I love public art, especially art that is functionally integrated into infrastructure. I believe that public art has the capacity to activate public spaces, generate conversations, and educate the community.
During the past months, I have had the amazing and unique opportunity of using my engineering and urban planning skills and combine them with my love for public art. In December 2017, our team -composed of Höweler+Yoon Architecture, Gray Organschi, PUSH Studio, and Nspiregreen- was selected to be one of the three groups to participate in the final round of the Land Art Generation Initiative (LAGI) Competition. The purpose of this competition is to imagine, create, and develop an art piece for a specific site that captures energy from nature and cleanly converts it into electricity. This artwork should also be constructible, use market-available technologies, and respect the natural ecosystem of the design site.
Our specific challenge was to envision a public art piece for a parcel in Willimantic, Connecticut, located 30 miles southeast from Hartford. Willimantic is commonly known as the Thread City given its history with threading manufacturing in the 19th Century. In fact, the old Smithville Cotton Mill used to be located on the property and used hydropower as its source of energy. Today, Willimantic has a vibrant cultural scene and is home to Eastern Connecticut State University.
The 3.4-acre triangular site is a blank canvas as seen in the following pictures. The parcel is located beside the downtown area, just a few minutes from the town’s commercial area. The site is owned by the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership and was recently remediated for the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons. In addition, the site grading provides beautiful views of City Hall and the rapids of the Willimantic River. The site also includes a stretch of the river, a deteriorated dam (installed when the site used hydropower), and a retaining wall.
View from south side of the site towards City Hall (left) and view of amphitheater, river, and change in grading (right). (Picture owned by Gray Organschi)
After doing research, visiting the site, having a series of internal discussions, and talking with the community, we developed Eddy Line (an eddy line is the shear plane between two directions of water). As seen in the following pictures, our proposed design is a vertical structure, visible from many areas of town, that captures the water currents seen in the river, as well as the movements of threads in historic textile processes, while harkening back to the smokestacks of old textile factories. On the south side of the structure, a 1,250 square feet array of flexible thin-film solar panels capable of generating 94 MWh of energy annually is being proposed. Some of this energy will be used to power LED panels at the back of the structure which will change in color, allowing the community to know how much power has been generated. In the addition to the public art piece, our team is proposing an overlook and an amphitheater. With this design, we hope to transform this blank space into a place for the community of Willimantic to enjoy, create recreational and economic development opportunities, and trigger conversations around renewable energy, especially solar.
The winner of the competition will be officially announced on April 24 (here is a link to all three proposals). It would be amazing to continue seeing this vision come to reality. Regardless of the results, this has been a unique opportunity personally and professionally. In addition, it makes me happy that towns are embracing public art and their cultural heritage for placemaking, economic development, and building community.
Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.