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Going for the Gold: California Stories on the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line: Communities, Public Art, and Placemaking.: 08. Ries Niemi, Kinetic Energy, Del Mar Station

The project was funded in 2008-2009 by the California Council for the Humanities through its California Stories: California Story Fund


Kinetic Energy

Ries Neimi

In the Spring of 1993, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) held a series of public meetings in Pasadena to inform the community about the planned light rail project and the Art for Rail Transit (A-R-T) program.[1]  At these meeting, Alan Nakagawa from Metro Art, the department at the MTA responsible for implementing the public art program, invited people to participate in the art creation process by joining one of the three Community Advisory Committees (CAC) that were being formed for the six Pasadena stations.[2]  One of the committees was for the Fillmore and Del Mar stations.  During the summer of 1993, the eight member CAC drafted a Community Profile to guide the two artists who were to be selected for the stations.[3]  After drafting the profile, the CAC elected two members to the five member artist selection panel.

During its first meeting on October 7, 1993, the artist selection panel created a short list of possible artists after reviewing the slides of more than 600 artists who were in the Metro Art’s slide registry.  The artists who were selected at the first meeting were reviewed in greater depth on October 20.  Based on the review, the panelists selected nine finalists who were interviewed on November 3, 1993.[4]  After the interviews, the panel selected Michael McMillen for the Fillmore station and Elsa Flores for the Del Mar station. Flores was extremely pleased in being awarded the station.  She said that she “competed hard for the Del Mar station because I thought it would be an important station and I was so much part of the community for so many years that I felt it was the right place for me.”[5] 

In late 1993, Flores began designing an installation with the theme of Earth, Water and Sky.  Her initial concept merged the Craftsman style with contemporary materials.  Arroyo stone and Craftsman Klinkerbrick were incorporated into tree shaped columns supporting an undulating copper canopy that was symbolic of the nearby Arroyo Seco.    She also planned to have skylights and a blue green patina on the canopy.  Ceramic tile and tile reliefs of historic, contemporary and Latin American images were to embellish the klinkerbricked columns and seating.  She also wanted a pergola to carry a wisteria vine and a low maintenance water element to tie the entire installation together.  These elements she felt would “create a spiritual respite for us all” by humanizing the public space and returning it to nature and its people.[6]  In developing her installation, she worked with the station’s architect, Joel Blank of Martinez Architects, Inc., who designed a station with earth tone pavers, stone colored columns, light green concrete, and a canopy of aged copper.[7] 

As part of the community review process, the station design and artwork were presented to the CAC on April 12, 1994.[8]  The committee did not express any concerns about the art or station design,[9] but the committee of the City of Pasadena that was responsible for reviewing all the stations in the city, the Light Rail Station Design Review Committee (LRSDRC), had a very critical reaction when they reviewed it in June.  They were concerned about the lack of physical and aesthetic linkage between the station and the surrounding city.  The committee recommended design changes that would have improved pedestrian access to both the multi-use development that was planned for the station and to the surrounding areas such Old Town and Central Park.  In addition, the committee recommended that the materials for the station should be in harmony with the history of Pasadena and the station should incorporate historical forms in the design.  These recommended changes were made in part to tone down the design so it would not compete with the planned development.[10]  Flores was extremely upset with the recommendations, and accused the Committee of doing “all it could to disrupt the creative and democratic process that the Design Team has so painstakenly cultivated over the past year.”  She also said the committee “viciously hurled insults defaming the reputations and discrediting the hard work of the Design Team and the many respected members of the community.”  In addition, she pointed out that the station’s design and her installation were in harmony with the goal in Alavi’s “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy” that the design should humanized public spaces.  Flores concluded by alleging that the committee was aligning with “the real estate developers and not with the people of Pasadena.”[11]  Nevertheless, as a result of the criticism and recommendations by the committee, Martinez Architects, Inc., redesigned the station. 

