Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Public Art on Sound Transit

with 17 comments

The Link Light Rail system in Seattle opened last year. Currently it is in service between Westlake and SeaTac Airport. Barbara Luecke gave a talk this evening at Richmond City Hall, the first of this year’s Lulu Series on art in the city. I am going to depart from my usual technique. Although I made notes as she spoke, it would be a great deal of work to make them coherent, and in any event all of the images she used are available on line. I think that it only makes sense to talk about the issues – not the art itself, which has to be seen to be appreciated.

Sound Transit allocates 1% of its project construction costs to art. This art program covers all of its system – bus, commuter rail and light rail. Art is considered to be an integral part of each project and the program is involved from the very earliest stages. The talk this evening was solely directed at the art works on the new light rail line. The images she used are all part of a set on her flickr stream and some of the projects are linked from the Sound Transit website  – scroll down to the heading Link Seattle – SeaTac Airport and there is a list of projects, but note that not all are as yet on line there.

One point she did make is that the construction of the light rail line has been much slower than our Canada Line construction, with a great deal of commitment to community consultation throughout. This has lead to significant public conversations, about every aspect of the project including its art. Some installations are more controversial than others, but every one now has its own band of supporters.  Art is also being installed as part of the construction process – for example a major but temporary light show at Capitol Hill Station.  In shops that have been vacated prior to demolition to make way for station construction, art was installed into the buildings to keep the street interesting. The videos of these installations are well worth your time.

My criticism of the Canada Line was that it all looks very bland. The comparison in my mind was with the much more individualistic Millennium Line stations – many of which were of striking architectural design and also incorporated public art. Some of the art at Canada Line stations seems to me to be a bit of an afterthought.

Le Banc

Others are simply temporary – part of the current Biennale which will be taken away when that event is over.

Cabeza Vainilla, Cabeza ordoba, Cabeza Chiapas

In any event, these items were not considered as part of the line, they simply occupy space left empty by the project. This is direct contrast to how art has been incorporated into stations, and other structures like power substations and ventilation pipes in Seattle. (By the way the two images I have used are mine and are creative commons. All of the STart on Link images are copyright, so I have not embedded any of them – but you can easily see them by following the links.)

The argument is about the quality of the public realm. I think one feature that is probably worth remarking on is how the use of these art pieces has greatly reduced the graffiti and vandalism that had been blighting these areas before the LRT was started. Art is supposed to stimulate, and so of course there are a wide variety of opinions. If the only criterion was public acceptability, the result would also be bland and tasteless.  But it seems to me that one way to upset people is to simply plonk down a set of standard components, regardless of the neighbourhood, all designed to some corporate image. That was the mistake made by the first Expo line – and has been repeated by the Canada Line. Both speak to a “culture” that simply looks at the bottom line and seeks to stay on time and on budget. Those are considerations, of course, but they are not the only ones. Transit has to be part of the city – and a part that we feel belongs to us. Indeed, the best transit systems inspire affection – not alienation. Which do you think we have achieved?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 25, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Posted in Art, transit

17 Responses

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  1. The COV has mandated that the c-line, at least, has an ongoing art program funded by 2% of station retail leases (which is a minimum of $80,000)

    Click to access a1.pdf

    “THAT Council authorize staff to participate in the Canada Line Pubic Art Program and jointly allocate an annual budget estimated at $100,000 on the commission, installation, maintenance and removal of Station artworks.”

    I also think you have to be clear about points here as well, i think you are identifying:
    1) the look and design of a station (more permanent)
    2) and ongoing art program (transitory and rotating)
    3) and of course, the merit of the selected art on display

    In all fairness to the c-line, a few stations are supposed to be temporary, pending redevelopemnt of the station (eg, King Ed, VCC)

    And you can’t really predict the public’s response. The Bench statue above IMO is a nice piece, but unfortunately has a ‘found’ use by the local skater crowd as per your pic.


    March 26, 2010 at 12:39 am

  2. Also, there is risk in incorporting art or a specific design feature as permanent in that it may date quickly (like the late 1980s PoMO of seattle’s bus tunnel). the m-line has some nice features (stained glass at ? production way), but some that didn’t pan out (the ‘windmill’ at sapperton was powered by a stationary bicycle but the linkage has been eliminated now, dunno if they removed the bike recently).


