, organizing map after map around a geometrically perfect circle or oval.   Berlin:

Berlin-metro-subway-u-bahn-map-1000

His maps of comprehensive East Asian metros call out the circle line in most of them.  Beijing and Shanghai are both rigidly circle-and-spoke like Moscow, but Beijing's outer circle is far enough out to create orthogonal grid effects in relation to the straight lines it crosses.  Cerovic, perhaps sensing this, renders the loops as rectangles:

Beijing-metro-subway-map-1000

But it's hard to resist the beauty of the circle.  Tackling Paris, Cerovic seizes on the ellipsoid loop formed by Metro lines 2 and 6, rendering them as a perfect circle that seems to unify the image.  Only the color change signals that you can't go around forever.

Paris-plan-metro-subway-map-1000

I have long argued that the Paris metro is mostly an orthogonal grid system, with most routes in north-south or east-west paths that intersect to form logical L-shaped travel opportunities.  In fact, it's a great example of a grid system fitted to a gridless city.  Lines 2 and 6, and the more recent T3 tram that Cerovic renders as a quarter-circle, are really the only predominantly arc elements and even they function like east-west grid elements in the actual geography, 

In Madrid, Cerovic reveals the Expressionist quality of the metro network:  lots of emotive scribbles and personality quirks but without a clear structuring idea.  

Madrid-metro-subway-map-1000

The gently collapsed loop at the center reminds me of a Jean Arp sculpture.

In London, he ignores the obviously potential of the Circle Line, which despite its new tadpole shape could easily have been made into a perfect circle or oval.   Instead, the perfect circle that anchors his map is an emerging, ghostly London Overground, bristling with spurs:

London-metro-subway-tube-map-1000

I like Cerovic's maps for their stripped-down emphasis on the drama of line vs. loop.  Lines are from Mars and loops are from Venus.  They will never understand each other.  The challenge — in all the dimensions of design — is in making them dance, and helping both impulses succeed.

 

graphic artists! seeking ideas for book’s cover

If you're a talented illustrator who's willing to volunteer a few hours in return for a possible publication credit, read on.

My book Human Transit, which I hope will come out by November, needs some ideas for a cover.  The publisher has developed one that has promise but would like to see some alternatives.

The visual message of the cover must be:

  1. Hey!  Eye catching.
  2. Cool!  Minimalist, not emotional, not "hot"
  3. Transit can be simple.  The image must not convey a sense of complexity or confusion.  That's why I'm thinking "minimalist."
  4. Transit is about humans, their needs and desires, their joy and success, their jobs and families and recreation. 
  5. Transit is not about technology choice.  That's why I tend to prefer images that are based on transit map imagery rather than images of transit vehicles. 

The cover text is:

Title:

Human Transit

Subtitle:

How clear thinking
about public transit
can enrich our communities
and our lives

(I like this "four-line poem" layout, but it can be in any configuration.)

Author:Jarrett Walker

All this text must be clearly legible on the cover, though the subtitle should be smaller than the rest.

The cover dimensions are 6×9 inches.

If you provide the image that becomes the basis for the selected cover, you'll be credited on the title page.  Please note, however, that I'm not running a contest, just welcoming ideas from anyone who wants to share them.  The final decision about the cover will be made by the publisher.

Please pass this on to graphic artists, or aspiring talented ones, that you know!  I would need to see your ideas by July 20 to keep the project moving.

Thanks!

 

bus signage: a literary view

3 JACKSON Market Sansome A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words.  In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it. 

Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do.  To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit.  The text:

17 MOUNT
RAINIER/IKEA
(NORTHBOUND)
HAVE A
NICE DAY
DRIVE SAFELY
(repeats)

That's six pages of one-line text.  Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds.  That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration.  Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect. 

Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating.  Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation.  If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.

In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader.  So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this.  As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.

17 MOUNT

The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?

