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.