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New Art Parks Enliven Urban Centers

October 1, 2009

By David Sokol

Just days after the July 1 opening of Citygarden in St. Louis, landscape architect Warren Byrd observed people using the sculpture park in ways he hadn’t quite imagined. A father and daughter waded in an 18-inch-deep reflecting pool while other visitors, unencumbered by do-not-touch regulations, interacted with some of the 24 sculptures by artists such as Jim Dine and Martin Puryear. “There’s a real hunger,” Byrd says, “for these amenities in this context.”

Art Parks
Image courtesy Gateway Foundation
Click on the slide show icon to view images of Citygarden (above), Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Dilworth Plaza, and Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park.
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This context is a two-block swath of Gateway Mall, a public space that extends 1.1 miles west of the famous Gateway Arch. Located in the heart of St. Louis, the mall has been underused for decades; Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor for development, once referred to it as an obstacle bifurcating downtown. The $30 million, 2.9-acre park, designed by Virginia-based Nelson Byrd Woltz and funded by the Gateway Foundation, is helping change that perception. “With one stroke, Citygarden has made downtown so much more attractive as a place to do business. And as a place to live, too,” Mayor Francis Slay said during the opening ceremony.

It isn’t the only downtown district recently renewed by a design intervention involving sculpture and landscape. Coming on the heels of successful precedents such as Millennium Park in Chicago (2004) and Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park (2007), urban art parks are invigorating city centers across the country.

In late September, Des Moines saw the much-anticipated opening of the 4.4-acre John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Featuring 24 pieces donated by the Pappajohns, local philanthropists, the project was designed by New York architects Diana Agrest, FAIA, and Mario Ganelsonas, AIA, who developed a master plan for Des Moines in the early 1990s. The park offers users of the downtown district the twin benefits of high-quality outdoor space and fine art. “This provides us an ability to reach an audience that would think to come to a beautiful public space, but might not consider visiting the museum,” says Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Arts Center, which contributed $6.1 million to the project.

For its pending reconstruction of Dilworth Plaza, located in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall, KieranTimberlake, working with the landscape architecture firm Olin, will “restore to prominence the extraordinary public art program of Alexander [Stirling] Calder,” says partner Stephen Kieran, FAIA, referring to the sculptor who created many installations for Philadelphia. (Calder’s son, Alexander Calder, was the famous artist best known for his mobiles.) The Dilworth Plaza scheme calls for a lawn, large fountain, and two glass pavilions that will serve as a subway-station entrance.  

And the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park—adjacent to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and opening in June 2010—will draw people to central Indianapolis. Lisa Freiman, park director and IMA curator, plans to rotate site-specific commissions through the 100-acre parcel, with a Marlon Blackwell-designed visitor center providing one constant.

Indeed, while this new spate of parks reflects the continuing revitalization of American cities, it also amplifies the phenomenon. Besides filling in gaps in the urban fabric, they are generating all-new commitments to it. For instance, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is developing a new building adjacent to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. “The potential success is enormous,” Fleming says, “so maybe more museums and cities will follow this lead.”

Correction: There are 24 pieces of art in the Pappjohn Sculpture Park, not 16 as originally stated.

Clarification: The original story did not mention that Olin is working with KieranTimberlake on the Dilworth Plaza project.

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