Unfolding space

How  a space unfolds into a place is a mystery. What ingredients are required to make our cities valued? We go about our daily lives and the things we touch and feel remind us of who we are and where we belong. For most of us the things we care about are actually small and incidental.  The small park where I walk the dog each day. The particular laneway I choose on my journey to work, with its shady trees and old brick walls.

Somehow over time, space becomes place. What role do designers and artists have in this transition?  Despite our best design intentions, people actually make place for themselves.
Public art and landscape architecture are vehicles for shaping spaces, but the mystery of how spaces become places does not always unfold. The sprinkling of ‘character’ does not guaranty that most folk will embrace our designs. People often seem to end up valuing other things despite our  grand designs. Is time and use in place the real test?

I reflect back to one of my earliest space projects from the 1990’s,  a collaboration to make  communal space out of leftover road  on the main street of  West End, Brisbane. With nothing but bitumen to work with, we brainstormed at the dance hall for a week with the locals, and decided we needed music, a place to mingle, big shade and places for the marginalised.  Boundary street is the old edge between blacks and whites, and so indigenous artist Joice Watson created a series of built in artworks which could reconcile  the space and link past and future cultures.  Amongst other things, we built a sinuous small stage which morphed into a goanna, and placed a massive fig tree right in the middle of the intersection. Artists Suzanne Holman and Helen Broadhurst worked insitu on the goanna sculpture with the help of locals, and they were sometimes assisted by a homeless man who lived in the park.

  This small collaboration with three artists and a community has lasted the test of time much better than some of my larger, grander projects:  Locals dance, sing, protest, sleep and generally hang out in the folds of the goanna, and under the big tree. The outdoor restaurants have wrapped themselves around the emerging heart , completing the transformation from empty space. Recently, artist Suzanne Holman tragically died in a light plane crash. Walking past the goanna one day,   my partner saw that a homeless man had  placed a sign by the goanna and stood in quiet vigil for Suzanne’s  passing .Over the following week, many signs and memorials were placed around the space. The way artists engage with people in the process of creating public art matters, and Suzanne’s sculptural legacy in West End reflects this.

A more recent example of how public art and design can transform space is Halloran’s Hill Lookout in the North Queensland Tablelands.  The town of Atherton was undergoing a civic renaissance under a statesman mayor, and one of our key projects was to transform a lookout with car park and a telstra tower into something more.  A series of artworks were commissioned to enliven the hilltop, including works by emerging local artists. Artist Mona Ryder created a series of intriguing, tall sculptures reminiscent of the ancient plants that might have inhabited the ancient rainforest in the volcanic cone of the hill. These organic totems resonate with the space and the rainforest, creating curiosity and wonder. Interacting with the vistas and landscapes of the site,   this public art really does help the space unfold into a unique place. Designers can collaborate with artists to create meaningful local culture. In regional Australia, there are rare opportunities for local artists to gain experience in public realms. Architects and Landscape architects can invent programmes and spaces in their projects to make this happen.

Until its demise recently, Queensland had a programme called Art +Place which provided the funds, support and strategic direction for creating public art which responds to place. A casualty now of cost cutting and governmental change, Art + Place managed to deliver some good works over a number of years.  At kangaroo Point, an old educational training site above the cliffs overlooking the city of Brisbane was transformed into a civic park with a public art focus. Art +Place funded a design charrette to redirect the park making process. This brainstorming, which involved artists and designers, along with project managers, invented a series of public art projects to add life and meaning to the new spaces. The park has become a regional and citywide destination, but now it is more than just a great panorama.  My favourite artwork are the relief screens built into the cliff fronting arbors. This quiet but beautiful insertion is the work ‘Seven Versions Of The Sun’ by indigenous artist Daniel Boyd. Highly polished golden panels with motifs of the sun create beautiful cast shadows. Such enigmatic interventions, like large scale jewellery for the city, remind us why art in the landscape is worth fighting for, creating qualities and experiences we never imagined.