Water Lens Tower

Background information

Carl F.K. Cheng, 1992. 33'H x 14'W x 14'D at base. 765 W. College. Chinatown, Los Angeles.
Art is public art when it is accessible without restrictions. Usually, this means it is located outdoors in an open public space. In recent years, this premise has been compromised by installations in privately controlled corporate plazas, where gates and fences have sometimes been erected to keep visitors out during evenings and weekends. The installation of the "Water Lens Tower" test the fundamental definition of public art even further.

The Community Redevelopment Agency required a public art component be included in the expansion of the Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Center. Kaiser, however, was legitimately concerned about uninvited people entering the grounds of their gated facility. The tension between the CRA requirement and Kaiser's concerns were partially resolved by the design of the sculpture, by the site where it was installed, by illuminating the sculpture at night, and by Kaiser agreeing to keep trees and plants from obstructing the view of the work from the street.

After being informed of the CRA's public art requirement, Kaiser decided to commission a work from a local artist of Chinese descent. From a list provided by the CRA, Kaiser invited Carl Cheng to submit a design for the facility. His first proposal was a pagoda styled structure, incorporating a greenhouse already on the grounds. Planners in the CRA, however, were concerned about the design's lack of compatibility with the proposed site and the lack of visibility of the work when viewed from the street. Cheng then developed a design that essentially was the one that was completed.

Cheng installed his work on a bluff overlooking Chinatown so it could be seen from a distance. Constructed of 6" square galvanized steel rods, his set-back structure has at each of the two lower set-backs a lens with a top surface of glass and a bottom surface of acrylic plastic. Distilled water is pumped through a leg of the tower to a molded acrylic globe at the top of the structure, where it drips approximately 10 feet through a clear plastic tube into the uppermost lens. After circulating through the lens, the water drips 10 more feet through another plastic tube into the lower lens, before dripping into a small pond at the base. The lower lens creates water patterns on the floor of the patio while the top lens creates what Cheng calls "a hot spot", which appears like a broad, diffuse version of the point formed when a magnifying glass is used to concentrate sunlight. Both the hot spot and water patterns move across the site during the day. Thermometers on three legs allow the visitor to relate temperature changes to the sun's movement.

According to Cheng, creating public art is a process having an outcome that cannot always be predicted. In a statement attached to one leg of the sculpture, Cheng described this work "as an environmental art tool to communicate the sun's movement at this site...The Water Lens Tower commemorates the knowledge that the sun is not getting brighter but is getting darker". However, after the work was installed, he found that the "hot spot" and water patterns only appear when the sky is perfectly clear. Rather than relating to the sun, as Cheng originally hoped, he felt the work has become an unexpected indicator of the amount of smog and haze in the air.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, May 1998.

Back to Chinatown.