Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rocket Ship Fails to Achieve Liftoff

Rocket Gateway
This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the orbital flight of John Glenn. Fittingly, the City of Richardson unveiled "Rocket Gateway," the sculpture design concept selected for the redeveloped Heights Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Center (the latter is what we used to call a swimming pool, but in a nod to John Glenn, maybe we ought to call this one a splashdown target zone). A lot of attention was paid to reusing the old playground equipment, especially the rocket ship climbing structure removed when the playground was redeveloped a few years ago.

After the jump, a high-brow art critic's opinion (of course, by high-brow art critic, I mean low-brow and me).

The winning design is "Rocket Gateway" by Jeff Laramore. Right off, I anticipate a problem. Is it a rocket or is it a gateway? (It's both! New Shimmer is a floor wax *and* a dessert topping.) Add in a 1950s-era radio tower, decorative lights meant to evoke the night sky (I think) and maybe even a maze (?) and there's something for everyone.

There's even a bench for sitting under the gateway, although there's no provision for shade that I could see. Maybe shade for a sitting bench is a feature an artist from Indiana, someone who hasn't lived through a blistering summer in Texas, might overlook, but you'd think at least one of the Texans on the "External Stakeholder Committee," the "Parks and Recreation Commission," or the "Arts Commission," all of whom were involved in the design review, would have prevented the flaw. (By the way, think about that word "External" in one of the committee names. Does that maybe indicate a subconscious "us vs. them" attitude at city hall? Just wondering.) Maybe you're expected to sit on that bench at night (why else have decorative lights), but surely, there will also be streetlights flooding the plaza to make the site safe. That will obscure those decorative lights, so that doesn't work, either.

The problem here is one of over-constrained design. The city wanted to honor that old rocket ship. The artist, like all artists everywhere and always, wanted to create something new. The inevitable compromises leave you with the worst of both worlds. I'm reminded of one of those challenges on "Project Runway" where the fashion designers are given a budget of, say, $100, and an hour in a pet store to buy the materials from which to construct a red-carpet evening gown. The results amaze viewers not because any designer actually produces anything great, but because the results aren't all god-awful funny. But "not god-awful funny" is hardly the judgment Richardson should be looking for here.

That old rocket ship is going to be disassembled and twisted and bent into a new shape -- a gateway. Will the old steel survive the stress? And for what purpose other than to disguise the fact that it was originally a rocket ship. Laura Maczka said, "People are going to stand there and say 'Oh... ok, was that...?'" I agree with her on that, but I think she considers confusion to be a feature in favor of the design, like looking at a Picasso and saying, "Is that a nose?" Unfortunately, "Rocket Gateway" is no Picasso. On the other hand, that 1950s-era radio tower with the red light on top does kind of remind me of Rudolph's red nose. Maybe we could move the gateway to Santa's Village each December and have Santa make his grand entrance through the gateway.

Steve Mitchell said that before he saw the presentation he didn't know what to expect, maybe a rocket ship sitting on a pedestal. He called what was presented an "out of the box" design. This high-brow art critic thinks that sometimes art ought to be put back in the box. The suggestion of the original rocket ship sitting on a pedestal would look pretty good to me right now. It definitely would have fulfilled the goal of honoring the old rocket ship playground.

I know I'm in the minority here. With all the committees this design had to get by, the design they ended up approving has to be popular. And that counts for something. A lot, actually. So, if my taste differs from yours, I'm not saying I'm right and you're wrong. I think it's perfectly acceptable for y'all to fall in love with a red-nosed rocket gateway.

Still, I have to wonder what the iPad and iPhone would have looked like if Steve Jobs had turned over the input and approval process to three committees. Instead, I have to wonder what artist Jeff Laramore might have produced if he were given more freedom, say if he were just told, "Here's the space. Make it great."

By the way, one last tip, this one about graphic design, and then I'm done making negative waves. The presentation to the city council February 13 was almost unreadable in the streamed broadcast of the meeting. It looked like the presentation used white text on a black background. For better readability, use black text on a white background. Remember: form follows function.


Nathan Morgan said...

What's the point? Is this one of the reasons the project is over budget and more expensive than the bond package was intended to afford?

Julie J said...

It makes me want to weep. Why did they mess with perfection? The old rocket had finally reached its pinnacle of sublime vintage value. It breaks my heart.

Mark Steger said...

Now that the Rocket Gateway is finished, I have to admit it exceeded my low expectations. Read my update "Liftoff of Rocket Gateway Opening".

thomasmappbe said...