Main Terrain Art Park breaks new ground on the boundaries of public art

Authored By Maggie Behringer

Public art, fitness and stormwater management: Although not the typical elements of an urban design project, the three threads prove to be the perfect fit at the soon-to-be opened Main Terrain Art Park.

Over the course of next week, artist Thomas Sayre and his team of designers and architects, including point man and studio director Christian Karkow, will assemble a nine-part sculpture, whose focal center is anchored by three concrete pylons that are each topped with a moveable steel truss that can spin around to create a physical bridge structure at the heart of the park, while the four surrounding illuminated pylons and the two fixed at each end of the park make for the visual illusion of one continuous bridge.

Main Terrain Art Park is located between West Main Street and West 13th Street by the nonfunctioning railroad tracks. The city of Chattanooga owns the 1.72-acre lot and had been weighing the options of how to best manage the brownfield.

Once completed this winter, the park will include a running track looping the interior, manicured lawn areas, five fitness stations featuring a new line of local business Playcore Company GameTime exercise equipment and a stormwater management system administered by the city’s land development office. 

“First and foremost, this is a green space that is needed in that part of town,” said Peggy Townsend, director of Public Art Chattanooga. “It is also going to provide a connection between the Southside and the core of the city, and from the standpoint of public art, it’s going to be like nothing no one has ever seen before.”

Initial conversations sparked between the city and Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga and Public Art Chattanooga, both of which had been looking for an avenue through which to cultivate public art on West Main Street as had been done on East Main Street. The funding for the artwork and the overall park came from the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant-a $250,000 grant that the project’s two artist organizations secured.

In addition, matching funds were provided by Lyndhurst Foundation and the city of Chattanooga. Partern Ross/Fowler Architecture and Landscape Architecture signed on as well.

One of 51 awards distributed across the United States, the Scenic City’s proposal revolved around a concept called “placemaking.” This meant building a space where public art was one of many interwoven elements. Physical activity and the functionality of providing that opportunity at a public park had to be just as important as the visually compelling sculpture. It was in these kinds of discussions that the element of exercise was added to incorporating a stormwater management solution in order to combat the ever-present challenges of pollution and overflow.

“There was a big movement toward creative placemaking,” said Rodney Van Valkenburg, director of grants and initiatives at Allied Arts. “The idea [of placemaking] is more strategic. It’s how you can transform a barren, forgotten area and place something in that area that will be an attraction.”

The Main Terrain Art Park afforded the opportunity to animate an area of the city, Van Valkenburg explains, rather than simply decorate it.

Historic inspiration, contemporary expression
Having determined the multifaceted objectives for the park’s use, Allied Arts gathered an artist selection committee to chose a similarly layered piece of public art from an open call that went out in September 2011. Sayre, who has installed numerous pieces in the United States and abroad, proposed a piece that drew inspiration and aesthetic continuity and appeal from the Walnut Street Bridge, but also translated the familiar structure’s iconic nature into a symbolic demonstration of the city’s revitalization set in a functional part of that renovation. 

“This idea came solely from this site and the hopes and aspirations of this little piece of land that seems to be really important to the city of Chattanooga,” Sayre said. “It’s more than site specific; it’s urban design specific. In my view, this connector is really important to the great work in that neighborhood.”

The park is hoped to serve as a walkway from the Southside to downtown, as well as an economic driver for area gyms and, when the weather warms next spring, even food trucks catering to the lunch hours and weekend afternoon rushes.

The piece’s pylons are very smooth precast concrete and 15 feet, 4 inches tall. The steel trusses were built using computer-driven water jets that turn high-pressure streams of water into very agile scissors for cutting metal. That precision was necessary to form the triangle pieces for the trusses-a detail modeled after the engineering on the Walnut Street Bridge.

At about shoulder height on each of the trusses’ topped pylons is a wheel that allows individuals to spin the truss, either assembling or disassembling the bridge. The energy-efficient lighting atop the trusses will create a pool of light around each pylon, and the red warning lights will further nurture the visual of a bridge arching over 1,000 feet of the park.

Although drawing substantial inspiration from the downtown bridge, Sayre’s piece also gives credit to the belief that urban design and public art can connect areas of towns and neighborhoods of people not only to each other, but also to new experiences and new possibilities.

Sayre’s longtime professional partner, Steven Schuster, with whom Sayre started the North Carolina design and architecture firm Clearscapes in 1981, grew up in Chattanooga in the 1960s, when a dwindling industry and public financial strains almost crippled the city. The artist has been witness to the dramatic turnaround since the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium in 1992 and is now adding his own contribution to the citywide revitalization.

“I think Chattanooga had quietly made a lot of good urban design decisions in the recent past,” Sayre said. “The art took its cue from that thinking and that momentum.”

The Main Terrain Art Park has also received validation of its purpose and progress from a national source. Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, mentioned the project in his post on the official National Endowments for the Arts blog. The expert was in town in September to speak about creative placemaking at the Arts Education Partnership Forum.

“It’s a perfect example of creative placemaking that has to do with the intersection of public art, physical space and the general public,” Landesman wrote. “It’s one of those projects that will affect people aesthetically who have no intention of buying a ticket to a museum or performance project or anything like that. It really is what I often refer to as ‘art in the public square.'”