Thursday, September 18th, 2014

A Tree Grows Immanent in Brooklyn: George Trakas’s Installation at Atlantic Station

George Trakas, view of Atlantic Station's South East Plaza showing an unfinished section to the left of the bicycles. Photo by the artist.
George Trakas, view of Atlantic Station’s South East Plaza showing an unfinished section to the left of the bicycles. Photo by the artist.

Kneeling where Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue triangulates Atlantic and Fourth, my job was to hold the end of a measuring tape against a street lamp. At the other end, sculptor George Trakas calculated the distance to an open spot in the triangle and noted it on a drawing he brought with him. The purpose of this exercise was to corroborate a spot on the unfinished plaza surrounding the Atlantic Avenue subway kiosk where a tree could take root without interfering with the usual tangle of utilities beneath the asphalt. Trakas had earlier delineated this patch of earth as the best place to plant a Silver Linden, a tree that would serve as the culmination of a project he has labored over for a decade.

We met at the Atlantic Avenue station to tour Hook, Line and Sinker, the abbreviated title for an amalgam of interconnected sculptural elements riffing off the commercial and natural history of this busy transit hub. The project was initiated in 2004, but to date, the northwest end of the street-level plaza remains unfinished, closed off to traffic by painted demarcations and temporary lighting. Trakas envisions this section to be elevated a foot or two to the height of the finished plaza and shaded by the tree.

George Trakas, Silver linden at Times Plaza, 2011. Charcoal on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
George Trakas, Silver linden at Times Plaza, 2011. Charcoal on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Currently all that rises above pedestrian level is the landmark-protected brick and sandstone kiosk, designed by Heins & LaFarge in 1904. Though abandoned as an entrance after the station’s renovation, the kiosk was preserved for its elegance, its symbolism of past civic munificence, and to provide a skylight for the expanded public space below. Work on the plaza surrounding the kiosk was partially completed in 2004 and updated in 2013 with enhancements by Trakas, working in conjunction with Parsons Brinckerhoff di Menico and Partners, including granite seating elements meant to be shaded by the tree. But the end of the plaza is unfinished, and as long as it remains so, and as long as the tree remains unplanted, Hook, Line and Sinker will also be incomplete. The tree is crucial to the interlocking metaphor Trakas has wrought below ground.

Hook (Archean Reach), Line (Sea House) and Sinker (Mined Swell), the full title for the tripartite installation, addresses the borough’s development along roads that extend inland from its waterfront. As a port city’s pathways tend to develop perpendicularly from the water, Brooklyn’s gently curving shore caused its neighborhood streets to clash at odd angles, thus creating the borough’s distinctive civic centers. It is this web of routes emanating from the sea (as much as the street names themselves) that inspired Trakas to introduce nautical imagery to an underground subway station.

With an extensive body of site-specific sculptures stretching from La Jolla and Bellingham to the banks of the Hudson River at Beacon and at Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, Trakas has earned a reputation as an artist committed to reminding us of our archetypal connections to the water’s edge. Addressing public concerns ranging from shorefront repair and reclamation to simple accessibility (and often both) Trakas has dedicated his career to creating places rather than pieces. He is not a monument builder. Visitors to his Newtown Creek Nature Walk (2007) in Greenpoint sometimes raise the question, where’s the art? What Trakas brings to his work and what he leaves for the public to contemplate is a deep sense of what was there originally, how it shaped the site he encountered, and how it affected what he built on it, or beside it, or within it.

My guided tour of Hook, Line and Sinker began with explicit instructions from the artist that I was to take the D train from Bleecker Street to the Atlantic Avenue stop, just one of many paths I could have followed to the site. Taking this particular route was intended to prepare me for a narrative of movement and landscape that informs the sculpture. My trip began underground at Bleecker, stretched over East River via the Manhattan Bridge, descended again beneath Flatbush Avenue to the inevitable ascension, this time by foot, back to street level — a rolling sea voyage, replayed as an ordinary commuter trip. When I met up with him at the Pacific Street entrance he launched into the history of the work and how its title invites and encourages overlapping interpretations.

George Trakas, Hook (Archean Reach), 2004. Polished metamorphic granite. Photo by the artist.
George Trakas, Hook (Archean Reach), 2004. Polished metamorphic granite. Photo by the artist.

Hook (Archean Reach) refers to the curved passageway leading from the Pacific Street entrance to the tracks below, which he has emphasized with a sculptural wainscot of polished metamorphic granite, undulating wave-like as it amplifies the floor’s gently rolling movement from turnstile to platform. Substantially more sculptural than the ceramic tile wall it undergirds, both its weight and color succeed as image and structural enhancement. Care was taken in its design so as not to interrupt the commercial and practical aspects of its location. Thus clean breaks were inserted to allow for a newsstand, vents and maintenance doors.

The sculptural aspect of Line (Sea House) is more implied than physically present, as it constitutes the interior vertical space directly below the kiosk. The kiosk itself has been transformed into a symbolic lighthouse, while architecturally serving as a clerestory opening, providing daylight to the platform and stairs below. For this space Trakas had originally settled on the inclusion of new steel markers embedded in the old walls where the original stair stringers once descended to a cramped landing. But an opportunity to solve an unforeseen problem led to one of the site’s more overt seagoing references. Electric lamps had to be installed to provide lighting at night, raising the issue of how fixtures were to be maintained in the now-floorless kiosk hovering over the stairs. The solution was a rolling gantry Trakas designed in the shape of a boat hull, with a functioning helm able to move the entire structure laterally on rails across the open space, thus providing maintenance workers (entering through the now-locked street-level doors) the ability to re-lamp light fixtures, while inadvertently enriching the artist’s rail and sea metaphors.

George Trakas, Line (Seahouse), 2004. steel gantry. Photo by Kelly Pajek.
George Trakas, Line (Seahouse), 2004. steel gantry. Photo by Kelly Pajek.

Sinker (Mined Swell) is an incline made of huge quarry-faced granite blocks that widen on their dressed sides as they descend between parallel staircases below the sky-lit platforms to the lower trains. They follow the stairs while enclosing the base of several steel columns. As the most massively sculptural element in the design, Sinker creates a visceral outcrop of bedrock that, when washed with the daylight from above, emphasizes the connection between street traffic and its subterranean rail extensions.

What’s missing is the tree: a single declarative chord sounding the opening of the three movements playing below. Not only would it provide an organic contrast to the steel and masonry underground, its branches would reach out toward incoming commuters from every direction, its roots suggesting the disseminating subterranean routes.

Trakas had submitted his proposal for the final plaza design to MTA’s Arts for Transit program and to the DOT in 2011, including the drawing that showed the exact spot where the tree could be planted. According to Bonny Tsang at the Department of Transportation’s press office, “DOT has been working with community stakeholders and Forest City Ratner Companies to develop a plan for this plaza. The formal design phase will be initiated in the near future.” Apparently the decision has yet to be finalized.

The question of whose design will be applied to the remaining street level space remains open and thus explains the long delay in finishing the project. When decisions are tossed back and forth between city agencies, while developers and “various stakeholders” vie for advantage, the only thing that is certain is that the artist, though a primary stakeholder, is but one voice.

George Trakas, Hook (Archean Reach), 2004. polished metamorphic granite. Photo by the artist.
click to enlarge
George Trakas, Times Plaza Tree, 2011. Pencil on vellum, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
click to enlarge