On 8 September 2016, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego, which may be the most litigated religious symbol in America, is here to stay. Set aside for a moment matters about separation of church and state on the coast of California and specific features that were part of the recent controversy, and an opportunity emerges to reflect on the role of the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla’s larger assemblage of religious art, which includes University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, Snake Path, and the neon Virtues and Vices.
Assemblage is the art of proximity. Objects that individually evoke one meaning or experience when put in proximity to other things can change or expand that meaning or experience. Assemblage art can be a flower arrangement, a collage of images framed on a wall, or the placement of buildings or sculpture in artistic relationship to each other. Few people notice that in 1992, Alexis Smith, one of California’s most famous collage/assemblage artists, pulled together her grandest assemblage by uniting two buildings and the cross with her Snake Path on the ridge above La Jolla.
The Snake Path that unites the work was the last part constructed. The first was the cross on Mount Soledad; at 824 feet, it stands as the highest promontory on the coast that sits south of Orange County’s San Joaquin Hills. At 422 feet, Point Loma rises only half the height of Mount Soledad; and further north, Palos Verdes rises only a quarter the height (220 feet).
La Jolla was a bit of a bohemia before settling into its wealth. Molly McClain, a historian at the University of San Diego, quotes Ellen Scripps describing La Jolla as “a woman’s town.”1 As a progressive colony, it was friendly to spiritualists, scientists, theosophists, painters, and poets. But bohemia symbolically gave way to mainline Protestant culture when in 1913 a large wooden cross was placed in a reigning position on Mount Soledad. In 1954, the wooden cross was replaced with the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete cross of mid-century modern design drawn by a prominent local architect named Donald Campbell. Like many of the coastal enclaves founded by progressive-minded, university-trained folks, La Jolla has a long history of racism, especially against Jews and East Asians. As a kind of post-1960s university-town backlash against its racist history, La Jollans, concerned about civil rights and separation of church and state, started in 1989 what became a long-standing ruckus demanding that the cross be taken down. Like all good art, the work is too meaningful. It communicates too much too well.
The UC San Diego library opened in 1970 and is a stunningly sculptured building. Its shape has become the UCSD brand image, designed by California’s most famous mid-century modernist, William Pereira. His work on the California Bight includes the initial designs of University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Irvine; the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University; the urban plan of Irvine; and the unfulfilled island plan for Santa Catalina Island. His most iconic buildings in California are San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, the spider-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and UCSD’s central Library. Describing his design for the UCSD library, Pereira said he was sculpting a building inspired by hands joined at the wrist, fingers spreading wide, “holding aloft knowledge itself.”2
How did the library turn from cupped hands into the tree that is now the image most often associated with the library? Pereira thought up the cupped hands, and it fit his mental conception of a university; however, the site of the library screams trees to those who visit and listen. UCSD was built in the midst of a large forest of eucalyptus trees, and in 1983 the Stuart Collection of public art commissioned Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, an installation designed to enhance the experience of UCSD’s eucalyptus trees. A few years later, one of Robert Irwin’s students from when he taught for a short time at UC Irvine, Alexis Smith, was asked to produce another installation for the Stuart Collection. Irwin and Smith had studios near each other in Venice where, in the decades after World War II, a new artistic bohemia gathered that shared many ideas about how to think about art and themselves as artists.
Robert Irwin wrote in 1985 about how a sculpture should be “conditioned/determined” by its site. “This means,” he wrote, “sitting, watching, walking through the site, the surrounding areas…the city at large or countryside.”3 At UCSD, Irwin sat, watched, walked, and understood that it was the forest of eucalyptus trees that would determine his work. In the same way, Alexis Smith would have felt the same thing sitting, watching, and walking around the library, which itself in turn became conditioned and even determined by the trees; and the library as a tree—the tree of life, the tree of knowledge—would then condition and determine the Snake Path.
Another aspect of their thought was that an artist needs to get out of the way of art. Irwin in the late 1950s and 1960s became very interested in Zen Buddhism and went so far in his anti-individualist notions of art that he stopped signing his paintings. Art must increase, and the ego of the artist must decrease.4 Sharing in these artistic ideals, Alexis Smith, in a 2010 interview available on YouTube, says that she thinks of herself as a novelist who lets a story lead her rather than the other way around. She wants art to reveal itself through her work. The meaning of art, she declared, should be cultural, not personal. She tells viewers that she is not interested in herself or what she thinks. In her work as an assemblage artist, she works within the “pool of cultural information,” the stories that cultures carry through time.5 In the video, she talks specifically about the small-framed assemblages she creates; but at UCSD, she tapped into the great tradition of a snake at the center of Western culture’s religious story of sin, disease, health, salvation, and redemption.
To those of us who visit the UCSD library, the Snake Path sucks everything around it into its narrative. Deep culture calls out in a religious tableau of tree, snake, and granite statue of a book marked clearly as Paradise Lost. That Smith so obviously calls visitors to John Milton’s classic story of the birth of sin and sickness also demands, artistically, a fuller story of the tree in Eden being linked to the cross on Golgotha. Get above the eucalyptus trees that encircle the Snake Path in the upper floors of the library and the Mount Soledad cross rules the skyline. Tree and cross, in the deep literary culture derived from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are types and antitypes that link history together. Early on, soon after the death of Christ, the stories of tree and cross were linked as antitypes: through the tree of disobedience in Eden came sin and death, and through the cross/tree of obedience on Golgotha comes salvation and life. Add to this someone standing at the end of the snake’s tail and looking away from the library is staring directly at another piece in the Stuart Collection: Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues, the seven-foot-tall neon banner finished in 1988 that wraps the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory with Christianity’s seven vices and seven virtues. The snake’s body, then, links artwork about humanity’s ethical choices to the ultimate choice of disobedience or obedience at the snake’s head and in the distance on Mount Soledad.
It is significant that Smith inscribed a quote onto the granite oversized sculpture of Paradise Lost that stands, encircled, half way up by the snake’s body. The quote offers some meaning to the whole assemblage: Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far. When my students—and probably most passers-by—read it, they usually assume this is what the snake says to the biblical character Eve and believe that it is a promise to individuals about finding happiness—but it is not. In Paradise Lost, an angel says this line to Adam in a manner that draws in all creation. The quote on the book sculpture, then, hints to the cross on Mount Soledad off in the distance. This quote comes at the culmination of Milton’s epic when the archangel Michael tells Adam about the future coming of Christ and the eventual salvation of all creation. The angel Michael tells him of the redemption of the Earth:
…for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier daies.
Adam then declares, speaking for himself and all who follow him, his final speech:
Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.
Did Alexis Smith in 1992 plan to use the Snake Path to link the engineering building to the library in the context of the Mount Soledad cross? Maybe. By her own standards, it does not matter what she thought. The Mount Soledad cross is the dominant work of art that towers over Smith’s Snake Path. If Smith sat in, walked, watched, and listened at the site, then the cross, the library shape, and the Vices and Virtues might have consciously or unconsciously conditioned/determined what story would be artistically told on that site without her fully knowing it. A novelist can set up a story without knowing its ending or its full meaning. The La Jolla ridge itself might demand something about which an artist has only an inkling. Whatever the initial consciousness, we can recognize today that the La Jolla ridge has inscribed into it a massive work of religious art on the California coast. Although today it is hard to see all four parts from the ground, the whole assemblage is readily visible to airplane pilots, UFOs, angels, and anyone with access to Google Earth. Maybe it is best to think of this assemblage as a grand quadrapartite-geoglyph, bigger than the ancient Blythe Geoglyphs in the desert near the Colorado River and the ancient Serpent Mound in Ohio. However one thinks about it, we should recognize that the cross on Mount Soledad has a larger role as religious art than merely proclaiming Protestantism’s supposed cultural dominance over La Jolla.
1 Molly McClain, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment,” The Journal of San Diego History 56 (2010): 17.
2 James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2002), 148.
3 Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries: With Essays by Hugh M. Davies and Robert Irwin (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 180.
Rick Kennedy is a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Educated at UCSB, mostly under cultural and architectural historian Harold Kirker, he recently published The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).
University of California, Berkeley campus, viewed from the east circa 1874. Photograph courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
Editor’s note: In 1873 when California’s flagship public university moved to its present location, then part of Oakland Township, the edges of its campus were open to the ranchland surrounding it. The university profoundly shaped the city that incorporated as the Town of Berkeley five years after the campus arrived.
By contrast, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) was established in a dense urban neighborhood at a time of political turmoil and violence in 1969. The windowless facades of the museum complex appear designed for defensibility, facing downtown Oakland streets and Lake Merritt with walls of raw concrete.
It would be too simple to describe one campus as open and the other as closed. While urban form influences dynamics among institutions and their cities, it does not determine them, and both the university and the museum have a complex history of interactions with their settings. Now, both institutions are examining their connections to their publics and the relationships among their internal and external constituencies.
The Oakland Museum of California, known for its innovative programming in art, history, and natural history, has asked the university to help find ways to better integrate both physically and culturally with its city. As the process begins, the university is discovering that engaging in this conversation is helping highlight important questions about its own function in the urban East Bay and beyond.
In a course sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, Landscape Architecture Professor Walter Hood will ask students to examine the museum and its neighborhoods in order to come up with proposals for change. Hood works on projects ranging from city-scale master plans to site plans to art installations and is known for his focus on the human element in design.
OMCA Executive Director Lori Fogarty says that addressing questions of art, economics, identity, gentrification, and environmental change requires approaches from multiple disciplines. “We hope that the Museum can serve as a new kind of town square or public plaza for Oakland, connecting our campus with Lake Merritt, the adjacent civic buildings, the BART station and the surrounding neighborhoods. Our work with Walter, with UC Berkeley, and with other partners involved with social practice and creative place-making inspires us to consider the Museum in a different way—and to, as Walter says, ‘dream big.’ Our city and our community need and deserve big dreams—and that requires that we all work together with boldness, courage, and imagination.”
University of California, Berkeley, Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts and Design Shannon Jackson recently spoke with Walter Hood at his Oakland studio about how the arts and humanities and design can work together to illuminate urban experience.
Shannon Jackson: As an artist and designer, you have created award-winning landscape designs for many museums and cultural organizations (notably the de Young here in the Bay Area). How does this project compare to other museum projects? How does it compare to other landscape projects in the public realm?
Walter Hood: Looking back, I realize this never began as a “professional project.” There was never a call that specified a particular problem that wanted a particular solution. Mark Cavagnero’s [architecture] firm had just finished renovation of the galleries, so there was a sense that I might be on call to clean up the exterior spaces. But really, even if I was tasked with the “gardens,” it never began as [a contract to design a space].
Jackson: It seems like your conversations with OMCA also coincided with a moment when they had started to think more expansively about the identity and function of “the Museum.”
Hood: Exactly. And I really think that it was in that spirit that OMCA brought me on board. It wasn’t simply that I was the “landscape architect”; I was being brought in to explore the future of the museum. That was also a time when Rene de Guzman [senior curator of art] had just moved onto the staff. They were commissioning artists—local artists—to create text pieces and sound pieces that had this exploratory function for the museum as an institution.
Jackson: And you were there as a partner artist, but in a context where the “artist” has a different function. The artist isn’t brought in to make work to hang in a gallery or install in a garden, but you were brought in to help trigger new thoughts and behaviors about what a museum gallery or a museum garden might be.
Hood: Right, and the thing is, with bringing me in as an “artist,” I was also allowed to have a different kind of relationship to my own design practice. I wasn’t ever presented with a practical document that asked me to “fix something.” Instead, I could allow my own practice to be more speculative, to allow speculation to be part of my practice. This project is one where I was able to say: my firm is not “a landscape design” firm; we are an “art and design” firm that makes things in landscape.
Jackson: A big conceptual shift.
Hood: Huge. It wasn’t that we were presented with a problem to solve. Instead, we could use the Oakland Museum to propose a set of questions that we wanted to ask. It all unfolded from there. At each part of the process, we learned things; each step forced us to see things in a different way, which in turn produced new questions. For example, what happens when we go from thinking about “the gardens in the museum” to “the museum in the city?”
Jackson: The museum as an institution sited in a particular location.
Hood: Yes, and once we did that, we had to ask, why here? And why would the city’s residents come? Which in turn made us realize that in order to locate the museum in the city, we also had to find the city in the museum.
Jackson: You had to think about how this museum operates, presents itself, behaves internally and externally as a civic entity.
Hood: Yep, and if you’re going to get it to behave differently, what do you have to work with? So we looked at this hermetic box, the Brutalist energy of the museum’s architecture, and then we had to get to a point where we were breaking out of the box. We were never thinking, this is a bad museum, or this is a good museum. It was more like—what do we have? What can we work with?