Because the redesign of the station posed a scheduling conflict with Flores, it was agreed that she would retrofit her design into the station at a later date.[12]  However, she never did any further work on the station.  First, her contract was closed because construction was frozen in late 1995 during the containment period and then her contract was terminated in 1998 because the light rail project was “demobilized.”[13]  And though she was given a new $20,000 contract by the Pasadena Blue Line Authority (PBLA) in January 2001 to design the artwork for the Del Mar Station,[14] she was removed from the project shortly after a joint development agreement was made in April 2001 between the City of Pasadena and the PBLA for developing the property.[15]  This agreement incorporated the station into a mixed-use residential/commercial development designed by Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides that includes 347 apartments, parking for 600 cars for the Gold Line, and 11,000 square feet of retail space.[16] Because it is a private development, Urban Partners, the project’s developer, was required by the City of Pasadena’s public art policy to earmark one percent of the valuation of the project to public art.  Rather than have one installation funded and controlled by the PBLA and another installation funded under the City of Pasadena’s percent for art requirement, Ira Yellin, the president of Urban Partners, rejected approximately $85,000 in public funding,[17] took control of the installation,  and had it entirely funded under the city’s mandate.[18]  Even without the public funding, the budget of $477,660 was the largest for any work on the Gold Line.[19]  To handle the administrative aspects of the installation, Yellin hired Merry Norris, an art consultant who had work on previous projects of Urban Partners.  She arranged to have Ries Niemi, Billy Al Benstron, Tom Farrage, and Mary Brogger[20] interviewed by Yellin.  Based on the interview, in which Yellin asked Niemi among other things whether he had the technical experience to create a large work for the site, Niemi was selected.[21] 

With Urban Partners funding the installation, Niemi creating it, and Flores removed from it, the PBLA had additional money for art elsewhere along the Gold Line.  The PBLA decided to use some of the funds for the Sierra Madre Villa Station Parking Structure.[22]  Flores was offered to do the art for the structure but she refused and Beth Thielen was then given the contract.[23] 

As sometimes happens in public art projects, the architects at the Del Mar station complex used the public art to do something that they had to do.[24]  They told Niemi that his installation must serve as fencing along the edge of the walkways on each side of the station and around the stairway to the subterranean garage.[25]  In developing the design, Niemi was influenced by the Art Deco details and ornamentation on buildings along Colorado, imagery from late 19th and early 20th industrial machinery, steam locomotives, metal as architectural ornament, especially by the late 19th-early 20th century Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudi, and Pasadena’s craftsman tradition.[26]  Niemi created 550’ of fencing using a variety of reoccurring hand-wrought stainless steel images.[27]  Discs, axles, arcs, shafts and pistons are composed to create a rhythm that is reminiscent of the rising and falling of the shaft connecting the wheel and cylinder on old steam locomotives.[28]  The basic visual vocabulary used on the fencing along the tracks was enlarged for the security fencing around the stairwell to the subterranean garage.  These images of pistons and gears suggest there are large machines inside the enclosed passageway while creating the appearance that the enclosure is an elevator cage in an industrial plant. The sense of movement evoked by the images on all the fencing is expressed by the installation’s title, “Kinetic Energy”.[29] 

In addition to the fencing at the station, Niemi embellished the 35’ tall tower over the elevator that connects the plaza with the garage.  While Niemi saw the tower as a “sculptural object” that though it had “a real use as the upper entrance to the elevator, its major role is artistic.”[30]  He originally wanted to put a trim with images from the fencing along the edges of the structure as a way of linking the tower and the fence together to create “one continuous piece.”[31]  At about three quarters of the way up, the trim was to stretch across the width of the tower with a medallion at the center of each side.[32]  He also wanted to use the images of gears and machine parts to create a composition at the top of the tower that would “mimic the shape of a hipped roof, tapering in to a point.”[33]  While the architect and Yellin did not object to Niemi’s design of the fencing along the tracks, they were much more proprietary about the appearance of the tower. Rejecting his initial design,[34] they suggested putting a clock at the top, but Niemi felt it was too cliché and proposed lighting that would evoke train lights.  After further discussions were held with Yellin and the architects, Niemi designed a 6’ diameter circular forged bronze medallion at the top of each side of tower with a circle of eight stained rose glass lights with art deco ornamentation.[35]  The design of the medallions was approved by the Pasadena Arts Commission but the Commission proposed that the lights be triggered by approaching trains.[36]  Urban Partners attempted to do it but were unsuccessful because of opposition from the MTA.[37]  To avoid the linkage problem, Niemi proposed putting the lighting on a timer that would roughly coincide with the schedule of the trains.[38]  But after Yellin passed away, Urban Partners sold the project to Archstone, which, according to Niemi, was more corporate, less open to the needs of the artist, and ended up installing blinking colored lights.[39]   

Jurisdictional issues arose between the developer and the PBLA over the gates that enable people to cross from one side of the station to the other.  Without either approval or knowledge of the City of Pasadena, the MTA, or the PBLA, Niemi fabricated two gates that incorporated the same imagery that he used on the rest of the fencing.  However, because the gates are on public property when opened, the artwork on them would have had to go through a lengthy artist selection and design approval process under the PBLA public art policy.  In addition, the MTA did not want art on operational elements of the transit system for safety reasons.[40]  As a result, standard pedestrian swing gates without any embellishment or decoration were installed.[41]  There was also a jurisdictional question over whether the fencing along the tracks was on the private property of the development or on public property of the MTA.[42]  The matter was finally resolved by adjusting the property line so the fence was on private property, making the developer responsible for maintaining the art.[43] 

The work was fabricated by Niemi, who first developed the vocabulary of images for the fencing.  He then made multiple pieces of each shape in his own metal shop.  These standardized parts were altered to create variety by using different sandblasting, grit blasting, and polishing techniques.  He also altered the connecting rods, which varied in length from 4, 5, and 6 feet, by forging them with different curves.  Dies were used to give the pieces texture.  Using the pre-cut pieces, Niemi then compose 8’ long sections of the fence, riveting the pieces together.  The rivets not only held the piece together, they were incorporated for aesthetic reasons to give the work a more muscular look.  The 8’ sections were then sent to a polisher.  In contrast to using standardized parts for the fencing along the tracks, Niemi fabricated custom parts for the security fencing around the stairway to the garage.  After composing the 8’ sections, he stored them and the custom made parts for two years before installing them shortly before the Gold Line began operation in 2003.[44]     

Ries Niemi (1955 - ) was involved in the 1979 Creston Nelson Substation project in Seattle Washington, which was one of the first artist design team projects in the United States.  He has created many artworks in Washington State, and has in recent years been commissioned to execute works for public transportation systems throughout the United States.  In addition to the Del Mar station of the MTA, Niemi has designed works for the Phoenix, Arizona rail transportation, the Denver light rail system and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.  His public art installations are often functional, serving as benches, or like Kinetic Energy, fencing.  His other major work in Los Angeles, Literate Fence, is a 100 foot long fence along Fifth Street at the Los Angeles Public Library.

[1] Letter from Monica Gonzales, Public Affairs Manager, Metro Pasadena Project, MTA, to John Jontig, Light Rail Manager, City of Pasadena, April 12, 1993; Announcement of Public Meeting, Pasadena Light Rail Transit Project, no date.

[2] Alan Nakagawa, interviewed by Michael Several, May 21, 2008.

[3] See sign-in sheet for Community Advisory Committee Fillmore/Del Mar Stations, July 8, 1993; Community Advisory Committee/Fillmore/Delmar for list of members, and attached Community Profile, no date.

[4] See letters from Alan Nakagawa to Elisa Crystal, Terry Shoonhoven, Margaret Garcia, Sabra Clark, Bob Takata re: dates of meeting; September 29, 1993; Finalist Interviews, Metro Pasadena Blue Line Art for Rail Transit Fillmore & Del Mar Avenue Stations, November 3, 1993; Nakagawa interview, Op. Cit.

[5] Oral History Interview with Elsa Flores at Casa Buena Vista, Pasadena, California, interviewer Jeffrey Rangel, April 30, 1997.

[6] Artists Description/Del Mar Metro Station by Elsa Flores, no date.

[7] Brief Project Description, MTA-EMC-Del Mar Station, Martinez Architects, Inc. April 4, 1994.

[8] Sign-in sheet for Fillmore Station, Community Advisory Committee Presentation, April 12, 1994.

[9] Letter from Alan Nakagawa to Michael McMillen, April 13, 1994.

[10] Meeting Notes from Engineering Management Consultant, re: Facilitated Workshop with City of Pasadena Light Rail Station Review Committee, MTA Art in Rail Transit Community Advisory Committees, MTA and City of Pasadena Staff, Saturday June 25, 1994.

[11] Letter from Elsa Flores to Cynthia Kurtz, June 14, 1994.

[12] Interoffice Memo from Alan Nakagawa to Maya Emsden re: Del Mar Metro Rail Station, August 15, 2000.

[13] Letter Agreement from MTA to Elsa Flores re: Metro Pasadena Blue Line-Del Mar Station Contract No. P2760 Termination for Convenience, August 17, 1998.

[14] Service Contract between Kiewit/Washington and Elsa Fores Almaraz, January 5, 2001.

