"Community Forms" is a public art project + skate park in RiNo | The Know
Matt Barton’s “Community Forms” is made from simple shapes and basic materials, but it begs a perplexing question.
What, exactly, is it?
Public art, for sure. The sprawling concrete patch of winding paths and curving walls is the latest offering from Black Cube Nomadic Museum, the region’s most prolific producer of pop-up art installations — and this piece fits the mold. It’s a large-scale sculpture set in one of the busiest spots in RiNo.
But it’s also a gathering place. With its polished surfaces and low-slung, flat-topped mounds, it is scaled for human leisure. “Community Forms” offers an irresistible invitation to enter, sit, picnic, play, nap and roll.
But it’s also — and this is crucial and, yes, a little strange — “an infrastructural support system that helps model stormwater mitigation.” In other words, it’s a drainage ditch that channels rainwater away from an open field where it puddles and gets stagnant and into the city’s runoff systems.
If you go
“Community Forms” is located in the Taxi development, 3455 Ringsby Court, Denver. It’s free.
That technical description of the piece comes directly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which partnered on the project with RedLine and the mixed-use Taxi development where it is installed. The agency contributed $34,000 to the project.
FEMA wants to get the country thinking creatively about what a spillway system can look like, encouraging communities and developers to invest in design-friendly versions of the typical concrete gullies that steer runoff in urban areas. Those ditches do their job, for sure, keeping cities dry and healthy, but no one would describe them as good-looking.
“Community Forms,” at about 100 feet by 30 feet, is small by FEMA standards, but it serves as a model for what’s possible at larger scales.
All of those functions steered Barton through his creative process. He had to keep that core function in mind as he imagined an environment that could be people-friendly, while also fitting into the Taxi campus, a sprawling site off the South Platte River that houses apartment complexes as well as places for small businesses, coffee shops, art studios, open space and more. Taxi puts design first, and has long set the pace for contemporary architecture in the city.
Barton brought some specialized skills to the table. He’s an art professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and known for creating rich, three-dimensional settings that viewers can interact with. For one recent project, for example, he used plants and beams to turn the downtown Denver gallery Understudy into a giant environment that was part walk-through terrarium and part sound sculpture.
He’s also a Westerner, and that influenced the configuration of “Community Forms.” Its undulating bumps and mounds are inspired by the land in rocky places like Monument Valley, Utah. They are abstractions, for sure, and only 2 or 3 feet tall, but they appear to be forged, like a canyon, by thousands of years of water running through them.
It must be noted that Barton is also a lifelong skateboarder and well-versed in both the pleasures and politics of skating.
Skaters and bikers are invited to enjoy “Community Forms” as much as the lunchtime workers at Taxi and as much as the students on recess from the early-learning center next door and as much as the volleyball players whose sand-floored court is adjacent to the piece.
And skaters will, no doubt, find it a dreamscape, loaded with the kind of smooth, bending contours that inspire daredevil tricks. The piece might not have the official ramps, pipes and pyramids of a traditional skateboard park, but it comes close. One can assume bones will be broken at “Community Forms.”
Barton likes that the place will challenge skaters, and not just physically.
He breaks it down like this: There are two kinds of places where skaters skate. The first is found spaces — parking lots, basketball courts, public plazas, stairwells — where they come uninvited and do their thing. Skaters, especially those who regard themselves as urban outlaws, love these spaces, even though they can get in trouble for using them.
The second place that skaters flock to is public skate parks, designed and built specifically for skating. These are ideal spots for doing tricks as safely as possible, and Barton recognizes their value. But they can feel programmed and lack the romance of skaters staking their claims to the urban concrete that everyone in a city shares.
But “Community Forms” is neither of those two things. It’s not an official, programmed skatepark nor is it invaded territory. Skaters do love concrete drainage ditches, but part of the allure is that they can be discovered and conquered by the (often) adolescent desperados rolling through them on four wheels.
That “what is it” quality is part of what makes “Community Forms” a compelling work of art, according to Cortney Lane Stell, Black Cube’s executive director and the piece’s curator. Black Cube surely isn’t in the business of making ordinary skate parks or playgrounds.
“Community Forms” doesn’t just challenge skaters to consider who they are, where they fit in and what motives them. It also asks everyone to think twice about the rigid definitions we have for community spaces. Our tendency is to label things clearly as sites for “work” or “play” or “commerce” or “transportation.”
But this Taxi piece doesn’t allow that dismissive categorization. It’s art but not art, a skatepark but not a skatepark. And, at the same time, it’s a drainage ditch that invites everyone to see their own personal place in the ecosystem.
Once you break down expectations, you build up possibilities. In what other ways can a city eliminate duplication, improve the environment and up the aesthetics?
Just as important, how can it create more places for people to come together, without hierarchies or expectations of who belongs? Between the school kids and the BMXers and the tech workers taking breaks at “Community Forms,” it will be difficult to tell the outlaws from the innocents, the owners from the intruders.
What, exactly, is it? Let’s hope we never know.
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