“Controversy” Over Swing Park?
Architect blasts city for altering her design. Are her complaints valid?
Architect Grace La has blasted city officials for how they have handled the re-installation of the swings underneath the Holton Street Bridge, which was completed two days ago, as Urban Milwaukee reported on Wednesday. But are her complaints valid or are they sour grapes by someone whose work was supplanted?
The city created the public space called the Media Garden to be a gathering spot on the east end of the Marsupial Bridge built beneath the Holton St. viaduct. It included a number of concrete “LightSlab” benches designed by Grace La and La Dallman Architects.
But the area remained pretty dead, and at night, rather foreboding — a public space without much public that was beginning to get marred by graffiti.
Then, in September 2012, a group known as beintween, led by Keith Hayes, hung swings from the Holton Viaduct with the hope of bringing activity to the area. They succeeded, as area residents and even the mayor’s daughters found the swings a fun urban amenity. The area began to become known unofficially as “Swing Park.” But by October 2013 all the swings had been removed, some by the city due to safety concerns and some by Hayes’ group, unhappy that the city was removing them.
But this led to a seemingly happy ending as the city decided to re-install the swings. The city worked with Hayes, artists, stakeholders including Julilly Kohler, whose leadership led to the creation of the Marsupial Bridge, and the area business improvement district to bring the swings back, with some improvements. “The city added swings for toddlers, added a handicap accessible swing, known as ‘Aunt Ada,’ replaced the gravel with a recycled tire fill that is soft and squishy to the touch, and improved the swing’s connections to the bridge to insure safety,” as my colleague Dave Reid reported.
But Ghassan Korban, Commissioner of the Department of Public Works, told the newspaper the city didn’t have the money to pay La to work on the redesign. “You get to the point where you recognize that you are too far apart, and I didn’t have the resources to hire her,” he said.
Adding insult to injury for La, one suspects, is that she was a mentor to Hayes when he attended UW-Milwaukee, and now she was getting left out of a re-design process in which he had the leading role. Hayes, moreover, did all his work on the project for nothing.
The JS story also quoted Karin Wolf, Madison’s arts administrator, who oversees similar alterations of public spaces. On the one hand, she complimented the city for being open to “guerrilla urbanism,” where citizen activists take it upon themselves to fix a problem in the city, as Hayes and others did. On the other hand, Wolf suggested the city should have found a way to work with La: “Grace La is a total star,” Wolf said. “I would consider very carefully before altering a space that she had so thoughtfully designed.”
As Wolf’s comments suggest, there are no easy answers here.This is not the first time the administration of Mayor Tom Barrett has been accused of being tone deaf to issues of urban design. In this case, however, the original project had a big-name designer involved (La is now on the faculty of Harvard University) and the result didn’t seem to create a space where people wanted to congregate. Moreover, many of the lights created by La in the original design, including the bridge, have failed. From the standpoint of its users, the redesign of La’s work is far more successful; the more somnolent-sounding Media Garden has lost out to Swing Park. Schumacher’s story seemed to bury that point.
In a Facebook post, Ald. Nik Kovac, whose district includes the area in question, wrote that “It was good journalism for Mary-Louise Schumacher to get these quotes from the original designer of the marsupial bridge and park. But it’s a shame that those quotes were such sour grapes. Beyond just sour grapes, they were elitist and anti-public…Some of the original benches are still there, but I go by this park every day, and… many many more people use the swings than the benches…This is not a passing fad. This is a major improvement of a public space. If I was the original designer, I would be acknowledging and complimenting the improvement.”
For more on the Marsupial Bridge and Grace La, see our coverage of the 2013 expansion opening on the other side of the river.
Photo Gallery of Swing Park Ribbon Cutting