Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The MacArthur Bart Station

A friend is putting together an audio walking tour of a specific stretch of Oakland starting at the MacArthur Bart and the area where they have First Friday Art Murmur.

A handful of writers each write a fictional piece about a landmark. It is loosely themed on "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino. I do not like this book. I did the best I could, I feel neither here nor there about it. I don't think it's good, I don't think it's terrible.

That semi-negative paragraph aside - the overall project, the walking tour, is a brilliant idea and it's being very precisely executed. There are some really talented people involved and it's going to be pretty incredible if I do not sully it with the following:

The MacArthur BART Station

Most of William Milhue's attempts to convince the various boards of directors that the spire was in fact a good idea was predicated upon the national attention that the BART would undoubtedly receive. The BART is and was a major engineering feat - hundreds of miles long, headlong through mountains and dives deep beneath the waves to emerge on other side bone dry. The BART was, in and of itself, a beautiful, gigantic undertaking. Why not one more? Think of the tourism. Think of the gift shop.

He was desperate by then. He'd abandoned using the physical structure to convince anyone. It hadn't worked and it wouldn't. They didn't like it. They couldn't see it. They were boards of directors. They had a little green book that told them what they could do and it nested inside the big black book that told them what they could not do. In his later years he would tell me about how desperate he became, about the year spent taking scale models to city meetings begging and pleading to be given the commission - to be given the permission - by people who bothered themselves with the affordability of the iron gates that kept people out of the building they were so proud of.

"Buildings are a ridiculous medium" he said.

Milhue's Spire would straddle the MacArthur BART Platform on its way into the sky. The base would comfortably envelop a city block and the tip would rest at 1500 feet. Before his gift-shop peddling desperation, Milhue promoted the building as the world's first community skyscraper. It was to house twenty two floors of low income housing, a gardening center, a library, classrooms, a theater. The works. A city in a bottle in the heart of Oakland. It was to be made of steel girders, rest on a floating foundation thirty feet deep in the earth and define the skyline of the entire Bay Area. It was designed by William Milhue, the artist, who carried it under his arm from Town Hall meeting to Boards of Directors question and answer sessions. It was more than a little dusty and the center was held together with duct tape after he'd dropped it from a a cab at 40th and Telegraph, the road that would wind around the circumference of Milhue Spire park.

The MacArthur BART station was designed capably and built precisely. It is a functional thing. William Milhue's great, unfinished work, was a grand piece that would dwarf the Golden Gate Bridge and "Makes Eiffel look like a coward".

The design was complicated and to this day there is debate as to whether or not it would stand. In interviews Milhue would dismiss this as being "Vastly besides the point." What was most importantly the point was that it was deep red, reflective and held ripples like a luffing sail. From an interview with Milhue shortly before his death: "I have not yet devised a way to make the building itself ripple, but I have settled for angling the windows at odd angles. It will ripple as the sun sets." When asked what the unusual design would do in an earthquake, he said "It will flicker like candle flame."

Milhue did not consider the Spire a blemish on his long career. Rather, it was difficult to get him to admit even that that the spire had not been built. "It's named after me. I'll decide where it is or isn't." Milhue suggests in all of his writing that it was a failing of the viewer, and that it was unfortunate they could not see it. "It's very beautiful. Especially from the Bay." Milhue had finished construction on the building in the unfortunate space between realization and existence. For Milhue it had been built, but it just did not exist. "Most things don't exist. They're important."

After Milhue's death, the spire, in it's current state, was willed to the City of Oakland. At the time of this writing, the plans are on display on the MacArthur Bart Platform next to the elevator that goes down to the exit or up to the observation deck that wraps around the north face of the fiftieth floor.

No comments: