There are hundreds of examples of utilities-based public art projects in the United States and beyond that illustrate the feasibility of converting “eyesores” into public amenities. One of my favorite examples is the Viewland/Hoffman electrical substation on the north side of Seattle, Washington.
A typical electrical substation is an immense challenge for electric power developers to site, as their aesthetic impact can be extraordinarily difficult to mitigate. During the 1970s, the City went forward with a clever utilities-based public art project to change the way people engaged with these ubiquitous eyesores.
The Viewland/Hoffman electrical substation is located along Fremont Avenue North between 105th and 107th Streets North in a blue-collar neighborhood of northern Seattle. The project is the earliest example of a large-scale public art project built from scratch in an unusual collaboration between artists, architects, and a public utilities company. In many ways, Viewlands became the standard bearer for publicly funded public art projects nationwide. Artists Buster Simpson, Sherry Markowitz, and Andrew Keating were commissioned in 1978 by the Seattle Arts Commission to work with an architect and Seattle City Light, the regional electric utility company, on the design and construction of a new electrical substation. Despite there never having been a utilities-based public art project like this in the past, the three artists—who had never met each other, let alone work together—felt their way through developing a creative rethinking of a public works project while blending local elements into the design.
In a telephone interview with Mr. Keating, I learned that much of the artists’ inspiration coincidentally came from a rather prescient interest in wind energy. Simpson had found the work of folk artist Emil Gehrke, who made whirligigs out of found objects and painted them bright colors, and bought a whole set. The remaining designs for the Viewland substation and its public space feature, including seating and a walkway that gives you a view of the substation, were based on Gehrke’s whirligigs (see video), echoing his color schemata to label the transformers and switches and creating unique corresponding signage.
Keating and I talked about the project- and artist-selection process, which he attributes to Simpson’s initiative in approaching then-Commissioner Norie Sato, an artist and collaborator with Simpson, Keating, and Markowitz in a project called And/Or. At that point, Seattle had just been climbing out of a major economic downturn, and the Arts Commission was still in its first years of existence with few resources or projects under its belt.
“It wasn’t a normal RFP like you’d have for a job,” Keating said. “You applied via the Arts Commission, it was as clear they wanted an artist, and we got to the interview phase. I think a big reason that I got on was because I was fairly articulate and was later mistaken for an architect.”
Viewland/Hoffman was the first project to be funded by Seattle’s new percent-for-art ordinance. Keating and Simpson were initially employed to perform ongoing maintenance of the artworks, but the Arts Commission has since earmarked funding to hire an art conservator as needed.
As for incorporating local elements into the design, “For us, it wasn’t really connected to the neighborhood or anything…obviously there was playfulness and all kinds of other stuff that go with it, but at the highest level, it was the wind [turbines], and the joy of it and everything too,” Keating said.
Of the civic engagement process, he said, “It’s become a necessity.”