Monologue in a Landscape: Not a garden for Carnegie Mellon

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The Kraus Campo, a new installation on the roof of the Posner Center dubbed "both a garden-as-sculpture and a sculpture-as-garden," is a devastating failure. Inaugurated this past Friday, it is surprising that a sculpture as short-sighted as the Campo has been in planning by acclaimed artist Mel Bochner and architect Michael Van Valkenburgh since 2002.

Public art, including the Kraus Campo, requires a different sort of criticism than paintings or sculpture in a gallery. If a piece of art would aspire to become an integral part of the landscape and the community, the artist has a responsibility to determine how the art will communicate with its surroundings and become relevant to people's lives. The campus community will have to live with this installation. It should not be a daily reminder of the arrogance of a few artists' forcing their personal vision onto hundreds of students, faculty, and staff members.

While it may be understandable that Bochner has had limited prior experience in creating public art installations -- his work is typically paintings and photography, displayed in galleries internationally -- this does not excuse the University for letting his vision go so wildly unguided.

The show in the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, which displays the Campo's design process, demonstrates that the artist-architect team failed to seek community input or respond to the demands of the site. An individual vision may be a fine way to create a painting, but this is wholly different: A private exchange of sketches and drawings, without community conversations or a thorough investigation of the landscape of the campus, is unacceptable. Case in point: The artist suggests in his documentation that the campus lacks intimate garden spaces. This demonstrates a shameful unfamiliarity with the numerous small outdoor classrooms and wild natural corners of our campus, spaces that are used and enjoyed by many. Even the "campo" itself is a reference to the central plaza of the Italian city of Siena, a metaphor that is foreign both to Carnegie Mellon and to the city of Pittsburgh. There were never opportunities for students and faculty to participate in its creation, and its failure to connect with these people is the all-too-expected result.

The Kraus Campo is not only a failure as process but a failure as sculpture as well -- one that went four times over its allotted budget. Echoing neither the beautiful beaux-arts architecture of the College of Fine Arts nor the form of the Tepper School of Business, the Kraus Campo is alarmingly out of context. Vivid orange and blue tones clash with the neutral tones of campus rather than complementing them with something more appropriate.

Most aggravating of all is the "sculptural platform" in the center of the Campo: literally nothing more than a French curve, with Bochner's trademark "numbers-grid" theme plastered across its surface. Although the form is recognizable to engineers, artists, and architects, they recognize it as unimaginative and antiquated, as the French curve is no longer in widespread use. Bochner also uses a quotation from Wittengenstein written backwards in a block across the back wall as a "mental exercise" -- a suggestion that borders on insulting our intelligence. Even an architect such as Van Valkenburgh could do little to save the Campo from its shortcomings.

This work was purported to be a "meeting place symbolic of Carnegie Mellon's multidisciplinary philosophy." Not only does it fail to live up to this ideal, it is unfortunately characteristic of the University's shallow commitment to interdisciplinary work. Ironically, the Kraus Campo is actually still an argument in favor of diverse engagement, by way of warning what disasters can occur without it. In this case, apparently, the University would rather have the appearance of interdisciplinary work than invest in the challenging process of engaging the myriad voices that belong to our campus community. The University and the artists have lost the opportunity for a real interdisciplinary project and for an appropriate public space.