Johns Hopkins and its work inspire Baltimore's newest public art project

Image caption: Engraving the Chesapeake Bay on one of four stone tablets now installed in Optical Gardens.

Stainless steel rings jutting from the ground like upended divining rods. Pebbles in the sidewalk, forming the outline of a meandering riverbed. Stone medallions etched with elaborate, water-related graphics.

These aren't objects found in a typical urban streetscape, and they weren't visible in North Baltimore a few months ago. Are they pieces of equipment left over from the recent reconstruction of Charles Street? A science experiment by an aspiring med student? Sunken treasures unearthed by a gully washer?

No, they're all part of Optical Gardens, Baltimore's newest work of public art and landscape architecture, on the east side of Charles Street between 33rd and 34th streets.

The linear plaza and sculpture were created as part of the $25 million reconstruction of Charles Street between 25th Street and University Parkway, the front door to Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. The art park was created on city-owned land and funded under Baltimore's One Percent for Art program, which requires that at least 1 percent of the eligible budget of any public works project be reserved for public art.

With references to everything from astronomers seeking other life-bearing planets, to geologists searching for underground streams, to scientists at work in the laboratory, it's public art that was inspired by Johns Hopkins and the Charles Village community outside its gates.

"It's very site-specific," says Tom Drugan, of Haddad/Drugan, the artist team that designed the art park. "All the elements are inspired by the location."

Knowing that people will pass through the park over many seasons, even years, the artists strove to create a place that would hold up to, and reward, repeated viewings.

"This is one of our most layered works. It's not a simple piece that you are meant to understand all at once," Drugan says. "The meaning reveals itself over time. People will perceive it in many different ways."

Optical Gardens is the first work in Baltimore designed by Drugan and Laura Haddad, two artists who are crafting a national reputation for creating art that tells a story about the place where it's located.

Based in Seattle, Drugan and Haddad were selected out of 90 artists or artist teams that sought the $254,000 commission, one of the largest and most expensive works of public art in Baltimore's history. They were the first artists chosen by Baltimore's Public Art Commission since that group was created in 2007.

Along with the Public Art Commission, the project was managed by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, or BOPA; the city's Department of Transportation; and RK&K, the engineering firm that oversaw the redesign of Charles Street. Those entities worked in partnership with a community panel that included representatives from Johns Hopkins, Charles Village, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Bill Gilmore, executive director of BOPA, which provides staff support for the Public Art Commission, says he knows that people will make their own judgments about the art itself. But from the city's standpoint, he says, he believes that the project provides a valuable demonstration of how the One Percent for Art program can be used to create public art that is appropriate for its setting.

"It's been very successful, the process of the commission working with the city and the Department of Transportation to integrate the work of art from the very beginning," he says. "That's one of our main goals: to get in on these projects from the ground floor, so they aren't tacked on. This was exactly the way it was supposed to work."

Every element of the artwork helps connect it to the site, says Kim Domanski, public art specialist for BOPA.

"I think the most successful public art has a conceptual side and a formal side. It has to be conceptually strong," she says. "This has so many layers. Some are related to Hopkins. Some are related to water filtration. It's a really well-thought-out project. People are going to come to it and make their own conclusions, and that's great."

To understand the city's newest work of art, it's helpful to know about the larger project it was meant to enhance, the specific site, the artists, and the vision for how they come together.

The reconstruction and beautification of Charles Street, arguably Baltimore's premier north-south artery, was in the planning stages for more than a decade and took more than two years to complete. The work was designed to accomplish a variety of goals, from replacing aging pipes beneath the road surface to upgrading the street's appearance. Many of the changes were intended to make the corridor safer for pedestrians and cyclists by calming car traffic, creating more-rational traffic patterns, introducing brick paving to mark the crosswalks, and giving more of the ground plane over to pedestrians.

