Beauty is always a beguiling mix of symmetry, variety, and coherence. Any pattern will give immediate satisfaction, but only something more complex rewards multiple viewings. Wallpaper seldom “grows on you.”
Pushing beyond what’s purely predictable gives the viewer a sense of participation and accomplishment. “Getting it” transforms inquisitiveness into acquisitiveness. In a sense, it belongs to the viewer because they’ve earned it. But allowing chaos to settle into coherence takes time. Those “Ah ha!” moments can elude us for years, testing our faith and our patience.
Museums fill their walls with art that has paid these dividends to others. A decent docent can guide our way like a sherpa who knows the best paths toward a summit. But public art offers fewer guides. A well designed public square, a distinctive skyline, even a well placed roundabout — these can be objects of beauty too.
Eugene’s four-way stop at Kesey Square literally takes my breath away. Its neighborly exchange is a marvel that’s rarely noticed by those who simply want to pass through the intersection safely.
Public art appreciation can be obscured by scale and subsumption. If the viewer is surrounded by something beautiful, where can they go to appreciate the beauty? How much distance is required to gain the best perspective?
Exhibit A: University of Oregon professor emeritus James Earl always chose a window seat when he flew to Indiana. He was mesmerized by colorful patterns that seemed painted on the Midwest’s landscape below. When he learned the machinery that waters crops in a circular pattern is made in Junction City, his obsession deepened.
He scoured Google Maps for what he had seen from his window seats. He catalogued the most arresting images, printed them at the highest resolution on the best photographic paper. He entered them in the Mayor’s Art Show. Several were accepted, but who was the artist? Was it Earl or Google? Or the Midwest farmer? Or the designers of the center pivot irrigation equipment that edged the images so precisely?
Or was it Boeing, who built Earl’s window seat? Beauty can be hidden from those without a proper vantage point.
Exhibit B: As Lane Transit District opens the third leg of its EmX bus rapid transit system, it’s worth taking a step back to see the gem that is more visible to outsiders.
EmX busses are painted a distinctive green. Emerald is the green of the Emerald Express, but that’s the wallpaper. There’s much more to see. LTD has invested to make each EmX stop beautiful in its own way.
LTD’s support of local artists has beed derided as wasteful and embraced as heroic. I see it as a shrewd investment toward engineering the system’s success. Inserting beauty along the way makes every trip slightly more satisfying.
There’s a bigger picture coming into view. A well articulated mass transit system creates coherence amid chaos for urban residents. Neighborhood identities grow around transit stops, even for those who don’t use mass transit. It changes how people talk.
People quote travel times and transfers as measures of efficiency and convenience, but the marvel of a well-designed system is rooted in its elegance and beauty.
The American Institute of Graphic Arts gave its medal of honor this year to Lance Wyman. His iconic map of Washington D.C.’s Metrorail subway system remained unchanged for almost 40 years. When the system’s expansion made an update unavoidable, they turned to 73-year-old and semi-retired Wyman. It now shows a dotted line where its Silver Line will reach Dulles Airport, beginning in 2019.
Likewise, LTD has a 50-year plan for EmX that reaches every neighborhood across our metro region. A dozen routes could eventually cover 60 miles of roadway. Every EmX station and every EmX vehicle should display what EmX could look like when it’s fully built. We’re a community that likes to know where we’re going.
LTD’s plan will be adjusted in the years ahead. We’ll argue about the details, as we should. What bears repeating for decades is this: If our faith and patience is rewarded, something beautiful will take shape around us.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.