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ART : Gateway to City of Dreams : Transportation, local history and the L.A. River all have been muses for artists involved with a massive public art project at Union Station.

October 29, 1995|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer. and

Any three-year public art project that involves $3 million in federal, state and local funds, 17 artists and architects, plus dozens of technicians and construction specialists couldn't be simple. If you mix those ingredients with a massive reorganization of the project's governing agency, you might expect to have a recipe for disorganization and delay, if not unmitigated disaster. So it's something of a miracle that the Union Station Gateway Intermodal Transit Center opened last week--more or less on schedule and with most of its artworks in place.

The artists--who were selected in 1992, in a juried, open competition administered by Los Angeles-based art consultant Tamara Thomas of Fine Arts Services Inc.--have designed everything from colorfully tiled fountains and a giant aquarium to bus bench pavilions with sweeping metal skeletons and glass roofs. Following their own private muses, but often making connections between the work and its setting, some of the artists have used themes about transportation, local history and the Los Angeles River, while others have tapped into their ethnic roots. Much of the money for the artworks came from Transport Enhancement Funds given by the federal government to the state of California and administered by Caltrans.

The $300-million center--at the corner of Vignes and Cesar Chavez streets, behind Union Station--is designed to be Los Angeles' major transportation hub in the 21st Century. The massive downtown development has four components: the East Portal, a glass-domed public facility connected underground to the historic train station; the Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters, a 26-story office building; the Arroyo, a sloping walkway flanked by undulating walls and plants, and a bus plaza. Artworks are integrated throughout the complex.

Indeed, local commuters and out-of-town travelers who wend their way through the transit center will encounter much more than functional structures connecting the services of Metro Rail, light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak and regional bus systems. Outside, the bus plaza and the Arroyo--designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin of Philadelphia-based Hanna/Olin Ltd. to recall the nearby Los Angeles River in its original, unfettered state--contain artist-designed fountains, fences, grills and benches. Inside the East Portal, artists have produced the floor treatment, a seating area, a water sculpture, an aquarium, a massive mural and fleeting images in colored light that play across one wall. Additional murals are in the adjacent office tower.

Not all of the components of the massive public art project are finished. The MTA high-rise contains aerial landscape murals by Jim Doolin, but works by Patrick Nagatani and Margaret Nielsen haven't been installed and various other pieces throughout the project still need fine-tuning. What's more, the completed artworks often differ significantly from those that came off the artists' drawing boards three years ago. But the project survived the 1993 merger of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the Southern California Rapid Transit District--a union that created the Metropolitan Transit Authority--as well as a host of design, construction and union problems.

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With most of their work behind them, Thomas and the artists are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

"This is the most complex public art project I've ever been involved with, and the most demanding, but I think-- I think-- it's going to be the most successful," Thomas says.

"It's been a really frustrating process," says artist May Sun, who worked with painter Richard Wyatt and architect Paul Diez on a multi-part environment in the center's spacious lobby. "But now that I can see results, I'm excited about it. What I enjoyed most was doing the physical work after years of designing and going to meetings."

The trio's initial design for an outdoor pedestrian bridge, lookout point, aquarium and murals had to be scrapped when it proved impractical, so they moved to a new site, inside the East Portal, and came up with a different plan.

"At least we got to hang on to the concept and create something that involves people and allows them to interact with it," Sun says of their collaborative work, "City of Dreams, River of History," which is inspired by the Los Angeles River and the city's ethnic history.

On the lobby floor, Sun has inlaid bronze likenesses of trout, turtles, Sycamore leaves and other flora and fauna that once lived in or near the river. The serpentine shape of a tiled bench and a water sculpture along its top take their shapes from the river, and a mountain-like source of a waterfall at one end of the bench is partly built of river rocks. Broken crockery, medicine vials and other artifacts embedded in the piece were excavated from Los Angeles' original Chinatown, on the current site of Union Station.

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