Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Public Art at Pasadena Center

On Monday, January 26th, the Pasadena City Council is scheduled to vote on an important public art project planned for the new Pasadena Center, exactly three years and one day after the first meeting to consider what artworks should be placed at the site of the new civic buildings.

The Pasadena Center is comprised of the historic Civic Auditorium (built in 1927) and two flanking new and renovated buildings that will contain meeting rooms and a ballroom. The Center serves as the southern terminus of the Civic Center axis, a classic Beaux Arts plan implemented in the 1920’s. Situated on Green Street in downtown Pasadena, the Civic Auditorium is one of several original buildings constructed as part of a grand civic design that includes iconic Pasadena City Hall and the Public Library. These buildings are civic and national treasures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Following an extensive review and approval process, which included 403 submissions from artists around the world, the Pasadena Arts & Culture Commission approved the final art plans on December 10, 2008, for the exterior artwork for the Pasadena Center.

A spirited public conversation has arisen regarding two of the three selected artworks, all of which are contemporary in nature. Supporters of the project are excited about the placement of contemporary works by internationally noted artists, and feel that the civic space will be complemented and enlivened by these works. Others feel that the beautiful façade of the Civic Auditorium is a piece of art in and of itself, and that the placement of these unusual artworks detracts from the Auditorium and is not in keeping with Pasadena’s traditional architectural heritage.

Where do you stand? Take our Quick Vote, and post a comment below. If you’re not familiar with the issue, read more below and follow the links on the right. Take a drive down Green Street and check the site out for yourself. Contact your City Councilperson with your thoughts on the Pasadena Center public art decision. And most importantly, plan to attend the City Council meeting on Monday, January 26th at 6:30 PM. Contact Pasadena Cultural Affairs at 626-744-7062 for up-to-date information.

The artworks are:

Lightfield by artist Hans Peter Kuhn, an abstract light sculpture installation to be located on the public plaza adjacent to the east Conference Center pavilion. “Lightfield” is composed of 25 illuminated polycarbonate tubes that rise approximately 5 feet from the base. The field of light will swivel and be randomly repositioned by an automatic mechanism, a two-axis swiveling base programmed to allow each tube to move and rotate in a conic fashion. The tubes may also be programmed to disengage, allowing them to sway in the wind. The base is concrete with granite-clad sides and top, 15’x38’ in plan and 20” high.

“Thinking Caps” by artist Dennis Oppenheim, a sculptural piece in architectural scale forming an enclosure of projection surfaces which conveys the notion that it creates and holds ideas, thereby reflecting the many activities, conferences, functions, and meetings that take place within the Pasadena Center. Sited on the west end of the Plaza, adjacent to the Ballroom, the sculpture is 15’h x 30’d and consists of three hats: train hat, sun hat and conductor’s cap. They are made of structural steel, galvanized and/or powder coated steel, punch plate, perforated metal and grating, Lexan and pattern projectors. These hats form an enclosure or gathering space that viewers can enter to observe the images projected onto each of the hat’s surfaces. These images are an abstract representation of thought – of the person “wearing” the hat and producing the “ideas.”

Click the images in the slideshow on the right for a larger view of the proposed artworks.



  1. With many valid points of view, opinions, and passions swirling around this subject, perhaps it would be of value to try and clarify a couple of things it is NOT about.

    Quoted in Thursday morning's Pasadena Star News (Jan. 22), PCOC board chairman Tom Seifert characterized the fervor of the debate by saying -- "Basically I think it's just opened up the definition of what is art." We should put to rest any such notion -- there is no acceptable definition for what art is, and the outcome of this controversy cannot hinge upon or imply that some sort of definition or another has won the day. If the City Council wants the embarrassment of having stepped in a big pile of steamy dung, then let it be seen by the world as having arrived at its decision over whether to install or not install, by considering the right of these two proposed sculptures to own the title of "art." Don't go there, is my advice -- don't tread in history's worn leather down the labyrinthine paths of Impressionism's battle with the French Academy, Constructivism's entanglement with the Russian Revolution, Hitler's "Salon de Refuses," or Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano's tussle with Senator Jesse Helms. Delete a definition of "art" and "quality" from the deliberations, it's a black hole.

