Bay View’s ‘Art Stop’: Urban Counter-Pose, Is it counter-urban?
October 31, 2014
By Jeffrey Zimmerman
The impressive transformation of Bay View’s premier intersection at Kinnickinnic, Howell and Lincoln avenues is consistently celebrated as a triumph of careful urban revitalization by city leaders and neighborhood residents alike. This may not necessarily be the case with the newest addition to the commercial hub — Román Montoto’s Urban Counter-Pose, also known as Art Stop, which officially debuted in October.
Anchoring the reconfigured traffic island in the heart of the busy intersection, Montoto’s new installation combines a soaring 32-foot tower with a visually distinct bus shelter area. The two structures, which occupy the northern and southern ends of the roughly 1600-square-foot-site respectively, synthesize the main purposes the project was designed to address — to create an iconic landmark or “gateway” representing the unique character of Bay View, while addressing more utilitarian concerns about creating a pleasant experience for Milwaukee County Transit riders, who use the intersection as a key transfer point.
Yet, the project has been mired in controversy for nearly three years. During that time, residents of Bay View voiced concerns over the cost, the possibility of misplaced public sector priorities, a potentially opaque and undemocratic public review process, delayed construction timelines, and the design itself. But now that Montoto’s piece is complete and unveiled for the public to see, the question of its success can finally be fully addressed. To begin with, Counter-Pose is really more of a large sculpture — and less a piece of functioning, organic architecture — and therefore issues related to its aesthetic achievements will be grounded in personal taste and will likely remain controversial.
This will doubly be the case as Montoto’s design is clearly modern. Counter-Pose, in fact, seems to have been inspired by the design vocabulary of Russian constructivism, a particularly brutal form of modernism that emerged in the social and political chaos of early 20th century Russia. From a distance, and at first glance, Counter-Pose therefore perplexes. It appears to be little more than concrete slabs supporting a schizophrenic array of rusted metal trellises; some reaching skyward, while others bend at unexpected angles. One could easily excuse some viewers for their unfortunate first impression that a partially-destroyed iron bridge had been plucked from the Kinnickinnic River and plunked inexplicably in downtown Bay View.
But upon closer inspection, Counter-Pose’s engagement with the intersection and the broader community comes into clearer focus. Because the traffic island’s narrowest angle faces north, Montoto positioned the prominent tower element of the installation at this key location. The effect of this arrangement is to establish a strong visual focus that draws the attention of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers as they enter the intersection traveling south, and thereby, produces the desired “northern gateway to the neighborhood” function. At night, when the tower is illuminated by solar-powered LED lights that change in sequence through the colors of the rainbow, the gateway function is especially visible and effective.
The sculpture’s materials, as well, enter into a dialogue with Bay View’s personality and its sense of past and future. In his artist statement about the piece, Montoto said the heavy concrete base was designed to capture the “rootedness” of the community, while the steel structure connotes “industrious and creative resurgence, open-ended and optimistic for the future.”
What’s more, it certainly seems appropriate that a community with origins as a steel mill company town might be symbolically represented by a steel trellis sculpture, however unexpectedly arranged, at its most important crossroads. Counter-Pose’s stylistic form, to put it gently, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Montoto’s attempt to create an iconic, material representation of Bay View’s identity is intellectually engaging and, like all good art, promises to generate even further debate.
A potentially more serious shortcoming of Montoto’s new installation becomes apparent when the functionality of the new bus shelter is evaluated specifically. Like the tower element, the shelter is visually interesting — even stunning — and is rendered in the same building materials and modern, angular aesthetic. But here the all-too-common architectural conceit of form undermining function is given one of its strongest local expressions. What ideally should be an enclosed, large area with a solid, flat roof to afford protection from the elements is left unexpectedly open and exposed. This is especially the case in the main seating area facing Lincoln Avenue where the roof piece — five interlocking pieces of opaque glass, is angled upwards at roughly fifteen degrees, thus allowing wind, rain, snow, and sleet to potentially penetrate more deeply into the partially-protected space.
Furthermore, the only seating options available are the same heavy concrete support slabs that, during the long Wisconsin winter, will hardly make a comfortable place to sit. Bus shelters, of course, are rarely pleasant and charming places, but Montoto’s interpretation at Counter-Pose seems to display a disregard for, if not implicit sadism, towards those transit riders who will use one of the key elements of the installation.
Such indifference to how the public might use the space is also on display when Counter-Pose is viewed as a whole. In this case, it’s instructive to examine the contrast with the Stone Creek Coffee Garden, which invites comparison because of both its adjacency, similarity of size, and geographic footprint.
Stone Creek’s garden, as most residents of Bay View would likely agree, is one of the most successful spaces facing the revitalized KK/Howell/Lincoln intersection. It succeeds because the strategy of its landscaping and design created an intimate “outdoor living room” that is quiet, cozy, and protected from the street.
In contrast, the public space at Counter-Pose, feels bare, open, and exposed. Indeed, the installation is framed only by five small, geometric patches of native grasses, which, at present, do very little to soften the muscularity of its concrete and steel composition. Grasses do get taller of course, and more landscaping, including trees, was a part of Montoto’s original vision. The arrangement also lacks a well-defined physical edge, which could have been employed to better establish a sense of enclosure, and thus encourage people to sit, meet, and linger.
Yet, faulting Montoto specifically on this account is a little less than fair. The original Request for Proposals (RFP) made no mention of crafting an active public gathering place, and the site’s residual traffic island location made this possibility even more of a challenge.
Missed opportunities aside, Counter-Pose still adds much more to Bay View’s ongoing renaissance than it subtracts. While the new installation excludes the traditional signifiers of public space, it is active and friendly in its own unique way.
The distinctiveness of the ambient light show activates the space in stimulating and conspicuous ways, as well. What’s more, Counter-Pose is more than successful as an anchoring agent. Just four years ago, the large triangular-shaped intersection at the heart of Bay View was little more than dead space. Although revitalized in a commercial sense, the intersection was architecturally indistinguishable from any other in the city. Counter-Pose, arguably the most theatrical addition to Bay View’s urban fabric in many generations, has effectively changed that dynamic and marked the community as one of the city’s creative epicenters.
What About Those Unsightly Utility Boxes?
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the Montoto’s Counter-Pose is the three utility boxes located roughly in the center of the installation. Because they are not veiled behind any landscaping or physical barrier, they are visually prominent from every perspective except from the south, where, fortunately, the new bus shelter obscures their inelegant masses.
Making matters even worse is that two of the three boxes are a brownish hue that seems to match almost perfectly the rust tone of the Montoto’s steel composition, thereby suggesting the possibility that they might actually be a part of the installation. This is not the case.
Montoto’s original vision included trees and shrubs that would have, in effect, hidden the utility boxes. The Dept. of Public Works, however, did not approve this part of the design because of its concerns that tree root systems might eventually disturb the underground utility conduits at the site. Montoto also specified that the existing grasses should be allowed to reach three or four feet, which would go a long way towards shielding the unsightly boxes at the center of the triangle. Ald. Tony Zielinski has suggested that other strategies of concealment are currently in the early planning stages, including covering the boxes in colorful, decorative murals.
Read Román Montoto’s artist statement.
Jeffrey Zimmerman, who grew up in Bay View, is an Assistant Professor of Geography at UW-Whitewater and a resident of the Tippecanoe neighborhood.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.