Photograph of Shannon Jackson and Walter Hood by Lan Ly.
Jackson: And in answering that question, it seems like you expanded the “what,” expanded the circumference of what you decided you were “working with.” At one point, I remember you did a charrette with some of us on the concept of “a sculpture garden” for the exterior spaces, and you realized that this project wasn’t just a sculpture garden.
Hood: No, it couldn’t be. In fact, the circumference of the “garden” needs to change. I’ve had to start thinking about wider exteriors, larger parts of the city. And now we’re thinking about this whole area, this neighborhood, or district, around the museum, around Lake Merritt. What if we could think about this whole area as “a park?”
Jackson: As if this museum is actually inside a larger park within the city of Oakland. It’s as if it’s inside a park that we don’t quite see yet. In trying to find the city in the museum, you end up asking for the city to rethink itself as well.
Hood: And that’s what I mean about a speculative process. Every step of the way, there has been a new revelation. It’s about learning from each step and then redirecting the process as you learn. It happened with everything. We started to think about the accessibility of the ramps, which then made us think about how we could open up the museum bunker to the neighborhood, which then led us to think about our neighbors—Where is Laney College? Where is the BART? At another point, we opened a conversation with OMCA staff, each of whom brought their own idiosyncratic goals. For instance, some staff told me they wanted a “children’s garden.” OK, wow, what does that idea do? Let’s go down that road for a bit.
Jackson: Once your practice starts to have this propositional character, this “speculative” character, is it hard to return to the land of execution? Or is it easier once you have found a new way to reframe the project?
Hood: This is a thing I struggle with in my studio. How can you be efficient and still be speculative? It’s hard to find people who can work with this ambiguity and still be “practical” within the practice. I mean, there is still something you need to deliver at the end of the day. But right now, this double quality is what interests me most. Whether you call it social practice, or something else, I want to work with people who can tolerate ambiguity, who welcome ambiguity, but who can also be disciplined about the practice. It’s hard to create the context for that, but that is what I hope we can create with the studio and with the university.
Jackson: To some degree, you’re talking about a mix of practices and sensibilities that we are trying to create within the “urban humanities” at Berkeley, joining the humanities, arts, and environmental design. Some people think that certain humanities and conceptual art disciplines are better at the speculative, while others in design are better at execution and practice. But you seem to be trying to blow apart those stereotypes.
Hood: I need it all. This is why I did an MFA and what my work with [public art curator and critic] Mary Jane Jacobs was about. There was something I learned being in an art context that helped me thinking differently about the ideas, about how to communicate ideas in my work. You think about Kant, on the known and the unknown; how do you allow the known and the unknown to engage one another in your art practice?
Jackson: Kant was always one for asking, not what we know, but how we know. Or how we know what we think we know.
Hood: And that’s speculation. That’s what you have to be open to in a creative practice. You might think that you “know” the problem, that you know the limits of “reality” and what’s practical.
Jackson: But oddly enough, being open to the unknown might actually allow you to find a new conception of what’s practical.
Hood: Right. In fact, I’m working on a new book right now that draws from my old MFA thesis where I’m trying to describe this. [Walter begins drawing a horizontal line with points of demarcation.] So in a traditional design process, you think you’re supposed to go from here to there. Along this linear process, there are points in the road. You get the money; you deliver the concept; you do the fabrication; you do the installation. But the fact is that between any of these points, there are opportunistic moments where you can move away [Walter draws vertical lines], where you can allow for a speculative moment to take the project somewhere else. And you need to allow yourself to go there, while also knowing how you’re going to get back. But before you cross immediately into the next phase, you need to do that exploration; that’s a crucial point of bifurcation. You can take the project somewhere else as long as you know how to get back.
Jackson: So speculation isn’t the opposite of discipline.
Hood: You can only be speculative because you’re disciplined. I’m finding that a lot of people today—professionals, even some students—they have never actually done anything. Everything exists too much in an abstract context. I remember learning to sew when I was a kid. I remember being fascinated by the double stitch. And once I learned how to sew, I never asked my mother to mend my clothes again. Once you learn something, a skill, a practice, that kind of learning is applicable to lots of other things. I think another thing you learn is the time it takes to get something done. I remember learning the time it would take to hem something. I remember learning the time it would take to draw something. And even having that sense of time helps me feel comfortable taking time to speculate; it freed me to keep imagining.
Jackson: It frees you to imagine when you also know how to get something done. Walter, I just want to note that you have been articulating some of the core principles of creative pedagogy. You’re talking about how a creative practice taught you discipline, how it taught you self-reliance, and how it allowed you to join the act of thinking with the act of doing, joining ambiguity and practicality. And how it taught you time management. Just saying.
Hood: I’m blown away by that temporal investment. It happens in everything I do. I can imagine something new because I have confidence that I know how much time it takes to get stuff done.
Exterior of Oakland Museum of California, with yellow peace symbol and other art just over the wall. Photograph courtesy of OMCA.
Jackson: As someone who teaches and writes about artists who work in this larger field of “social practice” and socially engaged art, your impulse to expand the parameters of the art work are incredibly resonant. Some of the most interesting social practice projects are those that ask big questions about where the artwork ends and the social context begins. You’re pushing at those boundaries and scales at every step—moving from the garden to the museum to the district to the city to the park. It’s as if the local geography and the city space are functioning as a kind of artistic material.
Hood: And that’s the kind of practice we want to teach this fall. In the studio course that I’m creating for Berkeley, the OMCA project will be at the center. And the idea is to marry the arts and environmental design, through a strong social art and design framework. So again, what do we have to work with? [Walter starts to draw the district. He draws Lake Merritt, shaped as a heart in the center.] I always draw the lake as a heart. And so then you’ve got these regions all around it. I draw them like petals. You’ve got the business district; you’ve got the Lake Merritt district; the East Oakland Brooklyn Basin, and then you have the Waterfront and Estuary. As far as the arts and environmental design, then, we have four petals. I want to use the course to have the students decide what principles define the edge of the petals. What is in and out, and why?
Jackson: What’s an example of a possible principle?
Hood: Well, one really might have to do with climate, with sea level rise, and what it does to the ecologies within the petals. Depending upon whether you are lower or higher relative to the Bay, the whole ecology around you is changing. Where I live now, animals and birds wake me up every morning who never used to be around. Here at the office (in West Oakland) we’re starting to notice seagulls and crows, big black scavenger birds, coming here for the garbage and because the climate is changing. They’re part of a new food chain.
Jackson: So the studio course with Berkeley students will give them a concrete project that builds pragmatic skills and conceptual skills. It occurs to me that the OMCA project could have an effect on UC Berkeley that is similar to the one it has with the city of Oakland; it’s a chance for all these regional partners to ask ourselves “what do we have?” and “what can we work with?”
Hood: Yes, if I bring a Berkeley student to this district in Oakland, what does that mean? If I want students to see themselves as part of that community, what does that mean? For instance, if we spend one day of the class at the university, and one day physically in Oakland, how does that change the nature of the practice? How does that change our collective sense of space and of the region?
Jackson: And what might it be to create a “binding aesthetic” amongst the university and this district, or a “binding aesthetic” amongst the higher education sector, the museum sector, and the civic community?
Hood: So let’s figure out how we get that to happen philosophically and politically, as well as practically. I think we need to teach them ethnographic skills, both to reflect on themselves as well as the people they are meeting. To have them read Tally’s Corner [Elliot Liebow’s classic 1967 study of “Negro streetcorner men”] along with some of the newer urban ethnographies. I’m thinking of asking if we can have a studio space inside OMCA, or somewhere in this district. The students are used to collecting data and bringing it back to campus to model something in studio. What if we had a pedagogical space on site?
Jackson: Site-specific pedagogy. What are some of the other things that you’ll have the students do?
Hood: Well, my firm has already done some basic studies that we will give to them, about the metrics, size, and capacities of different places in the petals. We want to get the students to look around and ask, why do people want to be here? What is the lynchpin that is getting them to want to be there? If you take the time, really spend a full amount of time in a space, you’ll start to realize what’s happening. There’s this ledge in the Business District of Oakland around Seventeenth Street that attracts the most amazingly diverse group of people. It’s this ledge that people lean on because of what they get to see there—from this certain spot, you can see into other businesses, you can see into a second floor of another building where people can see you. It’s this beautiful little section of the city where the architecture and the sociology are intersecting, and you see all of these beautiful relationships.
Jackson: So the social is getting explored as much as the spatial.
Hood: And there are other spaces. Like this housing tower that surrounds a courtyard, and that courtyard has this fountain where you see such an amazing multigenerational assembly and different ethnicities. We have to think about how people are defining their spaces, and building relationships within those spaces.
Jackson: There are some clear points of connection to the humanities in those ideas. First, there is a “discursive” connection, how do we consciously or unconsciously name and define our world. And then there is “relational” element, about how design reflects or transforms the social relationships amongst humans and other living beings.
Hood: On the first one, I’ve been thinking about a difference between conscious hybrids and unconscious hybrids. We have conscious ways of defining a hybrid experience. The “street” is a conscious hybrid. The “park” is a conscious hybrid.
Jackson: Just to rephrase to be sure I understand. These are conscious—socially acceptable, normalized ways of defining spaces where we have “hybrid” experiences of difference, of diversity. The street, the park.
Hood: Right, so where might be the “unconscious” hybrids? First of all, is the idea of “The Park” still valid? And then, might there be different ways of naming other spaces where we experience hybridity? Unconscious hybrids are more fertile, because they are attempting to create new meanings, new words. How do you feel? How do you react to something? Can we understand nascent or latent ecologies?
Aerial view of Oakland Museum of California. Photograph provided by OMCA.
Jackson: So-called natural and so-called social systems have their own way of assembling, so are we arriving at new experiences of that hybridity unconsciously?
Hood: Exactly. So how do we name that? And what are the principles for defining it? What was your second humanities connection?
Jackson: The relational element, the social element. Which frankly is also an art element.
Hood: Got it. In my practice at Hood Design, I always want to think about the social element, the humanist element—of the neighborhood, the museum, of the university. I’m interested in people, and Berkeley is a place that should be designing for people.
Jackson: That theme appears in so many conversations I have about Berkeley’s role in the future of arts and design education. Everyone is reminding me that Berkeley’s focus on people and publics distinguishes it from other places where creativity is more privatized, a less socially responsive endeavor.
Hood: It’s absolutely the case. I see it all the time in every thing we do, everything our students do. It’s how we are wired. It’s in the DNA of Berkeley. And I have to say it annoys me when people introduce me at other universities or design events, and they will usually say something like: “Walter is interested in people.” Why is it unusual for Walter to be interested in people? Shouldn’t all designers be interested in people? It’s a kind of marginalization. As if, because I’m dealing with people, I must not be doing design. That’s the beauty of moving into an artistic context, because I find more people are empowered there to make a humanist discovery. You know, in an art context and in a humanities context, difference is a good thing. Difference generates new thinking.
Jackson: That’s hybridity.
Hood: Of course, but in a design context, people often think difference is a problem, something you have to get past or get over. If you bring in different people, we all start to see things that we hadn’t seen before. To me, that is the exciting thing; that’s what design should be about. Difference reveals a new unknown. If you know what it is going to be before you start, why do it?
Jackson: And that gives you a new sense of what might be possible. You know, throughout this conversation, you have been challenging assumptions that many hold, the notion that the designers are the practical and functional people and that artists are the impractical people.
Hood: It’s the opposite to a certain degree.
Jackson: I wonder too about the humanities, about the impulse to think historically and philosophically about design, about the practicality of that exercise.
Hood: You know, being an African American male, I had to find a way to find myself in art. I needed a tangible way to be part of the conversation. And I feel that I really got that at Berkeley; when I was a student, I heard Spiro Kostov talking about history and architecture. He talked about Mussolini, and the “Third Rome,” and about Mussolini creating his own narrative through buildings, that there were ideas in buildings. OK, it’s not that I agreed with Mussolini, but I just had never heard anyone talk like that, this notion that ideas could be reinforced in space. I learned about Modernism, about what people thought could be done, politically and socially, through architecture. I thought, wow, these people were optimistic! So weirdly enough, I felt that the tenets of Modernism actually included me. And I read Dell Upton on the shotgun houses and the diaspora from Haiti. I learned that you are in conversation with a context, whether you like it or not.
Jackson: “You are in conversation with a context whether you like it or not.” Let’s remind ourselves that that happens to be a fundamental lesson of the humanities.
Hood: Yeah, so for me, the humanities element is welcome, because a different kind of agency becomes available to you. It’s a different kind of information that comes to you. It allows for a bifurcation in the process actually. The ideas aren’t accessories. They can change the process, and you have to be ready for that conversation.
