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Take the Red Line... Please

Artists on the Line at the Carpenter Center through March 9

By Robert O. Boorstin

Our intent at Porter Square is to provide station design that sensitively integrates art with architecture; not a series of isolated visual incidents or a gallery of selected "art works" within the station, but rather to consider the entire spatial experience as the sum of all the physical elements, thereby to create a humane environment. Cambridge Seven Associates, Architects

IN SEPTEMBER 1977, Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams announced that the Department of Transportation would encourage "good design, art and architecture in transportation facilities and services." Several months later, as part of this policy, the Urban Mass Transit Authority gave the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA)--the folks who've been trying to extend the Red Line through Harvard Square--$125,000 to develop one of four national pilot projects.

Artists on the Line at Carpenter Center is the preliminary, eclectic and somewhat confusing result of that grant. In an age of decaying airports and decrepit bus terminals, the painless improvement of passengers' "spatial experience" is a sound idea. Unfortunately, the MBTA seems to have about as much luck commissioning art work for its stations as it does securing permission to build those stations.

If the Red Line extension project ever gets out as far as Porter Square, the intersection of Massachusetts and Somerville Avenues will never be the same. After reviewing the work of some 300 artists, Cambridge Seven architects heading the project commissioned seven to draw up plans for decorating the proposed station. Although the artists say they discussed their ideas with each other in order to achieve an integrated, co-operative effect, each was given his own portion of the station with which to experiment; and it shows. Cambridge Arts Council spokeswoman Jennifer Dowling promises that every artist will ultimately be represented when the station finally becomes a reality. If so, chaos will reign.

The problem with the show (and ultimately with the station, if all goes according to plan) is simple. Take seven different artists, more than seven different materials, and no matter how hard you try, you get a series of isolated visual incidents." Even the co-sponsors of the project can't agree in philosophy. Architect Cambridge Seven hope to express "the nature of a subway station as one of transition and movement, a place where people are 'passing through' en route to a destination."

The Cambridge Arts Council, on the other hand, says, "Rapid transit systems can no longer be considered only pass-through environments that rush people from one location to another."

Some of the individual works on display are very good, although perhaps less significant to sweeping movements in modern art than their creators believe. Mags Harries' whimsical idea of using gloves--in piles, gripping rails, pushing imaginary buttons--as a constant image that the passenger follows from one point of the station to another is amusing, even if the philosophy behind is somewhat extravagant. The gloves, she writes in an explanation of her works, "are anthropomorphic objects with many character possibilities and by their multiplication, take on a life form that might be analgous to the people movement in the subway." Sure.

The works designed for the station's exterior should blend smoothly with the lines of the building. They don't. For the outer court, David Phillips has designed a series of cut stones for the plaza. "I have never thought of myself as a stone carver," he writes. "I didn't want to remove material or change the essential nature." Yet he has not only cut and placed stones to clutter the plaza. He, like Harries, has decided his objects would look better bronzed. The effect, if one takes the model as an indicator of things to come, is terribly pretentious.

There is a bright spot. William P. Reimann's large, stone-cut sundial is strikingly handsome, a functional product of a fine sense of graphic design. Reimann's other work, a frog fountain, is a disappointment, however. The idea isn't all bad--when the pool is full, only the frog is visible; when it's empty, a "malevolent" turtle rises. Yet somehow it just doesn't belong outside a subway station. "The turtle and frog basin, Reimann explains, "attempts to combine creatures native to the region to provide one of several foci intended to organize a hierarchy of visual and participatory elements articulating the pedestrian area of the main plaza." Run that by me again.

The architects' models for the station, perhaps the best parts of the exhibit, illustrate the difficulties of creating a spacious feeling in facilities which are usually claustrophobic. Greenhouse structures with glass panels open the entrances to natural light. Unfortunately, the artists seem to have conspired to ruin this effect. William Wainwright's plans to build a series of giant mobiles to hang from the glass roof seem misdirected. Although Wainwright's compositions of oblong chrome and reflecting prisms would be great in Boston-Boston, one wonders what they'll add to the station. Carolos Dorrien's granite wall piece stands nearby, looking strangely uncomfortable for an inanimate object.

The pieces planned for the interior are mildly surprising. Susuma Shingu's well-designed three-part windmill will link the street and tunnel through a large light shaft. As the mill revolves and dips in the winds, hammers will strike chimes which hang inside the station, creating a soothing audio-visual experience. But Christopher Janney, whose project "Soundstair" creates nothing but confusion at MIT, has also been unleashed in the station. Although Janney insists his intricate sound system presented only as a drawing will be coordinated with Shingu's chimes, his "sonic gates, soundstairs and sound central" all emit noises as one moves through the station. Janney calls it the "further adventures of translating people's movements into sound," and an adventure it will be. He can't quite seem to put his finger on what he wants to do: "Tuesdays it might sound like oboes inside Carnegie Hall; Wednesdays, tympani in a studio; Thursdays, flutes in the Gardner Museum. His confusion is symptomatic of the show.

EXHIBITING WORKS OF ART in progress is a risky idea, made worse when carelessly planned. Artists on the Line features some fascinating individual works spoiled by the failure of those in charge to integrate the artists' ideas. When Brock Adams announced his new policy, he noted that "an investment in the design of transportation can produce humane and pleasant places and improve the quality of out environment." If it's done right, maybe. But if the federal government learns anything from the fledgling Porter Square pilot project, it will hesitate before it lets its checkbook loose in Cambridge again.

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