    March 26, 2010 at 12:53 am

  3. […] pass really a deal? [The Vancouver Sun] UBC turns up the heat on green targets [City Caucus] Public Art on Sound Transit [Stephen Rees's blog] INTERNATIONAL Should Bikes And Cars Be Treated Equally? [National Journal] […]

    re:place Magazine

    March 26, 2010 at 7:39 am

  4. Mezz – your reply deals solely with the City of Vancouver. Transit covers the whole of the region – and crosses municipal boundaries. That is as true in Seattle as it is here. Sound Transit provides the art as part of the system, so that there is equal application across the region. At the same time the commitment to public consultation – and a meaningful dialogue – is in stark contrast to the way things are done here now. The skaters’ response to the Bench was, I would have thought, only too easy to predict – especially in a city which has been a leader is building skate parks. But skaters are hardly representative of the wider community.

    Biennale art works will be removed. Most of the art being built into Sound Transit is a permanent part of their transit system – and communities it serves. It may, as you say “date quickly” – but then so did the Art Nouveau metro stations in Paris – and that seems to be style which has now returned to favour.

    Stephen Rees

    March 26, 2010 at 10:41 am

  5. Here is a good source of rapid transit art and architecture from around the world. Vancouver’s rapid transit, with the exception of maybe 4 or 5 stations, does really not impress at all.

    One of the problems, I think, is that the debate and discussion around rapid transit has been the type of technology rather other aspects of system design. While this debate is needed, at some point, after the decision on technology has been made, people really need to focus on how to make the proposed system better.


    March 26, 2010 at 11:39 am

  6. ^^Fair enough. I suppose though optics play a role. If translink has a structural deficit and there is ongoing talk of tax and fare increases, there is a section of the population that will question art funding by translink. The arguement can be made that a local effort with local funding (like vancouver’s) may be more responsive to the neighbourhoods that transit passes thru.

    WRT public input in seattle, looking at your link, this is what it said about the public art advisory task force:

    “The task force will consist of representatives from each of the jurisdictions in which Sound Transit facilities will be built. The representatives will be primarily city and county staff responsible for public art programs in their own jurisdictions.”

    To play devil’s advocate, how much input would we want the public to have? Otherwise, the criteria would be, with time, ‘public acceptibility’.

    If anything, the bienniale art will be removed, but re-instated with different art with the next festival. I do have some questions about the bienniale (like the level of transparency for such a public program) but i hope some form of it is incorporated further along the transit lines.

    It also helps if we weren’t a city of vandals 😛

    “Thieves steal model car from Canada Line art installation”


    March 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

  7. sorry the emoticon didn’t come out right, wanted to do a “P”, but i suppose a 😦 would be more sutiable…


    March 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm

  8. I tend to agree that if “too much” money is spent on art, then the public at large will decry the project as a “folly” with extravagant art.

    While municipalities seem to extract public art from every development project, the “success” of that art is sometimes questionable. Gordon Price has an entry on his blog about some of the hits and misses of the Olympic art recently.

    At least none of the Canada Line stations are saddled with an artwork akin to the Terry Fox Memorial.

    Ron C.

    March 26, 2010 at 3:03 pm

  9. @mezzanine
    Well, somehow they manage to do this in cities all around the world and it is not like there aren’t funding issues in these cities as well. It is a matter of building a great city and art is a big part of that.

    In Seattle it is only 1% of the project budget and in LA, it is 0.5% of the budget.


    March 26, 2010 at 8:41 pm

  10. I am inclined to think this program is due to a sort of Oedipus complex in regard of the “culture” vs Europe (or even West coast versus East Coast)

    It is still fascinating to see our South neighbors spending lavishly on art statement, while being still OK with third world country style LRT (rolling stock, treatment of the ROW,…)

    Recently, I have met a group of Seattler literally stunned at our Olympic streetcar. design, material quality,…was making them speechless…

    That is a problem of the American approach:
    the rider seems to be a “bit of an afterthought”.

    secondly this ε% program raise several problems:
    Should it be the mandate of a Transit agency to promote art?

    In the case of a huge project like the Seattle Link or Canada Line: those ε% couldn’t be better spend in other area not benefiting directly of the project?