Jackson: Maybe we can close by returning to this partnership between UC Berkeley and OMCA, between a museum and public higher education. It is a really interesting moment right now, because we see the education sector thinking about how to cultivate creativity, while we simultaneously see the museum sector influenced by the so-called “educational turn.” Institutions like Berkeley are rethinking pedagogy just as museums are trying to be pedagogical. It seems like we have an opportunity here for mutual, reciprocal transformation.
Hood: Museums have had to redefine themselves; they have had to become new transformative institutions. They realize that they have to serve this civic function out of need, because we have lost so many other public institutions. I think about the loss of the community organizations that were part of my life. I spent my summers in the arts clubs of the Scudder Public Housing project in New Jersey. It might not have been great housing, but every morning, we got up and went to the community center, and I made a bunch of bad clay bowls, painted, and did ceramics.
I can’t imagine where I’d be if it weren’t for publicly funded summer art programs. And let’s face it, all those programs are gone. We had them in Oakland, and so many of them are gone. So museums have opened themselves up to artists and the community to help the museum learn to be more collaborative, to be partners, to be neighbors, to pick up the slack where our public institutions have been dismantled. And they bring an artistic practice into what used to be a static context. Most museums would rather be part of an active process; they need to be dynamic—and pedagogical—in order to stay relevant.
Aerial view of attendees gathered for an event at the entrance to the Oakland Museum of California. Photograph provided by OMCA.
Walter Hood is professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, and urban design at University of California, Berkeley. He is principal of Hood Design, a cultural practice based in Oakland.
Shannon Jackson is professor of rhetoric and theater, dance, and performance studies at University of California, where she is also associate vice chancellor for the Arts and Design and director of the Arts Research Center.
Jonathan Banfill Angélica Becerra Jeannette MundyIn 2016, the borders that divide cities in California and Mexico (and even internally divide each city) grow wider and harder to cross. These borders include the US-Mexico border, which for centuries was little more than an imaginary line on a map, but now are violently drawn in the landscape out of rusty steel, barbed wire, and police. But they are also conceptual, cultural, linguistic, and occasionally pragmatic. What is the role of California’s public universities in addressing these borders?We need to develop the tools that will enable an alternative way to produce knowledge—one that co-creates with community organizations by combining scholarly, artistic, and activist practices with one another. The images that follow not only represent the near future of such knowledge production, they aim to create it. Produced in both Los Angeles and Mexico City, they sit at the nexus of learning the city and simultaneously intervening within it, seeking out an established network between these two places from which to draw and on which to build. This network was made up of too many actors to count, although the primary ones included LIGA, Casa Gallina, and Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City, and Self Help Graphics and Art, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, From Lot to Spot, and Libros Schmibros in Los Angeles. Of course, no place is ever left untouched by those who try such interventions: we, too, as a research group from UCLA, became yet one more of the many intimacies between Los Angeles and Mexico City.
These images provide glimpses from a near future that has begun to dismantle the barriers within and between Los Angeles and Mexico City, building bridges instead. There is a new body of practical learning made up of this and other networks, one that stretches deeply across the region to produce poetics for understanding and changing both the city already present and the city yet to come.
LA 24: We All Can Get Along Here, a thick map juxtaposes the Olympics, which are planned for 2024, with the social and environmental justice histories of South Los Angeles. Do these conversations have a place with an event that purports to celebrate athletic achievement, world peace, and human life? Image by Heidi Alexander, William Davis, Louis Monteils, and Chantiri Duran Resendiz.
Lotería Urbana. Lotería is a traditional bingo game common in Mexico City. Here it has been developed into a platform for community engagement in Los Angeles and Mexico City, representing a world where alternative reality gaming can bring neighbors closer together. Image by Angélica Becerra and William Davis.
Is the spatially determined appropriation of sensorial experiences an (in)formal tool of political resistance? In Mexico City, there is a visual onslaught of signage and text, even in public parks, where street vendors have staked a claim. Here is a visual poem that questions our assumption that these signs are merely signs—instead, they are multiplied as instruments that can intervene in power dynamics as a political tool of the disenfranchised. Image by Kendy Rivera.
Can I share electricity with you? This visual poem shows a world where the unending mess of power cables that snake across any street vending spot in Mexico City are coalesced into a single totality. Perhaps this everyday act of sharing resources is actually one that could be politically revolutionary. Image by Benjamin Kolder.
Can a seemingly meaningless tarp be a political tool? In interviews, UCLA researchers discovered an unspoken dance at the Plaza Santísima in Mexico City. Vendors use tarps to wage a secret war with city officials, raising the tarp when their demands are met and lowering it as an act of political resistance. Here, a visual poem pulls this latent reality to the fore. Image by LeighAnna Hildalgo.
Boyle Heights en Movimiento What if cyclists felt as if they owned the streets of Los Angeles? Here, bikers not only visible make themselves but celebrate their place on the street in Boyle Heights and greater Los Angeles—are you one of these bikers? Image by Lucy Seena K Lin and Jeannette Mundy.
Peatonito and the Peatoniños Mexico City safe-street personality with his new taskforce of urban advocates. Photograph by Jeff Newton.
Peatoniños Visual material from Peatoniños, an event that imagined what it would mean for children to have a right to the street. Peatonito, a local celebrity in Mexico City who advocates for street safety, and his taskforce invited children to play in a protected street, liberating it from cars for play. Image by Devin Koba.
Erasure Film documenting racial and environmental erasure in and around La Placita, Los Angeles. Image by LeighAnna Hildalgo, Andrew Ko, Paola Mendez, and Teo Wickland.
Jonathan Banfill is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on interdisciplinary higher education across Asia Pacific.
Angélica Becerra is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. She is studying Chicano art in solidarity with international struggles.
Jeannette Mundy is a master’s of architecture student at University of California, Los Angeles, from Los Angeles.
Maricela Becerra Cat Callaghan Will Davis Grace Ko Benjamin Kolder Alejandro Ramirez MendezIt is two-thirty in the afternoon on Sunday, 22 May 2016. You walk west down First Street, through Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. You can see downtown on the horizon from the crossroads of Boyle Avenue and First Street directly ahead of you. Walking through Mariachi Plaza in the glare of a Sunday afternoon, you hear cheering, then quiet, then laughter, then quiet, then singing. Children’s voices come from the kiosk, a raised pavilion that was a gift from the State of Jalisco in 1998 and built in traditional Mexican style from Cantera, using the same stone the pre-Colombian Toltecs used for their pyramids. Approaching the kiosk, you realize it is filled with people, a mix of ages. They are hushed, their attention fixed on a woman reading to them.This scene describes a children’s storytelling hour, the result of a collaboration between six UCLA researchers and Libros Schmibros, an independent bookstore and lending library in Boyle Heights, which took place over four months in 2016. The project explored how small-scale, staged literary interventions like a storytelling hour could have a productive impact on a given community. The initiative came about as a way to promote something we call “literary justice.”
Literary justice is premised on the idea of a culture that embraces stories as a part of life as part of a community-building effort. It is achieved when all members of a community have equal access to books and stories, and it stems from numerous studies that demonstrate that a person’s access to literature is a strong indicator for a host of quality-of-life measures.1 A robust public library system is an important tool in the fight for literary justice, but in cities like Los Angeles, busy families often struggle to use a public library system that was not designed to accommodate them. The limited availability of books and magazines, limited open times, hard-to-reach-library branches, and even a lack of knowledge of where library branches are located all limit the utility of libraries, as do lack of time and money, illiteracy, and a passion for books that has not yet been sparked in every member of the community.
So instead of focusing on physical libraries—or even physical books—we chose to focus our work with Libros Schmibros on stories. By bringing books and stories out of the library and into the neighborhood, we hoped that literacy and community engagement might build on one another in more imaginative ways. We devised a project that had two components—La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box) and La Hora Mágica (the Magic Hour)—aimed to expand the conventional notion of what a library could be by shifting the focus from books to storytelling. A small gathering telling stories becomes a performance: the sidewalk becomes a space of cultural production, changing the cultural practices of the neighborhood. Essentially, it becomes a library.
In Seeking Spatial Justice, Edward Soja introduces the idea of space as subject to forces that allow resources to be distributed unevenly and allow certain services to be granted only to the privileged.2 Literary injustice, therefore, describes forms of cultural, geographic, and social segregation that affect a community’s access to literary activities. In this sense, literary justice looks to break chains of inaccessibility and to empower community members by creating access funded by new paths of literary distribution.
Literary justice focuses on those places or social strata where access to literature has been diminished by economic or political decisions of the city. If “those who live in the city,” as Mark Purcell suggests, “contribute to the body of urban lived experience and lived space,”3 where does the experience of reading and storytelling fit into urban space? Claiming a space for books in the city is a way for a community to claim the right to be educated.
This in turn, led us to ask the following: Is our city designed for reading? Is public space planned for sharing stories? Is the act of reading aloud perceivable in Los Angeles? Literary justice promotes the importance of reading in the public realm as a means to enhance and empower community participation in public space.
Today’s public libraries serve as a basis for disseminating ideas to the community while providing a secure reservoir for books, magazines, or newspapers. However, as an enclosed, institutional space, it is functionally limited by its location, format, hours, and programs offered. Mobile libraries, on the other hand, represent a practical way to bring the book and the pleasure of literature to different communities. Projects such as the American Bookmobile service in the 1950s symbolized a way of assisting communities outside the boundaries of public library branches.4 However, mobile libraries themselves are limited by their small size and lack of vital resources a full-service public library can provide, such as trained children’s librarians. How can people access books and storytelling activities in public space? Can creatively implemented literary justice embedded into the cultural practices of an urban space such as Boyle Heights foster spatial justice?
La Caja Mágica is the heart of the project. Inspired by art projects such as The Dumpling Express (by the Berlin architecture office, Something Fantastic) and Olafur Eliasson’s Mirror Bikes, La Caja Mágica is a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience. What looks at first like a strange, mirrored, rolling two-foot cube is in fact a storytelling box of tricks, containing books, puppets, and gifts. It is a box, but it is also a seat for a storyteller. It is an object, but also a location.
When children approach it, they see themselves playing in its mirrored surface. This dazzling effect seeks to pay homage to the visual aspects of a neighborhood, blending strangely with its surroundings, appearing imperceptible. Like the gleaming boxes of magicians, it attracts and generates expectation and curiosity among children and adults alike.
Once it is open, the box—lined with artificial turf—provides a place for the storyteller to sit and to store the books that will later be distributed to the audience. The turf and green seating mats transform the gray sidewalk into something almost park-like. The goal of La Caja Mágica is to transform a common environment into a micro library—or into a space apt for magical storytelling. The action of transforming the surroundings of the box into a whimsical environment becomes in itself a simulacrum of the cultural imaginary of telling stories in the middle of the forest. It transports these activities from the seclusion of enclosed space to the open communal environment of the public space. It also plays—in a minimalistic way—with the basic conditions needed to transform any space into a library.
Displaying La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box), a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience.
Displaying La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box), a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience.
In 2006, the Mexican artist Pablo Helguera organized an art project called The School of Pan-American Unrest. The project revived dying native languages and reenacted traditions in a traveling schoolhouse that made connections between the different regions of the Americas—from the northern regions of Alaska to the southern provinces of Chile—through a combination of performances, workshops, and screenings. Helguera’s breakdown of the traditional institution of the school provided inspiration for the reconceptualization of the pedagogical dynamics between storytelling and the places stories are told, be they schools or libraries.
Following Helguera’s lead, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May of 2016, our six-person team and Libros Schmibros took over the kiosk at Mariachi Plaza. We opened La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica (the magic hour) began. David Kipen of Libros Schmibros introduced the event, and children’s librarians read stories aloud in Spanish and in English to a group of twenty children, who listened and danced. Two storytellers from the Los Angeles Public Library system engaged the children and their adult family members through skillful storytelling: book selection, page turning, and animated voices transformed words on a page into reality.
As the event drew to a close, we asked the children how often they would like to attend storytelling afternoons like La Hora Mágica, and we asked their parents where such events should be held. Most said three or more times a month, at Mariachi Plaza. Afterward, children and parents signed up for new or renewed accounts and checked out books at Libros Schmibros, which is located right next to the kiosk.
The whole project became an act of gift-giving to the community of Boyle Heights; by giving and sharing books and stories with the people, it functioned as an exemplary action to be imitated between parents and children. It also symbolized an act of literary justice that pursued the transformation of the cultural practices of the neighborhood by bringing fun and enjoyment to public space while promoting the act of reading and literacy.
