John King:

Public in­stal­la­tions that en­rich the city

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN KING

San Fran­cisco’s public art scene is all over the map — and that’s a good thing for the city.

Visit one short stretch of Mar­ket Street and you’ll come away con­vinced that San Fran­cisco’s public art scene th­ese days is all over the map.

Which is a good thing, for the record.

At 10th and Mar­ket there’s a pocket plaza of gran­ite out­crops with car­to­graphic carv­ings at your feet. Over on Ninth Street, glass pi­anos with red metal bones are lashed to an all-glass slab 17 sto­ries high. The block in be­tween is filled by a 1937 struc­ture now home to Twit­ter, where two in­te­rior walls are adorned by 540 bronze mail­boxes scav­enged from the build­ing’s early life.

The scales and styles are as dif­fer­ent as can be. Each work pushes dif­fer­ent but­tons. What the three pieces have in com­mon is a shared de­ter­mi­na­tion not to be in­nocu­ous. In­stead, they prod us to look at where we are with sharper, smarter eyes.

The one-two-three punch was not planned; each piece was com­mis­sioned and paid for as part of one of the devel­op­ment projects fu­el­ing the re­vival of a stretch of Mar­ket long con­sid­ered dis­tant from the ac­tion,

even the du­bi­ous ac­tion a few blocks to the east. The pi­anos bun­dled tight above the side­walk are at­tached to AVA 55 Ninth, a sleek box of 273 apart­ments. Twit­ter is the main ten­ant of Mar­ket Square, a ren­o­va­tion of the one-time San Fran­cisco Mer­chan­dise Mart. The rock-hard land­scape is notched into the base of NEMA, a 35-story apart­ment tower.

My fa­vorite of the three is the lat­ter, “Promised Land,” a sub­lime yet mus­cu­lar coun­ter­point to the su­per-sized ar­chi­tec­tural ter­rain.

Amid the dark metal drama of NEMA and the terra-cotta hulk of Mar­ket Square, the small realm crafted by De­laney + Chin holds its own. The space is set apart from the side­walk by three large planter beds within slic­ing walls of light or dark gray con­crete. In be­tween each planter is a flat cut lead­ing into the plaza, paving en­graved with ar­chaic ex­cerpts from to­po­graphic maps of the Sacra­mento River and the Cal­i­for­nia coast. Within stand two 20-foot-high posts of rough gran­ite.

Dra­matic im­pact

There’s noth­ing bu­colic about this oa­sis, which in­cludes such man­nered land­scape touches as five stat­uesque bon­sai and seven enor­mous round cacti that seem to grow from a gran­ite plank. Quite the op­po­site. It’s as if ge­o­log­i­cal forces were rear­ing up from the Earth, shrug­ging off the sheen of nearby build­ings, and in­clud­ing a space of such provoca­tive in­ti­macy in the project is a credit to Han­del Ar­chi­tects and de­vel­oper Cres­cent Heights.

One block away, AVA 55 Ninth de­vel­oper Avalon Bay de­serves credit as well for se­lect­ing artists Brian Gog­gin and Dorka Keehn to con­ceive an in­stal­la­tion of 13 grav­i­ty­de­fy­ing pi­anos — even if the re­sult isn’t nearly so suc­cess­ful.

Gog­gin is best-known for “De­fen­es­tra­tion,” the star­tling as­sem­blage of fur­ni­ture that spilled over the ex­te­rior of an empty res­i­den­tial ho­tel at Sixth and Howard streets from 1997 un­til last year. It was in­tended as a short-term thing; in­stead, de­servedly, it was em­braced as a vis­ual sym­bol of South of Mar­ket’s free­wheel­ing el­e­ment of sur­prise.

The new piece is a vari­a­tion on the theme, and the ti­tle alone sends a sig­nal that some­thing is off: “... And My Room Still Rocks Like a Boat on the Sea ... (Caruso’s Dream).”

So much for the concise in­trigue of “De­fen­es­tra­tion.” And so much for the blithe dis­so­nance of a col­or­ful shower of sec­ond­hand fur­ni­ture above one of the city’s sad­dest cor­ners. The “pi­anos” of “Caruso’s Dream” (the name refers to opera singer En­rico Caruso, who was in San Fran­cisco dur­ing the 1906 earth­quake) weigh 1 ton each and con­sist of sal­vaged pieces of chicken-wire-re­in­forced glass set within frames of red steel. They’re then at­tached to the sec­ond floor of the build­ing by thick wooden struts and thick smooth rope.

I like the way the con­torted as­sem­blage shat­ters the di­vi­sions be­tween build­ing, side­walk and street. The il­lu­mi­na­tion at night within the pi­anos adds an el­e­ment of sur­prise. But there’s an over­all sense of sweat and strain; you’re not sure what you see, but you knew that it took a lot of work.

By com­par­i­son to th­ese two pieces, the in­stal­la­tion by Chris Ed­munds at Mar­ket Square, de­vel­oped by the Shoren­stein Co., is as sim­ple as can be: 18 rows of the small bronze boxes that lined the mail room of the old Mer­chan­dise Mart, 15 boxes to each row. Some jab for­ward as far as they seem­ingly can go; oth­ers nestle deep into the wall. The one vis­ual al­ter­ation is that some have tiny pan­els of re­flec­tive dichroic glass where a ten­ant’s of­fice num­ber would have gone.

Thought-pro­vok­ing

As sim­ple as this sounds, a sec­ond look stops you in your tracks. Is there a pat­tern to the stag­gered depths or the colored la­bels? And what was it like in the 1930s to live in a so­ci­ety that took for granted the ev­ery­day ar­ti­sanal craft of such de­tails as each mail­box door’s cast ea­gle and prim com­bi­na­tion lock?

Pieces like th­ese would not ex­ist with­out the city’s de­cree that 1 per­cent of a ma­jor project’s con­struc­tion bud­get be re­served for public art. The pro­gram dates back to 1985, and it’s an easy man­date to mock when you’re con­fronted by some ab­stract blob on a pedestal. But when the art­work re­frames our sur­round­ings, even for a mo­ment, it’s a re­quire­ment that pays benefits to us all.

Photos by Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

Top: The hang­ing pi­anos of “... And My Room Still Rocks Like a Boat on the Sea ... (Caruso’s Dream)” make passersby on Ninth Street take note.

Above: Artist To­pher De­laney re­plants her in­stal­la­tion “Promised Land” in front of the NEMA build­ing at 10th and Mar­ket streets.

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle Mike Kepka / The Chron­i­cle

“Promised Land” by To­pher De­laney in­cor­po­rates ar­chaic ex­cerpts from to­po­graphic maps of the Sacra­mento River and the Cal­i­for­nia coast out­side the NEMA build­ing. An in­stal­la­tion made from the old build­ing’s bronze mail­boxes glis­tens at Mar­ket Square.

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