    Then each communities could have different needs. Vancouver could may be like more emphasis on the art, but Richmond would like eventually to see a bigger part spent on land/streetscaping, so making the one size fit all could be disturbing?

    That said, it is possibly true that “art” mitigate vandalism, but that is part of an economic equation in which the transit operator try to minimize its operating cost and maximize its ridership: could it be the definition of “corporate art”?

    Also one should note that the video mentioned on the “pre construction art” are well echoed by the work of the Richmond kids on the Fairchild construction site at Aberdeen.


    March 26, 2010 at 10:06 pm

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by cleancartalk, Stephen Rees. Stephen Rees said: Public Art on Sound Transit: […]

  12. I want to share an “art” discovery that I made riding the C-line during the olympics. To see it, you have to go to the back of the access shed for the Yaletown station. A kind of weird place for an art installation, but given that line ups wrapped around the stations in the heady Olympic days, a lot of people saw it. I’ll look through my photos and post title for the piece & name for the artist when I have it.

    The piece is an equestrian statue of sorts, not a roman emperor or European king surveying his realm, but a Gandhiesque man sitting bare to the waist astride his mount. The mount, a horse, is rendered in distorted proportions. An appropriate gesture to the media age, I thought. By the time you look down at the four hoofs, you discover that they are very large, and beautifully shaped.

    The statue is a bronze cast, and its installation at ground level, not on a lofty base, makes it accessible to close scrutiny. The surface of the bronze has great texture to it. A pleasure to look at and touch.

    The punch line in the piece is that the rider is “roped” to his mount by loops of rope, in the manner that comic victims were roped and laid across a rail road track to be run over by a train in cartoons and silent flicks.

    All in all this is one stunning piece of work, possibly transit related. The message, of course, is for each one of us to decide: Too tied to our transportation choices?

    As you probably expect by now, there is also a side-kicker with a twist on urbanism.

    The site of the station access shed, and the installation of the equestrian statue, is an empty space in Yaletown that cries out for better urban design. This is an “urban room” or civic square in every sense of the word, even if the buildings to the south were approved in a proportion that negatively impacts this wonderful little urban gem.

    Our local and regional transit corridors plug into our communities with great force. They are key sites to achieve high level resulting urban quality, and great opportunities to teach by example.

    Lewis N. Villegas

    March 27, 2010 at 9:57 am

  13. “Equestrian Monument” (2009) by David Robinson.

    Lewis N. Villegas

    March 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm

  14. The “empty space in Yaletown that cries out for better urban design” is called Bill Curtis Plaza (or Square) and is the site of the summer Yaletown Farmers Market if I recall correctly. I think it was built in conjunction with the condos to the south and provides an underground public parkade for Yaletown (it sits atop the parakde). The plaza would have been designed at that time and the pedestrian access to the undergound parkade was previously located at the station house entrance site and took the form of the “ruins” of a Yaletown warehouse (the vehicle ramp is across the alley through the condo complex). The plantings in the plaza have grown up and filled in nicely over the years (since the early 1990s). I would hate to have it “re-designed” and all of the trees removed for the sake of a different design.

    Ron C.

    March 29, 2010 at 1:30 pm

  15. I concur. Keep the trees.

    As with the other square whose name I keep forgetting ’cause it doesn’t mean anything to me either, two or three blocks up Davie, the first thing to look for is activity animating the edge of the square. Cafes & the like. A farmer’s market is a terrific use and probably well frequented.

    A square really is an ’empty place’, and how we use it is what ultimately sets it apart.

    One use, a civic use, sites a prominent community building on it (the church on the piazza). However, given that we can’t open a cafe on it, or put the art piece in the center of it, it’s probably still early days to be talking about mixing civic and neighbourhood uses.

    Lewis N. Villegas

    March 29, 2010 at 8:16 pm

  16. I have just put a new set of pictures on my flickr stream of New York Subway Art. There is a link there to a comprehensive illustrated list of art projects on that subway.

    Stephen Rees

    April 29, 2010 at 5:36 pm

  17. […] Transit rapid transit line to their airport which opened at around the same time. We even had a presentation about that here. And it seems I chose two of the same images then to illustrate that post as I did this one. No […]

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