At first, it was La Caja Mágica that commanded the attention of the audience, with its bizarre shiny presence; but as La Hora Mágica continued, both children and adults shifted their attention to the stories and activities performed by the storytellers. La Caja Mágica created an intimate literary space in a public area. La Hora Mágica is about stories, but it is also about the physicality of books and how they are treated when they are theatrically pulled from La Caja Mágica. The box, difficult to size because of its reflective sheen, seemed simultaneously tiny and huge as some twenty to thirty books emerged, one pulled from Libros Schmibros’s collection for each child present.
La Hora Mágica was advertised through posters in nearby locations, such as storefront windows and utility poles, and outreach to a few schools, bringing a dozen children there for the beginning of the event. Within the first ten minutes, another nine children and their parents joined, some running late and others passing by and wanting to join. The crowns, books, and puppets that emerged from La Caja Mágica attracted the attention of the public, but these alone could not hold focus without the dances and stories, read from books in English as well as Spanish.
Spectacle and performance were key components of this literary intervention. The action and impact that La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica had over the community provided an outlet for the social dynamics of the neighborhood, which all too often remain latent, with child-friendly spaces rare and working parents often keeping children at home. The event, not only a symbolic transformation of public space into library, also brought a moment of unity, peace, and enjoyment to participants. The project proposed, on one hand, a change in the spatial practices of the neighborhood by making accessible the art of storytelling; on the other hand, the whole experience allowed a reconfiguration of the reading and storytelling expectations of people.
Bringing the experience of reading books to people in urban spaces opens the possibility to reclaim the spaces for literacy as an act of social and spatial justice. Traditionally, kiosks in plazas like the one in Boyle Heights are used by bands and other groups as entertainment space. La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica broadened the kind of entertainment that could use the kiosk, while instilling a culture of literacy. Inspired in principles coined by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, reading culture (or storytelling culture) is a series of social practices and tactics that permit competence in reading skills; these social rights of community to reading habits enable people to use books as tools for its intellectual and personal development.5 However, these practices are neither centered nor anchored in the mere materiality of the book as an object, nor in the number of books that a person possesses or reads, but in the way the communicated word between two or more people impacts and transforms someone’s thoughts and life. Access to the benefits that the act of reading and storytelling bring to people is the basis of the “Literary Justice.”
On the importance of libraries to communities, see M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman, “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28.2 (June 2010): 171–97, which demonstrated that having more books in the home provided an advantage to children equivalent to having parents with a university education.
Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Mark Purcell, “Excavating Lefebvre: The Right to the City and Its Urban Politics of the Inhabitant,” GeoJournal 58.2 (2002): 99–108.
Dorothy Strousse, “The Administrator Looks at Bookmobile Service,” ALA Bulletin 52.1 (1958): 16–22.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.
Cat Callaghan is a master’s student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an architect studying transportation planning with the goal of improving accessibility in cities.
Will Davis is a Ph.D. student in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles. He studied in Bristol, Rotterdam, and Lund, gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in graphic design and anthropology.
Grace Ko is going into her second year in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design at University of California, Los Angeles.
Benjamin Kolder is pursuing his master’s in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles. He works for Neil M. Denari Architects (NMDA) in Los Angeles.
Alejandro Ramirez Mendez is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. He studies the representation of space in Mexican and Chicano/a narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first century and their importance in the construction of identity.
Storytelling time for attendees of La Hora Mágica (the Magic Hour), Boyle Heights.
On 20 May 2014, Brittney Silva, a student nearing graduation from San Leandro High School, was walking along the train tracks to her home and talking on the phone. She was using her earbuds and did not hear an Amtrak train approach. She was fatally struck, and her body was retrieved fifty yards from the impact site.
That same week, I met with San Leandro’s Chief Innovation Officer, Debbie Acosta, to discuss opportunities for collaboration between the city and University of California, Berkeley. With the tragedy of Brittney Silva’s death fresh in everyone’s memory, Acosta urged me to do something to make the city safer for pedestrians. When I asked, “How many people walk in San Leandro?” Acosta replied, “We can tell you how much water we use, we can tell you how many cars are waiting at red lights, we can tell you how many streetlights are on, but we have no idea how many people walk where or when.”
That conversation inspired a course I developed with my UC Berkeley colleague Ronald Rael that we called Sensing Cityscapes. In that course, which we offered in fall 2015, we aimed to collect data about human activities that are too often ignored. As part of the interdisciplinary UC Berkeley Global Urban Humanities Initiative, we aimed to harness methods not just from city planning, engineering, and architecture (Ron’s field), but from the humanistic disciplines, cognitive science, and art (my territory). Our students came from departments ranging from archaeology to public health to performance studies.
We noted that the growing smart cities movement, which aims to use data and tools including urban sensors to improve the provision of urban services, tends to track machines more than people. In our observation, smart city research is full of asymmetries: Cell phone data is used for traffic studies, but not for pedestrians. Health tracker data is held by individuals, but not aggregated at a community level. Streets are lit for cars, but not for pedestrians. We seemed to know more about what shows residents watched on Netflix (in San Leandro, Game of Thrones is most-watched) than about how they got home every day. Many residents, just like some of us researchers, seem to know more about the politics of the fictional city of Meereen than about their own city.
Photograph by Greg Niemeyer.
To address such asymmetries, we taught students in the graduate course to collect their own data, to build basic sensing, logging, and data visualization tools. We demonstrated responsible practices in data collection and explored the manipulative potential and relative power of those who hold the data over those whom the data describes. But most importantly, we taught our students to work in the city with a hypothesis-free approach in which the creative response of the artist is as important as the rational assessment of an established hypothesis. This approach often is described as discovery-based science.
We first asked students to quantify aspects of their own home life so they would understand the impact of data on a community including themselves. Then, we asked our students to consider the city of San Leandro as a larger home, to be treated with the same care as their own homes.
Like impressionist artists in plein-air mode, we all visited the city in small teams, without maps and without hypotheses. The walking experiences led to many observations about the city, which converged on pedestrian safety. After a few more need-finding interviews with city staff, we confirmed that the city had a strong interest in pedestrian data, and we studied how best to count people in the urban wild. We learned to train passive infrared sensors on pedestrians to capture their movements but not their identities. We also understood the importance of showing pedestrians that their presence counts by displaying feedback data. Any data about people should be shared with the people the data is about in real time. All projects used lights to communicate statistics to pedestrians about their walking, thereby completing a feedback loop of input, output, and change. We considered hiding or camouflaging the sensors to protect against vandalism, but we ultimately rejected such ideas because we wanted to make it possible for pedestrians to choose if they were counted or not.
Our students deployed four temporary interactive lighting systems in San Leandro. After several lab prototypes, our students were ready to take on real-world challenges including unreliable power and connectivity that often compromise the magic of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Other challenges included weather and vandalism; but in the end, each team was able to light a critical pedestrian passage in a novel, interactive way and measure the number, direction, and speed of pedestrians in real time without exposing the identities of the pedestrians.
One compelling lesson was that pedestrians interpreted visible machines at head height as “unwelcome government intrusions.” At the waist level, pedestrians interpreted the very same machines as “cute.” Collected data showed clear rush-hour patterns including a peak between 8:00 am to 9:00 am, a peak between 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm (when school gets out), and 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm when commuters return. While this is not surprising, it also seems possible to leverage that data for specific campaigns and urban improvement initiatives. Perhaps the high school marching band could rehearse near commuter hubs between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm to give the city a musical boost. The lights themselves may also expand pedestrian activity past sunset.
Collectively, the students’ fieldwork confirmed that pedestrians were the most vulnerable participants in the urban metabolism, and they were also the least visible. Interviews with pedestrians showed that they felt acknowledged by the interactive lights after dark. Streets were built for cars, but sidewalks were dark and narrow afterthoughts. Walking was an event at the very periphery of an urban culture that focused on speed. Even a small LED light, well-timed, helped pedestrians experience a different city, a place where they could overcome fear and isolation, just like at home.
This field work and a subsequent mini-conference prompted more research. Comparing the various student projects, Pablo Paredes, a teaching assistant in the Sensing Cityscapes course, and I wondered what kind of lighting design might drive pedestrian activity more than generic lighting. We teamed up to study the psychological impacts of various types of responsive lighting. To reduce confounding factors such as external or personal circumstances, we moved the project to a windowless hallway in our research building (the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS).
Our setup included up to sixteen colorful LED spotlights illuminating a sixty-foot-long dark hallway path. As test-subject pedestrians walked down this path, sensors picked up their speeds and positions, and a computer controlled the lights and colors as a function of these inputs. With this setup, we could ask how the effect was influenced by the chromatic, temporal, and spatial design of the lights. Which would impact the pedestrians most positively? Having all the lights on? Having selected lights directly before, directly at, or directly behind the pedestrian?
After testing ten lighting regimes with over a hundred participants walking down a dark hallway, we found that a path well-lit ten feet ahead of a pedestrian had a significantly better impact with significantly less energy use than a path that was fully lit or any other regime.
In the resulting research paper, we argued that the positive effect occurred because pedestrians felt acknowledged by the interactive and anticipatory lighting. They felt more in charge of the path and their experience and self-determined their role as an agent with authority who could control the streetlights. Technologically empowered pedestrians, turning lights on ahead and off again through their movement, felt safer, walked with a steadier gait, and had more positive, less lonely walking experiences. We left the system on in a public hallway and learned that several building users made detours just to walk though the lights for a positive experience during the workday. “It’s like walking on a carpet of light,” said one user.
We now are bringing the installation back to the streets of San Leandro with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant for a project called San Leandro Lights. The grant funds the permanent installation of responsive IOT lighting in one or more passages in the city that are not currently lit or are lit only by blinding sodium floodlights. Taking our project back to the street, we can build on the validated lighting design tested in the lab, but we have to consider many additional design factors, including greater range of inputs (consider distinguishing a person in a wheelchair from a person using a motorbike), theft-proofing, and easy maintenance.
We will assess the circulation frequency of pedestrians before and after the deployment of the lights to study if lighting alone can increase pedestrian circulation. At the same time, we hope the circulation data will give residents and city officials insights into pedestrian patterns that may help optimize city policies ranging from regulation of store hours to streetlight timing. Other initiatives such as Bike-and-Walk-to-Work day can be validated with the sensor data as well.
Photograph by Greg Niemeyer.
Transferring the project from the lab back to the street, we hope that the positive effect for individuals we observed in the lab will remain, and that responsive lighting will create a dynamic culture of attention.
A tragic moment of misplaced attention ended the life of Brittney Silva. Her memory urges us to ask if we are paying attention to the right things. We should ask that question frequently. The answer changes in the course of a second, a week, a season, and a lifetime. It changes for us individually, as our needs change, and it changes collectively, as the conditions within which we live change. From oncoming traffic to climate change, changing situations should cause us and the cities in which we live to refocus attentions continuously, like a camera in autofocus mode. Yet many aspects of our individual and collective lives are regulated by convention, not by curiosity. The art element in our project enables us to reframe our focus continuously, because we approach our environments in fundamentally creative ways.
We see the potential of the San Leandro Lights project both in the practical and in the metaphorical. The lights yield the direct benefit of illumination, energy savings, and pedestrian circulation data. Metaphorically, the Lights tell a story about how every step we take has consequences beyond our intentions. Every step, just like the butterfly wings in chaos theory, impacts our environment, and our environment modulates every step we take in creative response. Just as the colors of the sidewalk change when anyone walks by, so does the meaning of what we do, in the context of an ever-evolving city.
Every study has a beginning and an ending. The San Leandro Lights began with the tragic end of Brittney Silva’s life. Unlike most studies, the ending of this study takes us to a modified cityscape in which sidewalks, in creative response, bring people home in a different glow every day.
Greg Niemeyer is an associate professor for New Media at University of California, Berkeley. He is deeply involved in the Berkeley Center for New Media, which conducts research and public programming around media innovation.
The Albany Bulb, looking northwest. Photograph by Robin Lasser.
On a misty afternoon in early 2014, you sail into San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, threading the passage between San Francisco’s steep urban slopes on your right and the green hills of Marin County on your left. Gliding between two of the wealthiest peninsulas in the world, you continue past Alcatraz Island on the diminishing swell until the Bay opens up to the north and south. Silicon Valley is a hazy presence on the horizon off to the south, and the peak of Angel Island pokes up to the north.
You spot the industrial shores of the East Bay. The four-legged, skyscraper-sized gantries of the Port of Oakland loom to the right, and the remains of the Richmond shipyards are off to the left.
You continue due east, your boat surfing downwind as the gentle swells of the Bay lift your stern, until the Berkeley Hills get so close the windows of the brown shingled houses glint like flames and you can see the UC Berkeley Campanile.
