David Raker, Lighting Designer RDG Planning & Design
Engineers RDG Planning & Design
Multimedia Designers RDG Planning & Design
The “Tree of Life” is a comprehensive streetscape installation that transforms five blocks of South Omaha, Nebraska to create a dynamic multi-cultural experience and revitalize a significant historic district. The project developed from a careful ethnographic and cultural analysis of South Omaha, as well as a series of public-input sessions and hands-on workshops with diverse groups from throughout the community. The result is an aesthetic that celebrates the cross-cultural folk art traditions of the major ethnic groups (Latino, Czech, Polish, and Croatian). Colorful textile patterns are interpreted in custom glazed ceramic, pattern-cut metal, and lighting.
Beyond the immediate need for “curb and gutter” infrastructure improvements, a question arose in the early development of the project, “What will encourage a family to come to South Omaha for dinner on Friday night?”
Public art was intended to play a key role in changing and improving the perception of the neighborhood, while creating a special place for celebrations. Rather than a typical rectilinear corridor design solution, a character and continuity is achieved through an integration of public-art elements that include sculptural benches, planters, and other features, meaningful and responsive to the concerns of the local community. An organic vine in paving pattern winds around leaf-shaped planters, pods and benches, weaving together a tapestry of folk patterns.
The street has become the destination for festivals, with as many as 20,000 people celebrating Cinco de’Mayo, Day of the Dead, and others. The integration of the artwork has animated the street, reaching out to brand an exciting and active urban environment. Business has not only returned, but is thriving. Restaurants and retailers, in true “pride of ownership,” take care of the artwork in front of their properties. Neighbors share “the story” of their cultural connection to the street.
Placemaking is by its very nature, dependent upon collaboration. The public artist was part of a multi-disciplinary design team that worked closely together from early conceptual development, through fabrication and installation of many integrated parts. The on-going process involved three distinct phases of funding and construction that lasted several years.
Collaboration included many in-house design charrettes with transportation engineers, landscape architects and planners, as well as public-input workshops with diverse groups throughout the community; city representatives, local business organizations, Latino Museum, state historical representatives, students, and others. The integrated public artwork became the symbolic bridge between many different constituents, creating a common language and story embraced by the project community.
The project functions on many levels and depended upon design collaboration to address a wide range of details; safety, use, wear, longevity, and maintenance. Lighting, establishing tone, ambiance and dimension, is such a critical part of the project, that collaboration of all professional design disciplines was needed to make sure things functioned as intended and would last. Collaboration means connection. Without it, the integration of public artwork would be impossible in a transportation corridor project of this scale and complexity.
The illuminated tree of life, over 36 feet tall, flanks the road as part of the sculptural gateway that marks the entrance to the cultural district. It has become a new cultural landmark. The project recently received the “Art of Community” Award of Excellence from the city and the state, specifically in recognition of the integration of the artwork to the transportation infrastructure and revitalization project. Families, with many other popular entertainment locations and venues to choose from in the city of Omaha, are now making South 24th street the new place to go.
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CODA: Collaboration of Design + Art
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Art matters. Attention to the details of our environment leads to love of place, which brings us to take responsibility for the spaces where we live and work. And by extension, the people with whom we live and work. And by extension, to our local communities, our cities, our nations, and our world.
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