The Time is Now: Public Art of the Sustainable City

Public art commissions always require justification—and that should tell us something. If traditional systems of representation are bankrupt and common values suspect, if committee-driven compromises can only dole out watered-down abstract “spaces” carefully formulated to offend no one and convey nothing, why do we bother? What is the purpose of public art? We say that it’s something we should have, but no one can convincingly explain why it’s necessary. “Uplift” and other vague intangibles get trotted out, but it’s hard to connect these “benefits” to projects that end in entertainment and strive for nothing loftier than increased tourist revenues. Until we can say that we need public art, nothing is going to change; and we won’t need it until it succeeds in touching and improving people’s lives in tangible ways.

Public Art of the Sustainable City, which documents a selection of submissions to the Land Art Generator Initiative’s (LAGI) first international competition in 2010, offers a viable answer to the dilemma. Fifty-one projects—a diverse array of futuristic constructions, some more utopian than others—harness public art’s untapped potential, each one fusing cutting-edge design with renewable energy generation and additional public services. Regardless of design details, they all have learned the lessons of popular temporary public art events like Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls and applied them to permanent sites, allowing acreage and place-making to multi-task while putting eye-popping spectacle and technological pyrotechnics to work for the public good.

LAGI’s concerted effort to synthesize public art, urban design, and renewable energy has been a long time coming. The demand for energy continues to increase, CO2 levels continue to rise, oil reserves are dwindling, yet we can’t think of a better “solution” than to engineer ever more dangerous methods of extracting those same fuels that fired the cycle in the first place—never mind that remaining reserves are also finite. Attitudes to alternatives need to change now. As LAGI founders Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry point out, art can make renewable energy visible, desirable, and beautiful. The ideas are there; technologies are rapidly developing (despite funding cuts and obstructionist legislation in Canada, the U.K., the U.S., and the E.U., which recently rebranded gas as “green” energy)—the possibilities just need to reach public consciousness, and what better way than through public art. Change public opinion, prove that “sustainable” does not mean a lower standard of living, and we can shake off defeatist cynicism about an uncertain future and overcome the stubborn resistance of a self-interested, short-sighted status quo. The need to replace antiquated infrastructure becomes an opportunity once people realize the potential return on investment in research and development.

The first step is cultural, and it requires the ability to think beyond the immediate present. LAGI found the perfect partner for this competition in the most unlikely of places, the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi may be rich in oil for the foreseeable future, but its leaders aren’t content to simply milk profits until the reserves run dry; instead, they are channeling a significant portion of their revenues into renewable and alternative energy initiatives. Masdar City, a ground-breaking project currently under construction, is transforming the idea of a sustainable city into reality, with fully integrated planning and design, energy, water, and waste management, public transportation systems, and supply chains that combine time-tested traditional practices (construction methods and materials, building orientation) with the newest technological advances—all powered by renewable resources.

Within this brave new world of future energy, renewable, clean power production becomes part of the urban, suburban, and rural fabric. LAGI’s competition invited artists, architects, engineers, and scientists to reimagine the very idea of a power plant, shifting its conceptual status from a distanced, hidden evil to a desirable part of the neighborhood. Teams could choose one of three sites, one near a wildlife sanctuary in Dubai and two in Abu Dhabi (the first near Masdar City and the other between Saadiyat Island and Ys Island), targeting their approaches to local climate, geography, and cultural practices. Public Art of the Sustainable City presents the best of the entries, from the winning Lunar Cubit (nine monumental glass and amorphous silicon pyramids that generate 3,500 MWh per year) to the otherworldly landscape of Solar Dunes (thin film photovoltaic membranes whose forms interact with shifting desert sands and produce an annual 5,000 MWh) and the surreal flower of Desert Blooms (solar-tracking balloons that provide a playground and garden in addition to 20,000 MWh of solar energy per year). Other projects generate power from wind, water, electrostatic energy in sandstorms, and various combinations. Many provide much-needed shade, others filter water, and some feature habitat restoration; several wind-power projects at the wildlife reserve have developed avian-friendly forms. Every project is a destination site to explore by day and night, complete with recreational and educational experiences for locals and visitors, intended to become a valued part of everyday life.

So what do the numbers mean? LAGI uses the benchmark that an average household consumes 10 MWh per year (the number is from the U.S Energy Information Administration). Third-place Solaris, the highest generating project at 70,000 MWh would power 7,000 homes per year. Its undulating solar “tent” would be the “largest installation of concentrated solar power technology in the world,” but the project description (like many others) neglects to specify the exact number of acres it requires. Based on the scale renderings, it is massive. Like many of the proposals, this is land art on a colossal scale; other approaches, many of them airborne, have a much smaller and more adaptable footprint. Even the largest projects, however, can be adapted. Composed of multiple, repeated elements, they can be up- and down-sized as necessary; some can even be arrayed vertically or horizontally.

Obviously public art isn’t going to power the world, and land itself is a finite resource. But we can choose how we want to use available land, from small, empty lots to vast tracts, and decide what kind of public art will fill precious sites. As for naysayers who argue that renewables can never generate enough capacity, at the end of May, Germany’s solar plants produced a record 22 gigawatts of electricity through the mid-day hours of a Friday and Saturday—equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity—meeting 50 percent of the nation’s needs. LAGI’s Abu Dhabi competition introduced an exciting first generation of aesthetically adventurous possibilities, any one of which could become a reality (Lunar Cubit, for instance, would recoup construction costs in five years; LAGI is spearheading bids). The 2012 competition, now underway, addresses a completely different environment—New York City. Proposals for Freshkills Park are being accepted through July 1  This is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to rethink the goals of public art and reimagine how we might live.

—Twylene Moyer

Book Information:
The Time is Now: Public Art of the Sustainable City

Land Art Generator Initiative; Essays by Beth Carruthers and Michiel Van Raaij
Singapore: Page One Publishing, 2012
240 pages, numerous illustrations, paperback
available from
ISBN: 978-981-428-675-6

One response

  1. Pingback: Land Art Generator Initiative

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