Dead ahead is what looks like a steep, rocky, thickly wooded island. On the far side of a lagoon, hanging off the bluff like a nightmarish version of a Malibu mansion, is an impressively balanced three-story shack. It’s made of plywood, corrugated tin, and old window frames and encrusted with hubcaps, stained glass, and street signs. It’s topped off with a windsurfing sail and an American flag.
You veer left to the north side of the island and guarding the hillside crouches a giant dragon with reindeer antlers, ridden by a warrior—all made of driftwood. Along the shoreline an iron samurai wields a sword and a fifteen-foot-tall woman reaches to the sky with a beseeching gesture. Her windswept hair is made of branches, her skirts of twisted tin. Painted gargoyle faces stick their tongues out at you from truck-sized pieces of concrete. Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the distance. You can hear the tinkling and squeaking of kinetic scrap metal sculptures spinning in the breeze.
Straight ahead, past cormorants perched on mouldering piers, wetlands glisten with the movements of snowy egrets, curlews, and airborne flocks of sandpipers catching the sun like tossed confetti.
The mudflats are too shallow to navigate by boat, so you turn back and sail around to the south side of the island. Dogs bark, running in and out of the water at a small beach. You smell horses and saltwater and coastal sage. You see that the island is actually a peninsula connected to the mainland by a causeway of debris that rises some thirty feet above the water. An enormous red and yellow and green concrete Rubik’s cube clings to the rocky shore just above the water line, and clouds of pink, magenta, and white valerian, golden California poppies, and crimson roses spill down the causeway’s precipitous hillsides. A castle perches on a pile of rubble with a gothic arch for a window and a small turret. The castle is covered with paintings of human-sized rabbits.
You have discovered the Albany Bulb.1
But you are not the first. Urban explorers have been coming to the Bulb—by land—since the mid-1980s, ducking under what are now fourteen lanes of elevated freeways to this landfill made of construction debris. This peninsula was once open water, but like much of the Bay’s current shoreline, was created by the dumping of waste. Large-scale filling of the Bay was outlawed thanks to the Save the Bay movement of the early 1960s, but the Bulb was grandfathered in. People in the small town of Albany still remember coming here in the sixties and seventies to dump their old furniture and yard waste on top of broken buildings. When nearby cities needed new highways, commuter lines, stores, schools, and houses, what was torn down got deposited at the Bulb. Because the landfill was never completely capped, it is an open-air museum of creative destruction exhibiting huge chunks of brick walls, bathroom tile, highway supports, rebar, and asphalt with yellow highway lines intact.
It is also a thirty-one-acre battleground for the Bay Area’s competing progressive movements for social justice, environmental conservation, and politically engaged art. Street protest, lawsuits, regulatory jockeying, anarchist camp-ins, and art have all been deployed in the name of saving this oddball spit of land from and for its users of many species.
If you had gone ashore a couple of years ago, you would have found a community of more than sixty people living on the Bulb in tents, shacks, and the aforementioned cliffside mansion. The man who called himself Boxing Bob would proudly show off his handiwork on that house, with its million-dollar view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, as well as the outdoor ring where he practiced his jabs and parries You might have met KC, a white woman with pink hair who lived with her tiny black-and-white dog between a giant eucalyptus and a grove of olive trees and Canary Island palms in a hut where she made jewelry. She might have invited you to her famous kitchen in the adjacent garage-sized tent where she made flaky lemon curd pastry for the whole community. You might not have met Doris, who was shy and had a little fence in front of her secluded home with a sign that read, “Cats—Keep Gate Close Please.”
You’d have seen Saint, a black man who always wore a World War II German-style military helmet, and Little Joe, a welder who came to the Bulb after his young daughter died in a hiking accident and his life went to pieces. Little Joe was not to be confused with Big Joe, who had hip problems and used a walker to get around the rough paths of the Bulb but could travel long distances for supplies on his bike.
Tamara from Southern California was pregnant and said she had lost her first child in a gun accident. She lived not far from a guy called Tom with graying blond dreadlocks in a section of the Bulb people called the Ghetto because it was so densely populated. Tom surrounded himself with shopping carts full of plastic bottles and rebar and bicycle parts.
Nearby, Frank built a teepee suspended from a sprawling acacia that had branches like muscular human arms. At a firepit next to his tent, he and his friends would burn wire and cable they found at the landfill to extract the copper. Frank said he had been a teenage jockey at Golden Gate Fields, the racetrack next to the Bulb, until he went to prison for robbing a bank.
For a while, Jimbow the Hobow—his spelling—lived in the section of the Bulb called the Ghetto. The Bulb’s poet laureate for decades, he lived all over the peninsula at different times. He grew up on a tobacco farm in southern Ohio and had been on the road most of his life. Like a number of landfillians, as they called themselves, Jimbow used to live at People’s Park, the university-owned piece of land in downtown Berkeley, about four miles from the Bulb as the crow flies, that has been disputed territory for even longer than the Bulb. Jimbow said he left People’s Park during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and went to the railroad tracks, eventually settling at the Bulb in the 1990s.
Amber in her tent. Photograph by Robin Lasser.
The Bulb was last resort for some victims of the economic crisis of 2008. It provided refuge for people struggling with trauma and mental illness who preferred living outdoors to the claustrophobia and social threats of shelters. Amber and her partner, Phyll, built a compound of tents hidden by a scrap metal fence with a Palestinian flag for a front door. “When you live indoors, nothing moves,” said Amber, who had a quick smile with no front teeth, a wardrobe of camouflage and black lace, an archaeologist’s eye for half-buried treasure, and an impressive knack for reviving laptops and mobile phones pulled out of dumpsters. The Bulb’s wind, the tides, and the movement of the grass and trees kept her sane: “The Bulb is the healthiest place I’ve ever lived.”
Some people led conventional lives before ending up here. Stephanie was married with three kids and made flyers for a real estate office in a nearby town. After her divorce and the foreclosure of her house, she found the peace and quiet of the Bulb more soothing than the noisy spot under the BART train tracks that she first tried.
Stephanie’s camp was as tidy as a suburban ranch house, with two stone-ringed gardens with geraniums, iceplant and pink flamingos, and an outdoor kitchen with a spice rack and flowers in a vase. Near her tent she made a bench with a patio firepit where you could look out to Angel Island and Mt. Tamalpais over the low wall she built of flat concrete chunks. She used solar panels to charge her cell phone and saw her grown children at the holidays. With a Monterey pine and a cypress framing her Bay view, her home was picture-postcard perfect.
People lived off the fat of the East Bay land. At the nearby Costco dumpster, pillowtop queen-sized mattresses were there for the taking, still in dented boxes, along with dinged lawn furniture and bags of imperfect bagels. Nearby University of California housing saw families come and go with each semester, leaving behind their books and shoes and kitchenware for reuse. Like a glacial moraine, the consumer goods that came in from China via those Oakland gantries flowed into the Berkeley Hills, down to the flats via estate and garage sales, and finally down to the Bulb.
Boxing Bob after demolition of his house. Photograph by Robin Lasser.
Dragon sculpture, San Francisco skyline behind. Photograph by Doug Donaldson.
Everything was transported onto and moved around the Bulb by bicycles equipped with handmade trailers, some of which could carry up to 750 pounds. These trailers carried metal that residents mined from the landfill and sold at Berkeley scrap dealers, as well as five-gallon jugs of water for drinking and bathing. The Bay Trail, designed as a recreational amenity, was a highway for the homeless supply chain.
Mom-A-Bear’s home was a social center. People would hang out in the dark interior of her Bear’s Den, the low-ceilinged wooden hut built under a ngaio tree. Calm and heavyset, Mom-A-Bear used to be a physical therapist and people often went to her for advice. She came to the Bulb after her husband and son were killed when their sailboat was caught in a storm off the California coast. She situated her home on a low bluff with a view of the Bay overlooking the Amphitheater.
The Amphitheater was just one of the many public spaces the residents of the Bulb built or adapted as the kind of agora or marketplace found in any small town. The Amphitheater occupied a bowl-shaped depression in the landfill and was where people gathered for meetings, had parties, and burned trash. The Castle was a kind of church or spiritual vortex built by longtime Bulb resident Mad Marc, designed with fairies in mind, and situated at a numerologically propitious west-facing spot excellent for observing the solstices. There was an outdoor gym and, at one time, a heated bath. There was a horseshoe pit and communally maintained trails like the one called the Yellow Brick Road, as well as a Free Box for exchanging goods. There were two stone labyrinths for meditation. And there was a book-filled Library that, like the ancient Alexandrian one, was destroyed and rebuilt several times.
The people who lived at the Bulb felt it was theirs. But so did a lot of other people. Dogwalkers were some of the earliest pioneers of the landfill. People from Albany and Berkeley and Oakland brought their dogs to the Bulb on a daily basis, and—led by their dogs’ noses—became nearly as expert on its nooks and crannies as the residents. Professional dogwalkers would come mid-day with as many as ten dogs in tow. Birdwatchers loved the Bulb for its 158 species of birds, which thrived among the fennel, coyote brush, broom, and feral wisteria.
Environmental educators brought schoolchildren to study the nudibranchs, tunicates, and bryozoans of the rocky shore. Geocachers, paintballers, cyclocross bicycle racers, parents seeking the ultimate birthday party, musicians, rave-organizers and professional wedding photographers all used the Bulb.
The Bulb was a charnel house of cities, where the skeletons of urban destruction and regeneration were laid bare. It was also a memorial garden for human lives. Painted messages on concrete remembered Suzy, who lived and apparently committed suicide at the Bulb. The place attracted people seeking a place to remember deaths that happened elsewhere. A hand-carved tombstone was marked, “In the Memory of Emily Wagner…33rd homicide in Oakland, 2004.” An abstract metal sculpture at the lagoon memorialized a baby’s death. At the center of the two labyrinths, you would always find a changing array of beer bottles, cigarettes, candy, and other favorites of deceased or departed friends and family, sometimes marked with notes and driver’s licenses.
Of all the park users, artists made the most lasting mark. They came to paint the door-sized slabs of concrete, to assemble sculptures of found materials, to make visual jokes. Someone arranged a pair of stuffed, striped, ruby-slippered legs so they emerged from under a large chunk of a house like those of the Wicked Witch of the East. Somebody else “solved” the Rubik’s cube by painting a single color on each side. An empty gold picture frame hung from a tree to frame a spectacular Bay landscape. A lump on a chunk of concrete became a painted monster’s nose. An elfin door was painted on a huge rock for imaginary sprites to enter and exit.
The art was as changeable as the weather and the tides. Medusa heads were painted over with dinosaurs, and dinosaurs with poetry. Images of Emma Goldman, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X weathered into obscurity. Art depicting manga-style rabbits proliferated all over the Bulb, with the artist riffing off different textures and locations and other people’s art.
The surface of the dump is uneven, with verdant bee-filled gullies slumping between rough peaks of concrete and lichen-encrusted heaths giving way to wildflower-filled meadows sparkling with eruptions of steel slag. Like a botanical garden with sections for Australasian or South American flora, different parts of the landfill provided creative microclimates. Motifs seeded and spread in response to differently fertile substrates: if one person painted eyes in the rubble, soon eyes in many styles would proliferate like dandelions after a rain. If someone hung one mask from a tree, soon more faces would be peering out from the branches. Stencils spawned linear hieroglyphic narratives leading from place to place.
Artists and passersby added to and altered sculptures. The beseeching woman, which some called the Water Goddess, was originally made of orange dock foam and was gradually refined and beautified with metal and wood. Visitors bestowed angel wings, shoes, jewelry, and whiskey flasks on the driftwood sculptures of human figures, and added beads and ribbon to the kinetic sculptures. Change was expected. The art was more performance than object, more personal than material.
Theatrical and musical performance also happened at the Bulb. The topography includes many natural stages that actors found inspiring. In 2006, the theater group We Players animated the entire peninsula with a mobile performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that began with the shipwreck scene on the beach and ended with a wedding feast at the Amphitheater. Prosperos’ mutinous winds, green sea, azured vault, and Jove’s stout oak were played by the site itself, and even surly Caliban helped put the audience at ease in the dreamlike, unfamiliar terrain, saying:
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
Most art was anonymous, but not all of it. In the early 2000s, Bruce Rayburn, Scott Hewitt, Scott Meadows, and David Ryan—members of a collective called Sniff—gathered every Saturday morning to paint barn-door-sized pieces of plywood and flotsam that they erected in an art gallery along a hundred yards of the Bulb’s north shore. The work was collaborative and darkly whimsical, evoking both Bosch and Chagall, thickly populated with revelers, a devil or two, and flying nudes. Sniff gave up their painting after it was falsely associated with a gruesome murder. In a case that was tabloid fodder for three years, a man named Scott Peterson was accused of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, who had gone missing in Modesto in 2002. Her headless body had washed ashore not far from the Bulb. In statements to the media, Peterson’s lawyer pointed to the paintings at the Bulb as evidence that a Satanic cult had murdered the woman. Peterson was later convicted of the crime. But meantime, Sniff’s members were forced to explain to parents of their children’s classmates that they were in fact not Lucifer-worshiping decapitators, and the group was never quite the same.