The street improvements are consistent with a separate effort by Hopkins to strengthen the city by improving 10 neighborhoods near the Homewood campus. Plans for the road reconstruction were in the works long before the Homewood Community Partners Initiative was launched, but Hopkins provided funds toward the project, and city officials have credited the university's participation for helping move it forward after languishing for many years.

Hopkins contributed $2.5 million to help fund the $25 million project, says Mike "Sully" Sullivan, senior project manager for design and construction for Johns Hopkins Facilities and Real Estate, who served as liaison between the university and the city and its contractors for the entire street reconstruction project. The university did not contribute funds specifically for the art park, he says, but will maintain the area once construction is complete.

One area where part of the ground plane was turned over to pedestrians was on the east side between 33rd and 34th streets; along this stretch, a northbound service lane was eliminated and that lane and the former median strip were converted to a block-long pedestrian plaza.

Located near the ceremonial entrance to the Homewood campus and between two major pedestrian crossings, the plaza provides a forecourt for buildings facing that block of Charles Street, including Charles Commons, which comprises student residences, dining facilities, meeting spaces, and the Johns Hopkins Barnes & Noble bookstore. It's a place where pedestrians can stop and chat, and it's close to the midpoint of the reconstruction zone. For these and other reasons, it was seen as a logical location for the One Percent for Art project.

Haddad and Drugan, who specialize in creating art that fits into larger public works projects, have been working together since 2001 and are partners in life as well as business. Haddad has a bachelor's degree in history from Bowdoin College and a master's degree in landscape architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. Her background includes jewelry and stage set design. Drugan has a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University. His background includes sustainable building, filmmaking, and lighting installation.

The artists say their backgrounds help them create large-scale works that fit into urban settings because they have experience working at both small and large scales. They explore issues such as "phenomenology" and "perception" and often work with water and lighting.

To create their design, Haddad and Drugan visited the site and researched the area around it to determine what makes it unique and to draw inspiration for their art. They looked at the area's physical, functional, natural, social, and historical characteristics, among other traits, and met with various stakeholders. From this research, they established an organizing theme, which could then be fleshed out as they focused on specific forms and materials.

Their inspirations included natural features like the Wyman Park Dell and Stony Run, the colorful row houses along St. Paul and Calvert streets, the "ethos of research and discovery" at Hopkins, and the proximity of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

In addition, they say, they were intrigued by the work of two late Johns Hopkins professors: Abel Wolman, a pioneer of modern sanitary engineering who was known for his efforts to standardize methods used to chlorinate drinking water in cities; and his son, M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman, a geomorphologist and internationally respected expert on river science, water resources management, and environmental education.

In terms of social culture, the artists say, they could see that the community is "diverse, artful, and active," while the presence of Hopkins added an "intellectual and youthful vibrancy." In terms of nature and the environment, they knew that Charles Village is along the Jones Falls watershed, and say they were struck by the way residents and city officials make an effort to promote water filtration and cleansing of storm water to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

They conceived Optical Gardens as a linear plaza divided into four distinct gathering spaces, representing the four seasons. Each outdoor "room" contains seasonally appropriate native plants, lighting, and carved stone images.

The rooms align along an axis defined by optical and hydrological effects. The optical axis is marked by three stainless steel ring sculptures that rise from the ground and separate the rooms. These rings vary in size, with the largest 10 feet in diameter, and appear to fit inside each other like nesting tables. They're intended to have a telescoping effect when people look through them, suggesting the workings of a telescope if viewed from the north looking south, or a microscope if viewed from south to north.

The hydrological axis is a pebble-lined runnel, shaped like a meandering riverbed. It carries rainwater downhill from north to south and helps irrigate the plants. In each outdoor room is a stone tablet with engraved graphics that reference water. The designs, in keeping with the microscope/telescope theme, go from small to large: water microbes, the Chesapeake Bay, ocean currents, and the galaxy.

