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Interacting with 10 of San Francisco’s Beautiful Public Art Projects


Shannon Riley | February 15, 2018
From echo tubes to a sculptural organ to high-tech LED displays, a look at some of the most unique public art projects in the Bay Area.

One way to understand San Francisco is by wandering through its public art — there’s something at almost every corner, from unique murals to intricately projection-mapped light installations to an interactive wave organ in the bay. At each turn, passersby are surprised, delighted, and invited to play.

“Public art enhances the beauty of San Francisco’s public buildings and spaces,” the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) states on its website. SFAC helped enact the Art Enrichment Ordinance, requiring that 2 percent of the gross construction cost of many civic projects be allocated for public art, and the city also has a 1%-for-art program with similar stipulations. Such programs have helped turn the city into an endless free outdoor art gallery. Here’s a quick peek at some of the most exciting pieces on view right now.

“Ethereal Bodies 8,” Potrero Hill

Cliff Garten’s “Ethereal Bodies 8” is a group of eight stainless-steel sculptures situated at the south entrance of the Zuckerberg General Hospital and Trauma Center. The group of forms creates new shapes from different vantage points as you circle around. At night the sculptures change color cycles, creating a light show of sorts.

“Sound Commons,” UN Plaza, Tenderloin

Created by Exploratorium’s Studio for Public Spaces, “Sound Commons” is an interactive sound-and-music installation in UN Plaza. “The installation aims to transform and enliven one of San Francisco’s most challenging public spaces,” explains Groundplay, which works with San Francisco locals to build temporary installations that turn underused public spaces into playful community places. The piece is composed of four elements that surround the plaza: chimes, xylophones, echo tubes, and wooden pendulums inviting passersby to play, create music, and share with the community.

“The Language of the Birds,” North Beach

“The Language of the Birds” is a sculptural installation at the intersection of Broadway, Grant, and Columbus Streets. As explained on designer Brian Goggin’s website, “Here, a flock of books takes off from the plaza to fly the urban gullies of the city. The fluttering books have left a gentle imprint of words beneath them. These serendipitously configured bits of local literature reveal the layering of culture, nature, and consciousness.”

The sculptural work consists of 23 illuminated books that seem to have just taken flight from the plaza below — like a flock of birds that have just been startled from the pavement. Stand underneath and be inspired by the culture that permeates this neighborhood.

“The Wave Organ,” Marina

This hidden sculptural gem, created by Peter Richards and George Gonzalez, is located on a jetty extending into the San Francisco Bay from the Marina Green Park. “The Wave Organ” consists of a series of pipes that interact with the waves of the bay, conveying their sound to listeners at several different stations. Many locals are not aware of this special piece, whose sounds vary depending on the level of the tide, full moon being the best time for a good production. Standing on the jetty, you get a stunning panoramic view of the city, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

“The Photosynthesis Project,” Golden Gate Park

At one end of Golden Gate Park stands a spectacular Victorian-era greenhouse, the oldest remaining wood-and-glass conservatory in the Western hemisphere. Each night, the conservatory becomes the stage for an illuminated light show, inviting passersby to watch a stunning display that tells the story of the seasons through visual animations and music.

This illuminated public-art extravaganza, “The Photosynthesis Project,”  was conceived by Ben Davis, founder of Illuminate, the nonprofit arts group behind the Bay Lights, together with Obscura Digital, a world-renowned creative studio specializing in large-scale immersive light-based art. “I’m so grateful for the ability to give back to the community and bring more public art to America,” Emmett Feldman, Obscura Digital’s senior graphic designer, told Per La Mente. “The Conservatory of Flowers is a dream canvas and an iconic piece of architecture.”

“Trillian + Dodi,” Hayes Valley

“Trillian + Dodi” are stunning 3-D geometrical sculptures, part of an art installation series by HYBYCOZO: Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu. “Trillian + Dodi” are made from steel panels with intricate laser-cut patterns and lit from within by LED bulbs. The sculptures are best experienced after dusk, but they are beautiful in daylight, too. They are located in Patricia’s Green, an urban park in Hayes Valley that offers green space, benches, picnic tables, and rotating art exhibits.

Woods Line,” Presidio

This is Andy Goldsworthy’s second piece in the Presidio; the first is called “Spire.” To create “Woods Line,” Goldsworthy laid eucalyptus branches on the ground to form a sinuous line that, in his words, “draws the place.” The wood was sourced from various Presidio projects that required tree removal, including Doyle Drive reconstruction, environmental remediation, and habitat restoration.

“Wood Line” is located within the cypress grove near the intersection of Presidio Boulevard and West Pacific Avenue, just off Lovers Lane.

“16th Avenue Tiled Steps,” Inner Sunset

The Hidden Garden Steps project is a volunteer-driven, community-based collaboration with the San Francisco Parks Alliance and San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program. The 16th Avenue tiled steps cover two very long blocks on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th Avenues. The tiles were arranged by local volunteers, the community participating in the making of the beautiful steps to create a friendly neighborhood vibe. The stairs lead to an unbelievable view of Outer Sunset, Daly City, Outer Richmond, Ocean Beach, and the Marin Headlands. The fact that the steps are somewhat hidden alludes to the city’s hidden charms, urging those who stumble upon them to stay curious, take adventures, and explore.


To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca

All photos by the author for Per La Mente, unless noted.

Shannon Riley is a creative consultant and cultural explorer living in the Bay Area. She is the founder of Building 180, a women-run arts management, consulting, and curation company for those who seek inspiration through art and design.


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