Not far from the Sniff gallery, Osha Neumann created the Water Goddess sculpture with his son-in-law Jason DeAntonis. The scion of a prominent German Jewish intellectual family (his father was Frankfurt School critical theorist, Franz Neumann; his stepfather, Herbert Marcuse, philosopher of the 1960s New Left), Neumann dropped out of graduate school at Yale and spent his young adult years with an anarchist street gang in New York. He became a painter, sculptor, and lawyer, creating a famous mural near People’s Park about Berkeley’s history of protest.
Despite its physical isolation, the Bulb is very much part of the East Bay’s greater artistic, political and social history. The style of informal sculpture that studded the Bulb occupied much of the East Bay shoreline in the 1970s and 1980s, thriving on the outlaw culture of the garbage-filled mudflats west of the freeway. But the growing conservation movement saw the mudflats as valuable habitat for birds, not art. With more than 90 percent of the region’s wetlands destroyed by human activity, environmentalists were intent on saving and enhancing what was left. Homemade sculptures squatting in the mud were not part of this vision of a restored Bay and were removed. As protections for endangered animal habitats were beefed up, however, human protections were weakening, driving people from cities into open spaces at the urban margin. Starting in the 1980s, cuts in federal spending on affordable housing and the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals sent thousands into underpasses, creekbeds, and parks. Later, the bust and boom of the late 2000s and teens created more human jetsam whiplashed between foreclosures and gentrification. Displaced people washed ashore at the Bulb (at least one literally arriving by boat) and shared the space with bricoleurs squeezed out of their old artistic stomping grounds.
Along this evolving waterfront, the Eastshore State Park was established in 2002 after decades of advocacy by the Sierra Club, Save the Bay, and the Audubon Society, which came together in an organization called Citizens for Eastshore Parks. After fighting off commercial development, the groups envisioned a series of land acquisitions that would connect existing city-owned and regional parkland into a continuous nine-mile swath of habitat restoration and trails stretching from the Bay Bridge to Richmond. The park general plan called for the removal of the remaining art.
The Bulb today is in the process of being incorporated into that state park, now named after the late Save the Bay hero, Sylvia McLaughlin. This troublesome peninsula is land nobody wanted—neither the City of Albany, nor the State Parks, nor the East Bay Regional Park District relished the headaches caused by the homeless people, the hazardous waste, the art, the dogs. In preparation for transfer of the land from the City to the State (with management provided by the Regional Park District in place of the cash-strapped State Parks), the encampments at the Bulb were swept out in 1999 and again in 2014. Frustrated that this jewel in the necklace of parks remained a shantytown years after it was designated a state park, the environmental groups were key lobbyists for evicting Bulb residents. Osha Neumann, the artist and lawyer, was a leading advocate for Bulb residents, and along with some Albany residents, brought an unsuccessful anti-eviction lawsuit on their behalf. It was one of a number of lawsuits at the Albany waterfront, where advocates for the environment faced off with advocates for social justice and for the human—and canine—right to public space. The conservationists argued that the garbage, drugs, and residents’ dogs made visitors feel unsafe and damaged the habitat.
Short-term housing assistance was offered by the city, and some people were able to move into subsidized apartments. But some Bulb residents didn’t want to move and others said the amount of assistance was inadequate to find permanent homes. Several Bulb residents found housing but lost it for the same reasons they became homeless in the first place: mental illness, substance abuse, orneriness, family tragedy, medical disasters, poverty. In April 2014, Albany agreed to pay $3,000 each to twenty-eight residents to leave and never set up camp again. Many of those people moved directly to a freeway underpass nearby. Others occupied a restored habitat area in another part of the state park, hiding among the bushes planted as homes for birds. Today, the community is scattered around the East Bay, living out of cars, under highways, and in ephemeral constellations of Bulb alumni roommate groups that migrate from cheap apartments to the street and back again.
At this green lump on San Francisco Bay, the central narratives the Bay Area likes to tell about itself collide, and the histories of its environmental, social, and creative cultures converge. The Bay Area thinks of itself as an environmental leader, protecting endangered habitat and saving the Bay. It insists that it is committed to equity and support for the downtrodden. It sells itself as a bohemian home for artists and touts its anything-goes creativity as an economic as well as a cultural resource.
We Players’ production of the Tempest. Photograph courtesy We Players.
Yet the Bulb lays bare the contradictions and inconsistencies in these stories and provides an ongoing laboratory for exploring the complexities of these nature-culture conflicts. It is a novel ecosystem in social as well as environmental terms. As a modern-day midden, it is a fertile site for contemporary archaeologists to unearth ways that discarded people make use of society’s material discards and to ponder our culture of disposability. As rising tides inch ever closer to the skirts of the Water Goddess, the Bulb has a front row seat to the climate consequences of that consumption.
The Bulb was, in human terms, an island of misfits, but it was a community that was a relatively safe, surprisingly sociable haven. In terms of natural systems, it represents the opposite of the Galapagos Islands—it’s a place completely invaded by exotic species that have blossomed into a botanical gallery of some of the toughest plants on the planet. For art, the Bulb is the last remnant of creative spaces along the East Bay shoreline that have now been almost completely wiped out, an endangered habitat as rare as homes for the salt marsh harvest mouse. As public space, it has been a park designed by its users, who built trails and vista points and benches where the authorities provided none.
The Bulb is a misfit in terms of park categories—neither a pristine wilderness nor an urban park, nor a typical regional or county park defined by picnic tables, trails, and bathrooms. Amid the tempests of the politics of park planning, it’s a place that asks whether we should listen to the unruly, ground-level Caliban wisdom of its everyday, often unsanctioned, users as well as the top-down visions of the Prosperos who wield their power as organized advocates, professional planners, and elected officials.
What does it mean to preserve “nature” at a man-made pile of rubble overrun with invasive species? Does art belong in a state park conceived of primarily as a conservation site rather than a recreation area? Do state park rules and policies developed for old-growth redwood forests work at an urban landfill? How can a habitat-oriented park be managed in a densely populated, highly urban area? What is “public” in public land? What rights do nonendangered wildlife have relative to threatened species—is displacement of undervalued species a kind of gentrification? What rules should apply in a park that has been so neglected by the agencies in charge of it that the users have taken over maintenance and established their own norms?
The Bulb is a place in transition—to what, it is not clear. If you were to sail around it today, you’d see that it is gradually being smoothed over and erased, with clean fill and lawns calming the rubble. Jungly vegetation is being cut down to improve sight lines, Mad Marc’s castle is crumbling and the Library is gone. There are still sculptures and dogs and birds, but new rules are domesticating this last bit of wild on the East Bay shoreline. This process of change is worth studying, because the lessons learned here apply anywhere that water, land, people, art, wildlife, and politics come together.
For a time, the Bulb presented a utopian vision of a user-designed, user-made public space—full of dysfunction, to be sure, but also possessing a vitality rare in public parks. That vision has not yet been snuffed. Some people see an opportunity for the narratives of ecosystem protection, social justice, and human creativity to be woven together instead of being pitted against each other. The Bulb could be a park that is both laboratory and performance, as dynamic as the human and natural forces that buffet its shores.
In researching this article, I have been involved at times as a participant and an engaged resident of the City of Albany, rather than a neutral observer. I am currently working with a group of artists and local citizens to make the Bulb a site for ongoing art, environmental and social research, and performance. Information in this article was collected over sixteen years of visits to the Bulb, including scores of hours of interviews beginning in 2013. Starting in that year, I worked with an interdisciplinary team of UC Berkeley students and Bulb residents to apply techniques of ethnography, contemporary archaeology, oral history, participatory mapping, mobile apps, botany, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning to the study of the Bulb. We presented this work as The Atlas of the Albany Bulb (albanybulbatlas.org), part of the Refuge in Refuse exhibition (http://www.somarts.org/refugeinrefuse/) at the SOMArts Cultural Center in February 2015 which was curated by Robin Lasser, Danielle Siembieda, and Barbara Boissevain. The Bulb has been an important testing ground for the interdisciplinary methods of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative. The methods and the issues they raise are described in “Albany Bulb,” GroundUp Issue 4 (http://groundupjournal.org/albany-bulb).
Susan Moffat is project director of the University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative. An urban planner and curator, she has worked in journalism, affordable housing, and environmental planning in the United States and Asia. She is currently organizing an arts festival at the Albany Bulb.
Sculpture by Osha Neumann and Jason De Antonis. Photograph by Susan Moffat.
In 1972, the black artist and writer Romare Bearden traveled from his home in New York to spend ten days in the capital of counterculture—Berkeley, California. He visited on an official commission from the city of Berkeley to create a new artwork for its City Council Chambers. The result was the monumental work Berkeley—The City and its People, which hung for decades until the extensive seismic trouble that plagues City Hall forced its removal to a storage facility. Painted in bright colors, featuring a rainbow and a series of Berkeley’s best-known sites, the complete mural is often read as a celebration of urban harmony. A detail of Bearden’s composition remains visible in Berkeley through the city’s logo, promoting Berkeley’s civic commitment to multiculturalism and diversity on municipal property from trashcans to buildings.1
Composed of photographs montaged together and with colored papers across seven panels, it is Bearden’s largest known work on paper.2 It is also the first civic commission undertaken by the artist and one of the rare works Bearden created of a place with which he had no biographical connection. Nevertheless, Berkeley—The City and Its People envisions the city’s tumultuous diversity in an irreducibly complex collage that was a product of its time, rather than the symbolic logo of harmony that is more familiar to city residents today.3
Berkeley has changed dramatically since Bearden’s visit. The percentage of Berkeley’s population identifying as black has dropped from almost 25 percent in 1970 to less than 10 percent in 2010. Perhaps this demographic shift, coupled with the full mural’s removal from public view, has made it difficult to remember that Bearden’s Berkeley originated in a moment of racially charged civic conflict.
The 1971 local elections in Berkeley that lead to Bearden’s commission followed more than two years of local battles, riots, and widespread conflict on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and across the city over Free Speech, the Vietnam War, Women’s Rights, and Third World Liberation, the latter championed especially by the Black Panther Party, headquartered in nearby Oakland. Earlier that year a group known as the April Coalition united a mostly white constituency of antiwar radicals with the Berkeley Black Caucus through a single central issue: community control of the police. This demand linked minority communities whose members felt targeted by and underrepresented in the police force with students and other citizens involved in the counterculture and draft-resistance movements who had experienced bloody confrontations with the police and National Guard, particularly during protests over People’s Park that began in 1969.
Two new black city council members D’Army Bailey and Ira Simmons—both civil rights lawyers from the South—took a radical stance for black self-determination. After taking his place on the City Council, Simmons joined the City’s Civic Arts Commission, whose members called for redecorating the City Council Chambers. They wanted to replace a wide-angle photograph of the city from the Berkeley Hills and reproductions of portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with “décor more relevant to all the citizens of present day Berkeley,” including a portrait of Frederick Douglass.4
At just the moment in the fall of 1971 when Berkeley’s art commission was searching for an artist to capture the city’s diversity, UCB’s art museum was hosting an exhibition of Bearden’s work. Organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual focused on Bearden’s early paintings (1940–1942) and his later collages (1964–1971), deliberately leaving aside the abstract paintings he made in the intervening years. The exhibition’s curator, Caroll Greene, praised the ways Bearden represented rituals of life in black America to convey a shared human emotion, especially his use of collage “to express his particular cultural heritage in a universal art.”5 The centerpiece of the exhibition was the mural-like painting The Block, a four-by-eighteen-foot collage of photographic enlargements with bright over-painting. The work was accompanied by a tape recording of actual Harlem street noises. The dense composition based on the street outside Bearden’s studio window in New York includes varied encounters of pedestrians on the sidewalk, created from collaged pieces of black-and-white photographs that run the horizontal length of the composition (children play, a person sleeps near a stoop, a funeral procession) and colored-paper storefronts (liquor store, funeral parlor, church, barbershop, grocery) stacked with apartments and interior domestic scenes that nearly fill the vertical expanse. A small crack of bright blue tops the composition, interrupted only by an otherworldly scene of spiritual Ascension on the left, rendered on a red ground. In The Block and in his collages more generally, Bearden collapsed the public and private spaces of African American life along with spiritual practices and encounters, suggesting the multiplicity of black experiences. Art historian Kobena Mercer argues Bearden’s shift to the medium of collage allowed the artist to “disclose an understanding of African American identity as something that has itself been ‘collaged’ by the vicissitudes of modern history.” Mercer’s thoughts echo author Ralph Ellison, who suggested in 1968 that Bearden’s method used “sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals” that could also characterize African American history.6
It was Berkeley Art Museum director Peter Selz who recommended Bearden to the city’s Civic Arts Commission. In the early 1970s, Selz had briefly formed a “Committee for Afro-American Art” composed of black artists living in Berkeley to advise the museum on acquisitions and exhibitions. The group consisted of three artists in their thirties: Raymond Saunders, then professor of art at California State University, Hayward; Russell T. Gordon, who taught in the UCB art department; and UCB master’s student David Bradford. Selz also arranged a matching grant with the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided half of Bearden’s $16,000 City Hall commission fee. Along with Selz’s committee, Bailey and Simmons backed the idea of commissioning a black artist to represent Berkeley. Promising a gallery in City Hall to show diverse local artists, the City Council voted unanimously to hire Bearden to represent Berkeley and its citizens.