Lighting further unites and divides the rooms. White lights illuminate the park year-round, but colored spotlights shine on the engraved stones in each room during the season with which it is associated; blue for winter, pink for spring, green for summer, and amber for autumn. These colors loosely correspond to the seasonal colors of the trees, flowers, and foliage, which were selected to be at their most vivid states during the season associated with the room they are in. Giving further definition to the rooms, precast-concrete benches provide places for people to sit down and take in the view.

All the selected materials dovetail with the project's agenda of sustainability, including recycled stones, storm water, durable stainless steel, plants, and high-efficiency LED lights. It is a highly cerebral composition, meant to reflect the park's high-profile location while serving as an amenity for the neighborhood.

What makes the composition even more site-specific is that each component becomes part of the "narrative" of the design while it relates to characteristics about the area that inspired it. Chief among them are:

• The stainless steel rings that separate the outdoor rooms and suggest the workings of a telescope or microscope not only reference the research work at Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute but also tie into the water theme because astronomers look for planets that have water, since it can support life. The rings also were inspired, the artists say, by Charles Village row houses and the "telescoping effect" one gets when standing on a porch in the middle of a block and looking into others up and down the row.

• The outdoor rooms were given seasonal themes to underscore how much Maryland's weather changes—something that is less the case where the artists live.

• Stones, pebbles, and water make reference to the area's topography, with natural areas such as Wyman Park Dell so close to Charles Street, and all the engraved stone tablets have designs based on water. The swale shaped like a riverbed, they say, refers to tributaries that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

Interspersed with the pebbles in the runnel are stones that honor Reds Wolman, who considered stones and pebbles to be works of art as well as material for scientific study.

When Wolman died in 2010, students, colleagues, and friends were asked to contribute stones to a memorial. Elsa Wolman Katana, his daughter, says that offerings came in from all over—not just the United States but India, Nepal, Pakistan, Israel, China, and other far-flung places—and that behind each stone was a story that tells of a unique encounter and cherished relationship with her father.

Those stones and ones from his personal collection were installed in a temporary exhibition in 2011 at the Mattin Center on the Homewood campus. Now those stones, some reddish in hue, have been embedded in the pavement of Optical Gardens as a tribute to Wolman and the contributions he made to river science and environmental engineering.

Katana, indicating that she speaks for the many people involved in creating the installation, says, "We are thrilled that the artists saw a way to incorporate the Wolman Pebble Count into the Optical Gardens, giving the collection a permanent home." The art park is next to Wolman Hall, a student residence named for Abel Wolman, and less than two blocks from the house on Charles Street where he lived, a property now owned by Hopkins.

The references to the Wolmans, the artists say, also can be seen as a tribute to the many families in which relatives from more than one generation have attended or taught at Hopkins, or made other contributions to the university and community at large. These connections to Hopkins and Charles Village are not meant to be understood all at once, the artists say, but over time with repeated viewings.

"We know it's the front door to Hopkins," Drugan says of the project. "Students will be hanging out there. So will people from the community. It's meant to be experienced by both—over the course of the day, at different times of the year. For us as artists, having a community that was receptive to doing something that is complex and layered, that was refreshing."

The plaza is a bridge in many ways—between man-made elements and nature, old and new, small and large, town and gown. It has a public-safety aspect to it, as well as a storytelling side. With the plaza in place and fewer lanes of traffic on that block, people have shorter open distances to walk when they cross Charles Street. By giving over more land to pedestrians and less to motorists, the engineers helped make the area safer for all. By introducing elements such as the telescoping rings and the Wolman stones, they have created a work of art that invites people to linger—and would only make sense where it is.

Construction on the sculpture and plaza is nearing completion, but broader artistic aspects of the installation are more open-ended. The plants will grow in.

Rainwater will collect on the ground and dry up.

Lights will turn on and off. The park will evolve over time, like the campus and the community it connects. That was Haddad and Drugan's plan from the start; Optical Gardens simply provides a lens to view the changes all around.