    Second, this debate is not legitimately about size and scale. Unless the City Council is willing to label every piece of solid matter interrupting a view of the expanded Civic Auditorium from the perspective of the Library southward, including trees, light posts, the corners of buildings, Paseo tables, chairs, vendor carts and overhead lighting, Green Street cars and trucks, and etcetera, as a threat to the historical and architectural integrity of the new buildings, it is ludicrous to say that only sculptures get in the way, and disingenuous to advocate for their removals while claiming it has nothing to do with the art works themselves but rather their scale. I hear no clamor to rid the view of 30-foot high trees on the Civic plaza -- but what is the difference between a tree in the way and a sculpture in the way, if not one of aesthetics? The buildings are massive, tens of hundreds of feet in dimension -- their integrity will easily tolerate the punctuation of a couple of 20 x 30-foot sculptures at street level. Nobody's going to miss the grandeur of the buildings and fixate on the sculpture. Remove size and scale from the deliberations.

    What the debate IS about is Pasadena -- in two ways. First, Pasadena has a process for funding, soliciting, and commissioning public works of art -- an open, clear, and transparent process that was followed faithfully in the case of these two sculptures. Developers are aware of the process, City Council members appoint Arts and Culture Commission members to oversee the process, and the city's own Cultural Affairs Division manages it with all the stakeholders. The City Council should not step in to undermine its own duly and thoughtfully accomplished process.

    Second, hidden beneath its pastoral image of green lawns and shaded neighborhoods, its self-consciousness as the village below the mountains, it's image embodied in architectural richness and admirable preservation consciousness, Pasadena is a simmering city of the twenty-first century. There are larger cities in the world, with larger institutions, but none can match the unique association of art, science, learning, and cultural institutions that exist side-by-side in Pasadena, and across which a spark of creativity ignites intellectual audacity, innovation, risk-taking, and vision for the future on a daily basis. Pasadena, in short, is a cosmopolitan city of the world. Even as it safeguards the enduring values of its past, Pasadena needs to step to the global stage it deserves, to the edge of its future -- and leap forward. It is not a time for timid decisions mired in history's provincialism -- it is time for bold, thoughtful and calculated, audacious, actions.

    The City Council should eye the risk of installing these sculptures as a welcome opportunity to tell the world about the simmering Pasadena, the one that values the past but seizes the future. And it should not subvert the good work of its Arts and Culture Commission and Cultural Affairs Division. It should embrace the tension of contemporary art against revivalist architecture, and savor the intellectual debate as exemplary of the kind of city it wants to be.

  2. That this is being turned into a debate NOW is highly disappointing.

    The FACT is that the artworks were approved by all parties. When no one was looking, a decision was made to move them to the rear of the complex where no one would see them.

    The content of this blog posting is misleading. It suggests that there has been a spontaneous uproar of people who dislike the work and want it moved.

    The truth is, a small number of people behind closed doors have been making decisions that have effectively negated the public review process.

    The people who have been forced into the position of 'Supporters' are people who respect the democratic system, and have risen to defend the rights of the committee, the interests of the public and those of the artists involved.

    I am also extremely disappointed that the images on this blog do not promote the artworks in a favorable light, and in fact they make the artworks look downright ugly. No one in their right mind would want those things installed anywhere in public!

    The ACTUAL artworks are absolutely beautiful and will become attractions in themselves if installed (as agreed to!) at the Pasadena Center.

    Michael Markowsky
    Pasadena Resident

  3. To Whom it may concern;

    1. Oppenheimer: What's with the Hats? Has TRADITION totally gone out the window and replaced with Fanciful-Fleeting-Pop Culture-Absurdity? Any Art placed in this location should reflect the character, intent, and historical significance of the Auditorium. A Classic Water Element with Sculpture of one of Pasadena's eminent founders, scientists, developers, educators, etc. would have been appropriate.

    2. Kuhn's "Light Field" is a bit more appropriate in relationship to the New Convention Center. However, the cost of a dozen 'Dancing Dildos' is not justified. Purchasing a dozen inflatable "Sky-Dancers" would have cost a fraction of the "Light Field"!

