Think of some of the major cities around the world. What comes to mind first when you think of them? The Bean in Chicago, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Statue of Liberty in New York; all of these cities have a defining landmark structure.
Last week, Perkins & Will earned the rights to put up their new design in Riverfront Plaza, the former site of the Jacksonville Landing. In the forefront of the new park design is a 151’ stainless steel structure, the vision of world-renowned artist JEFRË. What at first glance looks only like an abstract spelling of the city it stands in, “Jax” is actually an incredibly intricate story of Jacksonville and its defining features. Public art is a tool that can bring people together and give a city a face. Along with the completion of this project may come a springboard into the public eye for Jacksonville, or, at the very least, a new identity that people can be proud of.
Throughout the preview process of the new design, much of the feedback from Jacksonville residents commented on the spelling of the statue. “What is Lex?!,” people asked. It’s a fair concern, considering the size of the structure and its expected visual prominence. I spoke with JEFRË about the topic, and when he told me “it can be whatever you see” it made more sense. The goal isn’t to make a sign for everyone to agree on what it says, the vision is to build something that collects all kinds of descriptions or perspectives, while all the while giving the city a symbol to unite behind. From certain angles, the statue can be seen as “I <3 X.” Does that mean “I Love Jax?” It can. The curving ins and outs of the shape pay tribute to the St. Johns River, which flows through the heart (take another look at the middle letter) of Jacksonville. The “X” can also be seen as a nod toward a boat anchor and the strong Navy presence in Jax. An “anchor to the city,” some may say.
“The form of the sculpture is inspired by the oxbows and velocity of the river and how its history is a direct reflection of the city and people of Jacksonville,” JEFRË told me. Jacksonville was founded in 1822, which correlates to 151 feet. Sound familiar? The sculpture itself is 310 linear feet. 310 also happens to be the length of the St. Johns River in nautical miles. Nothing about this sculpture is by accident, but rather a carefully thought out tribute to the city of Jacksonville.
When Chicago’s Bean first went up, it wasn’t entirely beloved. The memes came flooding in; after all, a 110-ton bean isn’t exactly the type of thing people first envision as a world class structure. Today, people travel from all over the world to take selfies in the steel reflection. Is the same guaranteed for Downtown Jacksonville? Of course not, but this is the closest thing the city has had to a “postcard moment,” a term JEFRË used to describe the potential of this construction.
To get stuck on any one detail is missing the idea of public art as a whole. Art is both agreement and disagreement. Art is appreciation. Art is looking at something and saying “I see what he/she saw, and this is what I see.” Why can’t this structure be seen alongside the other major works of public art worldwide? There’s really no reason it can’t be, as long as there’s belief and unity. It’s easy to get into the habit of lamenting the development of your own city. There’s always gonna be another city that’s doing it better. I think this new idea is an opportunity for Jacksonville to turn a corner. If there’s uncertainty, let’s unite behind the uncertainty. If there’s disagreement, let’s at least appreciate that people care. It’s fitting that the structure is made of perfectly reflective stainless steel material. As our people gather around this new area, whether excited or disappointed, they only have to look up to see themselves, and their city, staring right back at them.
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