[15] Letter from Julian Burke to Rick Thorpe re: Del Mar Station Join Development, April 12, 2001.

[16] Final Public Art Plan Presentation for the City of Pasadena Project Description-Del Mar Station, from Merry Norris, as part of Public Art Presentation, Del Mar Station, Pasadena, California, May 8, 2002.

[17] Letter from Habib F. Balian to Ira Yellin, March 26, 2002.

[18] Interview of Ries Niemi, Michael Several, July 28, 2009.

[19] Handwritten note from Bert to Lesley, on email from Rochelle Branch to Steve Augustyn, re: 240 S. Raymond, April 10, 2002.

[20] Letter from Merry Norris to Jonathan Glus re: Del Mar Station, January 28, 2002.

[21] Ries Niemi interview, Op. Cit.

[22] Interview of Lesley Elwood, Michael Several, August 28, 2009.

[23] Handwritten notes on email from Maya Emsden to Alan Nakagawa, Jorge Pardo re: FW: headlines for Friday, June 27, 2002; email from Jorge Pardo to Maya Emsden re: Pasadena Gold Line-Parking Structure and drop off, July 1, 2002; Staff Report, Pasadena Planning and Permitting Department, Cultural Affairs Division, from Richard Bruckner to Arts Commission, re: 240 South Raymond Avenue/Del Mar Station Final Art Plan, August 14, 2002.

[24] Niemi interview, Op. Cit.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Art Plan Final Report, 240 S. Raymond Avenue/Del Mar Station, Pasadena, CA (Campanile), no date.

[28] Kinetic Energy, Artwork Proposal-Del Mar Station, Op. Cit.

[29] Staff Report, August 14, Op. Cit.

[30] Kinetic Energy Artwork Proposal-Del Mar Station Campanille (sic), Ries Niemi, no date.

[31] Niemi interview, Op. Cit.

[32] Kinetic Energy Artwork Proposal for Campanille, Op Cit.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Niemi interview, Op. Cit.

[35] De Mar Station, Campanile Artwork, Ries Niemi, no date.

[36] Staff Report, Planning and Development Department, Cultural Affairs, from Richard Bruckner to Arts Commission, re: 240 S. Raymond Avenue/Del Mar Station Final Art Plan (Campanile), August 13, 2003; letter from Rochelle Branch to Merry Norris, re: 240 S. Raymond Avenue/Del Mar Station, Pasadena, CA (Campanile), August 14, 2003.

[37] Art Plan Final Report, 240 S. Raymond Avenue/Del Mar Station, Pasadena, CA (Campanile), no date.

[38] Niemi interview, Op. Cit.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Email from Jorge Pardo to Maya Emsden, re: Del Mar Private Dev./MTA Station, November 14, 2002; email from Jorge Pardo to Michael Bohn re: Art on the Del Mar Station Gates, re: Art on Del Mar Station Gates, March 26, 2003.

[41] Letter from Habib F. Balian to Paul Keller, December 11, 2002.

[42] Email from Maya Emsten to Merry Norris re: Del Mar Station, Pasadena, April 4, 2003; email from Jorge Pardo to Lesley Elwood re: Del Mar Development-Metro Art, April 7, 2003; email from Maya Emsden to Greg Angelo re: FW: Del Mar Development-Metro Art, April 8, 2003; email from Maya Emsden to Rochelle Branch re: Del Mar Development, Metro Art, April 8, 2003; email from Maya Emsden to Jorge Pardo re: Del Mar Barrier/Fence Meeting, April 11, 2003; email from Jorge Pardo to Maya Emsden re: FW Del Mar, April 11, 2003

[43] Letter from Habib F. Balian to Paul Keller re: Contract No. 2001-02, Pasadena Blue Line Del Mar Joint Development, January 14, 2003; MTA interoffice memo from Greg Angelo to John Miller, Melvin Clark, Roman Alarcon, Tom Eng re: Gold Line-Proposed Trackside Barrier at Del Mar Station, May 7, 2003; email from Jorge Pardo to Vijay Khawani, Melvin Clark, Robert Chappell, Thomas Eng, re: FW: MTA art approval letter-draft 2, August 12, 2003; letter from Greg S. Angelo to Laura Benson re: MTA Approval of the Trackside Barriers at the Del Mar Station, August 11, 2003; email from Rochelle Branch to Jorge Pardo re: FW: Metro Art-Del Mar Artwork Inquiry Response, October 4, 2004.

[44] Niemi, interview, Op. Cit.