  4. The City and some of the professional designers are very aware of the elements of the historic renovation and design of the restored Auditorium, and the tremendous work and effort it took to bring the structure back to the level of quality that makes it a showcase for the Pasadena Civic Center. The careful attention to color and detail and the accuracy of the material restoration is critical to its success as a major urban structure.

    The proposed art sculptures in front of the existing Civic Auditorium are not enhancing the space or its experience. It's quite evident from the mock-ups and models that these elements are very intrusive and don't contribute to the visual or spatial qualities of the front promenade to the building. They block critical views and disrupt scale. This structure is highly unique and has been refurbished to be a striking example of classic historicism, especially with its night illumination. Having these large-scale art pieces compete for public attention, especially with their strong evening illumination, would be a cluttered distraction from the focal point of the Civic Auditorium, which is about music, light, color and space. There is a rhythm and pattern (like a musical score) to the existing entrance which needs to be reinforced by calmer elements that lead the eye to the grand entrance, not away from it. Thematically they compete with the structure rather than complimenting it.

    I would agree that these art pieces should be plopped elsewhere, and could be engaging elements in their own right at appropriate locations, possibly as "gateway" elements to the formal Civic Center boundary, where they add to the composition instead of intruding upon it.

  5. I would eschew the proposed sculptures in favor of more plantings.

    Downtown Pasadena is already chocked with buildings that while thankfully attractive, are increasing and without the mitigating inclusion of open spaces.

    I suggest that city planners focus on balance by adding open spaces whenever feasible and planting them with native trees and shrubs.

  6. I would like to have more facts: The illustrations of both pieces of art are miniscule. Their locations vis-a-vis the building are difficult to detect. A plot plan showing the plaza's relation to the shopping center across the street would be helpful. And why doesn' the Star News use illustrations as well?

  7. "Of all the Grands Projets in Paris, none created such a stir as the Pei Pyramids in the courtyard of the famous Louvre Museum. Spectacular in concept and form, they provide a startling reminder of the audacious ability of modern architects to invigorate and re-circulate traditional architectural forms...The main Pyramid is basically a complex inter-linked steel structure sheathed in reflective glass. In fact it is an entrance doorway providing a long-overdue entrance portico to the main galleries of the Louvre. As one descends into the interior entrance foyer, the dramatic nature of the intervention becomes apparent. The main Pyramid, which certainly disturbs the balance of the old Louvre courtyard, is countered by two smaller pyramids, which provide further light and ventilation to the subterranean spaces."

    — Dennis Sharp. Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History. p407.

    "Probably the pièce de résistance of Pei's extraordinary legacy to modernism, his sense of quiet good taste, consummate attention to detail, and clarity of concept is his intervention into the Cour Napoleon at the Louvre. Beneath the new, elegantly 'hard' and restrained surface of the Cour is accommodated a vast new program of 650,000 square feet of much-needed support spaces for the Louvre. Poised as perfect complement and counterpoint, and rising only a modest 71 feet above the ground, is the symbol of the project, the central entrance pyramid. Despite an almost ephemeral presence that derives from an ingeniously conceived triangular web of supports, clad in a wonderful warm ochre, lightly tinted glass especially drawn by St. Gobain to be compatible with the honey-colored stone of the Second Empire facades of the old Louvre, it was controversial from its announcement in 1985 as one of President Mitterand's most ambitious 'grand projets.' Obviously any insertion would have been anathema to those who hold sacred and untouchable the integrity of the Louvre's classical presence. Time has somewhat blunted the critics against this example of modernism at its most elegant, although it remains less than successful as a sheltered entrance against the elements and the three much smaller flanking pyramids seem aesthetically gratuitous. However, at times the almost fluid, dematerialized presence of the pyramid establishes without bombast, a compelling brave concept whose intent is to be neither aggressive nor subservient but to complement through restraint. Through simplicity the new stands with the old, each acknowledging the other."

    — from Paul Heyer. American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century. p275-278

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Terry LeMoncheck, Pasadena Arts CouncilJanuary 25, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    The above comment was deleted because it was a duplicate posting. The comment appears as originally posted on January 25, as the second comment in the string.

