Chattanooga’s extensive population of street-level, human-sized public art sculpture is about to get a big brother on West Main. The new sculpture will be like everybody’s ideal big brother: He’s really big, he’s really cool, and he still wants you to play with him.
Construction is about to begin on Main Terrain, a unique “art-fitness park” that will feature a nine-part interactive sculpture installation inspired by Chattanooga’s bridges. The park is intended to bridge the gap between large-scale downtown revitalization flowing south from the core of downtown, like the Chattanoogan Hotel, and the renewed streetscape flowing west from Main and Market.
Imagine if the Walnut Street Bridge got zapped by a mad scientist’s shrink ray, then got chopped into pieces, relocated to the Southside and turned into oversized playground equipment. Oh, and imagine that mad scientist put a steering wheel on each piece of the bridge so you can turn it every which way.
The site of Main Terrain is a narrow, 1,000-foot long former railroad right-of-way that faces The Chattanoogan and cuts through the middle of the block from 13th Street to Main Street.
Three 23-foot high cast concrete pylons, something like the limestone piers that support the Walnut Street Bridge, will dominate the center of the park. Each one will be topped by an intricate corten steel truss, very much like the metal superstructure of the Walnut. These 35-foot horizontal trusses can be turned 360 degrees by a steering wheel on the side of each pylon. When they are all turned the same way, they will line up with six shorter pylons—three at each end of the park—to make a bridge-like arc that spans most of the 1,000-foot park.
“At night, these nine structures each have lights like a real bridge. So you’ll see this arc of red warning lights, real industrial lights like you see at airports,” said sculptor Thomas Sayre, who designed the bridge elements. Lights on the three spinning structures will also illuminate the area below them.
How the bridge-like structures look at any moment will depend on how people move them around. “If someone aligns them, they will form an arc. If someone leaves them haphazardly, you’ll have a very different configuration,” said Sayre.
The park also features a half-mile running track circling the sculptures. Five adjoining exercise stations will be outfitted with adult fitness equipment prototypes custom-designed for Main Terrain by PlayCore. The ground itself is also sculpted to retain stormwater naturally on site, rather than letting it flood neighbors or go into the public wastewater system.
Main Terrain’s blend of adult fitness, sculpture and urban design may be one of a kind. At the very least, it’s highly unusual.
“I work all over the country and sometimes beyond, usually on fairly large public art projects,” said Sayre. “I’ve never encountered a project like this. The idea of exercise entering into urban design, much less public art, is pretty rare.”
Last year, Public Art Chattanooga made a call for proposals for a large sculpture to be featured in Main Terrain, funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the Lyndhurst Foundation and the City of Chattanooga.
The winning proposal was from Clearscapes, a Raleigh, N.C., multi-disciplinary design firm co-founded by Sayre and architect Steve Schuster. The final design of the park resulted from a close collaboration between Clearscapes, Public Art Chattanooga, Chattanooga landscape architect Mike Fowler, PlayCore, Chattanooga Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments and the Lyndhurst Foundation.
The creative work was so collaborative that Sayre said, “It’s hard to tell where art with a capital A begins and ends and where the park or the landscape architecture begins and ends.”
The look of the sculptural bridge elements springs from Sayre’s lifelong fascination with industrial structures.
“I have always been interested in steel trusses and bridges and gantry cranes and that kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s been fun to create this lightweight looking but very strong structure ... which was also the goal of designer of the Walnut Street Bridge. All the detailing, every move in that bridge has a reason. It’s not ornamental, but it has this lacy wonderful quality that I think our trusses have as well.”
When the park is completed by the end of this year, Main Terrain’s three movable bridgelets will beckon visitors through this long skinny park, in part by duplicating the way the sun plays along the length of the Walnut Street Bridge.
“One way we did that was to twist the truss, which makes it much more complicated to build and engineer,” Sayre said. “We wanted the complexity of the thin members that reflect the sun to create light and shadow in relation to the moving sun. And they themselves move, too, so there’s always a different light show in relation to the sun.”