However, even before Bearden’s mural was installed the progressive coalition had fallen apart, largely along racial lines. Bailey and Simmons clashed repeatedly with others on the council, particularly over the rights of women and students, and Bailey became the subject of an unprecedented and ultimately successful recall election. It was during this “stormy” time that Bearden visited Berkeley, at the invitation of Bailey and Simmons.
Correspondence and local coverage of Bearden’s mural during the months between his visit in spring 1972 and the final work’s installation suggest divergent understandings of the artist’s intentions. In a letter to Bearden, councilmember Ira Simmons identified himself as both council delegate to the Civic Art Commission and a member of the Black Arts Committee. He praised the plan Bearden had sent, explaining “we as representatives of the Black community are thoroughly satisfied with your proposed sketch for the mural to be completed in the chambers of the Berkeley City Hall. We feel that you have adequately expressed Black people’s status and involvement in the Berkeley community.” However, Simmons warned, “Unfortunately, there is an element within the [Berkeley] community that would see fit to abridge this essential artist’s right, i.e. the right of freedom of expression. Many of these persons are motivated by racist and selfish interests.” 7 He enclosed an article from the Berkeley Citizens United (BCU) Bulletin, a conservative monthly newsletter, to support his point.
Berkeley Citizens United expressed concerns about Bearden’s mural that suggest just how radical Berkeley’s choice of the black artist seemed in 1972. The periodical covered Bearden twice in that year, once in June soon after the artist’s visit and again in September. Both articles noted that the communist newspaper People’s Weekly World had celebrated the commission, praising the social concern demonstrated in Bearden’s art. The first conservative account noted Bearden’s visits to minority communities during his tour, omitting his wide-ranging travels across the University and in the affluent white neighborhoods of the Berkeley Hills, before announcing, “We shudder! Imagine the filth, the degradation of Telegraph Ave., immortalized in a mural that every person attending the City Council meetings would have to look at!”8 The second article, the one Simmons likely sent to Bearden, speculated “We can’t condemn the mural until it is finished, but from the descriptions of Bearden’s ‘specially relevant’ works, we fear that we may get a collage of Black Panthers waving clenched fists, filthy tent hovels at People’s Park, street revolutionaries tearing down the fence [at People’s Park], drug addicts lying stoned on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley Communists waving the Viet Cong flag, Berkeley barbarians rampaging through the streets, looting, smashing, burning.”9 The newsletter argued artwork should instead express a pleasant and timeless image of the city. Berkeley Citizens United praised the large photograph of Berkeley in the city council meeting room, calling implicitly for a view that distanced those attending council meetings from the disparate lived realities of the urban sphere.
When Bearden’s mural was finally unveiled, BCU never published a reaction to it, suggesting they found the final mural less distasteful than they had expected. Turning to examine Berkeley–The City and Its People, we can see that, rather than foreground the contemporary sites and symbols of dissent registered in Black Power, counterculture, and Third World liberation as BCU worried, Bearden represented Berkeley to its citizens by layering representations of people and landmarks, past and present, in photography, paint and colored papers. Bearden’s sprawling composition was intended to be viewed from a distance. Hanging on the chamber wall above and behind the city councilmembers, it presented a chaotic vision of the city’s diversity with the disjunctive medium of collage. With crisply cut, flatly layered photographs and colored fields (rather than items torn or folded, for example), the black-and-white ground of the photograph creates equivalences between persons and groups. For example, Ohlone Native Americans and early white settlers on bottom right suggest an early moment of intercultural contact, while just above them across center from right to left we find university graduates and football players whose identity is obscured by their turned backs. These groups are followed by a study circle of five collaged students, including the features of a white woman and man, a black man, and another two men of indeterminate ethnicity, and a white man. Next to this group, the heads of a racially diverse group of mostly female activists with open shouting mouths are interspersed with arms and hands raised in the various versions of a peace sign. Finally, masked and costumed participants in a Lunar New Year parade, give way to local religious leaders (including Buddhist and Catholic) and everyday citizens. As these examples demonstrate, Bearden’s composition alternates between constructing scenes that highlight the cooperation of individuals of various ethnic groups and denying easy or fixed identification in racial terms. Bursts of local color, such as red in the rose on far left, across faces in the center, and in flat shapes of graduation caps and stoles on the right, lead the eye back through the mural linking disparate places and individuals.
Like the indexical aerial photograph of Berkeley it replaced, Bearden’s mural depicts the city from the hills out toward the bay evading the visual mastery of a bird’s eye view and taking a more abstract relationship to geography and history. For example, the bay in the upper third includes a freighter, a sixteenth-century galleon flying a Spanish flag with a pasted white paper wake, a nineteenth-century brig topped by an American flag, and a cluster of recreational sailboats on the far right. These historical moments are punctuated by boldly colored designs: abstracted doves, a rainbow with a setting sun, and esoteric symbols including the half eye and circular design in center. Would viewers have understood or recognized all of Bearden’s references? The lower two-thirds of the composition have a density that transforms the university town of Berkeley into a densely packed locale like Bearden’s native Harlem, pictured in The Block. Identifying places and faces in the tumult might make those attending council meetings feel like experts on their community, while not recognizing others or seeing architecture and individuals newly constellated could encourage citizens to consider their involvement in the wider reaches of Berkeley. In the ruptures and odd collisions, they might see difference and varied viewpoints as constitutive of their community rather than threatening its harmony.
Berkeley residents remarked on the play between the “symbolic” and the “particular” facilitated by Bearden’s use of photography and collage. As one period newspaper reported “Photographs of real people are used to typify students, workers, teachers, and citizens. But the blown-up photographs of these real people have features from other faces collaged to them, so that individual noses and eyes find themselves on other faces.”10 Presenting a layered composition with specific geographic anchors, Bearden’s collage nonetheless performed the destabilizing work of collage on both individual and group identity.
Bearden’s mural for the city could be read—or misread—in varied ways. One newspaper noted the figure at the bottom center of the composition, a black woman holding a young boy, “probably alludes to the black poor in Berkeley, but her image is one of strength and determination, not sullenness or hopelessness.”11 Nothing about the woman’s image indicates class. She is collaged behind a photograph of the Niehaus Villa, an opulent Victorian landmark in southwestern Berkeley built in 1889 by a wealthy Prussian immigrant mill owner and located in the 1970s in a portion of the city predominately housing African American residents. The roofline of the home obstructs part of the woman’s cheek, but frames the direct stare of her eyes, a geographic and formal link suggestive of a layered, nuanced, and potentially ruptured relationships of past and present, race and place, class and power. Rather than the raised black fist, Vietcong flag, or any of the other symbols conservatives including Berkeley Citizens United had feared, Bearden’s mural remained open to varied understandings of the community’s “strength.”
This complex layering of potential meanings extends to the portion of the mural that became Berkeley’s logo, a section that Bearden described as the “four races of mankind and blueprint for a better world.”12 The city’s logo was created in the 1980s in order to “reflect the sexual and racial diversity” of the city in an easily reproducible image.13 Simplifying the design by eliminating the blueprint, the logo creates a static image that recalls early “science” that divided humanity into four essential races, usually hierarchized from white to black.14 However, the logo also has formal links with Soviet propaganda for international workers and 1960s decolonialization movements, for example the poster of Viktor Koretsky, which Bearden may or may not have seen directly. 15 These images circulated in Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Africa, as well as in the United States among the communist, socialist, and Third World movements that were present in New York (where Bearden likely encountered them) and in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The layered profiles in Bearden’s mural offer multiple readings of race relations, but his inclusion of the blueprint suggest an ongoing process. This vision of the hard work of achieving equitable diversity has been effaced in the city’s static logo.
This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), suggesting that human beings can be separated into four major groups.
A 1972 letter from the Arts Commission to Bearden celebrated his sketch for its “apparent contradiction.” The work, they remarked, achieved “a very happy feeling…in spite of the strife which it indicates and which is so much a part of Berkeley.” This optimistic tone in the face of conflict could have a “unifying influence” by helping all who attend city meetings “feel that it is worthwhile being a Berkeley citizen in spite of or because of this strife.”16 This letter makes clear that, despite the rainbow-colored harmony of Bearden’s mural visible at first glance, Berkeley was historically marked by dissention and civic chaos. By the time the work was installed in Berkeley’s City Hall, Bailey, who had been instrumental in bringing Bearden to Berkeley, had been recalled from office. Although the National Bar Association among others opposed the special recall election in August 1973, the vote forced Bailey (and two years later Simmons) out of Berkeley politics.17 In retrospect, the aesthetics of Bearden’s collage were uniquely suited to represent the breaks, ruptures, and hopeful strife of the profoundly contested landscape of the city.
Bearden ignored the one suggestion offered by the Arts Commission. They urged the artist to reduce the number of local sites in the mural to achieve the “simple forcefulness” that characterized his images of Harlem. They suggested that he might have misunderstood his commission to require that “so many of Berkeley’s features need to be incorporated.” Bearden persisted with including sites and many types of people from across the city, rather than reducing his image to focus on the city’s black neighborhood, on a single street as in The Block, or one unified scene. Rather than see the chaotic composition as a series of clichés about a California city inventoried by a New York artist to satisfy locals, Bearden’s disregard of the suggestion to simplify underscores the intriguing, productive ways Berkeley differs from his prior work. Bearden’s characteristic depictions of African American experience that stirred universal emotion gives way in Berkeley to an even messier picture of an entire diverse city, rendered with the ruptures and breaks of collage. The complicated history of Bearden’s commission and the complexity of the monumental image itself points to the ways the collage refuses to be a symbol of unity. Berkeley–The City and Its People creates a moving portrayal of urban diversity precisely by accommodating breaks, ruptures, difference, and disagreement, layering references to the ongoing (and sometimes dissonant) efforts of many individuals and groups across the city’s space and history to live with each other.
In 2016, with longtime residents having been pushed out by rising rents and housing prices, is the multilayered Berkeley (and Bay Area) that Bearden represented gone? Locked away today in climate-controlled art storage, Bearden’s 1973 mural may indeed be a time capsule of a long-gone historic moment. If so, the artwork serves as a tool, something of a blueprint, for a better future in California. As we struggle with complex issues of gentrification and urban displacement across the Bay Area, Bearden’s vision belongs in City Hall as a backdrop for government action. Bearden created Berkeley not in a perfect period of unity and equality between blacks and whites in the city, but in a fractious and fleeting moment. In addition to the dramatic decline in the percentage of black Berkeleyans between 1970 and 2010, statistics show the percentage of city’s population identifying as white also dropped since 1970, with the increasing presence of census categories of Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and those belonging to two or more races—a trend mirrored across California.18 Bearden’s mural may not represent this shift or our present moment, but it refracts them to suggest how we might live together now.
Bearden’s Berkeley envisions how the California city is built from and on shifting histories of encounter and settlement by many groups with different backgrounds, interests, and beliefs. The nonnarrative mural implies history is not always a story of progress, but its contours may help us to see possibilities for the present and suggest a path to more equity and inclusion in the future. The ability of our eyes to make meaning from the collage’s cuts and juxtapositions point to ways we might also make meaning from the irreducible differences among us, as individuals and as groups. Looking closely at Berkeley–The City and Its People, through the rainbow and doves, Bearden forces us to recognize that the promise of equity and diversity comes with friction and difficulty as it forces us to make sense of the world anew. Ultimately, Bearden’s mural resonates in the present by suggest that it is only through this ongoing work of assembling the incongruent that we will devise a blueprint to a better urban future together.
