Art That’s Too Approachable Creates a Touchy Problem

Stranded out on the traffic island between Broadway and Fifth Avenue just north of 23rd Street, the modern sculpture named Skagerrak was awkward and unapproachable. Moved to nearby Madison Square Park, it was jarring and remote.

Now that Skagerrak is about to be moved one more time, however to a place more befitting its style some people are worrying that the sculpture will be too comfy a fit: approachable, touchable and, most importantly, climbable. At its March 14 meeting, Board 6 considered the problem before landing on a simple and soft solution.

Skagerrak, named for the jagged waterway that divides Denmark from Sweden and Norway, is an abstract rendition of the strait’s shape. The artist, Antoni Milkowski, thought up the design while perusing a map of Northern Europe upon returning from a trip to Poland. “If someone was to look at the map, they’d see that the Skagerrak zigzags the way the piece zig-zags,” he told The Observer.

The black welded-steel fabrication has been on display in Madison Square Park, near 23rd Street about midway between Broadway and Madison, for nearly 30 years. That location, it turns out, was never quite right.

Skagerrak is fiercely modern, designed in the minimalist tradition when Mr. Milkowski, a sculpture and design professor from Hunter College, was “involved with geometrical volumes and juxtaposing them,” he told The Observer. Madison Square Park, on the other hand, “is a historic park; it’s a 19th-century park,” Parks Commissioner Henry Stern told The Observer. “And this is a 20th-century sculpture,” he continued.

Mr. Milkowski, 65, always intended for Skagerrak to be displayed amidst greenery and in that respect, Madison Square Park was a great improvement over the sculpture’s original site, the traffic island between Broadway and Fifth Avenue just north of 23rd Street. “It was hard for me to see it on a concrete island with traffic on either side,” Mr. Milkowski, now retired, told The Observer over the phone from his East Chatham home. “It was a mess.”

Mr. Milkowski persuaded the city to move the piece into the park soon after it was dedicated in 1972. Commissioned by the Association for a Better New York, it was donated to the city along with several other pieces as part of an effort to vitalize public squares. Now that the park’s renovation is nearly complete, the city Parks Department set out to find an even more naturalistic home for Skagerrak. “The idea is that art should be at different places at different times,” said Mr. Stern.

The department chose Bellevue South Park and asked public-space designer Tim Marshall to get the appropriate approvals. After getting Board 5’s approval, Mr. Marshall appeared before Board 6, which agreed to approve the relocation on one condition: that the sculpture be surrounded by a fence to prevent children from climbing it and potentially hurting themselves if they fall. The sculpture is seven feet tall, and its prospective new home in Bellevue South Park, bordered by First and Second avenues and 26th and 28th streets, is adjacent to a playground.

Mr. Marshall’s face dropped. “[The fence is] going to look more like a cage,” he protested. Board members shared his concern about an obstructed view. A Plexiglas fence was suggested. Mr. Marshall did not perk up. But as child-safety concerns continued to tug at the board’s conscience, Mr. Marshall sought to reassure. “It’s difficult to climb on it,” he said. “It’s slippery. I’ve not seen it as something that children are attracted to. It’s been there 20 years and it hasn’t been hazardous.”

“It’s unfathomable to me that kids are not going to climb this,” countered board member William Oddo. Others concurred, citing other climbable pieces that are regularly mounted by the city’s youngest admirers, including the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park and many participants in last year’s cow parade. After a few exchanges, it was clearly established that children will pretty much climb anything, including any fence that would be put up to protect them.

Finally, board member Jim Connors made a suggestion that Mr. Marshall could live with. A padded surface perhaps wood chips, Mr. Marshall proposed at the base, to cushion climbers should they lose their footing. The board and Mr. Marshall were pleased.

Karina Lahni

Columbia Social Workers Land in a Happier Place

Once in a while, Columbia University can do something right in the eyes of its neighbors.

Having previously met with community ire for their plans to build a new classroom building on largely residential West 113th Street for the School of Social Work, university administrators said they have found an alternative site, where a joint Social Work complex and Law School residential hall will blend right in.

The new site, at 122nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, is now a university-owned parking lot. And though parking spots are at a premium in the dense neighborhood, the lot will offer the space and ambiance needed for a project of this magnitude, university officials said.

“The space at 113th Street is very constrained,” admitted Emily Lloyd, Columbia’s executive vice president for administration, at the March 15 meeting of Board 9, where the new plan was presented. “We’ve concluded that the 122nd Street site is more conducive to the needs of the university and the surrounding community. We will proceed with an entirely new building for the Social Work school at this site on the Amsterdam side.”

“That block on 113th Street is very densely populated, very residential,” Lauren Marshall, a Columbia press officer, told The Observer. “It’s not the right site for another academic building because of the residential space that’s there. The new space at 122nd Street is more open. It allows for the Social Work school to have one spot in one location, on a major thoroughfare, and it’s close to campus.”

Of course, that’s not what administration officials were saying a few months ago. They were fighting for the 113th Street space, but lost when Board 9 rejected their proposal.

In contrast, the proposal for the 122nd Street site was met with applause from board members.

“This solution works well for the community and the School of Social Work,” said board member Walter South. “Thank you for being sensible about the 113th Street site.”

The larger space on the 122nd Street site will allow for a more efficient layout of the school building, resulting in more usable space. In addition, the plan calls for retail space on the ground level, offering a source of income to the university and more commercial opportunities for the community.

The complex will also incorporate a new Law School residence, to be located on 121st Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. The $41 million Lenfest Hall will be made possible by a gift from H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, class of 1958.

The new $64 million Social Work complex, which will include faculty and administration offices, electronic classrooms, seminar rooms and a new Social Work library, will house all academic and administrative functions of the School of Social Work and will supplant Mc Vickar Hall, the school’s current home on 113th Street. A converted single-room- occupancy building, Mc Vickar Hall is too small and inappropriately configured to meet the needs of the 1,000 students who study there each year, Columbia administrators explained to The Observer.

The new building, expected to be nine to 10 stories high and to include 130,000 square feet of space, will be designed by Cooper, Roberston & Partners, the same architects who designed the esplanade at Battery Park City and the new Stuyvesant High School. Construction is expected to conclude in 2004.

The Law School residence will include a landscaped courtyard on the northern side and approximately 180 apartments. A university spokesperson said construction on that building should be completed in 2003.

Sarah Bronson

March 21: Board 8, Convent of the Sacred Heart, 1 East 91st Street, 7 p.m., 758-4340.

March 22: Board 2, St. Vincents Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 10th floor, 7 p.m., 979-2272.

March 27: Board 3, P. S. 20, 166 Essex Street, between Houston and Stanton streets, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300; Board 12, P. S. 176, 4862 Broadway, between Academy and 204th streets, 7 p.m., 568-8500.