No Fun Allowed: Ottawa's new water feature a microcosm for bigger issues

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Jonathan McLeod, Ottawa Citizen

The Lansdowne water plaza opened to mixed reviews. The development seemed scaled down. The decision to move the orchard costs the space much-needed shade. Not everyone knew what to make of the centrepiece artwork Uplift. But that was all secondary. It still provided something very important, enjoyment. At the official opening, Bay Ward councillor Mark Taylor declared that the water plaza would make Lansdowne Park “as warm and inviting as possible.”

Apparently, part of it was a little too inviting.

Maybe there is a concern about dangerous hard edges. Maybe there is a concern that children will damage the granite and steel sculpture. Maybe there is a desire for decorum. Whatever the motivation, a week after opening, four signs have been placed around the water plaza, instructing kids that they may play near the sculpture, but not on it.

Make no mistake, there is no segregation between the official play area with its sprinklers and the rest of the water plaza. The two are a part of the same whole. The only means of separating them are by makeshift signs and a security guard or two.

(Yes, security guards.)


The signs at the Lansdowne water feature, reading in part: “Artwork, please stay off.” DAVID REEVELY

There’s a very good reason there is no segregation between the play area and the sculpture. The piece is intended to be interactive. The artist, Jill Anholt, stated that Uplift is designed so that people can “engage and touch and interact with water directly. So it’s not an artwork you just look at, but it’s one that you move onto, sit on, interact with directly.”

This form of public art offers a tactile, engaging experience. You can touch it, feel it, use it and be a part of it. It strikes at the notion that art is something to be stored in galleries or kept under glass. It shows that art and beauty should be a part of our daily lives, that art belongs to the people. Installing such a prominent piece of public art in a children’s water plaza further demonstrates that art is not merely the domain of adults. Children, too, deserve beauty and culture, even when they’re splashing through puddles.

So the signs and security guards instructing people how they may enjoy Uplift are not only an imposition on visitors to Lansdowne; they are an affront to the art, itself.

Disappointment is nothing new at Lansdowne. Trees have died. The Pavilion is regularly empty. The lovely pedestrian stonework has been sullied with white and yellow traffic lines, compromising the safety and enjoyment. OSEG and the city had a vision for an urban village, but so far they have been either unwilling or unable to implement that vision.

The water plaza is, sadly, a fitting microcosm for the entire development. The original design was lovely. The implementation was…not. The community was provided with an underwhelming splash pad that, in scale, is ill-suited for the water plaza installation. And yet, the public — the children — made the most of it. The community took this severely flawed public space and used it to its fullest extent.

They enjoyed the water. They enjoyed the benches. They enjoyed Uplift. And, apparently, this could not be tolerated. The sculpture will be protected from the children. This prominent piece of public art will be sullied by the hasty erection of signs and a circling security guard, defeating the very purpose of installing art in the first place.

Communities have a tendency of reclaiming their habitats, and we are already seeing that at Lansdowne. Children will play and Uplift will be enjoyed as intended, signs be damned. Sometimes, little bits of civil disobedience and guerrilla urbanism can make our public spaces so much better.

Jonathan McLeod is a general fellow with the Canadian Council for Democracy. He writes about local matters at stepsfromthecanal.wordpress.com.