Happy Median: Amid Traffic, Beacons of Beauty
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Normally if you lined up empty water bottles on a Rosslyn median strip, you could be fined as much as $2,500 for littering. But in one case Arlington County paid $50,000 to have hundreds of bottles arranged into a piece of public art that looks like a field of luminescent cattails.
The installation is at one of Rosslyn's busiest intersections: the exit of Arlington Boulevard where Fairfax Drive, Fort Myer Drive and North Lynn Street all intersect. The piece consists of plastic columns on a grid, ranging in height from 5 to 13 feet and held aloft by metal reinforcing rods, with used water bottles -- culled from country government offices -- perched atop each stalk. At night, LED lights powered by a single solar panel illuminate the bottles -- a no-emissions form of power that inspired the work's name, "CO2LED."
The field of bottles is temporary, built to be part of the landscape of the Planet Arlington World Music Festival on Sept. 1, after which it will come down. Angela Anderson Adams, public art administrator for Arlington County Cultural Affairs, says the piece makes distinctive use of urban space. It's also a test case of what to do with an intersection.
"You can pilot new ideas if people don't have to live with it forever," she says. "They're a little more likely to let you try."
The walking environment of Rosslyn, particularly near Arlington Boulevard, is not welcoming. For pedestrians, the crossing is a game of Frogger: cars merging from every direction, multiple routes across the road, multiple medians to cling to for safety. An estimated 40,000 vehicles pass the median on a weekday, and a large number of pedestrians brave the trek from the Rosslyn Metro station to the Marine Corps War Memorial, known informally as the Iwo Jima Memorial. Not to mention that in the summer the expanse of road, and lack of shade, raise the temperature to an uncomfortable swelter.
"As a pedestrian, walking through that area is a little nerve-racking," says Robert Gay, one of the artists who designed the piece. "In larger urban areas there needs to be some softening that happens."
Gay, an Austin-based artist and architect, created the work with fellow Austin artist/architect Jack Sanders, folk artist Butch Anthony of Seale, Ala., and artist/architect Lucy Begg of Auburn University's Rural Studio, where they all met.
Their goal was to devise an environmentally sustainable piece of art for the busy intersection. During daylight hours, the exhibit looks like what it is: plastic bottles on rods arranged in a grid, with a solar panel in the corner.
"If you see it at day, you wonder what all that work was for," says Sarah Shafer, a nearby resident familiar enough with the intersection to stop and look at the art, "but at night it's really beautiful."
At night, the energy from the panel transforms the 552 bottles into a swarm of glowing baubles. The effect is enough to distract and soothe an evening pedestrian trapped in the concrete jungle of the intersection.
Rosslyn needs the distraction, as it tries to transform itself into a more residential area. Just blocks away, a massive construction pit marks the future home of Turnberry Tower, a project that bills itself as "The Tallest, Most Luxurious Bipartisan Condominium on the Washington Skyline," and indeed, its smallest condos are advertised from $800,000 and up. At prices like that, a walkable neighborhood should be a basic amenity.
After September, the future of the terrain is uncertain. "We'd love to do a permanent piece to showcase the same effects," says Gay. "The technology part of it could be modified and made into a permanent piece very easily," adds Sanders.
And unused medians are the perfect place for the transformation to begin: "You don't even notice those funny little pieces of land," says Cynthia Connolly, a photographer and artist who manages the Ellipse Gallery in Arlington (she suggested the crew from the Rural Studio for this project). "They become spaces that aren't spaces anymore. They're like lost terrain."
For the summer, at least, Rosslyn has reclaimed that island amid the asphalt.