City of Berkeley logo.
When Berkeley briefly introduced a new logo in the early 1990s, the city employee newsletter reported that the Bearden-inspired one remained in circulation because it was “distinctly Berkeley with all its diversity.” Michael Caplan and Norma Hennessey, Berkeley Matters, 9 July 1993, Berkeley History Room clipping files, Berkeley Public Library.
Correspondence and primary source materials indicate this visit occurred in 1972, a year earlier than the date given in Rocío Aranda-Alvarado and Sarah Kennel with Carmenita Higginbotham, “Romare Bearden: A Chronology,” in Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden (Washington: National Gallery of Art in association with Harry H. Abrams, New York, 2003), 231.
“D’Army Bailey: ‘If You’re in a Minority, You Have to Be Rough,’” The Daily Californian, 23 July 1973.
Charles Shere, “Berkeley Unveils Portrait of a City and Its People,” Oakland Tribune, 13 Jan 1974, 26EN. Others coverage of the mural includes Thomas Albright, “Berkeley’s Life Style: Impressive New Mural,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 January 1974, 40; and Mary Ellen Perry, “On the Art Scene,” San Francisco Post, 4 May 1972, 4. For suggestion of Douglas, see Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 13 January 1972, 3. All minutes available at http://www.cityofberkeley.info/recordsonline.
Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 14 October 1980, 7.
This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), who argued that human beings could be separated into four major groups, becoming one of the first to argue for making racial distinctions on physical characteristics. Augustine Fouillée, Le Tour De La France Par Deux Enfants (Paris, 1900 [first edition 1877]), 188.
Thanks to Anneka Lennsen for this suggestion.
William Clifford, President, Civic Art Commission, and Ira Simmons to Bearden, 17 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Bailey left the city for his hometown of Memphis where he eventually founded the National Civil Rights Museum.
Lauren Kroiz is assistant professor of twentieth century American art at University of California, Berkeley. She is particularly interested in race and ethnic studies, and the relationships between regionalism, nationalism, and globalism.
Front of temple looking at one of the faces of Tlaloc, Mexican god of rain and harvest.
The water pouring readily out of our private faucets is a modern production that belies the enormous scale of public infrastructure needed to sustain it. Aqueducts, reservoirs, and pumps have been central to the narrative of modern California as a hydraulic civilization: a society driven by the determination to do whatever it takes to maintain, defend, and expand access to water. Americans built soaring artistic monuments to hydraulic control in the West, creating three-dimensional representations of this will to power that bundle together ancient and modern myth, art, and engineering.
Second face of Tlaloc, Mexican god of rain and harvest.
In California, these shrines to infrastructure closely follow precedents from western antiquity. In the southeast San Francisco Bay Area, for example, upstream along Alameda Creek from the city of Fremont sits the water temple at Sunol, dedicated in 1910 by William Bourne and other members of the San Francisco elite associated with the private Spring Valley Water Company. The temple sits at the convergence of multiple water sources in the Alameda Creek watershed, where the streams were once blended and pumped forty miles across the Bay to San Francisco. Architect Willis Polk modeled the temple after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, outside Rome, another monument to a vital aqueduct irrigating an imperial city. The sixty-foot-high Sunol temple has a circular footprint, cast-concrete Corinthian columns, and frolicking sea creatures, and it replaced a wooden shed that was deemed insufficient recognition for what the Spring Valley Water Company quarterly San Francisco Water at the time called “the dignity of water.”1 Under the terra cotta roof, visitors could look down to the vault through which waters roared into a subterranean pipeline.
Later, when San Francisco needed yet more water to turn its windswept dunes into parks and urban neighborhoods, it dammed the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, drowning a valley as spectacular as Yosemite’s. Starting in 1934, it brought the Sierra snowmelt through 160 miles of aqueducts to a reservoir south of the city and celebrated this marvel of engineering—publicly owned, this time—with the construction of a monument that took its inspiration from the one at Sunol, as well as more ancient antecedents. About two billion gallons of water a year rushed through the Beaux Arts Pulgas Water Temple, where visitors could view the flow from a platform inside the colonnade.
As in California, in Mexico governments commissioned structures to celebrate human hydraulic achievements. But while American engineers and artists looked to Rome for inspiration, Mexican artists turned to indigenous sources to celebrate their own infrastructural triumphs over water scarcity. In Mexico City, the Lerma Waterworks, also known as the Cárcamo de Dolores, commemorates a major aqueduct that feeds the modern city. In the Valley of Mexico, as in the western United States, European settlers forced their water management regimes into local landscapes, feeling thwarted by what they perceived as inhospitable environments. Both San Francisco Bay and the Valley of Mexico were rich in wetlands but their intermittent rainfall patterns frustrated foreign settlers. San Francisco occupied a foggy location on the tip of a seasonally arid Pacific coastal peninsula lacking a major river, while Mexico City was built on islands in the middle of a high-altitude lake with no outlet, with only a short wet season in summer. These conditions compelled European settlers to largely ignore indigenous water management traditions in favor of feats of the latest engineering.
Mural of a man immersed in water among sea creatures.
Since European settlement, water provision throughout Mexico City has been uneven and unreliable, in spite of the city’s lacustrine hydrological identity and regular floods. Having suppressed the traditional water management practices of the valley’s inhabitants, the Spanish substituted them with an approach intent on expelling water from the bottom of the basin that they decided to settle. The lake was gradually drained following major efforts beginning in the seventeenth century, and the Aztecs’ network of waterways evaporated. In both Mexico and California, as in ancient Rome, local resources were considered insufficient to develop cities; water would be acquired externally, stored, distributed, and then flushed away.
Mexico’s largest water infrastructure project of the twentieth century sought to modernize its capital city in this way, focusing on the goal of increasing the drinking water supply for its residents. The urban population explosion throughout the 1930s alarmed city planners, who decided that wells alone would be insufficient to meet growing demand. The decision to tap into external watersheds was also driven by the aim of reducing the sinking of the city caused by the extraction of groundwater. The Lerma System, constructed between 1942 and 1951, conveyed water from sixty kilometers west. The water spends almost a third of the trip underground, gurgling through a tunnel bored through the Sierra de las Cruces mountains, before spilling into the city in the great Chapultepec Park. The Lerma Waterworks is, therefore, a ceremonial entry point, a municipal mouth receiving distant water at a culturally vibrant location in the city.
In 1950, Diego Rivera, then nearing the end of his artistic career, accepted a state commission to design the site in collaboration with the architect Ricardo Rivas. Locating the site at the endpoint of the aqueduct system within the park was itself highly significant for its indigenous value and hydro-geographic role. The Chapultepec district played an important role in ancient Aztec (and pre-Aztec) beliefs and practices as the sacred altepetl, or water hill, its springs supplying the city of Tenochtitlan from an aqueduct running across the former Lake Texcoco. Taking inspiration from the site’s real and symbolic abundance of water, Rivera and Rivas’s intervention deploys a syncretic use of indigenous representation and craft for this modern infrastructure project.
To appreciate this, it’s best to view the monument from the elevated western approach, which follows the path of the subterranean water. A small stone temple faces the plaza, its ochre cantera stone forming a portico of eight columns and crowned by a shallow dome. The building fronts a trapezoidal reflecting pool, covered in mosaic and dominated by a 100-foot-wide sculpture rising from the water in bas relief, more legible by air than from the ground. This is Rivera’s rendition of Tlaloc, Mexica god of rain and harvest. The god is depicted in active stride, sowing corn kernels from one hand and wielding mature cobs in the other; Tlaloc is the medium of growth and life itself. He is two-faced, with one goggle-eyed, jaguar-toothed visage looking skyward, and the other face earthbound, its gaping tunnel mouth facing the temple. On the soles of Tlaloc’s sandals, a series of mosaics adapt Mexica iconography to depict the construction of the aqueduct through the mountains. The story is broadly conveyed and monumentalizes modern Mexico’s technological control over natural resources.
Mural of engineers and planners, and symbols for chemical processed for disinfection of water.
Inside the temple, Rivera covered the walls and floor of the subchamber with the mural Agua, Origen de la Vida en la Tierra. In it, ancient organisms drift through the primordial soup represented in the floor mural: protozoa, amoebae, and diatoms are succeeded by others in a crescendo of complexity that begin on the ground and flow up to the vertical plane of the walls, culminating in two human ur-forms, male and female, facing one another from across the chamber. The other two walls depict the entrance and egress of the water: the source on the west wall is represented by the disembodied hands of Tlaloc, above a tunnel that until recent years conveyed the water from the aqueduct, flanked by paintings of laborers. The east wall depicts the engineers and planners, and the symbols for the chemical processes required for disinfection hang over the gates that previously directed running water into nearby tanks and the purification infrastructure.
While the architecture of San Francisco’s water temples used classical iconography to celebrate both the commercial and aspirationally democratic context of its liquid resource, Rivera’s work in Chapultepec Park used locally rooted images to pronounce and mythologize the state’s manifest water destiny as it was centralized in Mexico City. Images of the indigenous past flow out of the water god’s outstretched hands into the modernity of the Mexican Miracle era of the 1960s, when the country invested heavily in its infrastructure. But the monument fell into disrepair in the last decades of the twentieth century, and its degradation mirrored that of the water infrastructure it memorialized. The flow has been rerouted beneath the site, invisible again, rather than running through it, because the water and the humid environment it created were damaging the murals.2 Beginning in the 1970s, the Lerma system was augmented by the Cutzamala system, a network that was extended repeatedly to meet growing demands. But the new distribution infrastructure was stretched thin and inadequately maintained, and runs dry before it reaches the poor urban periphery of sprawling Mexico City.
Mural of a woman immersed in water among sea creatures.
Tlaloc’s disembodied hands symbolizing the giving of water, and Tlaloc’s face outside.
While the visible portion of Rivera’s temple to the dream of a modern water system for the city has undergone renovation in recent years, the hidden aging pipes and earthquake-damaged conduits throughout the city leak an estimated 30 percent of their precious medium. Peripheral neighborhoods have intermittent water service, if it reaches them at all. Almost everyone in the city relies on bottled water. The Lerma Waterworks lays bare the contrast between the mid-century promise of comfortable, clean water infrastructure for all and the failing hydro-political systems of today. Its images of an evenly distributed modernity are newly potent, reaching out from a faded moment of the past to the contemporary city, where the government’s neglect of infrastructure hits everyone, but especially the poor.
In California, too, the water no longer flows through the Pulgas Water Temple. Function has trumped symbolism. Following a change in the water treatment system in the early 2000s, the water is purified at a treatment plant over at Sunol, near the water temple on the other side of the Bay. There, the Sierra water is treated with a chlorine-ammonia combination to kill off bacteria, and it is sterile water that flows across the Bay in a pipe to Pulgas. But the disinfectant chemical is deadly to fish and has to be removed before it goes into the Crystal Springs water reservoir.3 So while the water in Mexico City had to be removed from the temple because it was too erosive, in Northern California it had to be banished because it was too clean.
And while the people of Mexico City clamor to increase the supply of clean water to their metropolis, a citizens’ movement in San Francisco is agitating to redesign the flow of water from the Sierras to the city. These environmental advocates want to demolish the dam at Hetch Hetchy, saying the city shouldn’t be using a scenic wilderness as a storage tub for its drinking water. They see profligate urban water consumption as a shame, not a triumph, and celebrate the cathedral-like granite walls of the submerged valley rather than any human-made temple to engineering.
As the political debates rage on, the water temples of each city stand by, monuments to moments in history, reflecting a time when water infrastructure was seen worthy of artistic veneration, and when artists drew on the iconography of the past to argue that drawing water from the mountains to fuel a growing city was the prerequisite for civilization, not an act of plunder.
1 Rina Cathleen Faletti, “Undercurrents of Urban Modernism: Water, Architecture and Landscape in California and the American West,” dissertation presented to the University of Texas at Austin, 2015, p. 210. See also Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco, Chapter 2, “Water Mains and Bloodlines,” University of California Press, 1999.
2 Rivera painted the murals with a polystyrene compound meant to resist constant inundation, but erosion of the paint was visible within years of the monument’s completion. Experts at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes have since restored them.
3 When the water gets pumped out of the reservoir, it gets disinfected again before heading into homes. This elaborate system is needed because some of the water goes straight to taps while some gets stored in the reservoir first.
Rafael Tiffany is a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. He has a background in art history and horticulture.
Susan Moffat is project director of the University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative. An urban planner and curator, she has worked in journalism, affordable housing, and environmental planning in the United States and Asia. She is currently organizing an arts festival at the Albany Bulb.