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Over Under Around Through: The Light Rail Design Process

Regina M. Flanagan

K-tschump, tschump, tschump... The bass thump of muffled rap music escapes from the headphones of the teenager seated next to me on the train. Only this counterpoint disrupts my ride on the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit (LRT) line on a recent weekday afternoon. Riding in these clean, quiet, air-conditioned cars is an aesthetic experience. The environment disposes everyone around me to a meandering state of mind. Perhaps the frowning man in a suit clutching a wrapped bundle of flowers is pondering the day’s events as he heads home from work to the person who will receive those blooms. I can’t avoid hearing what is on the minds of the gaggle of animated teenagers standing in the center of the train.

How does the public art on the light rail line manage to edge its way into the consciousness of these commuters? The artwork draws no attention to itself with any identification or plaques; it is just part of the environment. But in the busyness of everyday life, where is the space for aesthetic experience? What are its entry points? These questions concern me as an artist and a designer. I believe that aesthetic experiences not only open doors within our selves, and but also connect us to others across many boundaries.

Philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud contends that all works of art produce a model of sociability. He says that in postindustrial societies, the most pressing thing is no longer the emancipation of individuals, but rather the freeing up of inter-human communication -- of experience. Bourriaud maintains that art only acquires a real existence when it introduces human interactions. Traveling the length of the Hiawatha Line, I observe and participate in these interactions.

Minnesota’s varied landscapes, particularly its native plant communities, are celebrated in artworks integrated and applied along the line, which was completed in 2004 and runs from the heart of downtown Minneapolis south to the Mall of America. Our weather, the changing seasons and the character of typical Minnesotans are the subjects of Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting, a series of audio and video pieces collected by Janet Zweig from 100 local artists and presented in metal kiosks along the line. Short stories, poems and video clips entertain riders who are intrepid enough to follow the instructions to “Flip the switch,” ”Ring the bell and see,” or otherwise activate one of the 39 kiosks. What you get to hear or see is always a surprise and if you experience a number of the pieces while riding up and down the line, a layered narrative develops. As I sat baking in the late afternoon sun at the Franklin Avenue Station on the first 80- degree day of summer, I listened to a lovely poem that ended with the line “...this is why we stay here... to bloom right along with the tulips.” At the Fort Snelling Station, I saw a video of two fellows pushing around a gigantic snowball in jerky sped-up motions accompanied by bouncy polka music.

Scape: land and design in the Upper Midwest
A publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects
Summer 2005
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