Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

“Controversy” Over Swing Park?

Architect blasts city for altering her design. Are her complaints valid?

By - Jul 25th, 2014 11:24 am
Seconds after the press conference children take to the swings.

Seconds after the press conference children take to the swings.

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 La was left out of the process, as a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story by Mary Louise Schumacher reports today. And more than half of the benches she designed for the space were demolished.

“Where was the process? Where was the design?” La complained to the newspaper. La says she offered to be involved in the design process numerous times.”Nobody even contacted us,” La said. “To not even consult with us on it for 10 minutes — honestly. I could have helped in three minutes.”

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

3 thoughts on “Back in the News: “Controversy” Over Swing Park?”

  1. Andy says:

    I love what the “swing park” has done for the area. La’s designed looked cool, but clearly more people enjoy it now.

    But what about future “guerrilla” projects? Did we get lucky that this project worked out so well? Should we indeed have due process for changes to public places like this?

    It may be difficult to argue that point when the city does such a poor job with public art and public spaces… but does the conversation change when these guerrilla projects pop up that are not nearly as well done?

    Also, if I personally dislike one of these projects do I have that same ability to alter them as I see fit without any approval?

    Just thoughts that go through my head on this slow Friday afternoon as I think about this situation…

  2. Tyrell Track Master says:

    I’m a fan of La’s work, but come on! When the project is done, changes happen. Get over it! Be glad that people are finding these swings, enjoying the bridge, and digging the beat!

  3. Paul Miller says:

    Architects, especially the diva ones, get resentful when their designs are altered, particularly when the change speaks to a fault or shortcoming of the original design. These are sometimes people who live in a theoretical world rather than the real one, as a visit to any Brutalist building reminds us.

    In a case like this, with such a modest change, it just wasn’t worth paying for her time. Also, let’s remember that she’s not Gehry or Pelli or Koolhaus. She’s a good architect, but it’s not like we spray painted over a piece of international value.

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