  10. As a longtime Pasadenan who can remember the appearance of the Civic Auditorium even before the construction of the Plaza Pasadena, I am not in favor of placing public art at the front of the site. For years, while the Plaza was there, the Auditorium was essentially cut off from the rest of the master-planned civic center. Now that it is once again visible, the City seems to be doing its best to once again isolate the Auditorium by the introduction of historically insensitive intrusions, including the silver-colored multi-headed light fixtures that have no discernible relationship to their surroundings, either historical or current. The large art-works will further detract from the historical link. I'm probably more in favor of public art than most people (the more whimsical the better), but why can't these pieces be placed in the plazas on the east and west sides of the Auditorium (especially the east side that is going to look pretty bleak when the temporary "tent" structure is removed)?

  11. This is the classical game of city officials and art consultants, in times of constraint they do not hesitate to pay million$s to international artists to create public art to be imposed in our community with no consideration for our opinion. Although I respect Oppenhimer and Kuhn's for their work, I am asking to vote NO in this project. The money should be for artists that reside in Southern California and can design Public Art that will integrate and be inclusive of our diversity. Is any one in the Pasadena City Council or the Mayor's office aware that we are in an economic crisis and our tax-payer money should benefit our community?

  12. Keep all public art jobs for local artists only, they need jobs too!

  13. Hats? Seriously? And art based on a cliche: "Put on your thinking caps"? That's embarrassing.

    Try something else, please.


  14. pasadenaadjacent.comJanuary 27, 2009 at 5:34 PM

    My understanding of percentage for public art program was that it was first conceived as a way to give local artist an opportunity to create art for the community. Pasadena used to put out an open call to artist. Now all our cities seem to be handing the job over to public art consultants who themselves are in competition with one another. As a result, consultants are fishing the waters for international art stars. Every big commission seems to be the same names.

  15. Speaking about tradition and history- remember that what is new today, challenging today, contemporary today... will someday be tradition and someday be history. I find it absolutely unbelievable that some people do not grasp this concept. I love the history and tradition that lives in Pasadena. Let's not neglect ADDING TO this history and tradition. Let's embrace our opportunity to start NEW traditions and to make history again and again and again!

  16. Some of our country's great art was produced during the Great Depression under the FAP. We always need art, especially now. And as far as complaining about not supporting local artists for this project- if you are a Pasadena artist wouldn't you like your work seen somewhere other than just Pasadena? Likewise, this city needs art of a national and international scale. Finally, to the real bozos out there- YOU DON"T HAVE TO LIKE IT FOR IT TO BE GOOD ART!

  17. Oh dear- some people didn't get the memo that it is smart to mix and match your antiques with your contemporary pieces. How dreary it is to have their bourgeois taste spill out of their beige living rooms into our public space.

  18. Not about whether this is art or not. Let's not make this more than what it is--a bad art consultant. Why would anyone mix contemporary pieces and classic architecture when neither do anything to enhance eachother?

    Perhaps a different juxtaposition might be more aesthetically interesting, but not with these two. The Louvre's pyramid was architecturally integrated into the existing structure--this is not the case.

    I think the public sculptures would look beautiful on the rooftop of a Colorado structure against the mountains--minimalism meets Pasadena's gorgeous mountain scapes...We need more social spaces that get us away from the madness of Colorado's clubs and restaurants...

  19. You should be on the Arts and Culture Commission! If you were, you might have persuaded the others commissioners of your argument. But, you're not...

    But let's say you were -- and that you did promote your opinion about aesthetically interesting juxtapositions, that you did your time and attended all those interminable meetings and read all those technical briefs and listened to all the petitioners and heard all the public comment and entertained all the aesthetic theories and gave your best and reasoned arguments to your fellow commissioners -- and cast your vote, thoughtfully enlightened by the long, detailed, and studied process. And prevailed! A piece of classic sculpture to enhance classic architecture!

    An then, the guys who set you up in the first place, decide to crap all over your process and decision and say they know better.

    We could put together a dozen different Arts and Culture Commissions with a dozen different aesthetic philosophies, but we can only have one at a time. And this one approved the sculptures. So it's not really about what someone else would have done, or if 75% hate it and 25% don't. It's about the City Council bullying the people they put in charge of the arts.

  20. This has happened before. Ask Rod Baer. Unfortunately Pasadena has a bad reputation among Los Angeles art agencies and it's well deserved.