©EDSA | Insights | Owensboro Riverfront at Night


©EDSA | Insights | Aerial View of Gardens

Art has played an important role in the public realm for centuries. In ancient Rome, statues of gods, goddesses, and emperors were prolific. In eastern cultures, deities were worshipped with sculptures, and sacred spaces were marked with shrine gates called torii. In modern times, public art has expanded to include cultural ideas beyond religion or government. Arguably, the most novel form of 20th century public art, Land Art is exemplified by the monumental earthworks, such as Spiral Jetty created in Utah by Robert Smithson, and the encirclement of eleven Florida islands in pink fabric by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. However, most often, the aim is to enhance public engagement, improve property value, stimulate the local economy through increased traffic to local businesses, and provide social connection or shared community understanding.

©EDSA | Insights | Water Feature

One of the more recent trends in public art is to create pieces that are as functional as they are visually stimulating. In form, these works are appreciated for their beauty and ability to add intrigue to the outdoor environment. Bridging the gap between fine art and the everyday, functional public art refers to well-designed objects that make life easier, better, and more productive with an appealing aesthetic that cleverly suggests “I’m art!” Functional public art may take the form of an understated sculpture that is meant to be used as a bench, or it may be a gracefully stepped garden that also works as a public amphitheater.

The key to creating a functional public art experience is the infusion of stylistic differentiators into things that might not otherwise ever be viewed as art – thereby encouraging stay-value because of its overarching purpose and place holder within the overall design. Street lights become more than simple bulbs on the end of poles. Pedestrian pathways and crosswalks become colorful mosaics and charming streetscapes. And, playgrounds and parks take on meaning for residents and neighbors. In this way, the appearance and meaning of hardscape, landscape, water features and other design detailing are not separate from function, but central to it.

©EDSA | Insights | Beach

As designers, our challenge to create functional art is an exciting one. It allows for purposeful creativity and a real chance to shape the experiences of those who visit, use, or occupy a space. In doing so, the design and character of public areas is intrinsically made more enduring. A retaining wall with artistic value is less likely to be defaced with graffiti, just as ponds with fountains are less likely to be filled for no reason.

With the face of functional public art continuing to evolve, it will be interesting to see how people and artists utilize varying platforms and mediums including nature, man-made materials, technology, wayfinding, and even transportation as utilitarian pieces that also make a statement about a time, people, or destination.

©EDSA | Insights | Dramatic Exterior Landscape at Night