The Grand Hall of the new Transbay Transit Center featuring Julie Chang’s floor installation, 'Secret Garden.' Tim Griffith
The Grand Hall of the new Transbay Transit Center featuring Julie Chang’s floor installation, 'Secret Garden.' (Tim Griffith)

Let's Talk about the Public Art at the New Transbay Transit Center

Let's Talk about the Public Art at the New Transbay Transit Center

Part park, part bus station and aspirational future high-speed rail terminus, the new Transbay Transit Center opens with literal fanfare (courtesy of the West Grand Bass Band) on Aug. 11, followed by a number of exceedingly family friendly events, including an instrument “petting zoo” for kids, drumming and dance performances, a redwoods “talk & touch” and a yoga class. Bus service begins the following day.

Missing from that list of events is any mention of the building’s four public art pieces, facilitated by the San Francisco Arts Commission, which punctuate a hovering white structure designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the “day” to the old bus depot’s dark, cold, concrete-bunker-like “night.”

For some of the artists involved, the Aug. 11 opening is the culmination of upwards of 10 years of planning, proposing, altering, testing and overseeing their public art projects.

A rendering of Julie Chang's 'Secret Garden' terrazzo floor, as seen from above.
A rendering of Julie Chang's 'Secret Garden' terrazzo floor, as seen from above. (Courtesy of the SFAC)

On the ground floor, Bay Area-based artist Julie Chang designed the grand hall’s 20,000-square-foot terrazzo floor, a swirling design of native flora and fauna punctuated by geometric patterns representing a smorgasbord of source material, including African textiles, Chinese calligraphy, pottery design, genetic mutations, Islamic tile and wallpaper.

It’s a pleasant thing to look at, which isn’t something that can be said for all public art. (Cough, cough.) Children will race along Chang’s white curves and stationary travelers may enjoy the inlaid bronze and zinc icons dotting the terrazzo. But for the most part, people will walk and roll across it without a second thought.

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The same will likely be true for James Carpenter’s Parallel Light Fields, a currently unfinished light sculpture installed in the ceiling and walking surface of Shaw Alley, a pedestrian passage lined with retail shops.

A rendering of James Carpenter's 'Parallel Light Fields' in Shaw Alley.
A rendering of James Carpenter's 'Parallel Light Fields' in Shaw Alley. (Courtesy of the SFAC)

Which raises the question, what is the point of public art in a bus station? Should it blend into the building itself, providing inoffensive adornment? Should it amuse the weary traveler? Or should it function as time-killing reading material for those waiting to board their rides?

Enter Jenny Holzer, artist of all-caps scrolling text fame. White Light, the New York-based artist’s Transit Center piece, is 16 feet tall and 182 feet long, but it contracts that length into an oval shape decreed by the building’s central atrium, making it hard to see the band of LEDs in their entirety. The texts come from 42 authors and rolls by at lengths of 45 seconds to two hours. (Though I’m not sure who’ll be able to hold two hours of scrolling text in their minds in order to achieve some sort of narrative entertainment.)

The piece promises to deliver snippets of text specific to the Bay Area and California from writers like Machine Gun Kelly, Maya Angelou, Richard Brautigan and Harvey Milk. But word’s still out on whether or not Holzer’s pointed truisms like “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” will populate the LED feed in the future. Currently, none of the texts come from Holzer herself.

Jenny Holzer's 'White Light,' viewed from the bus deck of the Transit Center.
Jenny Holzer's 'White Light,' viewed from the bus deck of the Transit Center. (Tim Griffith)

And what of amusement? The Transit Center’s rooftop will serve more than those making use of the various bus lines circling through the third level. Six stories up from the street, the building boasts a 5.4-acre park with wending pathways, lush grass, 12 thematic gardens annotated with didactic text—and the most delightful of the Transit Center's public art, Ned Kahn’s Bus Jet Fountain.

Connected to sensors mounted in the bus deck ceilings, the fountain echoes the movement of buses with vertical jets of water, creating a visual representation of the transit activity taking place directly below the bucolic pleasure garden that some people paid to name Salesforce Park.

A perverse part of me cannot wait for the angry tweets that will surely result from some unsuspecting and fancily dressed person getting soaked when they mistake Kahn’s fountain bed for a wending pathway.

Ned Kahn's 'Bus Jet Fountain' in action, representing the movement of an AC Transit bus on the floor below the park.
Ned Kahn's 'Bus Jet Fountain' in action, representing the movement of an AC Transit bus on the floor below the park. (Courtesy of the artist)

Here’s why I’m sure that will happen: Three pedestrian bridges connect surrounding skyscrapers directly to the park, all of which bear opportunistically placed building signage to remind park-goers who built this neighborhood. (Note to self, find out what “iShares by Black Rock” is/does.)

And about that neighborhood: the transit hub sits squarely in an area recently christened—by the local community benefit association and Google Maps—the East Cut. After my Transit Center tour, I sat outside one of San Francisco’s 13 Philz Coffee shops (the company’s dedication to the mid-’90s z-as-possessive is beyond reproach) and watched a woman with an “East Cut” tote bag and clipboard monitor the sidewalk activity of Beale Street.

According to Jill Manton, director of the SFAC’s public art program, the new Transit Center aims to be the “Grand Central Station of the West.” (Ignore the fact that there is no train service in the terminal, high-speed or otherwise, and might not be any until 2029.) It was Manton’s idea, in 2006, to approach the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) proposing they incorporate public art into the future building’s design.

A rendering of the Transit Center's rooftop park, with Ned Kahn's 'Bus Jet Fountain' in the background.
A rendering of the Transit Center's rooftop park, with Ned Kahn's 'Bus Jet Fountain' in the background. (Courtesy of the SFAC)

The TJPA, agreeing with Manton’s vision, voluntarily committed $4.75 million to the art.

But even with that art, which provides some color, movement and surprise in an otherwise sterile space, the Transit Center can appear like an AutoCAD version of the city.

The cross-section view of the structure is perfect representation of contemporary San Francisco’s social stratification. Above, a place for lunch, a midday walk or a Zumba® class with corporate logos looming above—all space programmed and designed to prevent the unwanted kind of loitering (benches are too short to lay upon, or else separated by armrests).

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In the middle, the commuters, the bus travelers, the people who still use public transit to get from point A to point B and make this city run. And below, the planned subterranean train station for commuter trains and high-speed rail—the speculative future so often overheard in public spaces these days. What could be more San Francisco?

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