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Storefront for Art and Architecture, monthly, April 1991

The Empty Pedestals Project

Eight years ago the artist Marc Blane was moved by the silence of his neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on the subject of its own being and future. He attempted to reactivate a site, the Jacob Schiff Fountain in Seward Park, that had originally been used for the communication of the "City Beautiful" ideal, but was then and still is derelict, covered with graffiti and missing its central column and two ornamental basins, by proposing the attachment of a work of art that was intended to communicate something of the aspirations present in local social life. Acting alone, he was unsuccessful in getting that particular proposal built, but the project continued to grow in scope as Blane identified and documented more of what he refers to as "pre-designated art sites" (sites set aside by municipal agencies for art that have not been erased or slated for adoption/restoration). It grew in concept as he determined that the creation of form fused to real habitation, or ideas for new existences should exceed solitary activity; such a social project would necessarily be rooted in collective action. Thus followed his collaboration with Storefront and the resultant selection of the four sites (representing varying existing conditions and pre-conceptions) as the basis of proposals by this group of artists and architects.

Jacob Schiff Fountain-Rehabilitated (Seward Park, Manhattan, N.Y.)

"Before the inhabitant who wants to be in possession of his living space, from time to time in the waking dreams of diurnal and nocturnal perambulations, the ghost of his mother the city will rise. Most often neither ghost nor Eros remains: the city is now neither mother nor spouse nor mistress, it has become a "framework" for living, as we say. Now, to "live" in a city is to live by it and be attached to it, and not to be inserted into a spatial framework."

Raymond Ledrut, 1986 "Speech and the Silence of the City"

The pedestals and their now absent loads put forth for consideration by the artists and architects participating in the Empty Pedestals Project are artifacts of the City Beautiful movement, ruins of the rise of the industrial city that now, at the turn of the millennium, finds itself largely in ruins.

The period following the Civil War was one of phenomenal and unfettered urban growth; businessmen and industrialists insisted on urban sites for their factories and financial concerns, and those seeking work and other sorts of possibilities gravitated to the cities from towns and rural areas as well as from abroad. The result as we know was over-crowded housing, un-breathable air, undrinkable water, omnipresent garbage, waste, and mass death from epidemic diseases. These conditions resulted in health reforms supported by a large cross-class constituency, while the "aesthetic reform," which eventually operated under the mantel of City Beautiful, was taken up, as usual, by members of the mid and upper middle class.

"Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty." This was the exhortation of Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the urban design prototype synonymous with the City Beautiful, which functioned rather like a trade show for the, architects and sculptors who could supply its trademarks. These were: academic classicism in public architecture and in the planning of monumental civic centers, public building groups, grand boulevards, ornamental parks, equestrian statues, elaborate fountains and other street ornaments. In the first decade of this century many large cities, such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and growing metropolises like Kansas City, Seattle, Dallas, Dayton, Ohio and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, undertook City Beautification projects of varying scales. However, despite the fact that popular receptiveness to civic sculpture in particular was also a legacy of post-Civil War nationalistic sentiment, the movement as a whole was gradually stigmatized as one of aesthetic and monument-obsessed effects for the upper classes; by the first meeting of the American Association of Planners in 1909 it was widely renounced in favor of a focus on more practical, efficiency and economy enhancing concerns such as street and transit systems and a designation of land use. After that point the City Beautiful ceded to the "city practical" and later the "city scientific," and the horses, discus throwers, and women with single names like Purity and Virtue became, depending on the reading, either quaint vestiges of an earnest optimism--that the city could not only be the site of economic opportunity, but the form for civilization at its most ideal, offering rich and variegated cultural, social and educational opportunities--or relics of a fascistic attempt to inculcate a respect for American culture and capitalism that would reinforce the hegemony of the economic elite, i.e. social control by design.

Today in the city when we come across one of these pedestals supporting nothing, or an empty fountain basin we may not notice any absence at all. In the same vicinity we will, however, take note of the empty buildings with boarded or blocked up doors and windows; we hear neglect, impoverishment, despair and homelessness. If there is any ideal circulating at this moment it is that of the Livable City; the city must be made to function with order and efficiency, and everyone must have a home--to not possess a private locus of comfort, particularly in the cold and alien city, arouses most visceral empathy.

"New York's future should be shaped by the best of its past," reads New York Ascendant, the report of the mayor's commission on the year 2000 (1987). Thus we find the Livable City now being served by preservation, restoration and simulations of the past, and over time the framework may very well be patched up, operating smoothly and quietly, not so ugly, and un-housed people will primarily be those who will not be housed. And so through the ideological devices of conventional planning the city is to be relieved of its un-livability by an insinuation of the past--the site, which logic would indicate as the locale of the causes of present problems. This would appear to work something like a vaccine--administered against a future that is actually different, which might mean struggle for new existence, attempts to cure the "cold," as opposed to treating it (ourselves). But what about the Living City as an altemative civic ideal? For, say, the French who have a tradition of attachment to the city this may appear as a ghost, but in this country that has no tradition of the city as a "work of life" it can only appear in vision.

Eight years ago the artist Marc Blane was moved by the silence of his neighborhood, the lower east side of Manhattan, on the subject of its own being and future, and he attempted to reactivate a site, the Jacob Schiff Fountain in Seward Park--that had originally been used for the communication of the City Beautiful ideal, but was then and still is derelict, covered with graffiti and missing its central column and two ornamental basins--by proposing the attachment of a work of art that was intended to communicate something of the aspirations present in local social life. Acting alone, he was unsuccessful in getting that particular proposal built, but the project continued to grow in scope as Blane identified and documented more of what he refers to as "predesignated art sites" (sites set aside by municipal agencies for art that have not been erased or slated for adoption/restoration) And it grew in concept as he determined that the creation of form fused to real habitation, or ideas for new existences should exceed solitary activity; such a social project would necessarily be rooted in collective action. Thus followed his collaboration with Storefront and the resultant selection of the four sites (representing varying existing conditions and pre-conceptions) as the base/is of proposals by this group of artists and architects.

The Empty Pedestals Project is not offered as another ephemeral exercise in the making of public art (now bound to amenities, civilities, entertainments, the "art world"), but as an opening for communication about the potential for a new civic art in the post-industrial era--an art that could be synonymous with the ongoing work of life, of seeking and giving meaningful form to an evolving city by its inhabitants. It is a project worth the attention of those who do not take comfort in the destination of a smart apartment in a dumb city.