RAINIER/IKEA

In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance.  Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry.  William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference.  When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …")  So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention.  As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever.  The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash?  In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means.   Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business.  What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged?  Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them. 

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do.  Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?

(NORTHBOUND)

Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either.  Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you."  So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis.  As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.

Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea.  Is this bus insecure about being northbound?  Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear? 

Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them.  I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove.  This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok.  We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you.  Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."

All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does.  In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going.  That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre. 

HAVE A

A what?  Again, the line break creates suspense.  Am I going to like this?  Should I be hopeful or scared?

NICE DAY

Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense.  Yet even here, we can wonder.  "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!"  If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have."  (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")   

DRIVE SAFELY

Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it's talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.  It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium.  T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that.  Who is the audience, really?  How big and diverse is it?  For that matter, is anyone paying attention?  Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.

The sentiment is finely tuned.  Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values.  Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger.  You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.") 

This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus.  As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service.  Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated.  How can you get some appreciation?  Say what people on the street want to hear.  "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY."  Who can argue with that? 

And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is?  That's how you know this is poetry.

music video for subway map lovers

I’m advised that I’d like this subway-map-themed R.E.M. video, though R.E.M. is not really my thing.

Actually, it’s a nice test of whether you’re more interested in transit graphics than in transit!

san francisco: transit and endangered species

San Francisco artist Todd Gilens has four major works now on display in that city.  To find them, though, you'll need a special bus tracker:

Endangered-bus-tracker

From the Muni Diaries:

Instead of thinking about buses an advertising space, Gilens wondered if buses can be a vehicle for visual impact. “We use buses without thinking, like using a paper towel, but what if we used images to transform the bus, to give an emotive quality to buses?”

Gilens raised money to wrap four buses in photographs of the Brown PelicansCoho SalmonSalt Marsh Harvest Mouse and Mission Blue Butterfly.

They're quite beautiful:

Gilens bus

Images of all four buses are here.  Just click the little forward and back buttons.

Todd lays out the background for his work in a short statement here, and in a longer article in Antennae (PDF here).  Here's his conceptual bridge from transit to endangered species, by way of urban form:

A way to think of settlement patterns would be: how can mutual needs or living space be courteously accommodated?  Just as we do when crowded around other humans (as on a bus for example) being close enough to all fit while everyone gets at least somewhat of the space they need.  In the framework of regional settlement, this means checking to see if the streams, the coyotes, the polliwogs or ferns are not getting trampled, and if they are, maybe shifting over a bit to give them some room.

It was courageous of Todd to even tell me about this project, given what I've written elsewhere about advertising wraps.  I also long to see bus exteriors used for the primary mission of helping people figure out the bus system.  I especially like simple color-coding schemes that distinguish fundamentally different kinds of service, such as the simple Los Angeles paint scheme where red means Rapid and orange means Local.

But as a temporary exhibit, which is what this is, I'm all for it.  These buses operate through surprise. (True beauty is always surprising, which is why it can be hard to appreciate in a museum.)   So even if the bus wraps were permanent, their beauty would diminish as people got used to them.

The four buses will be wrapped through the end of March and a bit into April.

Los Angeles: Before You Board, There’s a Quiz

Highlight of my transit tour of Los Angeles today: Vermont / Santa Monica subway station.  It’s by Ellerbe Becket.  Striking, certainly, but an entrance so ominous that if I didn’t know what it was, I’d guess it was a memorial to a horrible event. Enter under a heavy almond-shaped mass that looks like it’s about to fall on you, or perhaps a jaw about to close.

PB020584-1 Continue Reading →

Amsterdam: The Flying Wheel

IMG_0717

From the pinnacle of Amsterdam Central station, as seen from my hotel room last month.  I’m guessing it’s from the Deco era, early 20th century.  There’s an exuberant optimism about European rail architecture of that era that needs to find new expressions.

Note:  I’m back in Sydney, but detritus of the just-completed round the world will probably continue showing up here for a while.